Reading Durrell in Riyadh

durrell with Fathi Elabiary

Durrell with Egyptian journalist and writer Fathi Elabiary in Alexandria

As part of this series of posts about Durrell in the Arabic-speaking world, here is a piece from Saudi daily newspaper al-Riyadh from last year on the Alexandria Quartet. It’s by Dr. Abdullah Ibrahim, who writes about literature for the paper (here is a piece he wrote about Nabokov’s Lolita.)

 

Ibrahim talks about how he was discussing Alexandria and its intellectual history, and was first reminded of the 2009 movie Agora, which is set in Alexandria in the late 4th century and which explores the life of Hypatia, and which includes dramatic scenes in the Alexandria library. Ibrahim then recalled the Alexandria Quartet, which he said Durrell created as a sort of fantasy through which he could explore his various characters’ destinies against the backdrop of the ancient city.

However, the Quartet gave rise to much criticism regarding Durrell’s portrayal of Alexandria, a controversy that stemmed from the question of whether the narrative should have portrayed the city’s history, society and development. Durrell’s critics did not see in the Quartet an image of the Alexandria they knew:

[they did not find] an Alexandria that matched their personal account of experiences, information and facts, and so accused the author of deception and forgery, clad in harlotry and alien to Egypt

 

The critics “did not take into account that Durrell had created an image narrative of Alexandria” and had created a Utopia compatible with his perspective and personal experiences. Durrell “slipped into the world of the city” almost two decades after leaving it, combining in his narrative a nostalgic colonial feel with lively fantasy elements. The Quartet’s characters “intertwined in mysterious relationships, wander the city’s alleyways and move through its streets, and all the while free of the city’s topography”. Durrell “borrowed the spirit of the place”, taking his memories of the city and using his imagination to create a world.

Ibrahim wrote a more detailed article about the Quartet previously for al-Riyadh, in 2007.

Notes:

Al-Riyadh is technically an independent newspaper, but it is pro-government.

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