For my comments on Justine, Balthazar, and Mountolive, the first three books of the Alexandria Quartet, follow the respective links.
I've been looking forward to Clea since I finished Justine. I felt it would be my favorite. I was sure it would have the most to offer and be the most substantial in the series. My immediate thought after finishing this book has to be nothing other than, “God damn. There's a lot of exclamation marks in this book....”
The war, which was always in the background and even in Clea never gets main character treatment, is finally such a big deal that it has to get more than merely casual mention as it had in previous entries. Darley, the narrator of Justine, is back as narrator in Clea. He has to come back to Alexandria, and his return is marked by death all around him: as in warships are actively bombing the city as he makes his entrance. Its the same intangible, beautiful rambling narrative and lack of concrete substance that he gives in Justine. Even while the city is being strategically shelled Darley's general oblivion is held in perfect tact. The gravity of the matter is only felt by the reader; why? Because everything we love about the previous experience of reading three books is embodied in the city and all the people too. The city under fire works so well but Durell never indulged it. It was just a thing in the background—we don't read this book for epic descriptions of war. But the next morning characters noticed rubble in the streets, inaccessibility of certain roads, and people died. He in no way painted the picture but he damn sure sold it to me. Lastly, the juxtaposition of everyday life in the city: the call to worship; fishing in the harbor; nightlife, in contrast with the war kinda caused an internal struggle between 'everything is gonna be okay,' and all the drama the actual characters stirred up. Enough of the war and the city; on to the good parts...
In Clea, we see exactly how much of certain characters lives we missed in Mountolive; Justine's had a stroke, Nessim lost an eye and a finger, both are on house arrest and aren't free travel about the city (as if Nessim could be held down). The perfect couple has fallen but I never thought Justine could be a such a bitch, especially not in Darley's eyes! She even defends herself to Darley saying she lied but he lied to himself in deifying her. She's not only bitter, but defeatist, which is kind of a shocker considering... ya know... the other three books....
Oh, and if ever I was gonna have a fictional dad it would be Nessim. Just saying.
There's is a lot going on, and I don't feel bad saying that it took me some time away from the book after having finished it to say so. Everyone who remained behind is falling apart: badly. Justine, Nessim, even Bathazar. His teeth, his terrible and ill-advised love with an actor, he went full cray with the 'drunk, drugs, and brothels' bit. A large part of him also enjoyed suffering; if not that then the being made to endure his self-inflicted wounds. (I'm not gonna talk about periodontal disease right now, but yeah... that too.) I'd go so far as to say 'endurance' is a theme for all the characters that stayed behind. Darley retreated and found some measure of internal peace; everyone else in Alexandria has further flipped their shit (I mean seriously; Scoobie “El Yacoub” has been made a saint, and I even believe it!) which is saying something considering the mental constitution of some of the characters from the start. If you've read Justine, and one should most certainly be strictly doctrinaire when reading this particular series, think of how nutso it is to say Darley of all people is the normal person and everyone else is the train wreck. Yeah, that's where we are...
I felt in Clea there was more to concretely dislike than any in other book in the series. Pursewarden, a voice I most truly felt to be that of the author's, trivialized Justin's rape; even went so far as to say in as many words that she enjoyed it—then he defended his comments. I also felt Durrell just got a bit lazy from time to time.
“The Alexandrians still moved inside the murex-tinted cycloram of the life they imagined. (“Life is more complicated than we think, yet far simpler than anyone dares to imagine.”) pg 65
Those are two very fine sentences but I do wish that the primary characters were experiencing those things first hand than the recap. If only because Darley is the narrator and that was how such details were given in Justine. There is also a supremely heavy over-reliance on Pursewarden; a character that died in the previous book. He is quoted on seemingly every page. The air of, “Pursewarden said...” is likened to the teachings of Mohamed or Jesus as being recited by the Holy. As if by quoting him the speaker admits to wanting to have lived or live the most messed up life ever... If the dude had to be such a force in the book—such a necessary force—then don't kill him; or write a new character to take his place or just finish the series.
I think we can add anti-Semite to the list of bad things as well.
Durell loves to rhapsodize about 'art, writing, and style,” usage and definition of each that to me were tedious from the start and they he only kept going. All were done from the dead voice of Pursewarden. Similar points had been made before but done better as they had previously served to further then narrative. In the “Brother Ass,” Chapter (that I'm sure the author felt would be remembered by history in the same light as “The Grand Inquisitor”) Purewarden, Durell, is being self-indulgent peacock puffing out his chest and tail feathers. The “Great Stylist,” is begging for compliments after bashing other prominent English writers to set himself apart. It was exhausting and more than once I considered skipping that chapter and upon completion of the book don't feel I'd have been any worse for the wear should I have done so.
I'm sure it all made mathematical clarity to Durell but many of his “points” are ramblings with no real meaning that get lost in length and intentionally (artistically; perhaps?) nebulous prose.
“The sexual and the creative energy go hand in hand. They convert into one another—the solar sexual and the lunar spiritual holding an eternal dialogue. They ride the spiral of time together. They embrace the whole of the human motive. The truth is only to be found in our own entrails—the truth of Time. Pg 141.
Seriously? What does he think he's saying in the above?
If I'm to be wholly honest—which I hate doing—I had no idea I actually liked this book until I wrote this commentary.... And, of course, it should go without saying that that goes for the series as well. It doesn't really work; it's not supposed to; it's anything but traditional. It's also not perfect. It's really really good.