Reviews - What do customers think about Mountolive (The Alexandria Quartet, 3)?
Affairs of State Jun 23, 2008
I am amazed by how different the first three novels of Durrell's ALEXANDRIA QUARTET are from one another. JUSTINE, the first, is a highly subjective account, by a writer drunk on words and sensations, of sexual intrigues among a small coterie in Alexandria in the later 1930s. BALTHAZAR, the second, adds other points of view and offer longer vistas to show the same entanglements in a rather different light. The third, MOUNTOLIVE, embraces many of the same characters over the same period of time, but its texture is entirely different, reading much more like a normal novel. Although Darley, the original narrator, makes occasional appearances, this book abandons first-person narrative entirely. In a further move towards objectivity, it focuses on a professional diplomat, Sir David Mountolive, who is appointed British Ambassador to Egypt at about the time the overlapping action begins. But the book begins several decades earlier, building up Mountolive's personality, showing the man of feeling behind the professional neutrality of his facade. As a much younger attaché at the start of the novel, he became the lover of Leila Hosnani, the mother of powerful brothers Nessim and Narouz, who are as important to this book as they were to BALTHAZAR. Leila's friendship, continued through the years by correspondence, is a powerful force drawing Mountolive back to Egypt, but ultimately a liability when he has to act in an official capacity towards the end.
Seen in its own terms (and it almost does stand on its own), MOUNTOLIVE is a political or historical novel rather than a romantic one. But it requires some knowledge of the European presence in the Middle East. By the end of the First World War, Britain essentially administered both Egypt and Palestine. By the time of these novels, Egypt has been granted independence, although Britain still wields great influence in its affairs, but the British mandate in neighboring Palestine will remain in force until 1947. And even within Egypt, Alexandria is a special case, where European influence is almost more important than Arabic. The leading figures in the novel, as in Alexandrian society, are not primarily Moslems, but Coptic Christians together with some Jews and numerous expatriates. The potential tensions between these various groups, only lightly hinted at in BALTHAZAR, become the mainspring of the plot of MOUNTOLIVE, which takes on elements of a spy story. Once more, this new perspective casts a new light on everything that we had seen before, giving an added real-world dimension to its characters.
The greater time-span of this novel means that we can see events through to at least a provisional conclusion. The first two-thirds of the book are brighter, more inspiring, than anything in the tetralogy so far. The major characters ride waves of passion, inspiration, ambition, determination. But almost all these bright starts come up against limitations, if not outright failure. The miracle is that this trajectory does not make MOUNTOLIVE depressing. Durrell's writing is a fine as ever, but now it is active rather than static; he seems less concerned with philosophy and description, more with character and action. In particular, the book is structured around a number of two-person encounters, each distinctly different from the others, exquisitely well observed in terms of the interplay of character, and often taking surprising turns. Not even the desert ride in BALTHAZAR, for instance, can match the drama of Nessim's final confrontation with Narouz. None of the sexual activity in JUSTINE can touch the sad bedroom encounter between Pursewarden and Melissa, whose very failure proves so pivotal to the plot. And at the very end of the book, as the characters find themselves trapped in situations of their own making, Durrell returns to his earlier virtuoso style with a vengeance, creating an atmosphere of nightmare that propels the action towards a climactic tour-de-force, even while sounding the knell of earlier hopes.
But there remains the promise of the last book, CLEA, to move the action forward and provide a true ending. The painter Clea has appeared in all three books so far as a touchstone of balance and grace. If any of her qualities infuse the book that bears her name, Durrell must surely achieve his own kind of benediction.
A master at the top of his craft Oct 29, 2007
I'm re-reading the series in order. "Justine" was a fine introduction and scene-setter: "Balthazar" somehow had less impact, though the life and passing of old Scobie make a hilarious thread running through it. But "Mountolive" comes to life with a vengeance! It may have something to do with his opportunity, in this version of the story, to draw with a very sharp pencil some of the products of the English society that he scorned - yet there is a strong sense of sympathy for the diplomat David Mountolive, trapped in a world of illusion and deceit.
