Clea – the fourth (and final) installment in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet – returns us to the narrative style of Balthazar, and picks up where it left off.
At the conclusion of Balthazar, Darley receives a letter from Clea, though since I read that novel almost a year ago I don’t have any recollection what that letter was about. But anyway, it was enough to prompt Darley, who had been living on an island with Nessim & Melissa’s daughter, to return to Alexandria.
Everything is different in Alexandria. The war is on, and places that used to be apartments are now brothels servicing the various military men that are all over the city. Justine is in exile, under house arrest for her role in the Hosnani Brothers arms smuggling deal. Mountolive has picked up with Pursewarden’s blind sister, Liza. Pombal, Darley’s former roommate, has a pregnant girlfriend whose husband is on the front, and then was taken prisoner (Pombal is not the father – her husband is). Balthazar was beaten up by his younger boyfriend and became a recluse, though he reenters society early in the story. Da Capo really is alive, as I had suspected. Scobie is now an unofficial saint.
Shortly after his return, Darley and Clea begin an affair, though to me, it only seems like a reshuffling. After all, she is the only female left from the core group presented in Justine, and I cannot help but feel that there is a lack of genuine feeling here – or really throughout the entire Quartet. The only real passion anyone appears to have has been for Justine. And perhaps Mountolive for Leila – or Leila for Mountolive.
I’m finding it difficult to summarize Clea, since this novel felt less like its own narrative – by which I mean it did not really contribute much new information to the story – and more like a wrapping up. Here’s all the characters moving on – perhaps symbolized best in the burning of Purswarden’s letters to Liza. The only organizing theme appears to be boat accidents. Pombal’s girlfriend is shot and killed during a disagreement between a naval crew (blockade?) and Pombal. Clea is harpooned while diving when the harpoon gun on board goes off and spears her to a wreck underwater.
I was sitting at my hairdresser’s waiting for my dye job to bake (or whatever it is that hair dye actually does - dry? absorb?) when I read the “Clea gets harpooned” scene. It was then that I suddenly realized how emotionally invested I am with these characters, in the same manner (though to a lesser degree) that I felt connect to Nick Jenkins & Co. from A Dance to the Music of Time. I felt like someone punched me in the chest. There were probably five or six hairdresser’s each working on their clients, and someone had brought in a dog, so there was a lot of commotion, and I almost felt compelled to ask for the proper respect to be paid to Clea – it felt as if I had just received word that someone I actually knew had been harpooned, and might die (she doesn’t). I hadn’t felt that Darley and Clea were going to live happily ever after (“And now this!”), nor did I particularly have any feeling regarding how I wanted any of the characters to end up, but I just felt so terrible. I was awash with relief and hope when they were able to save her. Though I have thoroughly enjoyed these novels, the thought never even crossed my mind that I might actually care about these people to some degree until then.
In the end, Darley leaves (again!) – and everyone knows he won’t be coming back. Amaril (who turns out to be her former lover) has constructed a new hand for her following the accident, and she is able to continue painting. Liza and Mountolive have married. And Justine reemerges. She has made amends with Memlik Pasha by discovering he just wanted an entrance into society. She and Nessim have reconciled (if they could ever have been considered estranged in the first place, given the revelations of Mountolive) and are conspiring to embark on an even bigger scheme in Switzerland. After months back on his island, Darley receives yet another letter from Clea, and we are given to believe that the two of them will meet up again in Paris.
I began the Alexandria Quartet back in December of 2008 or January of 2009 – I don’t
remember which, but I know it feels like a lifetime ago. I am sometimes criticized for being a list person, both online and offline – why do I spend time reading books I don’t expect to like? And even though I complain sometimes, and rage over certain books, selections like Quartet are exactly why I bother in the first place. This series was absolutely wonderful – a meditation on love, on relationships, on fidelity, on perspective – and I likely would never have heard of Durrell in the first place had it not been for the Modern Library list. Justine is clearly the gem of the bunch, and could be read as a stand-alone novel (though the others could not), I found them all worthwhile ways to spend my – now limited – reading time. I know that I will return to Durrell in the future – this may be a series (Justine in particular) that I come back to again and again in my life, and I will likely seek out more of Durrell’s work.