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By Steven Jay Griffel
Queens, NY, USA

Steven Jay Griffel

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl... - Lawrence Durrell

I was young. I lacked experience.

An hour earlier, I had registered for my first graduate semester. I was now in the campus bookstore, reviewing five reading lists, one for each of the literature classes I had chosen. It should have been a happy moment. But my gorge was rising as fast as a cartoon apoplexy. How could I be so stupid? I wondered.

I had no one to blame but myself. A wise friend had told me: "Take only one novel class. You don't want to get bogged down with too much reading. Take one novel class, a poetry class, a drama class, a class in literary criticism, and a foreign language class. That should do it."

But I didn't listen. I chose four novel classes. I had wanted five, but I was closed out of the last and had to settle for a course in Yeats and Rilke. Yech. I was already bored. You see, I wanted to read novels. Only novels. More and more novels. Perhaps a few short stories thrown into the mix.

I scanned the reading lists, one after the other. I hadn't realized how many books there were in all. And there would be exams, and papers, and a course in French. I gasped. I had to read fifty-one books in fourteen weeks. I took out my calculator: four books per week—and that was just the reading.

I handed the clerk the first list. He didn't blanch. He disappeared through a rear door, reappearing about five minutes later, carrying a large wire basket of books. I handed him the second list and he disappeared again, and so on. Each time he went away, I tested the heft of the basket he left behind. I felt its dead weight and my heart grew heavy. For the first time in my life I saw reading as a task, a drudgery. I handed the clerk the fifth and final list: The Modern British Novel. I knew most of the names: Lawrence, Woolf, Ford, Joyce, Forster, etc. But I didn't recognize the last book on the last list, book #51. I'd never heard of the guy or his book: Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet. Perhaps, I thought, I could skip that one. Make it an even fifty books. As the clerk headed toward the rear door, he said over his shoulder: "I'm not sure we have the entire Quartet."

The Alexandria Quartet

"What do you mean entire?"

"Quartet. It's a tetralogy. Four books."

My heart sank. My gorge exploded. Fifty-four books in fourteen weeks.

I don't recall much about that semester other than I read all the time. I completed almost all the assigned reading, though I cannot remember which few titles I skimmed or skipped altogether. Of all the books read, none affected me more than The Alexandria Quartet. That book changed me the way Einstein changed the world.

"A sky of hot nude pearl . . ." That early phrase seduced me. But I remember virtually nothing about the story, per se. I cannot recall a single character or event in detail. I have only a diffuse memory of Mediterranean intrigue and exotica.

The first book is Justine. The narrator is an unnamed Irish writer who tells the story of his tragic romance with a beautiful, mysterious Jewish woman named Justine and her wealthy Egyptian husband, Nessim. As I remember, the story is told in a poetically languid and seductive way, with a lack of strong cues that would have helped make the sequence of events clear.

The second novel is Balthazar. This is where Durrell begins to turn all I knew about narrative inside out. Balthazar, a character in the first novel, arrives on a remote Greek island. He has with him a loose-leafed manuscript which had been sent to him by the narrator of Justine, now identified as Darley. Balthazar has taken Darley's manuscript—which is the first novel, Justine—and has thoroughly revised it, relying on his deeper experience and wider perspective. The first part of Balthazar is the retelling of Justine from Balthazar's point of view. For me this was startling and unnerving. In effect, Justine existed, and then it didn't. Balthazar had transcended it; in effect, replaced it. In the last part of the novel, Balthazar reveals to Darley that while he (Darley) was intrigued with Justine and solaced by Melissa, the woman who really loved him was Clea. Hold that thought.

The third novel is Mountolive. In this third-person novel Durrell tells the story of David Mountolive, a British diplomat born in India. As a young man Mountolive has an affair with Leila Hosnani, mother of Nessim and Narouz. The reader remembers Nessim as Justine's husband. Mountolive reflects on his early career, after which he shares experiences and information that appeared previously in Justine and Balthazar. The third-person perspective is key. It seems more credible and trustworthy than the perspective of the two previous novels, both told in the first-person. At this point, the reader has more knowledge of the shared characters than ever. With a third retelling, the first two novels seem more real but less reliable. Mountolive's revelations have repeated some of their truths but rendered others obsolete. I knew there was another volume to come, but I was beginning to wonder if the whole story was even knowable.

The fourth and final novel is Clea. Again the story is told by Darley, against the backdrops of two familiar settings: a Greek island and then Alexandria. Darley and Balthazar are reunited. Balthazar shares with Darley his revised Justine in the form of his heavily annotated manuscript, referred to as the Interlinear. Darley learns a great deal, and Balthazar shares with him more secrets. Darley's love interests—Justine, Melissa, and Clea—are back. His relations with them further clarify the story—when they're not raising more questions. The story comes full circle, but not to a close. This is a circle that is always circling. I had the feeling that the story could go on and on, until, perhaps, all the characters were dead. And even then...

The Alexandria Quartet is one of the greatest literary adventures I have ever traveled. I have left out here a great number of its subplots and intrigues. I have not reread it in nearly forty years and had to check several Internet sources to support the few facts I have included. What I had remembered and what had impressed me as a first-year graduate student are some very central facts about life and literature. Every person is a story. And while our stories are best understood by ourselves, we are in no position to know the full story. As in life, as in literature.

Durrell elaborated and dramatized these ideas. He helped me understand the limitations and relativities of all points of view. From him I first learned that first-person narrators are inherently unreliable, limited by their narrow experience. Their stories are sins of distortion and omission. But they can hardly be blamed. There is, after all, no such thing in literature as objective truth. There is no true omniscience, no All-Knowing God. Even the "omniscient" narrator is a wizard behind a curtain, making choices, pulling levers.

I am very aware of point of view in my own writing. In my novels Forty Years Later, The Deadline, and Grand View, the story is told by a first-person narrator. In Forty Years Later the narrator breaks the constraints of his limited point of view by imagining the writing of a novel within the novel. In Grand View, the story is told by the older narrator looking back on his younger self. This separation of years allows for an extension of the first-person point of view into two, related points of view.

I have Lawrence Durrell and his Alexandria Quartet to thank for my sense of narrative perspective. However I grow as a reader and writer, I shall always remember that my awareness began with the words "A sky of hot nude pearl."


Steven Jay Griffel's Profile at Stay Thirsty Publishing


Steven Jay Griffel is the bestselling author of Forty Years Later, The Deadline and Grand View.

All opinions expressed by Steven Jay Griffel are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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