by Frank Kersnowski.
Frank Kersnowski is a Research Professor at Trinity University. His interest in the writings of Lawrence Durrell began with the publication of The Alexandria Quartet and has continued. A friendship with Lawrence Durrell deepened his interest in both the writings and the writer. He has contributed previoulsy to C.20 : “Lawrence Durrell’s Gnosticism” (issue no. 2) and “The Alexandria Quartet – a Reconsideration” (issue no. 3). We are delighted to publish his Introduction and the First Part of “Nessim: a Coda”.
Together four novels constitute “The Alexandria Quartet”: a suitable descriptive subtitle would be “a word continuum” (Clea, page 7)
In 1935 Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy moved from England to Corfu, preceding his widowed mother and his three siblings. There they lived as expats with money in a society only modestly informed about money. Gerald Durrell, in The Corfu Trilogy, and Lawrence, in Prospero’s Cell, have described their idyllic life. Not surprisingly, their peasants are remarkably similar to Wordsworth’s. Neither Wordsworth nor the Durrells lived a peasant life, getting up before dawn and working past dusk, living by the phases of the moon and the demands of the seasons, knowing little of banks and nothing of the people who ran them. For the Wordsworths and the Durrells the peasants were a happy people who loved the land and loved their work, a people who deserved the literary celebrations of their lives. From one group came oral literature and from the other the printed word.
Such was the idyllic world the Durrells inhabited happily until the anticipated arrival of the German army caused Mother Durrell and three of her children (Leslie, Margo, and Gerry) to return to what Larry called “Pudding Island”, a moribund England – stolid and humourless. Larry, Nancy, and daughter Penelope (aka Ping Ku) moved steadily south, finally settling in Alexandria, Egypt in 1942. There the marriage dissolved. Later Nancy snorted in derision when she was told Larry said the break up was a casualty of war. What Larry described to Henry Miller as “literally being up to my ears” in the sexual provender of Alexandria may have played a role in the break up.
There, Durrell began talking again of the long incubating The Book of the Dead. There it found a nurturing, if unwanted, nest, a culture sufficiently corrupt and complex to foster the moral deformities from which he himself was not immune. Durrell, like most of the other English, especially those who had lived in the same Greece he did, hated the flat, arid Egypt, which they regarded as venal and shallow. They eschewed any concern for the role of the British Colonial impulse in creating modern Egypt. While living in Cyprus, and then in the south of France from 1957, Durrell would revisit his war years in Egypt, and would recall and recast that time in Egypt with its “sexual provender”, largely prewar, in four volumes that used the life of a Coptic Egyptian family, the Hosnanis. They were angered by the insolent rejection of the Copts during the British Protectorate of Egypt and the British Mandate of Palestine and justifiably frightened by a Moslem dominance they were certain would occur when the Protectorate and the Mandate ended (ostensibly) in 1947. Writing when he did, Durrell had the benefit of hindsight. The Coptic community was and continues to be discriminated against and violated since Moslem Egypt came into power. The Copts are the majority of those receiving exit visas. Their population continues to decline. And the culture of the Egypt that he portrayed continues to provide evidence of the moral and immoral propensities of our species. All occurs in an exotic setting, a narrative that, as he told me, was “contemporary”., Though I did not ask, I assumed based on his later writings that to be “contemporary” was to acknowledge the societal and personal identities that struggled to exist in a world of political and personal compromise.
His choice of Egypt before, during, and after World War 2 makes sense. The absence of a traditional morality during the War and the implacable movement away from the political identities of the past provided a setting for his study: human beings deprived of past social and cultural norms and a society caught between the politics of the past and the emerging power of the future. And his decision to focus his narrative on the struggle of the Copts to protect their role in Egypt by allying themselves with Jewish fighters in Palestine makes good fictional, if not historic, sense.
