Antique pleasures

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on October 11, 2019

One of my quirks is that I don’t re-read books. Even favourite books. There’s barely enough time to read anything even once! Twice feels like an extravagance.

Nevertheless I am currently re-reading Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. I’ve just got through Justine, the first book. I read it in my early 20s. I was living in Bombay at the time and everything was a struggle — paying my rent, trying to lose weight, wanting to be an artist. Justine is so heavily flavoured by those memories, that returning to it now, 40 years later, is uncomfortable. I see myself alongside the characters in the book, struggling — and failing — to understand my place in an unforgiving universe.

The reason I’m re-reading the Quartet is that I recommended it to a friend, then wondered: How does it hold up in today’s world? The main story is set in Egypt just before World War II. The narrator is a young man, an English schoolteacher. He describes himself as a person of no consequence, whose chance encounter with the title character of the first book thrusts him into the perfumed midst of Alexandrian high society. The prose is impossibly ripe, with metaphors stretched to breaking point. But that’s in the nature of the story: It’s about love as intoxication, as obsession, as poison.

That’s how I remember it. Today, however, the seductions and power play seem to be between cultures rather than people. Did Durrell write it with that intention? His young narrator seems so hopelessly blinded by passion! Yet he’s the one who lives to tell the tale. His story might well be that of the colonial explorer, smitten at first sight by a civilisation that seems so innocent in its beauty and its mystery. First he pursues, then he conquers, then he plunders. It all seems so inevitable.

Gradually the secrets emerge. The veil of innocence falls away. The corruptions that lurk just beneath the surface erupt with sudden savagery. The beauty becomes toxic. Friends and enemies exchange places. The coloniser finds himself being colonised by thoughts and emotions that he no longer recognises as his own. Inevitably, he runs away. He has to; he’s only an interloper. When he leaves, it’s with little warning, no time for proper goodbyes. Trophies are snatched up, mournful memoirs written, PhDs earned. In the rear-view mirror of history, we see the smouldering ruins of yet another failed romance.

I’m not actually reading the books, but listening to them on Audible. The reading, by Nigel Anthony, is excellent. But his cool English voice may explain why the story now sounds to me like a colonial misadventure dressed up as romance. I listen to the books while “walking” on my exercise machine. Bins finds my loyalty to the Quartet amusing. “How come you’re still listening? When you’re so critical?” he asks. “Because it’s beautiful,” I say. “And tragic. And clever. And...will you hush?” as I return to the embrace of Alexandria, and the comfort of those jewelled sorrows.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on October 11, 2019

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