NESSIM: A CODA

Posted by

A SEQUEL TO THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET

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”.

Introduction

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”.

Chapter 2

All our paths led from and to the same place. Yet our paths were found not by choice but by what we need and want or what we can no longer live with. For the three of us, Alexandria was not a place but a time schemata, each of us overlapping the other but each of us caught in what marked us. And marked the place, of course, if a difference exists.

Though the wind had blown away the hoof prints and no sign of the boy or the horse could be seen, Felim knew where the horse had carried Nessim. The boy was simply fleeing the compound with no thought of where he wished to go since he only wanted to be away from the screams of his mother in laboUr. And being neither a natural horseman nor one on whom training made him a skilled one, he would go where the horse wished to go. And the horse Felim had saddled for himself shortly after dawn would go to water, as would any desert-bred being. The boy was desert-born but not desert-bred. Like his mother, he was of the town and belonged to books, cafes, clothes that smelled of cologne. What little he understood of the desert would never make him at ease with the smell of horse and rider, the illiterate musings of those who lived only in the desert, who ate meat cooked over an open fire and drank tepid and often murky water. He would be of the panelLed board room not the tent, the motor car not the horse, the song of a chanteuse in a quiet club not the scream of a woman giving birth after two days in laboUr while the midwife whimpered in the dark corner of the room and the bemused doctor watched the woman’s agony.

Away from Alex, in the Long Bar, Nessim was freed enough from time and place to talk of a minor secret, public enough traumas that he could tell to me, a friend, an impartial and, perhaps, a secretive friend. All chance of paternal empathy from Faltaus ended with the birth of Narouz: Freed from the expectations of time and place, Nessim’s mind wandered to other’s pain and his chagrin: “In a state of near terror, I ran past my father asleep in the room outside the room where my mother struggled, a room scattered with the remains of many meals, bits of bone and fat of lamb and crusts of flat bread, the room sickly with the sweet smell of hashish-infused tobacco. I ran past the servants and through the house toward the silence of the desert. The screams of my mother followed me through the house, and the sight of her lying on her back with her legs spread is still burned into my memory, vivid and visceral. My mother would hear later of her older son’s flight, for her a desertion she would never forgive. For me, an escape from violence I could not understand. I left the iron-strapped wooden door of the house open, unable in my panic to do more than flee. Still hearing the screams when I found Felim’s horse, I scrambled onto the saddle and kicked my heels into its ribs. The horse, startled, trotted out of the compound and after an hour went for water. There by the pump that provided water for irrigation, Felim found us, the exhausted boy and complacent horse. Two and a half hours later, he and the boy were back at Abu Girg. When he opened the door for me, Faltaus was wearing the same clothes he had worn for the past three days, loose trousers tucked into soft leather boots, loose tunic cinched with a wide soft leather belt. With his unkempt beard, he looked like any Arab of the desert, not like the wealthy Copt he was and which his older son would soon be in fact and in appearance. But now he was the towering father looking down at his son who wore the same clothes he had for three days, blue twill trousers, white shirt, braided leather sandals. They were crisp and clean when his mother put them on him and now were soiled and torn. “You have a brother. Go and change before you meet him and see your mother.”

This was the most father had spoken to me in a very long time, though once he had said more to this slender and finely featured son. That was when he still thought I might be desert-bred, would learn to love life with a horse and gun, would squat beside the men who worked for us and talk of land and horses smoking a cigarette and perhaps accepting a drink of arak from a pocketed flask. Soon Faltaus understood he had only supplied the sperm for his wife’s child. Leila would send me to the French boarding school in Alexandria, not to some Coptic school where priests would imbue me with the ethics and beliefs of their arcane religion which she regarded as little more than an obscure cult. In L’ Ecole Française, I would at least learn to read the books she loved, though the French priests and tutors would ignore Proust, willing only to be as current as Hugo. She would meet me there, and we would have meals and tea at the Cecil, the only hotel she would inhabit when visiting Alexandria. Its “international” clientele, which meant European, allowed her imagination to recreate her own youth, though the Cecil provided but a tawdry imitation. Yet still it recalled the terraces of Le Dome, La Coupole, the music of Le Bal Negre; for Paris was always her reality. She had lived for sometime in rooms overlooking Les Jardins du Luxembourg on the Left Bank and walked daily along the shaded paths, past the small lake where children sailed their boats, sat on the iron benches and watched women sweep by in dresses short enough to bring a blush to her. She was still the young woman of Coptic modesty and ignorance, though she did wear a dress, from time to time, that almost rose to her knees. That dress led to her being recalled to Egypt. But that is a story too ridiculous to tell”.

As he would say to Durrell later, “You have seen how she is with the Europeans, especially the British. She shares my father’s view of all of you, that you have sacrificed the Copts to the Moslems to create dissent, to weaken Egypt, make it easier to control. Though she appealed to the adventurers who drifted through here in search of wealth or escaping confinement, she was neither of them nor interested in them. Yet she did not reject their advances, but stored away their names and weaknesses for further use. Her smile with them, some would call Sphinx-like, suggested an understanding that granted her authority. I was long in learning why.”

I then understood why I found this attractive woman repellent. I was but a cipher to be totted up on her abacus. Though a lowly secretary of the British government, I might rise enough to be of use. But of what use then I could not imagine. I would find out and watch us, her sons, decline into one who was clearly mad and one who was lost in her dreams of exceptional life. But I was not to drift into my own ways, for Nessim continued:

“Still young enough to have a hairless body, I came to Abu Girg for the Easter holiday, away from French texts and the sight of women seen only in the rectangles in the black cloth that showed them to be more than corpses, eyes lined with kohl, eyes that lighted briefly on my not quite Western and not quite Egyptian face, on my short blue jacket and grey trousers mandated by my school. The sprawling souk drew me but did not accept me. No water carrier offered me water and no seller offered me the sticky sweet or the round cylinder of cane others bought. There I found life that, though I did not understand, smelled of humanity not of books and chalk and old French priests in musty black that concealed all but the occasional bulge in their trousers, a bulge I was soon to understand in my own pants.