Durrell’s Quartet ties all loves and lusts to this plot and created a burst of fictive life in the morgue of the literary sixties. The setting is exotic, neither drab middle class America nor the bareness of working class England. But we are not drawn into the exotic world of South Wind but into the world of Lord Jim. Even in faraway Egypt, all characters are comprehensible. All affairs and erotic misalliances are comprehensible. Everything makes good fictive sense. Except for the central motivations. Why would a Coptic family, wealthy in land and financial holdings, risk all? And why would Nessim, the spoiled priest son of a secular family, become so passionately committed to the plot? And why would he marry without desire the divorced Jew Justine, that “sexual turnstile” through whom they all passed, to quote the British writer and embassy employee Pursewarden? Surely, other Jewish women could have provided his bona fides to the Jewish fighters to whom he would provide guns in exchange for protection in the new Egypt. We know that he has an affair with Melissa, Darley’s lover, and that she dies giving birth to their daughter. We know little of what happens after this. Just that the child and Darley live together on a remote Greek island and, in time, Darley takes the child to Alexandria where she is united with her father and the Dark Queen, Justine.
Reflecting on these questions and issues, I have come to see the Quartet as one of those iconic works that trouble one’s sleep because they burrow into the very matrix, physical, intellectual, and emotional, of who we are. They invite the readers to place themselves into such a world, to inhabit it, and wonder what they would have done. And these works invite the writer to recast the narratives, or parts, into different times and places, as James Joyce did with The Odyssey: the chaste Penelope becomes the wayward wife Molly Bloom. The concurrence of this duality exemplifies what Stith Thompson called “the tested wife motif”. Fortunately for Odysseus and Leopold Bloom no “tested husband motif” exists. That far lesser writers than Joyce have cast The Odyssey into other times and the characters into other fictional beings has emboldened me to extend Durrell’s iconic work and hopefully not diminish it by recasting parts of the Quartet, positing some back stories, and saying “what if this had been the case”.
In what follows, I take liberties; but they are based on my readings of the Quartet, especially Mountolive, and readings in Durrell’s later works, especially The Avignon Quintet. I have somewhat added to the form of the Hosnani family’s desert home, Karm Abu Girg, by making it a bit shabbier that it seems in the Quartet. My reason for doing so is based on what George Weidenfeld wrote in Remembering My Good Friends, his autobiography, that he had visited the desert homes of Jews he thought were the models for Hosnani’s residence. The other major change I made is my portrayal of Leila, the mother of Nessim and Narouz and wife of Faltaus. In my telling she becomes a matriarch. Disappointed that she was forced to return from Europe, where she thrived, and forced into an arranged marriage with a much older man, she retained in her room books, journals, art works, vestiges of her lost world. But in my view she did much more than that. She became the intellectual force behind the Coptic plot. She not only had the intelligence, she had, in my view, contacts with the Jewish community. And she had the creative urge strengthened by a, then, celibate and loveless marriage. Her relationship with her son Nessim I construct from asides in Mountolive and from my reflections on Durrell’s interest in Freud and Jung.
Other liberties I have taken are found in characters I have created, some derived from Durrell and some from my own suppositions. Those who are interested in these endeavours will easily find most answers in Mountolive. However, two of my creations come not from the Quartet. The narrator of three volumes of the Quartet is a seedy Irish academic named Darley. I have replaced him with Charles Robertson, an American who goes as the wind blows him and does what he can to survive. I have not granted him the role of narrator, though in all other respects he is a close semblance to Darley. Also a bit seedy, he is a wanderer who was easily seduced by Justine. For he is a willing subject of strong women. The actual narrator is unnamed, as was the narrator of Mountolive. And then borrowing narrative ploys from The Avignon Quintet, I have taken characters from their home volumes and placed them anew. I have also allowed them to become acquainted with their author. To do this, I have made Durrell himself a character in Nessim. My intent here is to posit a “what if this iconic work with its troubling characters were cast in a place and time that bears scant familiarity to Durrell’s”.
Hopefully what I have written will remind all of us, if such is needed, of the world shaking effect of the Quartet when it first appeared and shook the sixties out of its literary doldrums. It is not South Wind capturing us by exotica. It is Lord Jim, freeing characters from the readers’ everyday life the better to allow the writer to delve into essential humanity. .
In so doing, I have had the benefit of comments and commentaries and by talks with Durrell. I can but hope, not vainly perhaps, that Durrell would respond to what I have done with his masterpiece as he did when I talked with him about the narrative structure of Tunc and Nunquam. “Well, is that what you did?” To which he replied: “No. But I like it”.
