Bartolo Casiraghi is a post-graduate student at the faculty of European and extra-European cultures and languages, University of Milan, Italy. His main interests lie with comparative approaches to contemporary literature and modern literary theory. He became familiar with the work of Lawrence Durrell while studying at Cambridge and obtained his master’s degree with a research on form and readership in The Alexandria Quartet.
As far as I can tell – and I could only wish facts proved me wrong here – Umberto Eco and Lawrence Durrell never met each other. To assess whether they knew about each other is however a more slippery question. I do not find hints of the former in the catalogue of Durrell’s personal library, whose entries in fact demonstrate a more pronounced penchant for French works. On the other hand, even if Eco’s immense library cannot yet be consulted, it is not unreasonable to assume that some Durrell could feature among the thirty-five-thousand titles on the semiotician’s shelves. Be that as it may, reasons for this missed mutual acquaintance can be merely temporal: Eco started his academic career around the time the Alexandria Quartet was published; his own debut in fiction, Il Nome della Rosa,came in 1980. By then Durrell was an author of consolidated fame, a mature writer whoseinfluences were of course fully formed. Yet precisely in 1962 – the year the Quartet was first published as a single volume – Eco published Opera Aperta: this collection of essays and articles revolving around the model of “open work” is alluringly close to the ideas that Durrell had expressed just a few years earlier in his Key to Modern British Poetry (1952), to the extent that it seems that the two are often writing on the same page unbeknownst to each other. Since Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet appears to me to be the most immediate transposition of the Key’s concepts into fiction, Iwould propose to adapt the tetralogy to the model of open work theorised by Eco, or better still to engage the two works in a dialogue: I hope to show that the Quartet proves to be a rather singular instance of Eco’s descriptive model, and in ways that were not overtly predicted by Eco’s text. At the same time, Durrell’s volumes appear to follow, and respond quite well to, the “curvature” that Eco developed throughout his career, a parabola that stretches from an early personal brand of Cultural Studies and idealism to his pioneering insights in reception theory. Such a shift is already manifest in nuce in Opera Aperta, embodied in the twofold nature of the theoretical descriptive model that Ecoexpounds. My approach to the Quartet will therefore unfold accordingly – and will equally address form and readership.
I intend to sketch a proximity that lacks the elegant endorsement of facts; the least I can do is to begin from a point that the two writers surely had in common, a rather pervasive element that informs their fiction and their reasoning. I am referring to their involvement in Hermetic and Gnostic thought, quite evident in Durrell’s Quartet and Quintet as well as the axis for Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Gnostic and Hermetic thought also constituted the focus of Eco’s first intervention during his 1991 Tanner Lecture at the University of Cambridge, which may provide us with an entry-point for our comparison. During his address, the semiotician exposed the audience to a concise history of subterranean patterns of interpretation in Western Thought. In Eco’s view, Western culture has always been scattered with hermeneutic traditions in clear opposition to the standards of reasoning derived from Plato and Aristotle. Such lines of enquiry, of which Hermeticism and Gnosticism are major instances, call into question the principle of identity, the principle of non-contradiction and that of the excluded middle. Also, these tenets are invariably grounded in a diffuse sense of universal secrecy; truth is here ever procrastinated in a cascade of symbols, and most certainly not a matter for reason to handle. Now, the idea that certain texts would conceal behind language some coded meanings that only the initiated can comprehend is one – Eco tells us – which runs from the early Christian period all through the middle ages, the renaissance and beyond. What often passes unnoticed, Eco adds with a touch of malice, is that a continuous deferral of meaning is also the touchstone of much contemporary postmodern theory. In a provocative move, he aligns some general tenets that could loosely apply to both Postmodernism and Hermetic practices: a text is an open universe wherein the interpreter can operate any association at will. The object of language is not to mirror a pre-existent meaning, or even less to be that meaning; rather, it can only aspire to reflect the inadequacy of thought. When a text tries to assert something univocal, it collapses into a dysfunctional universe.