“At the river crossing I left the car in which I had ridden and mounted the horse Felim had brought with him. And within two hours I stood in the courtyard watching my father lay his whip across the back of a servant who had stolen bread. Neither my father nor the servant made a sound, my father because the whip spoke for him, the servant because his mouth was tied shut on a piece of wood as the tears ran down his cheeks the blood ran down his back. My mother was in her rooms that for others would be a harem but for her was a bedroom, lounge, and study. There she had tea sent to her from Paris to drink with newspapers from London, Paris, Madrid, occasionally Berlin. And there when I entered a few days before Easter and a few days before my seventh birthday, I met her only friend Elizabete Rubin Haroun. She like my mother was in exile from all they considered civilised life. At her side was her twelve-year-old daughter Tinki, a child only in years, feral except for her appearance and her frail attempts to sip tea like a lady to be. Her eyes and her teeth that bared when she smiled told of the carnivore even more than did her eyes that regarded me with scorn. To escape the cultural vacancy of Abu Girg, I was to spend my holiday with these Jewish friends of my mother, who with a word dismissed and condemned me: “There you will see what life should be, fine china, maids to serve meals other than vast joints, You will see what a European school can mean, can do to make one civil, conversant, as is Tinki. Perhaps you too will go to a school in England, a public school with the sons of nobles and learn to be other than an imitation of life itself. You need not unpack. You go with Tinki and her mother and then back to the French priests. Perhaps, the Haroun boys will spend time with you, though they are older than you and also attending school in England. We will talk later when I come to Alexandria”. I did not know then that she was pimping me out to that little bitch Tinki.

“Though yet a novice of sex, Tinki had learned well on her knees and on her back with a family friend, who often came to dinner and stayed for days. The first time he came into her room after the house was asleep; she thought he had confused her room with his own. Then when he turned back her bedding and lifted her little girl’s pink night gown, she again thought he had mistaken her room—but for whose? When he spread her legs and entered her she would have cried out in pain if he had not held her mouth shut with his hand. The next time he came into her room, he did not keep her mouth closed. Six months later, when Nessim visited, all her orifices were familiar to him and soon, but not then, would be entries for her own pleasure. Soon the pains would be gone as this friend of her parents taught her at ten what he had learned in his forty years. Her mother and father, even her brothers, only saw the well dressed, affluent friend, not the man who preyed on the very young. But Leila was under no such delusion. She saw in the man’s eyes and manner when he looked at Tinki not lust but perversion. On seeing that, she knew she could trust Tinki to warp her own Nessim, turn him into a dissolute whom she could command before he left for the world from which she had been exiled; for surely this delicate, intelligent child needed what the desert knew not of, the life of cafes, books and music, the smell of good shops, the odour of paté and foie gras and the taste of grands crus wine. All this she could give him or hold back. She did not envision him becoming a secular monk. Nor did she envision that he would find a use for her own repressed life. “I came to the breakfast room in the morning wary of Tinki and avoiding the eyes of her parents and brothers: ‘This young Copt has yet to know the ways of those who know how life is lived on the right side of the Med. Let us hope he will enjoy, or at least not decline, the Seder’. Only then did I understand that I had been sent to this home because the family was Jewish as well as European, because my mother wanted me to know their ways. And those ways of Passover would forever colour my own Easter.

Seder, Passover? Are those part of your Easter celebration? At home, we always have roast lamb, lentils cooked with onions, and fruit from the orchard. Do you do the same?”

“Oh, no, my little Copt,” said Tinki. “We are Jewish and do not believe in the birth, death, and resurrection of your Saviour; for ours is yet to come. What we celebrate at this time of year is the Exodus of our people’s time of slavery in Egypt. We celebrate our freedom and our hopes for the land to be once again called Israel”.

“But you are still in Egypt and clearly not in slavery. Look at this house, your clothes, the way you live. Like the rich I see in Alexandria when I go with my mother to the Cecil for tea. You have not left Egypt”.

Nessim never forgot their laughter as they considered who should explain to him briefly and clearly the Jews’ time in Egypt, their slavery by the pharaohs, God’s deliverance of them, and their Exodus. He sat wide-eyed as they told him about Moses, of finding and losing their home, of the scattering of the Jews around the world, which they called the Diasporas. And of their struggle to reclaim the land granted them by God, Israel, which would be reclaimed, violently if need be, from the English, from the Muslims, from any and all who held as their own what belonged only to the Jews.

“I sat there among these Europeans, as I thought of them, blank faced and wide of eye, unblinking and probably open mouthed. Nothing had prepared me for this breakfast of fruit and yogurt, dark rich coffee with cream, and long slender loafs of bread called baguettes, all served by an older Arabic woman, but of the town. She wore a dress of linen with a neck line that showed the tops of her breasts, Western clothes, and her hair was styled in what Mrs. Haroun called a French twist. All was as strange to me as had been Tinki’s coming into my room last night. Naked with her breasts just budding and a light puff of reddish hair between her legs, she stood in the light from the moon coming through the window and lighting the room beside my bed. She took me every night for the ten days I was there. When she left the room, my pajamas were on the floor, my clean sheets were rumpled and stained though only with a small wet spot, for her orgasms did not yet gush as they probably did when she was a fully achieved whore. I can hear her lovers say, ‘AH, my dear wet spotter, you must sleep on the wet spot or get up and change the bed linen. Perhaps the latter, for the bed stinks of woman often used and often paid for’. I did not think at the time that she had been made into what she was by repeated acts of violence by men who lacked not only compassion and civility but even humanity. Such understanding, when it came, did not cause me to forgive her for raping me. Repeatedly.