NESSIM: a CODA
With bowed heads and still whispering prayers to St. Bishoy, the pilgrims left Wadi el Natrun. The sun was setting over the sacred oasis which housed the bodies of the Coptic saints and attendant monks as the nine pilgrims went back to Alexandria. That morning they had gathered in front of the Cecil, a hotel none of them could afford. Ten left on their pilgrimage. Only nine returned. The tenth, a slender man with dark hair and beard, wore his hat tilted over the left eye. Usually he wore an eye patch to cover the eye that looked on nothing. One more observant than the pilgrims would have noticed that his clothes, though worn, were not cheap and tattered as were theirs. His blue suit and black shoes, though old, were bespoke, as the careful hand stitching on the cap of the shoes and the lapels of the coat showed. In a better time, he had gone to Jermyn Street for his shoes and Savile Row for his suits after lunch at his club. For now, though, the world of London clubs and bespoke shoes and suits was past. Yet called from memory by labels bearing the century-old names of craftsmen, the smell of leather and the quiet bustle of clerks. Soon all this, too, would be lost, with his memories, lost in a room where for centuries monks had left their memories. In a time better than Nessim’s, on the other side of the Med, I had myself been housed in a monastery. I had gone to escape the tension of marriage and the cries of a child, to be with Greek monks in a silence marked only by the sound of monks farting in their cells, “love calls of old Byzantium”. Nessim’s stay had more urgency, more quiet. For only his mind sounded and echoed with the trials of the past, the nervous possibility of the future.
The small bus with the peeling camouflage paint had almost as bad a war as the passengers it picked up at seven that morning. The refugees in the remnants of clothes gathered from work camps and tenements stood silently with eyes averted from one another. They boarded the bus and sat separately not speaking, not looking out the windows as the bus travelled toward the Great Western Desert on the EI Alamein Road. El Alamein, an obscure rail road station dyed forever in our memory by the battle over 1500 miles and the thousands who died in it. Those on the bus were not to see the ruins of war machinery. They werenot to see the graves that later would be marked by memorials. An English garden, a bougainvillea draped fence, a sandstone and marble monolith. Their silence, as intense as that of the desert, retained as well the now inwardly resonant sounds of war. Gone but not forgotten as the cliché has it. It would never be forgotten, not in the desert and not in the ruined faces and bodies that endured and made survival a term best used in newsreels to be seen by people who had no experiences of such death and fear. Of course, present was the one exception who in manner only seemed not unlike his fellows. But he alone had had a better war, a worse peace.
For me the war was a respite, a respite from the threat of imprisonment but not from the threat of impecunity — to use a careful word. And to stand with these tattered refugees, to pretend to be one of them in front of the Cecil mocks all that I am, had been actually. And will never be again. I could not look at the entry to the hotel, not only because I might be recognised but because the flood of memory could bring the wash of tears. There I had gone with Balthazar, my friend who would betray me because blood and history are deeper than friendship. There he had introduced me to her, the exotic fauna in the shoes worn without hose under a skirt and tunic of cotton suited more to a merchant’s café on the Corniche than to this carpeted and mirrored lobby with its potted palms and white gloved attendants, deferential, glad to be of use. Though she smelled of patchouli and what a writer friend called “the ammoniac smell of the great queens”, though more fond of his words than that tear-making odour, she was what I needed — or what Balthazar told me I needed. She could assure the Jewish conspirators in Palestine that I was not merely a rich Copt playing at politics. After all, if I were to marry a divorced Jew, risk all, my social life, my family’s own safety, might I not risk even more to arm these same Jews in Palestine? They alone, young and vital, stood against the British imperialism of the past and the Muslim dominance of the future. We Copts would gamble all on an alliance with these Jews with their claim to rights as ancient as our own. We might as well have tried to break the bank at Monte Carlo as trust the Zionists to protect this now obscure Christian sect. We had indeed lost our past security and would, without doubt, lose even more. We would not, as I now knew, find a place in a Muslim Egypt or a Zionist Israel. As they had been victims, so would we be. Compassion seldom accompanies victory, and they had not only taken the land of the Palestinians, they had taken their homes as well. Keys to those lost houses would forever figure in the art of the wandering Palestinians.