These statements will perhaps sound already familiar to readers of Durrell, and for a good reason: here Eco is warning the audience against the perils of adopting unlimited semiosis as a viable approach to textual interpretation. In other words, he is pondering over the very legitimacy behind interpretative practices, an enterprise that also occupies a great deal of Darley’s time in the Alexandria Quartet – and which occupied much of my time after reading the Quartet. Durrell’s major fictionaloutput is much concerned with epistemological and interpretative matters: what we are all after, says Balthazar, is “truth naked and unashamed” – but, unfortunately enough, “we always see her as she seems, never as she is. Each man has his own interpretation” (Q: 581). To some extent this is also true of the critical reception that the Quartet has had over the years. Upon reading it, it is quite clear that one should abstain from hasty conclusions and collocations – strictly speaking we cannot say that the book is “about something”. Looking for univocal meanings in this tremendous work really means to go against the very grain of the narrative. Since its publication as a single volume in 1962, the Quartet has baffled readers and critics alike for this elusive ability to resist any clear classification. For instance, both novels and author have some trouble to fit into any literary movement or current. Durrell has little comfort sitting with the early modernists, and yet his career began thanks – among other things – to the trust afforded by none other than T. S. Eliot. The full display of contradictory elements in the Quartet may further challenge a neat modernist label for the work. Surely, we are presented with several modernist tropes (erosion of absolute truth, epistemological preoccupations, subjective alienation and the role of art et cetera) but all these usually collapse into their respective postmodern doubles in the blink of a page. To cite just one example, the alleged restoring power that art should bestow upon the shattered subject is perpetually questioned and undermined through metafictional passages, narrative self-disavowals and crisis of scepticism that are often deflated through irony, parody and quasi-pastiche passages. Whatever the Quartet’s “content”, it seems to resist a cohesive assembly.
Surely enough, such a situation has to do with the peculiar literary form that Durrell employs for his magnus opus. Durrell himself is the first to admit this in his prefatory note to Balthazar: “it would be worth trying anexperiment to seewhether we cannot discover a morphological form one might appropriately call Classical – for our time. Even if the result proved to be a `science fiction´ in the true sense” (1991:9). Language is the nub, says Pursewarden (Q:879) – but so is form for his reader. That the form-consciousness exhibited by the tetralogy could be detrimental to the reading experience (Eliott in Moore, 1962:88) is an argument that I find in overt contrast not only to Durrell’s intentions but also to personal impressions on the matter that I could gather from friends and colleagues. The question was therefore to find a literary form that could accommodate the Quartet whilst complying with its demands of openness. I wanted to find a theoretical model that could bridle narrative instability, a model that could present its literary form as the direct output of a new Weltanshauung, one that was equally informed by science and psychology, anthropology and physics. It is exactly at this point that Umberto Eco re-enters the picture.
In 1962, the same year the Quartet was published as a single volume, Eco published his first seminal critical work. This consisted of a series of earlier essays and articles regrouped for publishers Bompiani under a very telling title: Opera Aperta. Forma e indeterminazione nelle poetiche contemporane (“The Open Work. Form and Indeterminacy in Contemporary Poetics”). In the book, Eco theorises a descriptive model for what he sees as a general tendency within the arts to react with certain common traits to the suggestions of a specific historical paradigm. The semiotician focusses on the specific context of his own paradigm of “modernity”, to show how these reactions may differ from the standards of traditional art. This model materializes in what Eco calls the “open work” – a concept that is never fully embodied by any single artefact, but rather serves as a necessary abstraction for the description of general trends. Dealing in abstraction, Eco is careful to avoid strict taxonomy, so that some passages in the work sometimes sound slightly foggy; arguably, the most effective declaration of intent appears in his preface to the second Italian edition. Unfortunately, this is not present in any English version, so I will offer it here – in my translation – for the sake of clarity:
The subject of these studies is the reaction of arts and artists (that is, of formal structures and of the poetics that justify these structures) faced with the provocation of Chance, Indeterminacy, Ambiguity and Polyvalence. The answer, so to speak, of contemporary sensitivity to the suggestions of Mathematics, Biology, Physics, Psychology and Logic, along with the new epistemological horizon that these sciences have set up. (Eco  2016: 2, my trans.)
