Durrell’s quartet incarnates vanished colonial Egypt (“upper Egypt,” says Durrell, who focuses on Alexandria). Each book is a prose poem, with “Justine” the most deliberately erotic. To some extent the novels are period piece soap operas — British Empire “Desperate Housewives.” What corrupts the analogy is Durrell’s flaring elegance and love for Egypt.
Yes, lovemaking here is not sex but coitus, tame stuff in a 21st century of hard-knocks fucking, but Durrell — an anti-minimalist — was all about “the light and music of language,” as critic George Steiner put it.
His tactile sentences lurk in back streets, kissing away. In “Justine”: “To stand lightly there, our little fingers linked, drinking in the camphor-scented afternoon…”; in “Cleo”: A sky composed of “palpitating velours which was cut into by the stark flare of a thousand electric light bulbs. It lay over Tatwig Street, that night, like a velvet rind.”
Durrell’s grand Mediterranean view is as vibrant to some as it is overwrought to others. But how do you learn from countries you own without implanting them in your mind’s eye?