Living in solitude on a Greek island, the narrator gathers his memories of life in Alexandria before the Second World War. There he becomes entangled with the mysterious Justine, a woman driven by her past. Added into the mix are her husband; a third-rate cabaret dancer; a diplomat; an intelligence officer; a writer; an artist; a Cabalist; and other residents of the city. They drift through each others’ lives until death, disappearance, and the looming threat of war scatter them.
I’d been curious about this, the first book of the Alexandria Quartet ever since stumbling upon the fact that the long-suffering Larry of My Family and Other Animals did indeed become a writer. And from page 1 I had high hopes of liking it. The writing had a lyrical quality; and the meandering nature of the plot - with events ordered not by simple chronology but by ‘the order in which they became significant’ - meant that a bit of brainpower was required to assemble thing into a sequence. But I soon realised that the story had a tendency to get bogged down in literary and intellectual flourishes; oddball metaphors were rampant and at times it was difficult to work out what on Earth he was going on about. For instance: ’We are standing before the Chinese paintings from the Louvre ... There is no form, no lens, no pigment anymore - simply a gaping hole into which the infinite drains slowly into the room: a blue gulf where the tiger’s body was, emptying itself into the preoccupied atmosphere of the studios’. (Uh, yeah ... I recall having the same thought whilst strolling through the National Gallery - not.)
I also wished that the characters would have an absolutely ordinary conversation instead of spouting Ideas (and I can’t help feeling that I should include that capital letter). Information about the nature of the characters was revealed not so much through their own actions as by other characters’ psychoanalysis of them. Which is of course not necessarily accurate: who knows what the truth of them was. The character that is clearest in my mind is the city itself. And I think that in a week’s time I’ll have only a vague recollection of what actually happened, and will remember just a handful of characters and incidents surrounded by masses of words. A fine example of the literary arts perhaps, but truly readable only in sections.