It will be noted that Durrell had chosen a similar subject for his Key to Modern British Poetry (1952): “Literature”, he admonishes in tune with Eco, “is only one facet of the prism we call culture. All the arts and sciences are simply dialects of the same language, all contributing to an attitude to life” (Durrell  1970: 1). Both the Key and Opera Aperta represent their first major effort at critical writing, and the pace of the reasoning is almost identical.
Eco begins by listing instances of works that he judges in-formed by principles of indeterminacy and ambiguity. Such works span from the avant-garde musical compositions of composers like Henri Pousseur and Karlheinz Stockhausen to the plays of Bertolt Brecht and the tales of Kafka. In the domain of plastic arts, Eco mentions the works of Bruno Munari and the Mobiles by Alexander Calder, which are incidentally juxtaposed to the Quartet by Durrell himself in a 1958 letter to Henry Miller (Durrell in MacNieven 1988: 320. According to Eco, all these works project in artistic terms – and especially through the way they are devised to be experienced – the epistemological uncertainty professed by contemporary scientific findings. Having registered this fact, the first question Eco asks himself is to determine “what historical evolution of aesthetic sensibility led up to it and which factors in modern culture reinforced it” (Eco 1989:4). This leads him to trace a quick survey of possible historical antecedents to this kind of sensitivity, a dive into the history of ideas.
As soon as Eco tackles late 19th century poetry he really begins to merge with the Durrell of the Key. Both authors localise the germs of the modern penchant for nuanced sense and free play of associations roughly within the same artistic figures and currents. They talk extensively of late decadents and symbolists, and characters like Verlaine and Mallarmé get credits for much of what Eco terms (borrowing the term from Riegl) the contemporary Kuntswollen – which might be tentatively rendered as a general historical urge dictated and seconded by a collective artistic will.
Even more significant for our comparison is Eco’s treatment of Joyce, whom he elects champion of literary openness. The city of Ulysses is described in scientific terms as a proper field of possibilities wherein we can install patterns and currents of interest at will; in this world, the categories of Aristotle have disappeared (a fact that forces the Durrell of the Quartet to “turn to science instead”). On a similar note Ulysses is presented in the Key as “coated in a thin fur of association”, reminding the reader that “the first article of faith in subjective writing is complete surrender to the associative flux and reflux about the observed object”. (Durrell  1970: 45). Concluding his survey, it is Finnegans Wake which gets the prize for the most successful instance of formal openness in modernistfiction; inevitably, Eco evokes Einstein as the putative father of the structural foundation of the novel: “the book is molded into a curve that bends back on itself, like the Einsteinian universe. The opening word of the first page is the same as the closing word on the last page of the novel” (Eco 1989:10). It is at this point, I think, that the Quartet can be introduced as a third element of synthesis.
Within the context of “open works”, I believe that the Quartet manages to achieve through a clever game of structure and form what Finnegans Wake does all too explicitly – causing the magic of the trick to disappear with the telling. To see in what respects they differ, however, it is important to restate what they have in common. It must be clear that both creations follow the open work model in that they assume the modes and shapes of the cultural horizon that they interrogate. Dialectically, this cultural horizon is the result and the generator of their operations. They reintroduce from and within the world not the way questions are solved, but rather the way they are posed. Running the risk of a rather broad and rash reference, we might even speak of a new organic form at stake here (Lemon 1963): that effortless adherence between nature and expression central to the concept is still present, albeit reworked in this context for a newly-discovered nature and prompting an equally new expression. Having said this, the cases in question beg to differ in several aspects.
