Not Joyce, not Kafka, not Proust, not Pasternak, not Garcia Marquez, not Bellow. The most important 20th-century novelist for a 21st-century reader could well be Lawrence Durrell. This year celebrates the centenary of his birth. Next to nothing is taking place to celebrate it. But Durrell, whose best work came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was the first to explore the poetry and puzzles of life in an era of globalization (a clunky term Durrell would have improved on), hyphenated identities, perpetual movement. “I think the world is coming together very rapidly,” he said in an interview in 1983, “so that within the next fifty years one world of some sort is going to be created. What sort of world will it be? It’s worth trying to see if I can’t find the first universal novel. I shall probably make a mess of it—but we shall see.”
The city at the center of his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet, is the prototype of the global village, of the smudged meta-city we increasingly inhabit. Published between 1957 and 1960, the Quartet is a series of interlinked novels set in Alexandria preceding and during World War II, but it’s uncanny how its political disorder anticipates our own. The Alexandria of the Quartet is run with an ever-weaker hand by Western powers losing their will to rule, and is ever-more dominated by ambitious but corrupt emerging nations, influenced by deracinated tycoon financiers, stirred on the streets by Islamic “nightmare-mystics, shooting out the thunderbolts of hypnotic personal-ity.” The state of Israel, off-stage but central to the plot, divides loyalties to the point of death and tragedy. The Quartet is an exceptional political thriller: imagine John Grisham rewritten by Joyce.
“Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbor bar,” writes Durrell. “Turks with Jews, Arabs and Copts and Syrians with Armenians and Italians and Greeks. The shudders of monetary transactions ripple through them like wind in a wheat-field ... this anarchy of flesh and fever, money-love and mysticism. Where on earth will you find such a mixture!”
The prophetic Quartet is a way to look at something fundamental: love and identity in a world that is, on the one hand, unified to an unrivaled degree (all those races, creeds, and languages stuffed together in one space), but as a consequence utterly fractured: how can you have a single truth when, to quote the Quartet, “there are as many realities as you care to imagine”? Durrell’s way to find a form that reflects this world is what he called his “stereoscopic” approach: instead of a linear narrative, the same story is revisited again and again through different characters, utterly changed every time from their perspectives, which are themselves broken up in the prism of their multiple personalities. “A series of novels with sliding panels, like some medieval palimpsest where different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other, the one oblit-erating or perhaps supplementing the other,” says a character in the novel, describing the work itself. But this is no postmodern pastiche. Durrell’s characters suffer as they try to negotiate their multiverse, twisting themselves painfully to reconcile the impossible and dying in the contortions. It’s a crisis Durrell went through himself, growing up a third-generation Anglo-Irish colonial in India.
“I have an Indian heart and an English skin,” he said. “I realized this very late, when I was twenty-one, twenty-two. It created a sort of psychological crisis. I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I realized suddenly that I was not English really, I was not European. There was something going on underneath and I realized that it was the effect of India on my thinking.”
Though “a patriot of the English language,” he was turned off by the “long toothache of English life” and moved constantly, drawn toward the Mediterranean: “I’m a professional refugee. Even here I could pack essential things in twenty minutes and leave. I am traumatized by travel.”
Nor did England think very highly of him. While at first a commercial hit, The Alexandria Quartet was damned for being “experimental”: that most caustic term in Anglo-Saxon criticism. Until the Quartet was republished this year, I struggled to find a copy in London. Durrell would often suffer the ignominy of being mistaken for his better-known brother, Gerald Durrell, who wrote bestsellers about animals. Even the interview quoted from earlier in this article was not given to some august Anglo-Saxon journal but was first published, in Russian, in Syntaksis: a Cold War–era Russian refugee magazine based in Paris; the interview appeared in English three years ago in Zeitzug, an online literary magazine created by an Austrian poet living in Prague. It is always the “cross-patriates,” the hyphenated, who are drawn to Durrell.
In June, I visited a lecture at the British Library to commemorate Durrell, part of the whimper of events around the centenary. I came in a day early to book a seat: “No need, it’ll be pretty empty,” says the Afro-Irish girl at the ticket desk. Of the sad sprinkle of attendees I am only one of two people under 60. “Durrell has influenced every writer I know,” says the speaker, “but they would never admit it.”
Leaving the lecture I walk past St. Pancras International, where trains rush between Paris and London, the border between the two becoming blurred. I pick up a newspaper full of praise for the new German national football team, a team full of players with names like -Mario Gómez and Mesut Özil, subverting the idea of the national entirely. I pass through once-dull Clerkenwell, the twitter of half-a-dozen languages around me: Arab and Polish, Urdu, and Turkish. That combination of smells: wet, warm English rain and spices from India and Lebanon. Durrell would have been at ease in this new London, a city that has completely lost its moorings: with its wines, halal butchers, Russian oligarchs, identity crises, religious terrorists.
The world is finally catching up with Lawrence Durrell. We are all Alexandrians now.