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Purple passages
Mockup box of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, published 1957-60. Covers illustrated by James McMullan.
August 14, 2014

Purple passages

James McMullan did the art for Dutton’s 1961 paperback box set of Lawrence Durrell’s tetralogy, The Alexandria Quartet. Durrell’s most famous work, it was that rare success, both critical and commercial. The first one, Justine, was my favorite novel at one time, though now—perhaps because I was too young when I read it, or otherwise because of subsequent damage to my long-term memory—I can’t remember much about it, plot-wise. Stylistically the prose is very lush. Justine opens:

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes …

McMullan’s covers are done in a mixture of earthy soulful browns for the box; and emphatic oranges, emerald, and purple on the individual covers. The figures here are sketchier than much of McMullan’s more familiar work, and maybe that helps to convey the frenzied emotional states of the characters in the books (the title characters, as I recall, are involved in romances with many vertices, Durrell courts the comparison of his treatment of “modern love” with Einstein and Freud and also Sade). McMullan’s images for Taractan also seem pertinent.

A photo of the book, "The Alexandria Quartet". The cover has the title printed on the top in thin white text. The background is a dusty brown sky. Below is a town of small houses and building in the middle adorned with detailed decorations. In the foreground, are 3 people who's form are lost with the dark sketches of the houses.


Though the series is occasionally counted among “the greatest novels of the twentieth century,” its star seems to have dimmed more than many of its peers on those sorts of lists. It’s possible the books are—not to their detriment necessarily—too much a product of their time. The author, in the preface to his Paris Review interview, is colorfully painted in:

Lawrence Durrell is a short man, but in no sense a small one. Dressed in jeans, a tartan shirt, a navy-blue pea jacket, he looks like a minor trade-union official who has successfully absconded with the funds. He is a voluble, volatile personality, who talks fast and with enormous energy. He is a gift for an interviewer, turning quite stupid questions into apparently intelligent ones by assuming that the interviewer meant something else. Though he was rather distrustful of the tape recorder, he acquiesced in its use. He smokes heavily, Gauloises bleues. When at rest he looks like Laurence Olivier; at other times his face has all the ferocity of a professional wrestler’s.

A photo of 4 books. From left to right; "Mountolive", "Clea", "Justine", and "Balthazar". Each book cover has the title on the top in thin text, the color of text correspond to the colors used on their covers. Each book has vibrant saturated colors and sketchy drawings that emphasizes the details.


A scan of two book covers; "Justine" and "Balthazar". "Justine" is a sketchy drawing of a woman in a floral blouse smoking. Her whole body and dress is magenta with the sketchy black drawing lines. The background is magenta with teal blue triangles and circles that form what looks like a wall with a window. "Balthazar" has a white background. In the middle is window porch that is a bronze orange. Inside is a man with brown skin ad a purple fez and shirt. They're outlined with a sketchy black line drawing.


A scan of two book covers; "Clea" and "Mountolive". "Clea" has a sunny orange background that is also used to color the sketch of a woman sitting on a straw weaved chair, she is hunched over leaning on her hand. Covering her is potted plant that is colored with a light yellow. "Mountolive" has a white background with an sketchy drawing of a emerald green rug with a fancy man standing on top. He is half covered by a leafy plant/.