For a start, one of Eco’s conditions of modern openness seem to presuppose that symptoms of the cultural Zeitgeist should constitute the very foundations of the “open work”; to some extent, the work is supposed to “know” what reflection it is casting. To be precise, Eco concedes that a declaration of “open” poetics can be derived both from explicit pronouncements by the artists and from the mere structural analyses of their works, because it is always possible to infer how a work was meant to be made from the way it is made. This assertion is, however, rather problematic; especially so in that it seems to reduce the authority of the Intentio Auctoris, one of Eco’s later concepts. The artist is to some degree aware of the prevailing Kunstwollen, of which he must remain but a mere vehicle. This sort of conferred agency is crystal-clear to Durrell, who overtly tells us what he sets up to do before the fiction even begins, consciously binding Eco’s volatile trends to the concrete cornerstone of his kaleidoscopic “paper construct” (Durrell in Ingersoll, 1998:71).
Moreover, Durrell’s declaration of poetics is further elaborated from inside the text by characters like Balthazar and Pursewarden, who do appear at times like the soundboard wherein the relativistic proposition of their demiurge resonates ad infinitum. A second difference follows from this: here, openness is not to be found in isolable clever devices from the lab of the novelist. It is not triggered by smart movable mechanisms ( as in the modifiable Livre by Mallarmé, cited by Eco); it is not overtly thrown at the reader through mandatory semantic play ( as in Joyce), nor is it caused by the performer’s actual activity, as is the case in avant-garde music. We are not challenged by bold graphisms or syntactic ruptures; Lawrence Durrell is not avant-garde, he is at best experimental. He is at the same time part of a tradition: partly in the sense that Eliot refers to it in Tradition and the Individual Talent, and partly in the sense that he knows his roots and can thus be free to re-work them (“Iimagine, therefore I belong and am free”, Q: 80). The symptoms recorded by his Modernist predecessors are indeed present in his work, but they have been digested and interiorised – and turned to good, we might even say. This in turn may mark a third differentiation: the erosion of the Shakespearian “degree” that seems advocated by modernists is replaced here with the acceptance of a new measure. In the words of Eco:
To accept and to tame the ambiguity in which we dwell and in which we resolve our pronouncements on the world does not involve confining ambiguity within an order far removed from it. Ambiguity would then be linked to this order only as a dialectical opposition. What is at stake instead is the elaboration of relational models wherein ambiguity can be positively accommodated and justified. Revolutionary turmoil is never sedated with a police regime. (Eco  2016:3)
Broadly speaking, Modernism displays a different attitude: in the words of Eliot, Joyce employs myth as “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility that is modern history” (Eliot in Kermode, 1975: 177). Durrell is not disheartened by such a panorama, he simply lets it take the stage as a positive constituent of the new schizophrenic age. The whole way in which this Copernican revolution unfolds in the Quartet seems to me to adhere to the principles of openness with an effortless agility. Let us take the treatment of a-causality and indeterminacy as an example. Eco stresses that in the breakdown of causal logics brought about by physical findings we can envisage the blink of the new open sensitivity:
The two-value logic which follows the classical aut-aut, the disjunctive dilemma between true and false, a fact and its contradictory, is no longer the only instrument of philosophical experiment. Multi-value logics are now gaining currency, and these are quite capable of incorporating indeterminacy as a valid stepping-stone in the cognitive process. (Eco 1989:15)