With the plot revealed, the Jews in possession of the weapons, Memlik Pasha draining my blood and treasure, and the war upon us, I avoided those in the Cecil, those who had envied me, who would have relished spurning me. By then, the British had made the Cecil their base in Alexandria, Alex on the wrong side of the Med to those Hellenophiles, and that pompous ass Montgomery who had emptied the upstairs bar of alcohol and turned it into his war room. Daily he marched through the lobby in those baggy shorts with the swagger stick under his arm, entered the bird cage of the elevator and barked out: “The war room, if you please”. If you please indeed. Egypt had not done as it pleased since the British High Commissioner began to govern Egypt after the First World War. Probably even earlier, supplanting what should have been Egypt’s middle age with colonial subservience. Our history and culture had been subjugated to archaeological curiosities and mementos removed by rape and deposited in the museums of towns in England as well as stacked in the British Museum along with such stolen trophies as the Elgin marbles. The Brits took what they wanted, women, cultural artifacts, buildings, our self respect, the grandeur of our civilisation and left us as no more than plunder for petty and venal political predators, of whom the Interior Minister Memlik Pasha included me among his prey.
The drive from Alexandria to Wadi El Natrun should take less than two hours. In the wounded and worn creature that carried the pilgrims at least twice that. None talked to another. None read a newspaper, magazine, or book. The flotsam and jetsam of the war that washed up in Alexandria had silence and invisibility beaten into them. Peace did not bring a change, only at best the memory of dashed hopes. At least one had fought with the French Resistance on the Communist side and had watched as De Galle rode triumphantly into Paris, obliterating their hopes. Unlike some who stayed, and attended youth conferences that promised a new day, he drifted ever south and away from lost hopes and dreams. Not unique by any means, he was one of those who found in Communism a religion that fed his desire to be contemporary. The dream died not only because of Stalin’s purges but because France herself tossed away egalité and fraternité. The old families, some well established before the Revolution, said it cut the ties with the past as the blade cut the heads, still owned their factories and summer houses. Now, in a suit gathered from a hostel in Athens, while its owner slept off wine, he had no reason to contemplate a society in which the hungry would be fed, the talented would be rewarded, the good lovers would be mated, almost a just world. For him, bread itself had been the great equaliser. Though he could not but think: “God made man and bread separated them.” The smell of fresh bread from a Parisian bakery stayed in his nostrils, calling to mind the distance. Perhaps this old religion of his youth would be the solace of his last years. He could have whatever he could find as his due. I, myself, was fortunate to walk past a bakery in Provence that smelled of baguettes and to walk the streets that wound back from the Vidourle. Roman legionnaires had walked there as victors and I walked there, though as a recluse, not as one who had seen the enemy and been destroyed by him. War leaves few unmarked.
Few on that bus had even a piece of bread left from the morning breaking of the fast, though their enforced fast was longer than one night. It stretched back into those years of deprivation when, torn from their lives, they fled before the war. Few got away, none on the bus with its leather seats replaced by wicker, its 6 hp engine oozing oil, its bearings complaining, and certain to join the other dead machines of the war as a testimonial to the desire of our species to build a barrier between us and the certainty of death. Ironically, we do so by killing millions. But when the bus stopped in front of the monastery, these poor emptied out in little knots, holding their maps of the main church. Clucking like chickens released into the barnyard, unaware of the ever present axe.
I could have wished a memory other than of the farmyard to come again, bringing with it Karm Abu Girg. I had stood there in front of the rambling stuccoed house with its well and stables while the chickens gathered in little knots. They sought bits of grain on earth bare as long as my memory, yet it fed hopes wired into their being by the ages, the dream that they would only be here if their hopes were real. Those hopes fled when Narouz’s horse scattered the ever hopeful hens. He alighted and carried the broken body of our father from the gharry into the house. Though alive, he would never walk again and would grow in bitterness. A secular Copt and desert lord, Faltaus would still find belief outside the church as he had before, believing not in any god, believing only in his land, his wife, his sons. For he needed belief, something to hold to as he held onto the memory of the Coptic illustrious past: lords of the kingdom, keepers of the history of Egypt, and, for some, descendants of those who cared for the Holy Family. Even these memories of their Egypt trembled into a shadow as the British found nothing to be gained from an obscure Christian sect and left them to whatever life we might have in a Muslim world. We would find little and would become, in time, refugees from yet another pogrom. Faltauswould die before he would see this end, the chickens plucked, roasted, and served on a platter. My father betrayed and betrayer.
