Twilight of a Golden Age

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I attacked my new assignment as a Middle East correspondent with the alacrity of a baying hound running down a wanted man. I loaded up on the standard books on the region by all the standard experts: Hitti, Hourani, Nutting, Glubb, Fromkin, Shlaim, Lewis. I consumed their separate narratives, cross-referencing one against the other and triangulating each for bias. I was a machine in perpetual motion; the more I read, the more I needed to know. By the end of my three-year stint, I had accumulated a working library of stolid non-fiction accounts of the Middle East, from the days of the Caliphate to the Second Intifada. In 2001 I took leave to write my own book.

Before my departure, I paid one final visit to the American University’s bookshop in Cairo and there I came across a copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. Many of my Egyptian friends had recommended it (while simultaneously dismissing it as E. M. Forster on Viagra), but I had been too disciplined to be distracted by a short story, let alone a novel sequence that weighs in at 884 pages. Now, however, I was seduced by the image on the book’s front cover, a water-colour of a neo-Palladian villa so common to Alexandria’s corniche and narrow byways. I added a copy to my pile of non-fiction books and immediately felt guilty. This is what it must feel like to commit adultery, I thought.

Consummation would take several years, however, and even then the affair began awkwardly. Accustomed as I was to the linear progression of history and current events, I was unprepared for the Quartet, which is as elliptical in approach as it is epic in scope. The tale unfolds as a tetralogy of novels, set in the late 1930s, about expatriate and native habitués of what was once the world’s most cosmopolitan and romantic city. Like louvered shutters that open and close to unveil different images, Durrell weaves first-person accounts with omniscient narrative, projecting varying interpretations of the same events. An illicit affair as recounted by one narrator, for example, is revealed later on to be a smokescreen that conceals another.

Durrell called his work ‘a four-dimensional dance’ and claimed that he had applied the theory of relativity to a work of fiction. At the very least, he succeeded in animating Einstein’s principle that time and distance change matter, in th

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About the contributor

Stephen Glain continues to travel frequently to the Middle East but is now based in Washington DC, where he lives with his wife and a semi-permanent deployment of builders who are renovating his house.

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