Similar views are of course explicitly espoused by Durrell’s characters – perhaps most notably by Balthazar and his sibylline remarks: “truth is what most contradicts itself in time”. And yet the relativity of truth does not aspire to be the message or the meaning of anything – rather, it brings attention to the gaps in meaning – because gaps are themselves powerful signifiers; to borrow an expression from Derek Attridge, in the Quartet “words mean, and at the same time they show us what it means to mean” (2004:19). From Pursewarden’s suicide to the political counter-plot of Nessim, every ambiguous episode can be seen as a narrative synecdoche of the whole – or better still, of “the whole pointless joke” (Q: 791). The open work seeks to avoid the sudden imposition of a sense. Thus, Durrell neither says nor conceals – he points just like the oracle in the Fragments by Heraclitus. He does it at all levels, from the lyricism of his “Baroque” style (Steiner in Moore, 1962: 13-23) to the clever construction of his minor characters.. For example, Scobie is in this sense the great unsung hero and one of the compasses of the Quartet. In him, the properties of ambiguity, chance and free association are caught in a play of perpetual exchanges: his fractured psychology creates for him an incongruous identity that is both out of history and made up of stories. His physical description in Justine is made up of contrastive pairs, so that the idea of contradiction and duality may progressively unfold until Durrell makes the association with Tiresias – which again is only suggested and not imposed by the text. Scobie tries to decipher the cabbalistic messages of Balthazar’s coven, adamant that they must have a meaning, whereas he himself symbolises the very slippage of meaning and the provisional nature of truth. Of his comical post-mortem parable, Clea says that “his sainthood was only, so to speak, waiting for a sign” – and this sign duly shows: out of the narrative it becomes the post-structural sign, the site where signifier and signified can coincide but fortuitously, allowing for a bath tub designed to brew home-made moonshine to become a place of worship for the local community, and therefore illuminating “the mythopoeic reference which underlies fact” (Q: 791).
All the above suggestions can be activated at a conscious level during the reading process, or they can remain partially dormant. In either case there is no harm done to the effect of openness. Engraved in the very fabric of the narrative, interpretation is effective (and affective) in so far as it is not compelled or authoritarian; it is always up to the reader to juxtapose Scobie’s symbolic impact with, say, Mountolive’s reaction to Pursewarden’s suicide, when the diplomat looks for a “rational exegesis for this gross default of good manners” (Q: 540). As previously suggested, the pervasive halo of sense is aided here by a literary form constructed to warrant free associations among its own materials – a form that can hardly be detached from its content. It might be objected that Beckett spoke of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake as a perfect coalescence of content and form. The book is not written “about something”,but it is that something itself, so that when the sense is sleep, the words go to sleep – and when the sense is dancing, they dance. This is indeed correct, but it does not exclude the fact that, with Finnegans Wake,“the game” comes, so to speak, inseparably from its book of rules. This does not meanthat it should not be considered an “open work”; but it does mean that the Quartet has an “openness” of a different kind – perhaps quite simply the natural refinement of the first type.
It is interesting that Beckett should also mention a sense of apprehension as to the proper usage of Joyce’s controversial masterpiece. Durrell himself was persuaded that true art should not describe but be the cause of apprehension in others. This leads me to consider that the Durrell-Eco parallel can perhaps extend to the way in which they both seem to engage with reception theory. We should not forget that Opera Aperta marks the beginning of Eco’s lifelong interest in the cooperation between readers and texts: “the model of the open work does not reproduce any alleged objective structure in the work of art; it describes the structure and ratio of a fruition. A form can only be described if it generates the order of its own interpretations” (Eco  2016: 22). It is significant to note here that the consideration of form recalls Durrell’s quote from Wordsworth in the Key (1970: 7), which is also partially recast in Quinx: “Every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste through which he is to be judged”. On a broader level, Eco’s assertion essentially brings us back to where we started – the question of interpretation. This implicitly calls for a certain focus on readership, a preoccupation which again is not new to Durrell: an invitation to a reader-oriented analysis may discretely come from the very pages of the Quartet, where in an unmistakable Sternesque fashion Pursewarden leaves a blank page inside the meta-novel God is a Humorist and thus explains the move:“I refer the reader to a blank page in order to throw him backupon his own resources – which is where he ultimately belongs” (Q: 307).