“This evening is the first night of Passover, and we have the Seder, the dinner commemorating the Exodus. We will have songs and prayers and will explain to you why we eat what we will. Though a Gentile, you will be welcome to share this most Jewish of meals though you will be even more welcome if you are circumcised. But that we will not ask”.

Not with ease yet not in pain, Nessim said: “Tinki kept her head bowed over her breakfast, her curled lips said much to me. I spent much of the day with Ben and Saul, the sons home from England for Passover. They were decent chaps, to use their vernacular, who taught me a bit about cricket, though not about the purpose of the game or the meaning of a sticky wicket or a googly. They did not tell me much that I would learn on my own later: where to buy good clothes in London, how to behave in a London club. I would find acceptance in good clubs easier than they did. For the Brits even a Copt was more acceptable than a Jew. When I told them I doubted that I would ever walk English streets, that my mother would keep me tied to Abu Girg, they smiled and said: “She has already chosen your public school, a place called Chapterhouse. You’d better learn to keep your hand over your asshole when you take a shower. Those lads worship buggery, not the Lord God Almighty”. They laughed when I asked what they meant by buggery. The time I spent there passed in much the same way. Though Tinki continued her attacks, thankfully her brothers had no interest in buggery. My orifices remained, except for Tinki’s intrusions, untouched.

“Durrell, my friend, I hope my halting tale of childhood has not kept you. Though we sat down over gin with the afternoon heat shimmering on the sidewalks, now the evening … “.

“I know, the ‘Evening is laid out against the sky like a patient etheriSed upon a table.’ as my mentor and occasional editor wrote”.

“Eliot, ah yes. I spent an afternoon once in a quiet little Bloomsbury Flat while that most bank clerkly of Englishmen and his friend Ezra drifted through literature with one reading a translation from the Chinese and the other a draft of “Prufrock”. I never met either again, though I did once see Eliot leaving a café with his wife. He was a bit dishevelLed. She was quite a bit more disheveLled, weeping and clinging to his arm. That he was married took me by surprise, so quiet and distant a man. I never saw him or his wife again. And you, how did you find him?”

“We corresponded mostly, though often discussed my writings in his office when I could not avoid London. He advised me to be a writer of poetry or fiction. Not to try both for then two things are done badly. Belying his own view, he has continued to publish my poetry and would have published The Black Book if it had been publishable in England. I could not neuter it or even tame it enough to make publication possible. He did what could be done and wrote well of me and Miller, earning for himself the appellation on one who “does dirt” on literature. Pudding Island will not change unless the French take it by scruff and scrotum and give it a good shake, risking even the decorously raised luke warm eye brow. I can’t imagine the French would ever trouble themselves. So Miller, Lawrence, and I will continue to be banned and sold only in bookshops catering to readers of the obscene or published only by the French. We’ll be in the best of company though. Joyce, course”.

“I remember a phrase from The Black Book. A slavie said: “She was so fine, sor, that I could eat her shit”. No wonder the English blanched at the novel. But why would Eliot, who presumed, ineffectually, to be the diffident and proper English gentleman like your nasty little book?

“He saw it for what it is, the story of a religious nervous breakdown. There I finally struggled out of the carapace of all that I was to have been yet had no power to be anything else. I could only rage and hope someday to fly past the nets set to hold me in place..

“I do hope your poetry, not your novel, will be the source of anything you ever write about us, though I cannot imagine we could ever be matter enough for you so we are probably safe”. “Don’t be too sure. Well, I must to Alex and my job in the bowels of the Mission. Thankfully, a dedicated civil servant, more servile than civil, is there to clean my press releases and communiqués or I would soon be teaching those gorillas in nightshirts the basics of English. No, no. Good Herbert will save me from that so that I can translate The Book of The Dead into modern Egypt. You may well yourself be fit to start a scene or two. Don’t worry, though, I won’t strap a codpiece or a set of antlers on you and set you off down the Cornice in that lovely Rolls with its daffodil hubcaps. I’ll leave you in that panelled office with the faithful Affad hovering over you and protecting your privacy and reputation. What would the Ambassador say if he knew you put a spot of rum in your afternoon tea? You could, of course, excuse the excess by borrowing a phrase from my own doctor, the eminent Michel Andorra: “Sometimes one must find a way to struggle against ‘The recurrent anxiety of temporal alignment’”. But then the scent of sandal wood, backed by patchouli, struck me so forcibly that while still half risen from my chair that I followed the scent to its source—an English correspondent named Keats. What in God’s name had brought him to Cairo? Alex is just as corrupt, just as full of lies and whores, though he seems interested only in their clients not their wares. News is where one finds it. Without doubt he will mention my typing failure, leaving out the letter l when releasing a note about the French diplomat Pombal who was fined for kissing a woman in public. What I intended as a mild jest became a bit more. Pombal may soon forgive me. But Keats in Cairo, the inescapable and ineffable in a suit better suited for a tout. And with him another civilian, though one of a different cut.”

“Durrell. You in Cairo of all places. With the ambassador due in a week, I expected your time to be spent over a press release not a g and t . That is it isn’t it. I’m just in from Palestine with my friend who is stationed there. Larry, this is Mike Silver. Mike this is Larry Durrell, soon to be but not yet a famous writer. And this is our friend from Alex, Nessim Hosnani. May we join you, or are you about to leave? In which case, may we have your table? Jeeps full of Montgomery’s lads will fill this room that is not home but not the desert either.”

“We’re soon to leave, but do sit. The Mission is abuzz with rumours about Jewish guerrilla bands in Palestine. In your usual snooping under bed clothes, have you anything I can carry back to Alex?”

“Mike is the man to ask, being both Jewish and one of Montgomery’s own. I found nothing but sand and gin when I was there, though I did see Nancy briefly”. Mentioning Larry’s recently departed wife brought a strained silence to the table, not the quotable wry remark or restrained snarl Keats lived to collect in hopes it might prove news worthy. But it did elicit a cough behind his hand from Mike”.

“Oh, and how is my wife doing? I seldom hear from her”.

