[NOTE: This review is intended for people who have read at least the first three volumes of THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET. I do not recommend starting the series with CLEA, and these notes will not be helpful to those that do.]
Lawrence Durrell set himself a huge challenge in his ALEXANDRIA QUARTET: three volumes looking at the same events from different angles, and a fourth that would extend the story forward in time; he intended it as an analogy to the three dimensions of space and the one of time. I had found it a little difficult to get into the first volume, JUSTINE, because the combination of the almost incestuous doings of a cosmopolitan coterie in Alexandria in the late 1930s, coupled with Durrell's perfumed prose, was too exotic a cocktail for me at first. But by the end of the first volume, I was wanting more, and read its successors, BALTHAZAR and especially MOUNTOLIVE, with increasing enjoyment. There only remained this fourth novel, CLEA, to complete the story and make a fitting capstone to the whole impressive edifice. Unfortunately, I feel it fails to live up to the challenge.
After the clarity of the third-person narrative of MOUNTOLIVE, it was a shock to return to the author's own voice once again -- or rather that of Darley, as the writer calls himself in the novels. Durrell still writes well; there is a marvelous set piece early in the book when he approaches Alexandria by sea during a wartime blackout, only to have it suddenly appear out of the darkness in the flare of searchlights, tracer bullets, and incendiary bombs. But I found myself resisting the cloying atmosphere and verbal navel-gazing that I had thought were a thing of the past. I am sure this is deliberate, though; when Darley again meets Justine, his siren from the first novel, she has spilt a bottle of perfume over herself, and the entire encounter is bathed in its almost nauseating aroma. The scene is a pair for the one at the end of MOUNTOLIVE when David finally sees Leila again; Durrell's characters, it seems, cannot just revisit former loves and part as friends; there needs to be an additional twist of the knife as well.
For the most part, the promise to carry the story forward in time takes the form of "Whatever happened to so-and-so?" I am reminded of sitting in on my mother's tea-parties as a child, hearing her catch up with news of old friends from school or college days, people that meant nothing to me. True, we have met all these characters in the earlier books, but MOUNTOLIVE in particular has brought them into the light of the real world; I am no longer interested in re-entering the darkness of their self-obsessions. And so many of this catching-up is handled obliquely: we hear stories passed on by a third person; we read long confessional letters; no less than three separate people, apparently endowed with the power of ventriloquism, give imitations of the dead Scobie, telling tall stories in his voice. Only a very few characters are allowed to speak directly of their experiences, and remarkably little happens in this book that is new -- though when something does, in the swimming party near the end, Durrell at least equals the exciting climaxes of his other novels.
Durrell said that he wanted to explore the many varieties of love. As though to swell the catalogue, MOUNTOLIVE has a brief mention of incest, which is picked up again here. Not in much detail or with any prurience (or very believably either), but that is relatively unimportant. For it is a perfect symbol for a book that is itself incestuous. There is a long excursus in the middle of the book ostensibly taken from the journals of the novelist Pursewarden, in which he describes his impressions of Darley. From the beginning, I felt that this figure was introduced as a slightly comic alter ego for the writer, and indeed he propounds many of the theories that Durrell himself attempts in the QUARTET. MOUNTOLIVE achieves the feat of pulling Pursewarden out of comedy and giving him true stature as an individual. But the Darley of CLEA returns to a lesser avatar of Pursewarden, as a kind of fun-house mirror for himself. So we have a thirty-page passage of one writer dissecting another, both alter-egos of the author. How's that for navel-gazing? What is it if not incestuous?
It is incestuous, too, for an author to manipulate his characters instead of letting the story be driven by their personalities; there is an arbitrary quality to most of the resolutions here. Even the central relationship between Darley and Clea seems to come about too easily, rather than as the product of the interplay of personalities revealed in this novel; and when the relationship later encounters difficulty, that too is largely arbitrary and unexplained. As for the rest, it is as though Durrell lined up his characters like pieces on a board, saying "Let's see, who have I not yet paired with whom?" Indeed, in an appendix entitled "Workpoints," Durrell offers further character combinations that the reader can develop for himself if he cares to do so. The author, it seems, has become a mere gamesman. A pity, for this great undertaking had promised so much more.