It must be remembered that critical approaches broadly based on or referencing reception theories have been tried out for the Quartet in various guises and degrees (Lemon 1963, Sertoli 1967, Fertile 1990, Herbrechter 1999, Darling 2017 among others). Chiara Briganti – whose insightful work I suspect is informed by her own reading of Opera Aperta – recasts for example the modernist/postmodernist dispute in reception terms:
While Modernists, like Structuralists, see interpretation as a quest for order among the manifold possible meanings which the text discloses to the competent reader, deconstructionists and postmodernists like Durrell have shown how any discourse is not a closed system of meaning, but an active production of it. (Briganti 1990: 45)
Stephen G. Kellman also proposes an analysis of the reader in/of the Quartet in a remarkable feature which draws attention to a fact of paramount importance for my own speculation:
The Alexandria Quartet is clearly heir to a rich tradition of writing about writing.However […] not merely another Kunstlerroman, The Alexandria Quartet is also a Lektorroman, a fable of reading experience that almost seems designed to illustrate thetheories of Wolfgang Iser, Walter J. Ong and Stanley G. Fish. (Kellman 1988:78)
Foundations had already been laid for my planned analysis of the tetralogy grounded in the tenets of the Constance School, with specific reference to the work of Wolfgang Iser. In his article Kellman focuses mainly on the German scholar’s contention that “indeterminacy is the hallmark of the reading experience” (1988: 79), marking therefore a solid connection with Opera Aperta. However, he refrains from thoroughly addressing a further implication which follows directly from Iser’s indeterminacy and which will be presently suggested.
Der Akt des Lesens. Theorie ästhetischer wirkung (1976– “The Act of Reading. A Theory ofAesthetic Response”, 1978) is indeed a useful filter to receive the Quartet from a reader-reception perspective. For one thing, the first concern of Iser relates once again to interpretation: Iser starts his work by distinguishing two basic patterns of interpretation based on the plot of a tale by Henry James, The Figure in The Carpet. The novella revolves around the ultimate meaning of a “novel in the novel”by a fictional writer, Vereker. The narrator (who happens to be a critic) and his friend Corvick are summoned to fulfill the interpretative task. For the critic, the only end to criticism is to extract a hidden meaning from the text, one which is already codified within it. For Corvick, on the other hand, meaning does not appear so much as something to be found, but rather as an effect to be experienced. This position is seconded by Iser, whose intention is in fact “to free the literary text from the demand that it yield or contain a referential meaning, an embodied truth” (Fish 1981: 2). According to Iser, the aesthetic object neither resides in the formal objective gestalt of a text nor subsists in the range of possible subjective interpretations; it is instead something which virtually hovers between these two poles – it is continuously created in the meeting between textual instructions and readers’ predispositions: “Meaning […] is something that neither of them has”, Fish enthuses. The text provides a loose set of instructions through signifiers which point to a signified, whereas the reader’s role is to enact these instructions to produce it – where “the `it´ in this last sentence does not stand for a thing, but for an event, a happening” (Fish 1981: 3). So far this is perfectly consonant with the indeterminacy evoked by Kellman.
The interpretative dichotomy offered above is already slightly reminiscent of Darley’s evolution throughout his epistemological quest. In Justine, the frustrated narrator is trying to recover an alleged referential and objective meaning from his past; alone on his island, shoring fragments against his ruin, he desperately tries to make sense. Of course, Balthazar (and Balthazar) will induce the young writer to reconsider. In this sense, the “artist” Darley of Clea has achieved his interpretation (the Quartet we are about to finish) and can begin to properly live, “a real human being, an artist at last” (Q: 877). Even more startlingly, what happens between Justine and Clea is clearly accounted for by Iser when he deals with the process of negotiation on the part of readers – and here comes the surprising fact: the way we make sense of Darley and the Quartet appears to conform to the way he makes sense of himself and of the Quartet in the Quartet.