“Doing well. Working for the Brits, as you know. As in a way, I guess we all are. But getting back to the Jews. It’s not just the Irgun, you know, though they seem to have ties with all the groups. Dangerous lot, I think. But again, Mike is the man to ask. What’s the gen, old man”.

“I know little about what they do or are, just that they dislike the Palestinians and the Brits. And don’t like anyone with ties of any kind to either. Nothing ended a conversation at a café in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem like mentioning the possibility of an uprising. Being a Jew gave me no bona fides. Only those who have dipped their hands in the blood of the lamb have any purchase, even if they might be useful to the cause of bringing Israel into being. Anyone else, even if useful, might as well be dead. And will be if they are even nuisances. But in the shifting of power in the Levant they are a constant and here to stay. Make no mistake about that”.

“An old India Army general named Maskelyne says much the same. We inherited “the Brig,” as his factotum calls him but not to his face, from the High Commission. He’s compiled dossiers on half of Alex and distrusts the other half, upsetting to our presence in the new order. Most see him as quite out of touch with the present, lost in a turbulent past and an uncertain future. I’ve been compiling my own dossier on the fellow. Nasty bit of work, and he doesn’t like me at all. I’m not quite right you know, too friendly with the locals. Like our friend Nessim here. Have you ever chanced to find him hiding in your W.C., Nessim? We will leave to you the table and the lads in short pants. We’ll stretch our legs before returning to Alex after the sun has dropped. Be careful about who you talk with Keats. Unsubstantiated rumours abound. Enjoy your time out of Palestine, Mike, that is if you are here to enjoy yourself”.

Our walk from Shepheard’s had only the aim of getting away from the tide of khaki moving away from us. So we found ourselves seated on the terrace of a small, and undistinguished, café drinking Turkish coffee with some of those crispy pasties flavoured with cinnamon and sugar. We talked about nothing really, just the few spots in London I remembered without distaste and the ones whose names Nessim bore on the inside pocket of his jacket. I interrupted this drowsy distraction with a startled whisper: “Don’t look, just take my word for it. There’s a pair of American shoes two tables behind you. What the hell is an American doing here, especially one who is too badly dressed to be rich and too intelligent, I think, to be a diplomat. He’s utterly lost in whatever he’s writing. I’m sure he‘ll respond to my most British and plummy voice. I say there, young American. Would you care to join us for a coffee?”

The young man who came to our table was thin, in need of all care, and wearing the distracted air of someone who really didn’t give a damn. But he came, sat down, accepted the coffee, turned down the offer of a pastis. “I’m Charles Robertson. And you’re right. I am American, and as you obviously think I am deservedly down on my luck. I hope the cut of your clothes indicates that you are deservedly fortunate, if such is possible”.

“I am an unworthy member of the British government, but my friend here is an Egyptian on whom God has bestowed wealth”.

“You mean Allah, don’t you?”

“Oh no. My friend is a Copt, Nessim Hosnani. I am Lawrence Durrell”.

With a smile of feigned innocence, the young American said: “ I know of my friend Miller and the beauteous Anais. I was in Paris as a copy editor for an American news service. I stayed after the Villa Seurat gang moved south to Greece or west to America, too long actually to get back to the States. Someday I’ll write about the way out, which had much in common with the way in, by chance, and by hook and by crook. As my grandmother would say before saying she hoped I would avoid being hanged”.

With a practiced sigh, Durrell said: “So you are a writer, a member of the most impoverished aristocracy that ever lived. Lost in this desolate world of gorillas in night shirts and soldiers in battle gear in this empire of sand with only memories of its past, no middle life and no present. Nothing to accept, much less sustain a life other than one of greed, avarice, and, fortunately, a sexuality of astonishing variety. Sorry, Nessim”.

“A writer? Not yet, but I write. Just now, I’m trying to understand a scene from my childhood. I was young, a child of the American mountain range called Appalachia. A place of violence, clannish and inbred with men and women lost in loyalties so visceral, so at odds with the very human desire to live that a violent rejection of loves or of another is impossible. But I drift. Walking in the hills I came upon the dead body of a raccoon, so long dead that maggots crawled in it. Curled up against it was a young raccoon, called a kit. You’ve probably never seen one, an attractive member of the rodent family. This one has thumbs. The kit, like its mother, was covered with maggots and unable to move. I stained a stick in animal pail shocked to realise I knew no one for whom such natural bonds exist. Even though the kit was destroyed, its only hope was the family. A simple way our species either never had or cannot achieve again. I fail to write more about this mountain moment. Perhaps I can if I get close enough to life itself to understand why a world that exists to sustain life should give life to a species that seems to exist to destroy itself if necessary by destroying all that sustains it. I have written an inkling of a simple life, a simple path perhaps, though one that is fragile, tenuous, so much so to continue”. “You think too deeply for comfort, young friend. Let’s hear what you have.” And the young would-be writer without even a clearing of his throat, read a long remembered poem:

Not even the 3 day closing of the mines

cleared the creek

which would run black from the collieries’

spillage

for a week after a strike began

and certainly couldn’t be cleared

by Easter

and not even my grandmother’s good blue dress

changed her farm woman’s body

bent and off center

and her gnarled hands shaped her white gloves

touched the road we walked for 2 miles

up and across the hill

past the cemetery, the movie house, The Methodist church

to the red brick and white pillars of her church

and not even my new suit and shoes

touched the soul of me that wanted

the hills with their spring blooming of dogwood and violet

that wanted to stay as straight as my trouser’s crease

as white as my shirt, as spotless as my shoes

not even the organ and the choir leading us to sing

‘up from the grave he arose

With a mighty triumph o’er his foes’

Brought me to dedicate my life to the pale Jew

The avatar whose domain was falling

To roads and politicians and snot nosed kids

Who knew too much.

“If you have no reason to stay here, let’s pick up your kit and go to Alex. l can use someone who can think and write at the Mission. Oh, and can you type?”

