Love in Stereo: Reading The Alexandria Quartet

By Becca Fisher

[Editor’s note: Becca will be leading Eye of the Beholder, a Toronto Pursuits seminar on Lawrence Durrell’s much-loved tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet. She is Director of Continuing Education at our partner Harrison Middleton University and a longtime member and discussion leader in the Great Books community. We are excited to welcome her as a Toronto Pursuits leader!]

“Far-off events, transformed by memory, acquire a burnished brilliance because they are seen in isolation, divorced from the details of before and after, the fibres and wrappings of time. The actors, too, suffer a transformation; they sink slowly deeper and deeper into the ocean of memory like weighted bodies, finding at every level a new assessment, a new evaluation in the human heart.” — Justine

When can we trust what we believe?

First editions, published by Faber & Faber

The Alexandria Quartet is a literary embodiment of this year’s Toronto Pursuits theme “What can we know?” We are given four beautifully crafted novels of the same sequence of events; the first three run simultaneously and the fourth is set six years later. Various narrators people this “modern investigation of love,” each with his or her own point of view. Author Lawrence Durrell says in the introduction to the quartet that he intended the first three novels (Justine, Balthazar, and Mountolive) to be siblings, not sequels. They cover the three dimensions of space: different perspectives but all present at once. The fourth novel (Clea) “unleashes the time dimension” on the events described in its predecessors.


Cecil Hotel, Alexandria by Andreas Georgiadis
Cecil Hotel, Alexandria by Andreas Georgiadis
Ink on paper, 2014

As I worked my way through these novels, I was lost in the city of Alexandria, in the characters, in the exploration of love, in the varying perspectives of experience, in time itself. I was, in all senses of the word lost – at times perplexed, at times immersed and enraptured. I was reading a song. As I think Durrell intended, each novel provided a different movement of the quartet. Recounted through differing points of view, the events of a scene were like chords or melodies across—endlessly reinterpreted and set in a new context. I came to understand Durrell’s description of reality as a prism and began to question my own reality and what I know to be true.

Cecil Hotel, Alexandria in the 1920s
Cecil Hotel, Alexandria in the 1920s

Even as the quartet examines the idea that shifting perspective makes us reevaluate what we think we know, Durrell’s poetic passages capture what we do know. His characters intricately explain our common human experiences, questions, and emotions about love. Along with all the question marks, the margins of my text are filled with comments of “Yes” and “So true”! The tension between feeling lost while encountering familiar landmarks is part of what makes the novels so compelling. Durrell said of his masterwork, “You might call it a sort of stereoscopic narrative with stereophonic personality.” What might that mean? And how does Durrell change our understanding of perspective, of reality in time and space, of the concept of knowledge itself? We will take on these questions in depth in our seminar, but a useful place to start is the meanings of stereoscopic and stereophonic. The first is defined as “relating to or denoting a process by which two photographs of the same object taken at slightly different angles are viewed together, creating an impression of depth and solidity.” Stereophonic describes a similar concept, but for sound: a stereophonic system uses “separated microphones and two transmission channels to achieve the sound separation of live hearing.”

Is truth simply the whole that forms when multiple viewpoints or inputs come together? Eye of the Beholder will reflect on how and when we can trust what we believe in relation to the concepts of time, place, memory, reality and perspective. Join me, and let’s explore this lushly written portrait of Alexandria.

– Becca

 “Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time – not by our personalities as we like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed.” — Balthazar

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