To decode such a bold claim, we might want to turn to the third section of Iser’s Act of Reading. In “Phenomenology of Reading”, the German scholar elaborates on what exactly happens when text and readers meet to produce meaning. Iser argues that unlike other objects, a text can never be wholly grasped at once: “instead of a subject-object relation, there is a wandering view-point that travels along inside that which it has to apprehend” (1978: 109). Psycholinguistics show that this viewpoint engages primarily with the local level of sentences to synthesise meaning. Sentences of course do not denote the aesthetic object – rather, they “set in motion a process which will lead to (its) formation as a correlative in the live mind of the reader”. However, sentences also contain something which goes beyond their immediate meaning; “an expectation of some kind” (1978: 111), that was defined by Husserl as “pre-tension”. In every literary fact, the interplay between sentences does not lead to the fulfilment of expectations; it calls instead for continual modifications and readjustments within the reader’s horizon of expectation. Sometimes the correlates in sentences have the effect of frustrating and invalidating the expectations they have aroused, therefore affecting retroactively what has already been read. In other words, what we may call the “past of the reading” is constantly evoked to be scrutinised and reconsidered, and every new synthesis invites a restructuring of the past. On this matter Iser is very clear: “this does not mean that the past returns in full to the present, for then memory and perception would become indistinguishable, but it does mean that memory undergoes a transformation” (1978: 114). The point is essentially thus resumed: “through the reading process there is a continual interplay between modified expectations and transformed memories” (1978: 115).
Now, this is not the place to go into a detailed description of Iser’s model – of which the sketch above is but a rough rendition. Still, I believe that even from these general traits we could assume an interesting correlation with the narrative situation of the Quartet. Let me indulge in one more passage from Iser to stress my point:
Every articulate reading moment entails a switch of perspective, and this constitutes an inseparable combination of differentiated perspectives, foreshortened memories, present modifications and future expectations. […] the synthetizing operations of the wandering view-point enable the text to pass through the reader’s mind as an ever-expanding network of connections. This also adds the dimension of space to that of time, for the accumulation of views and combinations give us the illusion of depth and breadth, so that we have the impression that we are actually present in a real world. (Iser 1978: 116)
It is important to note here that these findings can apply to any literary work, because that is the fundamental way in which they function. If we take for instance the character of the old furrier Cohen in Justine, we can see clearly that our expectations of his persona (openly suggested by textual signs) are to be gradually eroded to make room for a suspension of judgement; he is repugnant, he is presented as a villain – but he also looks like a trained seal grappling with human emotions; the gun in his pocket (never loaded!) is replaced at some point by the symbolic token of Melissa’s perfume, so that we cannot have a clear idea of his case: “something has to be imagined that the signs do not denote, although it will be preconditioned by that which they do denote” (1978: 66).
What is special about the Quartet however is that, following the model of the open work, it turns its own operative structure into the very object of its essence; or, to put it in Iser’s words, “it thematises its own interaction with the expected disposition of its observer” (1978: 11) – the observer being in our case the reader. Darley revisits and rewrites his past in Justine, while Balthazar’s interlinear induces him to re-read his materials and “cement it” with the new vistas offered by his friend; the palimpsestic re-writing continues. But since re-writing requires re-reading (and there is indeed a good deal of meta-reading scattered through the Quartet) then we might begin to understand the nature of Darley’s progression towards his final epiphany: more than understanding, I dare say, we could perhaps partake of it and recognise it as our own progression within our reading process. Seen from this angle, the Quartet seems to offer for want of better words we could call a vicarious agency that returns directly to the concept of meaning as experience. Durrell had previously manifested awareness of this quality: in his rants against those critics who require to understand a work of art rationally, he retorted that “the real core of a work of art does not need to be understood. It is pure experience, and only needs faith in the prophetic sense” (Durrell in Gifford, 2015: 64).