NESSIM: A CODA

A SEQUEL TO THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET

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”.

Introduction

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”.

Chapter 2

All our paths led from and to the same place. Yet our paths were found not by choice but by what we need and want or what we can no longer live with. For the three of us, Alexandria was not a place but a time schemata, each of us overlapping the other but each of us caught in what marked us. And marked the place, of course, if a difference exists.

Though the wind had blown away the hoof prints and no sign of the boy or the horse could be seen, Felim knew where the horse had carried Nessim. The boy was simply fleeing the compound with no thought of where he wished to go since he only wanted to be away from the screams of his mother in laboUr. And being neither a natural horseman nor one on whom training made him a skilled one, he would go where the horse wished to go. And the horse Felim had saddled for himself shortly after dawn would go to water, as would any desert-bred being. The boy was desert-born but not desert-bred. Like his mother, he was of the town and belonged to books, cafes, clothes that smelled of cologne. What little he understood of the desert would never make him at ease with the smell of horse and rider, the illiterate musings of those who lived only in the desert, who ate meat cooked over an open fire and drank tepid and often murky water. He would be of the panelLed board room not the tent, the motor car not the horse, the song of a chanteuse in a quiet club not the scream of a woman giving birth after two days in laboUr while the midwife whimpered in the dark corner of the room and the bemused doctor watched the woman’s agony.

Away from Alex, in the Long Bar, Nessim was freed enough from time and place to talk of a minor secret, public enough traumas that he could tell to me, a friend, an impartial and, perhaps, a secretive friend. All chance of paternal empathy from Faltaus ended with the birth of Narouz: Freed from the expectations of time and place, Nessim’s mind wandered to other’s pain and his chagrin: “In a state of near terror, I ran past my father asleep in the room outside the room where my mother struggled, a room scattered with the remains of many meals, bits of bone and fat of lamb and crusts of flat bread, the room sickly with the sweet smell of hashish-infused tobacco. I ran past the servants and through the house toward the silence of the desert. The screams of my mother followed me through the house, and the sight of her lying on her back with her legs spread is still burned into my memory, vivid and visceral. My mother would hear later of her older son’s flight, for her a desertion she would never forgive. For me, an escape from violence I could not understand. I left the iron-strapped wooden door of the house open, unable in my panic to do more than flee. Still hearing the screams when I found Felim’s horse, I scrambled onto the saddle and kicked my heels into its ribs. The horse, startled, trotted out of the compound and after an hour went for water. There by the pump that provided water for irrigation, Felim found us, the exhausted boy and complacent horse. Two and a half hours later, he and the boy were back at Abu Girg. When he opened the door for me, Faltaus was wearing the same clothes he had worn for the past three days, loose trousers tucked into soft leather boots, loose tunic cinched with a wide soft leather belt. With his unkempt beard, he looked like any Arab of the desert, not like the wealthy Copt he was and which his older son would soon be in fact and in appearance. But now he was the towering father looking down at his son who wore the same clothes he had for three days, blue twill trousers, white shirt, braided leather sandals. They were crisp and clean when his mother put them on him and now were soiled and torn. “You have a brother. Go and change before you meet him and see your mother.”

This was the most father had spoken to me in a very long time, though once he had said more to this slender and finely featured son. That was when he still thought I might be desert-bred, would learn to love life with a horse and gun, would squat beside the men who worked for us and talk of land and horses smoking a cigarette and perhaps accepting a drink of arak from a pocketed flask. Soon Faltaus understood he had only supplied the sperm for his wife’s child. Leila would send me to the French boarding school in Alexandria, not to some Coptic school where priests would imbue me with the ethics and beliefs of their arcane religion which she regarded as little more than an obscure cult. In L’ Ecole Française, I would at least learn to read the books she loved, though the French priests and tutors would ignore Proust, willing only to be as current as Hugo. She would meet me there, and we would have meals and tea at the Cecil, the only hotel she would inhabit when visiting Alexandria. Its “international” clientele, which meant European, allowed her imagination to recreate her own youth, though the Cecil provided but a tawdry imitation. Yet still it recalled the terraces of Le Dome, La Coupole, the music of Le Bal Negre; for Paris was always her reality. She had lived for sometime in rooms overlooking Les Jardins du Luxembourg on the Left Bank and walked daily along the shaded paths, past the small lake where children sailed their boats, sat on the iron benches and watched women sweep by in dresses short enough to bring a blush to her. She was still the young woman of Coptic modesty and ignorance, though she did wear a dress, from time to time, that almost rose to her knees. That dress led to her being recalled to Egypt. But that is a story too ridiculous to tell”.

As he would say to Durrell later, “You have seen how she is with the Europeans, especially the British. She shares my father’s view of all of you, that you have sacrificed the Copts to the Moslems to create dissent, to weaken Egypt, make it easier to control. Though she appealed to the adventurers who drifted through here in search of wealth or escaping confinement, she was neither of them nor interested in them. Yet she did not reject their advances, but stored away their names and weaknesses for further use. Her smile with them, some would call Sphinx-like, suggested an understanding that granted her authority. I was long in learning why.”

I then understood why I found this attractive woman repellent. I was but a cipher to be totted up on her abacus. Though a lowly secretary of the British government, I might rise enough to be of use. But of what use then I could not imagine. I would find out and watch us, her sons, decline into one who was clearly mad and one who was lost in her dreams of exceptional life. But I was not to drift into my own ways, for Nessim continued:

“Still young enough to have a hairless body, I came to Abu Girg for the Easter holiday, away from French texts and the sight of women seen only in the rectangles in the black cloth that showed them to be more than corpses, eyes lined with kohl, eyes that lighted briefly on my not quite Western and not quite Egyptian face, on my short blue jacket and grey trousers mandated by my school. The sprawling souk drew me but did not accept me. No water carrier offered me water and no seller offered me the sticky sweet or the round cylinder of cane others bought. There I found life that, though I did not understand, smelled of humanity not of books and chalk and old French priests in musty black that concealed all but the occasional bulge in their trousers, a bulge I was soon to understand in my own pants.