Nessim would, with passion spent, recall what that most bank clerkly of Englishmen wrote: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future”. Removed as he could be and was, Eliot could live so, even after the London Blitz, even after all the deaths, even of that Frenchman who died in the so called Great War. In a desert that lacked a Museum Pub and a comfortable room of his own, Nessim had instead this Coptic holy place that struggled against the ocean of sand and the rising force of Islam. For him, the present and the past were only empty hopes. Only the past was real. The brown and white chickens that scattered under the wheels of the enclosed carriage intended to bring back mother and wife to her family, back from her visit with the Harouns, the Jews who lived in that fortress with its terraces, out-buildings housing retainers and a family of husband, wife, sons but not the daughter Dusha who had fled to the other side of the Med to be a whore for the rich. Faltausand Narouz with Selim, the most faithful retainer, had come to escort Leila back to Abu Girg, her prison without bars. She was the Dark Swallow who had flown into the unknown arts of Europe, who had been the dark star not only of her Egypt but of all the places she rested and hoped to live. But her parents had tightened the nets, pulled her back to a life she loathed. In that closed world of Coptic Egypt, she had been given in marriage to the old man, taken from her life in the capitals of Europe, from a life that could have mattered, had been given in married servitude to live in a crumbling farm with her books in French, in English, her only intelligent companions. She had not even music. But she did have resentment of the son who could escape if only to Alexandria, though not only there. For he would be torn from Egypt by her dreams, the conflicted emotions of desire and hatred, which would spread out from her in a web that would destroy them all.
But now Nessim stood in the courtyard while his father was carried into the house. He had ridden the horse left for him at the ferry, not knowing Selim would soon take the ferry and the waiting car to Alexandria, returning with a doctor who would fail to make Faltauswhole or even relieve his pain or his anger. The dogs had started up a desert wolf, and in the heat of the chase, his horse had fallen. The horse rose and walked. Faltaus did neither then nor would ever do so again. And Leila would give him neither salve for his bodily pain nor ease for his broken manhood. Instead she would give him shame and obsession. This memory came as a moment in which hens fluttered, a moment of emotions and memories so different from what should have occurred in this place where Joseph and Mary rested with the infant benison of the world. Could ever again this uprooted man feel the peace that passes understanding, the peace that purpose brings?
“Do you need help, brother? Or are you just lost in thought in this holy place?” Turning to face the calloused hand that held his wrist, Nessim saw a man whose survival had been heavily paid for: emaciated, some teeth gone, and a scar across his face that recalled the whip. And his accented French recalled any of several places in the Balkans. Or so Nessim thought. Actually, he was French but had lived too hard and deep for years where French could bring reprisal or at least suspicion. “A moment’s epiphany, my friend, of my own less than holy family”, Nessim said without the wry smile of complicity that would have called forth a response. Nessim knew the man later would wonder but soon forget why he did not return on the bus with the rest of them. Any conversation could provide a clue, and he did not know this broken remnant of the war or who broke him and why. Alexandria since the time of the boy king had been a place of intrigue and deception, a way of life he now hoped to flee. He would forget even the child prostitutes who decorated the walls of their room with blue hand prints to protect them from the evil eye and malevolent spirits. They seemed unaware that the evil in the pants of men was what they had to fear, an evil that would cast them away before they grew hair on their bodies. Or grew teeth to replace the early ones that had fallen out or been knocked out. They would not live long enough to know the nature of an evil which Nessim had learned by their age and survived by feeding it. A quick ducking of his head gave Nessim shade to cover the unmasked eye. His questioner had noted the eye already, stored it away for use as he had stored away knowledge of hidden treasures of fellow internees to be traded for a bowl of soup or a day’s reprieve from the whip, thinking that all have a breaking point in a time and place with only survivors, not heroes. Always he would be a spy.
