The Unbearable Inevitability Of Style
Dear friends, I’m back. The vacation was great. We saw the house in Madrid where Cervantes wrote Don Quixote. I do want to announce a significant change in this blog. For three years, I’ve written once a week posts. From here on, I will change this to once every two weeks.
It’s been pointed out to me that it’s often hard to absorb the blog at the current rate of once a week. Two weeks will provide more time to digest and mull over my pronouncements.
We’ll see, as the orange demon says.
We’ve been talking about Justine, the first book in Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. It’s time to ask, who is the main character of the book?
At first blush, it would seem to be Darley, the Irish schoolteacher who narrates the story of his love affair with his best friend’s wife in pre-war Egypt. Through memory and diary entries he possesses, Darley learns that his perspective on this past was only one of several, and not necessarily accurate.
A familiar theme in many works of fiction is relativity, specifically in human relationships. That is, based on our experience with another person, we form a particular view of the relationship. A relationship may be ennobling, empowering, parasitic, exploitive. A person we are close to may be judged benevolent or evil. But this is all a point of view and many others exist. Another person might have an entirely different judgment about someone we know. There is no “true” view, no objective perspective. We bring our own needs and biases into a relationship.
This is the “lesson” of Justine, and Darley is the pupil.
I think it’s fair to say that a large chunk of modern fiction has to do with this theme.
We’re talking modernism, best beloved.
Modernism explicitly rejected the ideology of realism and made use of the works of the past by the employment of reprise, incorporation, rewriting, recapitulation, revision and parody. Modernism also rejected the certainty of Enlightenment thinking, and many modernists also rejected religion.
There you have it. Justine is a revisionist tour de force.
In Justine, new information radically changes what the protagonist, Darley, believes about the other characters. The relative nature of relationships is ratcheted up to an extreme as Darley learns just how mistaken he initially was.
Of course, it is the reader whom the text really leads into surprise. All the reader has to go on is what each book reveals page by page (unless you read ahead). The reader is shown the same event—Justine’s disappearance—over and over from different perspectives. Which is the “correct” one? Because there is a sense that Darley is just mistaken, that he has been tricked by Justine. That Justine herself possesses an absolute truth. This is a sign of the power Darley gives her, but at the end, it is revealed that Justine herself is as confused as everyone else.
Indeed, if any of the characters can be viewed as having a “true” perspective, it is Darley himself. The implied author would like we the readers to view Darley implicitly as the true center of the book, the point of entry for the reader. There is an implication that, as he learns the mistaken nature of his beliefs, particularly about Justine and Nessim, he discovers the truth. He thinks he does. He claims the story is “really” about the city of Alexandria, yet he is the one who tells it, who provides the impetus for looking back on what has happened.
But who is this character of Darley, who at least on the surface, appears to be the central character in Justine?
Rather like Max Morden, the protagonist of John Banville’s novel The Sea, (previously discussed in this blog), Darley can be defined by lack rather than possession. He is an Irish expatriate and has no real home or family. He is an unpublished writer and a desultory teacher. Till well into the text, he is even unnamed. He exists in a kind of vacuum, a web of relationships that ultimately devalues him.
Darley has apparently fabricated a new identity for himself by replacing the one bequeathed to him at birth—a privileged colonial. This leaves him homeless and impoverished. When the catastrophic occurs, and he is unmasked, he enters a period of crisis. The catastrophe is Justine’s disappearance. It drives Darley eventually into analyzing his life instead of living it. Through a long period of dissolution spent teaching in a rural Egyptian school and smoking hashish, he struggles to separate himself from his past.
Central questions of identity and authenticity are posed—till the crisis, Darley only exists through others. Then, he must figure out he is. But at least in Justine, he continues to do so in terms of who are or were the others. Unlike Max Morden in The Sea, he appears unaware of his lack of a distinctive personality.
Perhaps, as Monica Facchinello writes about Banville and The Sea, the protagonist’s lack of authenticity, his vacuum, forces the reader’s attention on the style of the book. After all, a vacuum must be filled. Lawrence Durrell has a distinctive style (perhaps John Banville was influenced by him?), characterized by rich language, poetic prose, and intertextuality—the weaving in of different texts into itself. (referring to The Sea is an example) Exoticism is also a key element.
Exoticism—the quality of being attractive or striking through being colorful or unusual.
As in The Sea, style is the central character of Justine. It asserts itself at the beginning:
“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 till midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…” (plane trees).
And the end:
“Soon it will be evening and the clear night sky will be dusted thickly with summer stars. I shall be here, as always, smoking by the water.”
Beautiful stuff. Durrell, not Darley, wrote those. And they really have little to do with Darley; they represent the implied author preening, showing its genius.
The style is the central character of the book.
Till next time. (two weeks).