“At the river crossing I left the car in which I had ridden and mounted the horse Felim had brought with him. And within two hours I stood in the courtyard watching my father lay his whip across the back of a servant who had stolen bread. Neither my father nor the servant made a sound, my father because the whip spoke for him, the servant because his mouth was tied shut on a piece of wood as the tears ran down his cheeks the blood ran down his back. My mother was in her rooms that for others would be a harem but for her was a bedroom, lounge, and study. There she had tea sent to her from Paris to drink with newspapers from London, Paris, Madrid, occasionally Berlin. And there when I entered a few days before Easter and a few days before my seventh birthday, I met her only friend Elizabete Rubin Haroun. She like my mother was in exile from all they considered civilised life. At her side was her twelve-year-old daughter Tinki, a child only in years, feral except for her appearance and her frail attempts to sip tea like a lady to be. Her eyes and her teeth that bared when she smiled told of the carnivore even more than did her eyes that regarded me with scorn. To escape the cultural vacancy of Abu Girg, I was to spend my holiday with these Jewish friends of my mother, who with a word dismissed and condemned me: “There you will see what life should be, fine china, maids to serve meals other than vast joints, You will see what a European school can mean, can do to make one civil, conversant, as is Tinki. Perhaps you too will go to a school in England, a public school with the sons of nobles and learn to be other than an imitation of life itself. You need not unpack. You go with Tinki and her mother and then back to the French priests. Perhaps, the Haroun boys will spend time with you, though they are older than you and also attending school in England. We will talk later when I come to Alexandria”. I did not know then that she was pimping me out to that little bitch Tinki.

“Though yet a novice of sex, Tinki had learned well on her knees and on her back with a family friend, who often came to dinner and stayed for days. The first time he came into her room after the house was asleep; she thought he had confused her room with his own. Then when he turned back her bedding and lifted her little girl’s pink night gown, she again thought he had mistaken her room—but for whose? When he spread her legs and entered her she would have cried out in pain if he had not held her mouth shut with his hand. The next time he came into her room, he did not keep her mouth closed. Six months later, when Nessim visited, all her orifices were familiar to him and soon, but not then, would be entries for her own pleasure. Soon the pains would be gone as this friend of her parents taught her at ten what he had learned in his forty years. Her mother and father, even her brothers, only saw the well dressed, affluent friend, not the man who preyed on the very young. But Leila was under no such delusion. She saw in the man’s eyes and manner when he looked at Tinki not lust but perversion. On seeing that, she knew she could trust Tinki to warp her own Nessim, turn him into a dissolute whom she could command before he left for the world from which she had been exiled; for surely this delicate, intelligent child needed what the desert knew not of, the life of cafes, books and music, the smell of good shops, the odour of paté and foie gras and the taste of grands crus wine. All this she could give him or hold back. She did not envision him becoming a secular monk. Nor did she envision that he would find a use for her own repressed life. “I came to the breakfast room in the morning wary of Tinki and avoiding the eyes of her parents and brothers: ‘This young Copt has yet to know the ways of those who know how life is lived on the right side of the Med. Let us hope he will enjoy, or at least not decline, the Seder’. Only then did I understand that I had been sent to this home because the family was Jewish as well as European, because my mother wanted me to know their ways. And those ways of Passover would forever colour my own Easter.

Seder, Passover? Are those part of your Easter celebration? At home, we always have roast lamb, lentils cooked with onions, and fruit from the orchard. Do you do the same?”

“Oh, no, my little Copt,” said Tinki. “We are Jewish and do not believe in the birth, death, and resurrection of your Saviour; for ours is yet to come. What we celebrate at this time of year is the Exodus of our people’s time of slavery in Egypt. We celebrate our freedom and our hopes for the land to be once again called Israel”.

“But you are still in Egypt and clearly not in slavery. Look at this house, your clothes, the way you live. Like the rich I see in Alexandria when I go with my mother to the Cecil for tea. You have not left Egypt”.

Nessim never forgot their laughter as they considered who should explain to him briefly and clearly the Jews’ time in Egypt, their slavery by the pharaohs, God’s deliverance of them, and their Exodus. He sat wide-eyed as they told him about Moses, of finding and losing their home, of the scattering of the Jews around the world, which they called the Diasporas. And of their struggle to reclaim the land granted them by God, Israel, which would be reclaimed, violently if need be, from the English, from the Muslims, from any and all who held as their own what belonged only to the Jews.

“I sat there among these Europeans, as I thought of them, blank faced and wide of eye, unblinking and probably open mouthed. Nothing had prepared me for this breakfast of fruit and yogurt, dark rich coffee with cream, and long slender loafs of bread called baguettes, all served by an older Arabic woman, but of the town. She wore a dress of linen with a neck line that showed the tops of her breasts, Western clothes, and her hair was styled in what Mrs. Haroun called a French twist. All was as strange to me as had been Tinki’s coming into my room last night. Naked with her breasts just budding and a light puff of reddish hair between her legs, she stood in the light from the moon coming through the window and lighting the room beside my bed. She took me every night for the ten days I was there. When she left the room, my pajamas were on the floor, my clean sheets were rumpled and stained though only with a small wet spot, for her orgasms did not yet gush as they probably did when she was a fully achieved whore. I can hear her lovers say, ‘AH, my dear wet spotter, you must sleep on the wet spot or get up and change the bed linen. Perhaps the latter, for the bed stinks of woman often used and often paid for’. I did not think at the time that she had been made into what she was by repeated acts of violence by men who lacked not only compassion and civility but even humanity. Such understanding, when it came, did not cause me to forgive her for raping me. Repeatedly.

