Boasting Irish origins and born in India in 1912, Lawrence Durrell was a product of the British Empire and of its more or less glorious decline. The Alexandria Quartet, his greatest (and only durable?) work of fiction, began to be published in 1957, by which time the world which it depicted had already been disassembled by enosis in Cyprus and by the fiasco of Suez.
Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt had no time, or place, for the polymorphous culture which Durrell had found in Alexandria. The ‘wine–press of love’ was purged by Arab nationalism: Jews, Greeks and Francophone cosmopolitans ceased to rub shoulders with Copts and colonial administrators and mystagogues and double agents of various stripes. What Durrell called ‘apes in nightshirts’ – the Arabic–speaking natives with whom he never consorted, even in his hottest dreams – took over the society whose manners and morals had been his subject.
Durrell’s impressions of the Med, just before and during the Second World War which both vindicated British hegemony and presaged its end, were an obituary on a way of life, and privilege, which licensed curiosity and condescension unimaginable in today’s Brits. Durrell’s prose is swagged with arcane adjectival conceits and banded with colourful flourishes (it is no surprise that when he painted, it was in gouache); there can be nothing quite like it in the people’s English of those who limit their horizons to today’s trite little island.