I’d recommend heading over to Michael Haag’s blog here and reading his new post on Russian editions of the Alexandria Quartet, where he has shared has some lovely pictures of the covers as well as background on the Quartet in the former USSR.
Since we’re talking about the elder Durrell in Russia, Russian-speakers may be interested to read/watch this interesting round table chat on Durrell and the Alexandria Quartet from Radio Svoboda in 2011, at the time of the Egyptian Revolution.
I’ve translated a very small selection of interesting parts of the discussion below, which includes a comparison of Alexandria and Odessa!
The discussion includes poet and literary critic Maksim Amelin, who was also part of the Symposium publishing house which published the Quartet; editor-in-chief of the literary journal Inostrannaya Literatura (‘Foreign Literature’) Alexander Livergant; Alexander Ivanov, the chief editor of the ‘Ad Marginem’ publishing house; and book artist Andrey Bondarenko, who illustrated the Quartet.
It begins with commentary from Bagrat Seiranian of the Center for Arab Studies at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who discusses the politics and history of Egypt at the time of the Quartet.
From Amelin’s comments:
This novel is, in my opinion, a singular work about twentieth century Egypt. Egypt was a fragment of the colonial empire, and the collapse of colonialism is imprinted there [in the Quartet], as if in a photograph. In my view this is the only work in which this moment found its most exact expression. There is practically nothing else about the spirit of Alexandria as such…
Durrell describes what happened at the beginning of the twentieth century, in the 30s, the culture, the spirit of Europeanism, and on the other hand, everything is mixed together, it is most manifest there, I think.
[About Durrell’s citing of Cavafy in the AQ]
For Alexandria, Cavafy was its own household poet, and a central figure of the century. And if there is a great poet in the city, that means that there is a huge circle of contacts and a huge number of people, who demanded him.
By the way, there exists in the Russian consciousness an image of Alexandria, brought out by Mikhail Kuzmin in his “Alexandrian Songs,” which, in my opinion, correspond with Cavafy …
This novel could not take place in any other city. For example, it would be absolutely impossible [for it to be set] in Cairo. This novel is not about Egypt, it is a novel about Alexandria as a completely independent place, with an extremely cosmopolitan culture, where everything is mixed up together….
Alexandria is a completely separate area. Imagine how we judge Russia by St. Petersburg. And it’s about the same thing. It is a state within a state.
The panelists later discuss which Russian city is most like Alexandria. Ivanov says that it is more like Odessa than St. Petersburg, in that it was a cosmopolitan port city.
Ivanov also notes that in the AQ, the main Egyptian protagonists are Copts instead of being from the Islamic world, and talks about the Copts in contemporary Egypt. Ivanov also talks about the Islamization of Egypt, which he says began in Nasser’s time, and notes the changes that have taken place in Alexandria. Ivanov compares this to what he says has been a ‘Ukrainization’ of Odessa:
Odessa, which was very international, a Jewish-French-Russian-Ukrainian city, suddenly becomes a Ukrainian city. The same thing started to happen at the time Durrell wrote about [in Egypt].