But now if he would be a spy, he would be one in the house of the Lord. For he and the other pilgrims moved through the open doors of the walls that enclosed the monastery. For the nine, the enclosure was novel as would be the church, though not the sounds of worship if they heard them: the muted sounds of hand held instruments, triangle and such, or the swirling incense, the small loafs of bread with the Coptic cross on feast days. The quiet awe that filled the main church came not only from the sacredness of the place itself but from the body of St. Bishoy undefiled after centuries of rest. They would touch their heads to the glass that held in state the body, touch with their heads the glass front of the shrine itself, touch it where the small slippered feet could be seen, and murmur their prayers. For those who were believers, and not all were, the experience would be transformative, and they would be forever changed, devout but not perhaps more decent or moral. But then does the soul’s enlightenment change the flesh and blood it inhabits? Such thoughts of flesh and belief were not of them as they walked in light filtered by dust motes centuries old it would seem.
For all but the man in the bespoke suit, none had been here before. Nor would they ever be here again. Their pilgrimage would end here. His had begun here a year ago. As his earthly treasures declined, his enforced need for them declined as well. Even before puberty, he had been bred to acquire what the world could give of its treasure and the pomp of circumstance that would attend them. Acquire them he did, the elegantly modern town house, the Silver Ghost with the daffodil hubcaps, the obeisance and envy of his fellows, the veiled hatred of his mother. And all would be so bitter to him that he was sure his flesh if dried and eaten as was mummia would be immediately disgorged not swallowed in joy, not tasting at all like Bombay duck as did mummia.
His worldly decline came as he was found to be a conspirator in the Coptic plot to arm the Irgun in Palestine, perchance to find a protected recluse in the world of Islam that would come with the departure of the British. After all, though their claim was ancient, the Jews now in Palestine had the fervour of a people seeing the Promised Land for the first time. Bred to believe, Nessim did not question the reality of his dream, just as the Jews did not question theirs. Memlik Pasha, Minister of Interior in the new Egypt, drained away his money, his Silver Ghost, the trappings of his house, and left only the house ringing with echoes to assure that he would have, for the time being, a gradual decline into a rather comfortable penury rather than prison and torture. The Minister even acquired his wife, the least treasured of Nessim’s worldly holdings, and would have her until she, too, could disappear, probably into a kibbutz where, if there were a God, she would grow more hag-like every day. And Nessim, finally rid of Justine, would try not to see her in his friend’s wife Eve, also Jewish and of Alexandria.
Three years ago, I sat in the Long Bar in Shepheard’s just to watch the English soldiers, some in their Desert Rat shorts and shirts, some in regimental dress, some mere governmental staff. All were gathered here where only men drank to deny with alcohol and each other their exile in Egypt and the fear that preceded the advance of Rommel’s tank corps, now not far from the railroad station of El Alamein. Still with both eyes and dressed to be comfortable in a London club or a British bar, I watched as she liberated the Long Bar. Though she could have gone to the American Bar and been served conventionally, Lee Miller chose to be the first woman to set foot in this room that smelled of cheap cologne and dried sweat, entered with assurance: “Alright, which of you chaps is going to buy me a drink.” Stunned, all except one stood carved in stone. The exception was a quite short man, handsome with his haired bleached to 9 karats and his suit a bit in need of attention: “My dear, if that’s all you require, every man in this room will buy you a drink. If your needs are more of the flesh, I recommend myself.” Undeterred by her assurance that she needed only a drink because she was well serviced by her husband, with a smile of dejection but not of despair, Larry called to the barman: “Joe, a Suffering Buzzard for our new friend.” He then left her to be entertained by a mustached major whose cheap cologne announced he was assuredly not recently on a tank in the desert. Turning to me with amusement, he surprised me by recalling my name. We had met only once, at a formal dinner at the British Embassy. I, the lone Copt in a room with fifty or so Brits and Egyptians, was there only because my mother, Leila, had once been the lover of Mountolive when he was a junior in the diplomatic corps. Not enough to get me close to the Ambassador, I found myself at a back table with a few of the slaveys of the Embassy. One of whom was a junior information officer named Lawrence Durrell.
