My reasons for not reading Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet

It’s occurred to me that it could well be sheer slothfulness that’s keeping me away.

 |  4-minute read |   13-08-2017
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For years, a fat paperback would accompany me wherever I travelled. It’s not as though it was my first choice; rather, after agonising over and selecting other books, I would notice the pastel-shaded Faber edition glowering reproachfully from the shelves, contritely pick it up, and stuff it into whatever space remained in the bag.

It’s been more than two decades, and I still haven’t managed to read more than the first page of Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. That page I know well because I’ve started the book many times: “the sky of hot nude pearl” under which the narrator, who has escaped “to this island with a few books and the child” recalls “the city which used us as its flora – precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!”

At this point, I typically pause and turn to the cover, which features a watercolour by English artist David Gentleman. It’s a view of an octagonal tower on the roof of an Alexandrine villa, the place Lawrence Durrell lived during the first years of World War II and where he started writing Justine, the first of the quartet’s novels. Very evocative.

alexandria-quartet_081317082234.jpgPhoto: Instagram

Despite all this, I’m not sure why I haven’t yet read it. It has, after all, been ranked by one survey as among the 100 best novels of the 20th century, with its modernist structure – the same events through the points of view of different characters - haunting backdrop, and lush prose. (The latter, unfortunately, has fallen somewhat out of favour and has been relentlessly parodied in the years since publication.)

What is it that makes a reader put off reading a book? In some cases, it’s because of the book’s stature as “a classic”, with all the freight that word implies. As with so-called health food, one has been told so many times of its beneficial properties that one suspects it’s rather unexciting. Far better to turn to the fast food fare of the latest bestsellers.

daa_081317080700.jpgIn the case of Durrell’s opus, it’s one I want to read, not merely one I feel I should read. Photo: Instagram/cleadecrane

Another cause is the shadow cast by the towering to-be-read stack. This is what Yale professor Amy Hungerford calls “the problem of abundance”. When each season’s new must-reads are constantly being promoted, the compulsion to stay au courant can overtake the urge to read an earlier volume.

In a recent article, Hungerford casts a critical eye at such overproduction. “The literary market as a whole is vulnerable to forces that have less to do with literary discernment,” she writes, “and more to do with money, class, contemporary pressures on journalism, the geography of cities, and the social networks that circumscribe the reach of editorial attention or a bookstore’s clientele.”

In other words, just because contemporary culture tells you that some books are worth reading, it doesn’t mean that you have to unthinkingly reach out and read them - or, indeed, feel diminished because you haven’t.

In his cheekily titled "How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read", French academic Pierre Bayard takes another tack. Each book exists in relation to others, he says, and thus learning about as many books as possible – as opposed to reading as many as possible – is the best thing to do. In this matrix, books read, unread, skimmed, ignored and forgotten all form “a supple fabric of relations between texts and beings”, and it’s enough to get a general sense of them to partake in a shared literary culture.

In the case of Durrell’s opus, it’s a book I want to read, not merely one I feel I should read. It’s occurred to me that it could well be sheer slothfulness that’s keeping me away. Here, after all, are four interlinked works in one edition of close to 900 pages. That bulk and Durrell’s craft mean that this needs stamina.

I sometimes turn to Amazon one-star reviews for light entertainment, and those for this book use the words pretentious, tedious and cumbersome. Not promising. On the other hand, there are far more adoring, not to mention better-informed, reviews on Amazon itself, if that’s any criterion. And though I haven’t finished War and Peace (yet), there are lengthy works that have afforded much pleasure - Anna Karenina and A Suitable Boy, to name just two.

The most mundane reason is a horror of creasing (or, heaven forbid, cracking) the spine of the paperback, which means holding the book at an angle that’s not exactly conducive to immersion. To overcome this, I’ve cunningly downloaded the Kindle edition. Have I read beyond the first page? I will, just as soon as I finish listening to this podcast on the most exciting books to look out for in autumn.

Also read: Amitava Kumar on lost loves and the memory of youth


Sanjay Sipahimalani Sanjay Sipahimalani @sansip

Literary critic

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