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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray


Today, let’s talk about Justine, Lawrence Durrell’s 1957 book that begins his four-novel opus, The Alexandria Quartet.

The other novels in the Alexandria Quartet are Mountolive, Balthazar, and Clea.

(whiny voice: Are you going to go over each one?)

We’ll see.

I have a sense that few people read the Quartet nowadays, which is too bad. It’s becoming forgotten, I fear. Is it dated? In terms of gender roles and the depiction of different ethnic groups, I don’t think so. It’s remarkably non-judgmental and unconcerned with stereotypes and colonialism. Writing in 1982, then New York Times critic Anatole Broyard says, “While almost every modern writer behaves as if we'd come to understand love only with his particular generation, some of Durrell's sentences sound as if they were written yesterday.”

I first read Justine one hot summer in Ann Arbor, Michigan when I was living in a basement apartment in the student ghetto. I was in my twenties and the feverish and erotic story enthralled me. I read all four novels and since then, have re-read the Quartet several times.

This makes me think about a phenomenon that many have pondered. When we re-read a novel at different points in our lives, we are not the same person. Experience and age change us so that our perception of the novel is different too. My Justine of age 25 is not the same as of age 68. What’s that old saying—you can’t step twice in the same river?

How does it differ? When I was younger, I read more naively and I don’t mean this as a value judgement but more that I was not so aware of many of the things I write about now—how the story is told, the narrational style, which perspective is presented. When I was younger, I took such things for granted, as in thinking, this is just how this particular novel is written instead of considering that the style is a choice and there are alternatives.

Actually, re-reading Justine now feels pretty fresh. Of course, I recall the plot and characters and certain scenes. But the word-to-word prose seems new and breathtaking. And as I said above, it does not seem bound to the time when it was written.

Durrell himself says in an introduction to Balthazar, that the theme of the Quartet is the different types of human love. Further, he writes that the four novels are an exploration of relativity and notions of continuity and subject-object relations. I think what he’s referring to here are continuity regarding time, and subject-object relations in a Freudian sense. There is the idea of object permanence—we learn on a deep level that the Other exists even if they hide behind their hands. (I wouldn’t recommend playing peek-a-boo with Justine though, she’s pretty serious). We’ll have to think hard about these matters, best beloved. I guess as a writer, I’m a little suspicious of authors of fiction who make such claims for their works. It seems to me that a fine work of fiction should be able to stand on its own without an explanation by the author of what it means. (It’s okay if others do this. Like me.). Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is a mighty expression of philosophical ideas (particularly those of Henri Bergson) but as far as I know Proust never commented on this. (Maybe he did, and I just don’t know). In any case, Lawrence Durrell was a master, and these books are fine examples of literature as art—whatever commentary he made about them. They are also funny and moving.

The first three novels have to do with the same sequence of events seen through three different characters’’ perspectives—Durrell’s exploration of relativity. The events are, simply put, those surrounding the disappearance of Justine Hosnani, a wealthy woman living in Alexandria, Egypt around 1940. The fourth novel, Clea, has to do with what happens after.

The central character is Darley, an expatriate Irishman living in Alexandria. Justine begins with Darley, living on a Mediterranean island with a little girl, the daughter of one of his loves. The time is possibly 1947 so Darley is looking back on events that occurred in the past, specifically his love affair with Justine, the wife of his friend, Nessim, and her disappearance.

We have a dedication at the beginning:

To Eve these memorials of her native city

This a reference to Durrell’s second wife, Eve, who was probably the inspiration for the character of Justine.

We have an interesting note from the author, reminiscent of what Michael Ondaatje said of last week’s book, The Cat’s Table:

The characters in this novel, the first of a series, are all inventions together with the personality of the narrator, and bear no resemblance to living persons. Only the city is real.

And this is a clear statement about the narrator, Darley, being an invention of—wait for it—the implied author! We will see that a book which reads so much like a memoir is a fiction.

Then we have two quoted passages:

I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved. We shall have a lot to discuss about that. Freud

There are two positions available to us—either crime which renders us happy, or the noose, which prevents us from being unhappy. I ask whether there can be any hesitation, lovely Therese, and where will your little mind find an argument able to combat that one? Marquis de Sade Justine

How do these contextualize what follows? Well, let’s just say that the story is full of love affairs and sexual encounters, and that with a shout out to Freud, these encounters often occur between two people who are involved with other people, making a total of four—at least! M. de Sade speaks about happiness, saying that crime or wrongdoing makes us happy, punishment prevents us from being unhappy. One could dispute this, but Justine is about people who “do the wrong thing” by satisfying their urges but who are relieved when there are consequences.

Why is the book entitled Justine? Is there a connection to de Sade? De Sade’s Justine is a story about a young girl who is ruined by bad men who abuse her. Later in life, she recovers after facing death. Maybe Justine ironically refers to De Sade’s character in that Justine Hosnani believes she has been corrupted by older men. She seems to act out sexually but denies responsibility for this, saying she was damaged by others. Maybe this is like De Sade—I’m going to hurt you in order to be happy but if it doesn’t work out, it’s your fault.

Justine begins:

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…

I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child—Melissa’s child. I do not know why I use the word “escape.” The villagers say jokingly that only a sick man would choose such a remote place to rebuild. Well, then, I have come here to heal myself, if you like to put it that way…

Beautiful prose, no? Hot, nude pearl, indeed. Although I’m not sure what he’s referring to about “great planes.” There’s direct reference made here to someone escaping something and needing to rebuild and heal, both of which I see as strong themes in the story.

Another thing of note as we begin is that the story is constructed around Darley reading things after the fact or sometimes being told things, again after they’ve occurred. At the beginning, he is on the island with his notes about what happened in Alexandria. As things develop, he describes how he discovered and read Moeurs, the book written about Justine by her first husband. Later still, he is visited by Balthazar, who presents a dramatically different view of what’s occurred that challenges Darley’s own. Finally, Clea also recasts the events of the story, confirming the idea that perspective is all. Relativity. We all see things differently. We all see people differently.

Till next time, best bs.


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