We had sat in the room ablaze with light and looked out the open doors to where the soft green lawn sloped down to the Nile. Ambassador David Mountolive had been seen reclining on that lawn late at night wearing his white cotton pajamas and smoking a cigarette. We did not find either room or lawn relaxing and turned away from both to discuss a shared topic, London and its writers. That I had once or twice sat in the office of Eliot and that I was not Arab gave me purchase; for Eliot was his mentor, and he considered Egyptians “gorillas in nightgowns”. Later, when we met for coffee at Pastroudis, he gave me a copy of his novel, The Black Book, about London which as a part of England he disliked. I thought: “Good Lord, if this is how he treats places he dislikes, I hope he never writes about Alexandria.” I found the portrayal of bohemian life in London only slightly leavened by humour. But we shared a love of books, I because they took me away from life and he because they involved him in life, even life that turned even his indelicate stomach. But now we dabbled through the guinea fowl, the potatoes both roast and steamed, as is the British fashion, the crisp green salad, the pudding, at which Larry turned up his nose. He did enjoy, excessively, the wine and the brandy after, both rare and French. I drank some of all to be polite only. No more than by woman’s flesh did I delight in the other feasts of the flesh. Not much has changed, as I bow my head to new purpose and meaning.
We walked together with Pursewarden, his fellow writer and slavey, after the dinner, I towards my own glittering house, he to the tower he occupied with constantly changing and eddying women who provided what he called Alexandria’s provender of flesh. He had but sampled a meagre first course when his wife said “Enough”. She and their daughter left for Palestine, which would be her salvation and my damnation. Perhaps, life does serve us what we need. What Pursewarden seemed to want from life was easily found in Alexandria. In the small café where we stopped to talk, I had coffee, Larry brandy, and Pursewarden absinthe. Before we left, he and the Green Fairy were fairly wed.
The poetic moment, detached from the surly demands of narrative, leads rather than follows, assuming its centrality of what and who we are, not just beings whipped by a linear truth. Leading us to know time and space are but a stream to drift upon. All mystics, surrealists, and artists who dip their toes in eternity know this. I, too, go where the stream carries me, mostly, though at times I can dream a course for myself. And sit on the porch swing with my grandmother watching the clouds build up over the low hills of Appalachia. Other times, I can stand by a pillar in the conference room at the University of Alexandria talking with Edwar al-Kharrat after he has spoken about how little Lawrence Durrell understood Alexandria and its citizens. I tell him I knew Larry and had thought how he might have responded. As I grip Edwar’s left arm, Larry speaks in my left ear words that I mouth: “My dear friend, my beloved fellow writer, you are exactly right. I have not written about your Alexandria, but you have not spoken about mine” in his rather posh and plummy voice, not my flat American one. Or I could be in the Alexandria of 1943 but not among the Europeans and the wealthy Alexandrians. But with the young Edwar coping with desire and worshipful dumbness.
For now I am in the main church at the Monastery of St. Bishoy. The smell of incense lingers, almost overcoming the imprint of patchouli and women’s musk, but not completely. Her smell ties me to the past, to the secular life that was torn and drained from me from the early rape by Dusha, to the draining of my treasure as a sop to a safety I fear and do not expect. What did the poet say: “A man who is with wife and child has given hostage to fortune”? Perhaps when young I should have thrown my seeds into the belly of whores rather than my mind into books and causes doomed and imaginary.
I can hope, though in vain I am sure, that who I was will be of a forgotten past as much as the old bespoke clothes I exchange for those of a Coptic monk. Clothes that cost me more than ever I gave to a Savile Row tailor, the robe and hood, braided belt that I would shed and become once again a secular being with even less interest in God than I had in the desert with its infamies and degradations and defeats. They will burn quietly, though not with a gem-like flame, even in the depthless night. And I will guard them carefully imprisoned in memory lest they reveal selves best dead. Would that I could say of them as I do of that bitch whose teeth are forever gnawing at my amour propre: “But that was in another land and besides the bitch is dead”.