So I apologize for the length of time since the last 100 greatest novels post. I’ve only read two more from the list but the second one, The Alexandria Quartet, is actually 4 novels. There’s my excuse. Let’s get to it.
Similar to Wharton previous novel on this list, The Age of Innocence, this story is set around the high society of New York City in the late 1800s. Following one members rise and eventual fall through society, the story is Wharton’s critique of the very society she cannot stop talking about. While I enjoyed the scenery and the historical context leading to the turn of the century, I’m not sure how necessary or relevant the novel is today. There is no discovery of a character’s psyche, there’s no groundbreaking reveal of a world we did not previously know about. And I know these things aren’t necessary for a novel to be read but when there are so many books written by so many people (and multiple by Edith Wharton), I just have a hard time seeing the point. The main character, Lily Bart, isn’t likable or hate-able enough to be worth reading about. At least not for the story alone. So, like The Age of Innocence, if you’re looking for an older version of Gossip Girl then go ahead and read this. Otherwise, let’s move on.
Now, to completely change gears, I loved this quartet. And I am so glad I read all the books. They are utterly necessary to appreciate this masterpiece. So this tetralogy is set in Alexandria, Egypt, before and during World War II. The first three novels follow the same events from different perspectives and then the last novel is a few years after the aforementioned events. Let me explain a little more.
The first novel, Justine, follows the events of a love…square between the narrator, his live-in girlfriend, a woman named Justine, and Justine’s husband. The narrator and Justine are sleeping together and ultimately Justine’s husband ends up sleeping with the narrator’s girlfriend. The story is not told “in the order in which they took place — for that is history — but in the order in which they first became significant for me.” So each section and each chapter are just different scenes between these characters exploring their relationships and the search for what love really is. Through all this we meet all kinds of crazy, interesting, and hilarious characters that really give the story the color it deserves. Nobody in the love-square is interesting enough to push the story forward. At least not at first.
The second novel, Balthazar, completely upsets everything we learned in the first. The narrator, who we finally find out is named Darley, sends the manuscript of the first novel to Balthazar and Balthazar returns it with notes added all throughout the pages. Apparently Darley has everything wrong. This second book goes back through numerous events we already know about but with new information. New scenes that deepens the characters and the overall story are also added in. At this point, I’m going to be a little more vague about the details because I don’t want to ruin the books in case you’d like to read it. Anyways, this second novel is written like the first. Short scenes in no apparent order. But now with new information and proof that what Darley believed to be happening was actually a farce. Intriguing…
Now for the third novel. Mountolive. Mountolive is the name of a character that was maybe named two or three times in the second novel but whom we have never met. I don’t think he was ever mentioned in the first. This story is written in standard chronological, normal paragraph and chapter length narration. It backs up in time to when Justine’s husband (Nessim) is a young man and his mother falls in love with a British dude named Mountolive. We follow their relationship through letters as he travels the world until we get to the point where the first two novels’ stories are. Then we get the full story of Justine and Nessim’s relationship. And. let. me. just. tell. you. Nothing we knew or believed or assumed or imagined is anywhere remotely close to what’s going on. This whole story breaks the confines of exploring love and relationships and bursts into the world of geopolitics, religion, diplomacy, and the history of Egypt and the Middle East. We are bombarded with Coptic stories, Muslim stories, British stories, Bedouin stories. We have a whole new world that did not exist to us. Or Darley. And it’s incredibly rewarding to discover. I’m excited for you.
And that brings us to the fourth and final novel, Clea. Now we are a few years past all the above events, we are back with Darley as the narrator, and yet we retain the writing style of the third novel. We go back through all the previously introduced characters, dead or alive, and kind of tie up their stories while continuing the original purpose of the first novel: Darley’s exploration of love and relationships. But with a new subject, Clea. This final novel is a darker, more melancholy, and yet more beautiful. Alexandria is in the midst of the nightly bombardments of World War II while the last remaining characters deal with the deaths, revelations, and relationships of the previous novels. And everything is ended with a poetically beautiful, bittersweet finale that we didn’t know we needed all along.
Whew, that last one took a lot out of me. As we get closer, I’m getting very excited and very scared to come to another James Joyce novel. But we still have a few more before that. Onwards we go.