It thus appears that we gain experience by a reading of fictional experiences being constantly re-worked for us on the page in a process that neatly mimics the one we employ to decode them. But there is more. This procedure not only mirrors our moves in the reading process, it also reflects some basic psychological and cognitive patterns that we use in real-life signifying procedures. For instance, the retrospective aspect of both our and Darley’s reading processes is interestingly close to the Freudian notion of Après Coup, or “belatedness”. In psychology, this phenomenon pertains to a belated elaboration of past mental traumas – which is arguably the situation we are faced with from the first page of Justine (“I have come here to heal myself […] Q: 17):
The implication is that an event has in fact two occurrences, an original happening and a later interpretative reconstruction of it. […] the event is seen to acquire significance in so far that it is remembered. That is to say, there is no first event rather than its construction at a later stage, since meaning is always the retroactive result of a process of `working through´. This implies a radical non-linear notion of memory and individual history, effectively positing that a memory at a later date is the cause rather than the effect of the supposed earlier event. (Selden, Widdowson, Brooke 2005: 154)
I can hardly imagine a better description of how memory works in the Quartet – the marriage of fact and dream, and that of space and time which instructs mythically as does the union of Cupid and Psyche. The reason why we cherish the Quartet so much is perhaps that it looks like us; it hides beneath its layers gestures that we unconsciously recognise as ours. Iser himself concedes that the way in which experience comes about in the reader’s readjustments “is closely akin to the way we gain experience in life. And thus the `reality´ of the reading experience can illuminate basic patterns of real experience” (Iser 1971: 286). That is why works that are specifically designed to reflect the way in which we process reality might prove to be somewhat more beneficial than others in terms of what I can only call existential quality; also, that is why Umberto Eco addresses the open work model, speaking of it as an “epistemological metaphor”: because the last invitation contained in the open work is to ultimately adopt its modes and adapt them to our own plane of existence. Thus, when we say that the Quartet changes the lives of its readers, we might specify that it rather influences the way they perceive life itself – because art does not know the world, it builds complements to it from which we can vicariously profit. Of course, the interesting step to take now would be to assess – if it is at all possible – what kind of knowledge or expertise do we gain from literature; especially from literature that seems to be specifically devised to facilitate such a strange apprenticeship. Before any answer is found, we must select our queries carefully: should we deepen the relationship that in works like the Quartet seem to exist between structural mimesis and the type of knowledge we seem to derive from literature? should we attempt to pin down in which ways this alleged “literary gain” can prove to be particularly beneficial in our “real”, social lives? Can this be linked to what psychologists call a kind of narrative Self-construction? It is hard to say yet. Hence my belief that literary outputs of this type can and should find a new and fertile harbour in the field of cognitive cultural and literary studies, whose object is precisely to describe how literature qua literature can function for us as a storage of experiences that are never really experienced. I think that working in this direction by complementing our research with classic reception theories (slightly overlooked) and insights from other departments like psychology and anthropology (as already is the case in literary cognitivism) will bear very interesting fruits – apart from being delightfully consonant with Durrell’s pleas for interdisciplinarity.
To conclude, I think it is indeed time for a further Alexandrian revival. Undeniably, the Quartet seems to have anticipated a number of issues at stake in our contemporary cultural debate almost half a century before they became current: when Pursewarden claims that we live lives based on selected fictions, how can we not be reminded of the myriads of social media fictions that people craft for themselves on a daily basis, or the selected fictions we purport to select for our leisure on the platforms of media-services providers? How can we not relate the pervasive presence of (not so new) concepts like post-truth and fake news to a piece of fiction suggesting that truth will prevail when no one cares whether it does or not? Would it be too far-fetched to say that the Quartet can engage our current paradigm shift in a dialogue the same way it previously did for the lively times of Eco and Durrell? In 1962 Lionel Trilling remarked that in Durrell’s tetralogy “the explanation of an event never comes at the time of its occurrence” (Trilling in Moore, 1962: 51): we have therefore reasons to believe that the Quartet can be interpreted in different ways today than would have been available at the time it was written. This implies of course that future interpretations will also differ. If indeed “the Classical in art is what marches by intention with the cosmology of the age” (Q: 385), then the nudges from the universe that we receive in Darley’s company are virtually infinite. They will need to be accounted for – and celebrated, each time.
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