My Style Is Ba-Roque
First, an apology for posting this a day late on Friday vs. Thursday. We were away on a trip, and the post was not ready. Great regrets, best b.
By the way, what is the style of Justine?
Let’s remember, style is the way in which an author writes and/or tells a story, the elements that set one author’s writing apart from another.
As an example, what if the story of Justine was written in the style of the author of the Dick and Jane series, William S. Gray?
“Justine can play.”
“Darley can play too.”
“Run, Justine, run!”
What we have here is an omniscient narrator entity (not part of the scene) showing the reader the action in simple noun-verb-object and imperative sentences, simple present tense. The idea is to use a narrative to teach children how to read.
Even the most inattentive among us will note that Lawrence Durrell’s style is quite different.
How so, you ask?
Here’s a passage that describes Darley and Justine at a fireworks show:
“This particular night was full of a rare summer lightning: and hardly had the display ended when from the desert to the east a thin crust of thunder formed like a scab upon the melodious silence. A light rain fell, youthful and refreshing, and all at once the darkness was full of figures hurrying back into the shelter of the lamplit houses, dresses held ankle-high and voices raised in shrill pleasure. The lamps printed for a second their bare bodies against the transparent materials which sheathed them—we lay in the cradle of darkness feeling the gentle prickles of the rain upon our faces…through her hair I saw the last pale comets gliding up into the darkness. I tasted, with the glowing pleasure of the colour in my brain, the warm guiltless pressure of her tongue on mine, her arms upon mine. The magnitude of this happiness—we could not speak but gazed abundantly at each other with eyes full of unshed tears.”
First of all, Lawrence Durrell employs a narrator entity who, in the style of the book, is very close to the character narrator Darley. It is the narrator who describes this scene in sensuous detail and who is able to dip inside Darley’s head (not Justine’s) to show his experience of her tongue.
The narrator in Justine sticks to Darley (not exactly—more on this later), and renders Justine in mystery. As we’ve noted before, except for the citations from her diary (which are selected by the narrator) Justine is always seen through others’ eyes. She is always an object.
The language is rich and evocative. Poetic, with its image of the thunderstorm and the others hurrying to shelter, the lamps printing their bare bodies against their transparent garments. The sentence structure is complex with many clauses added. Em dashes are utilized to simulate a flow of experience.
As the story develops, there are some passages written in Latin and French without translation.
(Did he speak French to you?)
The vocabulary is arcane, using words like “aniline” which may necessitate recourse to the dictionary but also cue the reader that this is a particular kind of book. Not Dick and Jane. And it helps if the reader knows more than a bit about classical Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mythology. And the poet C.P. Cafavy.
The verb tense used—simple past—and the first and second person signal the reader that these events occurred in the past and could be construed as a memory. In contrast, the Dick and Jane fantasy, set in the present, has the feel of a storyteller describing a story that is occurring now. Time moves forward, step-by-step. Time is handled quite differently in Justine.
In a broader sense of plot, Justine is the beginning of a ring narrative, my friends. The Odyssey is probably the most famous example of this device wherein a story begins in a present time, then goes back in time and catches up to where it started at the end. Justine offers a variation on this, as the present of the book is Darley on his island, telling stories about the past, but time is not at all sequential, and there are frequent returns to the time of Darley on his island.
What I’m saying here is that time darts about. Durrell—through Darley—makes this explicit:
“(What I most need to do is to record experiences, not in the order in which they took place—for that is history—but in the order in which they first became significant for me).” (The parentheses are part of the text.)
As we have described ad nauseum, Justine begins with Darley on the island—that is the story’s present. He lays out his project: “I light a lamp and walk about, thinking of my friends—of Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar. I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us as its flora—precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!
“I have had to come so far away from it in order to understand it all!…”
Then, Darley heads firmly into the past:
“At the time I met Justine I was almost a happy man.”
The verb tense (simple past) remains the same, but he contextualizes what follows by the clause “At the time.”
He goes on to describe his life in Alexandria, and the way he met Justine and began a love affair with her.
So, story-wise, we have a character narrator, Darley, living on an island with the “child.” (apologies to the Mandalorian). The reader gets that he is looking back, remembering his friends at a time in the past in Alexandria. And that Darley appears to project responsibility for some actions onto the city, away from the human actors. And that he makes frequent use of exclamation points!
Just for fun, here's another different style working with these ideas. This piece uses a character narrator with very close narration.
“I’m sitting up here on this island, and the locals think I’m crazy. I’m taking care of my girlfriend’s girl—so far, the police have left us alone. I wander around once I think the kid is asleep and remember my friends. I had an affair with my friend’s hot wife, but that wasn’t really our fault—it was the fault of the place we lived in. My bad! Where did everyone go? How come I’m stuck with the kid?”
I hope this attempt at humor will be forgiven. (It’s not my fault, it’s the place I live—New Hampshire!)
“I had to come here in order to completely rebuild this city in my brain…I have been looking through my papers tonight…those papers I guard with care are the three volumes in which Justine kept her diary, as well as the folio which records Nessim’s madness.”
Here is the introduction of an important device—Darley is remembering the events of ten years before with the aid of other texts. He—a self-described writer—has his own notes which he downplays. And he has Justine’s diary which includes a “folio” on Nessim’s madness. So, a key idea in the book (s), is that we are not just getting Darley’s memory and perspective. He has a decade old repository of his thoughts (and he has changed in ten years so that he is distanced from and judgmental of his younger self). And we have another character’s diary—Justine’s. This includes a long section which is labeled as Nessim’s diary but reads more like it’s written from his perspective, that is, as if he becomes the narrator. And a book written about her. There’s an illusion that Darley is a sort of detective who is researching different texts to understand the “case.” The point seems to be that there is not a single truth that must be discovered.
The story begins “in the middle,” in that Darley is in the midst of his investigation but does not yet know what he will eventually find out. This is akin to a real-life phenomenon of someone meeting an old friend who presents a different view of an important event. At the end, Darley is presented with a letter from another character, Clea, who reveals secrets concerning Justine’s disappearance. But Justine itself only takes us so far. It is, after all, only the first of a series of four books.
Till next time.