This is the volume where some of the hidden currents swirling under the surface of the other two are exposed. Many surprises: many motives revealed: and above all, many wonderful set-pieces. There's the desert festival of Sitna Damiana, with the amazing transfiguration of Narouz. The bitter meeting between Mountolive and his former love, the then-beautiful younger Leila, where now after many years and the ravages of smallpox, "He saw a plump and square-faced Egyptian lady of uncertain years, with a severely pock-marked face and eyes drawn grotesquely out of true by the antimony-pencil." And the unforgettable discreet transaction between Nessim and Memlik Pasha: Nessim's "offering" is almost too elegant to be called a bribe: it is an addition to Memlik's prized collection of Korans, this one an "exquisite little Koran wrapped in soft tissue paper: he had carefully larded the pages with bank drafts negotiable in Switzerland."
But above all, the final apocalyptic revelation, the full, dark blossom of total treachery and death makes an unforgettable climax. This is the one that deserves to be called a "page-turner."
Now I have two small caveats or alerts to record. One is a little piece of trickery that Durrell uses all the time, which is effective until you notice it, then you say "Oh, not again!" I almost hesitate to mention it - should I lessen others' pleasure? but heck, this is a review! It's simply this: the excessive use of the word "great."
See, it adds a sense of importance to whatever it describes. How many times does "the great car" bear them silently along the Corniche?" What a different impression it makes to have someone draw up the "great iron gates" instead of just "wide" or even "black" or "imposing" iron gates? It's not an annual duck-shoot on Lake Mareotis, it's "the great annual duck-shoot." And on and on...Mountolive sits at the "great desk," in Mountolive's English family home his mother spends her time in front of "the great fireplace..." Oh well. We can forgive him this considering the wonderful work as a whole.
The other alert is that today's reader may be startled to see the n-word used in several places, with all its accustomed freight of stereotyping. In this respect Durrell was a product of his society and generation, unfortunately.
But five stars anyway for an extraordinary reading experience.
Oh - something I just noticed here...someone tagged the book with "spanish!" I've noticed before how people can read a book - or see a DVD - and get MAJOR things totally wrong!
Great Literature Sep 11, 2007
Lawrence Durrell has a beautiful mind. He's fun, very intelligent and witty. His biography is fascinating and he is uniquely qualified to write these novels, The Alexandria Quartet, set in the Mediterranian. The strengths of the novels are their evocation of the place and time, the characters and their lovely, loving interractions. Some of the observations on art and love are a bit of a stretch, however. Durrell himself is composite of the characters Darley, Balthazar and Arnauti. He's Irish by nationality but he grew up around the Mediterranian.
The Alexandria Quartet is one of the great works of the 20th century, especially if you wish you had lived in a simpler time and more interesting place, and had some interesting loves. Almost up to Ulysses, maybe not quite so pretentious.
no title Jan 17, 2006
This series so far - - "The Alexandria Quartet" - - has been one of the most interesting and wonderful things I have ever read. Memorable in every way. To be savored and remembered. Just simply a dazzling accomplishment by Durrell. "Mountolive" is written in 3rd person, unlike the first two, and it explores more of the motives and facts of the same people in the same time period - yet another layer - than of emotions and longings. And now we finally get to the bottom of Nessim, Justine, Narouz, and Pursewarden. And we learn of the conspiracy behind the first two novels, and we learn of Mountolive's life. All these people are so alive in my mind, Mountolive being such a sad, pathetic man. Yet once again Egypt and Alexandria take center stage. What a writer this man was!
Not a bad way to start Jun 19, 2003
I read this book before reading the other 3 in the quartet, and I absolutely loved it. It made reading the others irresistible, and yet I believe this third edition is the best. The love stories are incredibly deep and diverse, and Durrell's writing is both beautiful and inspiring. Mountolive is an Englishman working with the Foreign Service who comes to know his Dionysian self in the humidity and turmoil of early 20th century Egypt. He falls in love with his married hostess, and this relationship leaves him capable of loving only one woman and one place. The other notable couples portray a stunning array of what drives people toward love. A desire for power drives Justine and Nessim together as it does much more subtlely in the vignette about Amaril and Semira. This book stands out on its own but leaves you dying to find out more about these rich characters.