“This evening is the first night of Passover, and we have the Seder, the dinner commemorating the Exodus. We will have songs and prayers and will explain to you why we eat what we will. Though a Gentile, you will be welcome to share this most Jewish of meals though you will be even more welcome if you are circumcised. But that we will not ask”.

Not with ease yet not in pain, Nessim said: “Tinki kept her head bowed over her breakfast, her curled lips said much to me. I spent much of the day with Ben and Saul, the sons home from England for Passover. They were decent chaps, to use their vernacular, who taught me a bit about cricket, though not about the purpose of the game or the meaning of a sticky wicket or a googly. They did not tell me much that I would learn on my own later: where to buy good clothes in London, how to behave in a London club. I would find acceptance in good clubs easier than they did. For the Brits even a Copt was more acceptable than a Jew. When I told them I doubted that I would ever walk English streets, that my mother would keep me tied to Abu Girg, they smiled and said: “She has already chosen your public school, a place called Chapterhouse. You’d better learn to keep your hand over your asshole when you take a shower. Those lads worship buggery, not the Lord God Almighty”. They laughed when I asked what they meant by buggery. The time I spent there passed in much the same way. Though Tinki continued her attacks, thankfully her brothers had no interest in buggery. My orifices remained, except for Tinki’s intrusions, untouched.

“Durrell, my friend, I hope my halting tale of childhood has not kept you. Though we sat down over gin with the afternoon heat shimmering on the sidewalks, now the evening … “.

“I know, the ‘Evening is laid out against the sky like a patient etheriSed upon a table.’ as my mentor and occasional editor wrote”.

“Eliot, ah yes. I spent an afternoon once in a quiet little Bloomsbury Flat while that most bank clerkly of Englishmen and his friend Ezra drifted through literature with one reading a translation from the Chinese and the other a draft of “Prufrock”. I never met either again, though I did once see Eliot leaving a café with his wife. He was a bit dishevelLed. She was quite a bit more disheveLled, weeping and clinging to his arm. That he was married took me by surprise, so quiet and distant a man. I never saw him or his wife again. And you, how did you find him?”

“We corresponded mostly, though often discussed my writings in his office when I could not avoid London. He advised me to be a writer of poetry or fiction. Not to try both for then two things are done badly. Belying his own view, he has continued to publish my poetry and would have published The Black Book if it had been publishable in England. I could not neuter it or even tame it enough to make publication possible. He did what could be done and wrote well of me and Miller, earning for himself the appellation on one who “does dirt” on literature. Pudding Island will not change unless the French take it by scruff and scrotum and give it a good shake, risking even the decorously raised luke warm eye brow. I can’t imagine the French would ever trouble themselves. So Miller, Lawrence, and I will continue to be banned and sold only in bookshops catering to readers of the obscene or published only by the French. We’ll be in the best of company though. Joyce, course”.

“I remember a phrase from The Black Book. A slavie said: “She was so fine, sor, that I could eat her shit”. No wonder the English blanched at the novel. But why would Eliot, who presumed, ineffectually, to be the diffident and proper English gentleman like your nasty little book?

“He saw it for what it is, the story of a religious nervous breakdown. There I finally struggled out of the carapace of all that I was to have been yet had no power to be anything else. I could only rage and hope someday to fly past the nets set to hold me in place..

“I do hope your poetry, not your novel, will be the source of anything you ever write about us, though I cannot imagine we could ever be matter enough for you so we are probably safe”. “Don’t be too sure. Well, I must to Alex and my job in the bowels of the Mission. Thankfully, a dedicated civil servant, more servile than civil, is there to clean my press releases and communiqués or I would soon be teaching those gorillas in nightshirts the basics of English. No, no. Good Herbert will save me from that so that I can translate The Book of The Dead into modern Egypt. You may well yourself be fit to start a scene or two. Don’t worry, though, I won’t strap a codpiece or a set of antlers on you and set you off down the Cornice in that lovely Rolls with its daffodil hubcaps. I’ll leave you in that panelled office with the faithful Affad hovering over you and protecting your privacy and reputation. What would the Ambassador say if he knew you put a spot of rum in your afternoon tea? You could, of course, excuse the excess by borrowing a phrase from my own doctor, the eminent Michel Andorra: “Sometimes one must find a way to struggle against ‘The recurrent anxiety of temporal alignment’”. But then the scent of sandal wood, backed by patchouli, struck me so forcibly that while still half risen from my chair that I followed the scent to its source—an English correspondent named Keats. What in God’s name had brought him to Cairo? Alex is just as corrupt, just as full of lies and whores, though he seems interested only in their clients not their wares. News is where one finds it. Without doubt he will mention my typing failure, leaving out the letter l when releasing a note about the French diplomat Pombal who was fined for kissing a woman in public. What I intended as a mild jest became a bit more. Pombal may soon forgive me. But Keats in Cairo, the inescapable and ineffable in a suit better suited for a tout. And with him another civilian, though one of a different cut.”

“Durrell. You in Cairo of all places. With the ambassador due in a week, I expected your time to be spent over a press release not a g and t . That is it isn’t it. I’m just in from Palestine with my friend who is stationed there. Larry, this is Mike Silver. Mike this is Larry Durrell, soon to be but not yet a famous writer. And this is our friend from Alex, Nessim Hosnani. May we join you, or are you about to leave? In which case, may we have your table? Jeeps full of Montgomery’s lads will fill this room that is not home but not the desert either.”

“We’re soon to leave, but do sit. The Mission is abuzz with rumours about Jewish guerrilla bands in Palestine. In your usual snooping under bed clothes, have you anything I can carry back to Alex?”

“Mike is the man to ask, being both Jewish and one of Montgomery’s own. I found nothing but sand and gin when I was there, though I did see Nancy briefly”. Mentioning Larry’s recently departed wife brought a strained silence to the table, not the quotable wry remark or restrained snarl Keats lived to collect in hopes it might prove news worthy. But it did elicit a cough behind his hand from Mike”.

“Oh, and how is my wife doing? I seldom hear from her”.

