There are spoilers here. Be forewarned. Also forgive me if I get some of the details wrong about the previous novels. But then again, that’s partly what this post is about.
I am notorious for forgetting what happens in novels. I hate this. It is made so much more frustrating when I am reading another part of a series, and have trouble remembering what occurred in the previous novels.
This has been my #1 problem with The Alexandria Quartet. When I picked up Balthazar last year, I kept thinking about Mareotis. What was Mareotis? Oh yes – a lake. Didn’t somebody die there? Who was it? (Capodistra) With Mountolive, the third novel in this series, I kept thinking about the death that occurred at the ball – wasn’t someone (a guy?) mistaken for someone else (I thought Justine? Maybe Clea?) and murdered with a hat pin? Wasn’t it Narouz that murdered him?
This problem is my fault, as months have gone by between novels. I should have read them all in one shot, which was my initial plan. But that just didn’t happen. Someday, when I reread these novels – which I most certainly will – I will read them back to back, and then perhaps they will make more sense.
Mountolive takes an entirely different view from the first two. This is not a continuation of Darley’s tale, but rather told in the third person. It is also a very political novel – everything is through that lens. It is here we learn – I believe, as I don’t think it was mentioned in the other novels, maybe hinted at – that Nessim is smuggling weapons to Palestine for the Jews. (This is pre-WWII. There was no Israel.) As a Coptic Christian, he is mistrusted by the Jewish leaders he is working with: Capodistra, Balthasar, etc. In order to increase his credibility he marries Justine, a Jew.
Someone – was it Scobie, or did Scobie have Darley do it? – in one of the previous novels went to one of their meetings in the desert, and came back saying it’s harmless – just a bunch of Cabalists in the wilderness discussing metaphysics. Was that for the same thing? It must have been. Then Pursewarden investigates for the British and comes to the same conclusion essentially (except he witnesses the “transformation” of Narouz into crazy preacher with a whip). Mountolive also gives us a political motive for Pursewarden’s suicide. Through Melissa (Darley’s girlfriend who is also a dancer and prostitute), Pursewarden comes to learn that he was wrong about Nessim and the others – they really are smuggling weapons. He is so dumbstruck by this revelation, and his conflict between his official duties and his friendships, he kills himself.
The beautiful language of the previous novels is not in the forefront as it is in the other novels, but it would have been out of place in a political novel. The most striking scene here is the reunion between Mountolive and Leila, Nessim’s mother. When Mountolive was younger – I would estimate early 20s, he goes to live with the Hosnanis in Egypt to learn Arabic. There he begins a relationship with Nessim and Narouz’s mother. Mountolive eventually leaves Egypt, yet he and Leila continue a correspondence throughout the rest of their lives, always vaguely planning to reunite someday. Mountolive comes to Egypt as Ambassador, and he and plans are made and canceled at least once. Finally, due to Nessim’s involvement in arms dealing, Leila has to go to Kenya for a while, and she and Mountolive meet one last time. It is decidedly not the reunion that Mountolive had in mind. In his mind, things had largely remained the same – Leila was probably perpetually a good looking and intelligent 40 something. When he gets in the car with her, he doesn’t recognize her at all. There she is, an old Egyptian woman ravaged by smallpox, begging him to spare her son’s life. He never really thought about time passing. All of us, I’m sure, can understand this, and Durrell paints the scene of bitter disappointment with beautiful, evocative prose – as always. I lament with Mountolive the love of his youth, but at the same time, I fear becoming Leila.
The ending of Mountolive confused me. Not in that I didn’t understand what was going on, but I’m still not sure if there was a time shift or not. We have the terribly bitter and sad reunion between Mountolive and Leila, supposedly on the day before the Hosnani annual duck shoot at Mareotis. When we encounter Narouz at home in the next scene, I assume that it is the day of the duck shoot, where Capodistra will be murdered (or not?). But then Narouz is murdered (by order of Memlik Pasha, a very sinister character). What happened to the duck shoot? Perhaps this “next scene” did not occur the day after Mountolive meets with Leila?
When I come to the end of a novel, I like to do research on the internet – see what others are saying about it. When I google this novel, any novel in this series, “Alexandria Quartet,” etc., there is virtually nothing. I know that I had never heard of Durrell or any of his works until I became enmeshed in these lists, and it seems as if many other people haven’t heard of him either. I found, obviously, reviews on amazon, which vary widely: people either love them or they detest them; it’s all 5 stars or 1 star. The top review was titled: "If you like the DaVinci Code, this is NOT for you.,” I love that. Yes, parts of The Alexandria Quartet are over written. Durrell even admitted it. But it’s damn good overwriting. I have loved these three novels so much that I wish I had someone to recommend them to. But I don’t. Except you, perhaps. I will start Clea tonight. I can’t wait to read this conclusion – hopefully it will tie up some of these loose ends.