“Doing well. Working for the Brits, as you know. As in a way, I guess we all are. But getting back to the Jews. It’s not just the Irgun, you know, though they seem to have ties with all the groups. Dangerous lot, I think. But again, Mike is the man to ask. What’s the gen, old man”.

“I know little about what they do or are, just that they dislike the Palestinians and the Brits. And don’t like anyone with ties of any kind to either. Nothing ended a conversation at a café in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem like mentioning the possibility of an uprising. Being a Jew gave me no bona fides. Only those who have dipped their hands in the blood of the lamb have any purchase, even if they might be useful to the cause of bringing Israel into being. Anyone else, even if useful, might as well be dead. And will be if they are even nuisances. But in the shifting of power in the Levant they are a constant and here to stay. Make no mistake about that”.

“An old India Army general named Maskelyne says much the same. We inherited “the Brig,” as his factotum calls him but not to his face, from the High Commission. He’s compiled dossiers on half of Alex and distrusts the other half, upsetting to our presence in the new order. Most see him as quite out of touch with the present, lost in a turbulent past and an uncertain future. I’ve been compiling my own dossier on the fellow. Nasty bit of work, and he doesn’t like me at all. I’m not quite right you know, too friendly with the locals. Like our friend Nessim here. Have you ever chanced to find him hiding in your W.C., Nessim? We will leave to you the table and the lads in short pants. We’ll stretch our legs before returning to Alex after the sun has dropped. Be careful about who you talk with Keats. Unsubstantiated rumours abound. Enjoy your time out of Palestine, Mike, that is if you are here to enjoy yourself”.

Our walk from Shepheard’s had only the aim of getting away from the tide of khaki moving away from us. So we found ourselves seated on the terrace of a small, and undistinguished, café drinking Turkish coffee with some of those crispy pasties flavoured with cinnamon and sugar. We talked about nothing really, just the few spots in London I remembered without distaste and the ones whose names Nessim bore on the inside pocket of his jacket. I interrupted this drowsy distraction with a startled whisper: “Don’t look, just take my word for it. There’s a pair of American shoes two tables behind you. What the hell is an American doing here, especially one who is too badly dressed to be rich and too intelligent, I think, to be a diplomat. He’s utterly lost in whatever he’s writing. I’m sure he‘ll respond to my most British and plummy voice. I say there, young American. Would you care to join us for a coffee?”

The young man who came to our table was thin, in need of all care, and wearing the distracted air of someone who really didn’t give a damn. But he came, sat down, accepted the coffee, turned down the offer of a pastis. “I’m Charles Robertson. And you’re right. I am American, and as you obviously think I am deservedly down on my luck. I hope the cut of your clothes indicates that you are deservedly fortunate, if such is possible”.

“I am an unworthy member of the British government, but my friend here is an Egyptian on whom God has bestowed wealth”.

“You mean Allah, don’t you?”

“Oh no. My friend is a Copt, Nessim Hosnani. I am Lawrence Durrell”.

With a smile of feigned innocence, the young American said: “ I know of my friend Miller and the beauteous Anais. I was in Paris as a copy editor for an American news service. I stayed after the Villa Seurat gang moved south to Greece or west to America, too long actually to get back to the States. Someday I’ll write about the way out, which had much in common with the way in, by chance, and by hook and by crook. As my grandmother would say before saying she hoped I would avoid being hanged”.

With a practiced sigh, Durrell said: “So you are a writer, a member of the most impoverished aristocracy that ever lived. Lost in this desolate world of gorillas in night shirts and soldiers in battle gear in this empire of sand with only memories of its past, no middle life and no present. Nothing to accept, much less sustain a life other than one of greed, avarice, and, fortunately, a sexuality of astonishing variety. Sorry, Nessim”.

“A writer? Not yet, but I write. Just now, I’m trying to understand a scene from my childhood. I was young, a child of the American mountain range called Appalachia. A place of violence, clannish and inbred with men and women lost in loyalties so visceral, so at odds with the very human desire to live that a violent rejection of loves or of another is impossible. But I drift. Walking in the hills I came upon the dead body of a raccoon, so long dead that maggots crawled in it. Curled up against it was a young raccoon, called a kit. You’ve probably never seen one, an attractive member of the rodent family. This one has thumbs. The kit, like its mother, was covered with maggots and unable to move. I stained a stick in animal pail shocked to realise I knew no one for whom such natural bonds exist. Even though the kit was destroyed, its only hope was the family. A simple way our species either never had or cannot achieve again. I fail to write more about this mountain moment. Perhaps I can if I get close enough to life itself to understand why a world that exists to sustain life should give life to a species that seems to exist to destroy itself if necessary by destroying all that sustains it. I have written an inkling of a simple life, a simple path perhaps, though one that is fragile, tenuous, so much so to continue”. “You think too deeply for comfort, young friend. Let’s hear what you have.” And the young would-be writer without even a clearing of his throat, read a long remembered poem:

Not even the 3 day closing of the mines

cleared the creek

which would run black from the collieries’

spillage

for a week after a strike began

and certainly couldn’t be cleared

by Easter

and not even my grandmother’s good blue dress

changed her farm woman’s body

bent and off center

and her gnarled hands shaped her white gloves

touched the road we walked for 2 miles

up and across the hill

past the cemetery, the movie house, The Methodist church

to the red brick and white pillars of her church

and not even my new suit and shoes

touched the soul of me that wanted

the hills with their spring blooming of dogwood and violet

that wanted to stay as straight as my trouser’s crease

as white as my shirt, as spotless as my shoes

not even the organ and the choir leading us to sing

‘up from the grave he arose

With a mighty triumph o’er his foes’

Brought me to dedicate my life to the pale Jew

The avatar whose domain was falling

To roads and politicians and snot nosed kids

Who knew too much.

“If you have no reason to stay here, let’s pick up your kit and go to Alex. l can use someone who can think and write at the Mission. Oh, and can you type?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s