Monday, October 31, 2016

Justine by Lawrence Durrell

"It is our disease," she said, "to want to contain everything within the frame of reference of a psychology or a philosophy. After all Justine cannot be justified or excused. She simply and magnificently is; we have to put up with her, like original sin. But to call her a nymphomaniac or to try and Freudianise here, my dear, takes away all her mythical substance--the only thing she really is. Like all amoral people she verges on the Goddess. If our world were a world there would be temples to accommodate her where she would find the peace she was seeking. Temples where one could outgrow the sort of inheritance she has: not these damn monasteries full of pimply little Catholic youths who have made a bicycle saddle of their sexual organs." page 77

When was the last time you wrote someone a letter: not an electronic correspondence of any kind, but a pen-to-paper missive that then required postage to deliver? As of writing this, I'm thirty-six, and did so last week to my five-year old nephew who is learning to read and whom I knew would get a kick out of receiving something in the mail. Before that I couldn't tell you when; it's not something my generation does. Keeping up with people and communication is so easy today, and that is a good thing; it is also something to keep in mind when reading Justine and some of it's themes of isolation, loneliness, and outright being alone.

While I'm sure it can be done, it's substantially harder to fall off the map and disappear today than it was at the time of Justine, which is never specified but I'm guessing around the 1930's to 1940's. I'm not so sure that solitude is a theme but upon reaching the end of the novel it struck me profoundly as I'm not sure it's even possible to be alone--be it to revel in nostalgia or wallow in self pity--to the degree of the novel's characters. Because cell phones, snap chat, Facebook… yeah; alone is much harder to achieve today than before.

The summation of all this preamble isn't solely a note about Justine but presumably the entire series: it's one thing to tell someone they have to put themselves in another time and place to enjoy and experience a story. Justine didn't push my capacity as a reader to do so in anyway, only it was upon finishing that I was tasked with putting what alone means to me and what it means to so many of the story's characters that I was able to really wrap my head around the degree of much of what they were feeling.

I'll take pride in saying, only I can digress before I even begin a commentary…

This has to be the longest book I've ever read (it's really short; two-hundred fifty pages) that has no real plot, structure, or tangible tension; all of which make it extremely difficult to tell anyone why it may be enjoyable for them to read. (Yet, conversely, very easy to say, 'I didn't like it because…') There is an unnamed narrator who from a physical and temporal distance reflects upon what he recalls as the most extraordinary experiences of his life. And it's here--after all of one real sentence in an effort to communicate what this book is about--that anyone could stop and say, 'I've read a book like that.' You'd be right: such books happened before Durrell and after. It's difficult to not make reference to other writers and I had decided to not do so before writing this as to not create a literary influence Durrell doesn't have or undermine any originally he may have possessed by mentioning those that came before him or after. (There are English major's and 'critics' who can--and most judiciously will (and have!)--arbitrate such things; for that is their sovereignty.) With the most minimal presentation of concrete plot and through a very biased perspective, Durrell drunkenly ruminates on love and infidelity; what both mean; and how they effect people.

So, I've already used 'ruminative' and 'reflect' and refrained from using 'nostalgia' and it's abstracts such as these that present the only reason to keep reading: the anxiety the characters feel and express is palpable. Naturally, it is all centered around the title character.

"It will puzzle you when I tell you that I thought Justine great, in a sort of way. There are forms of greatness, you know, which when not applied in art or religion make havoc of ordinary life. Her gift was misapplied in being directed towards love. Certainly she was bad in many ways, but they were all small ways. Nor can I say that she harmed nobody. But those she harmed most she made fruitful. She expelled people from their old selves. It was bound to hurt, and many mistook the nature of the pain she inflicted. Not I." And smiling his well-known smile, in which sweetness was mixed with an inexpressible bitterness, he repeated softly under his breath the words: "Not I." page 33

That's one of the best character descriptions from the text I'm capable of giving. Justine; her ridiculously wealthy husband Nessim; the unnamed bohemian (i.e. broke-ass 'artist') narrator; Melissa the narrator's girlfriend, an exotic dancer, and possible prostitute; and Balthazar who teaches and preaches the virtues of gay sex and the Caballah in addition to being a possible pederast, comprise the principle cast. The setting offers the rest of the characters, most of which are of philosophical importance. Alexandria, Egypt with all of it's races, ethnicities, religions, impending war that will change everything, and intervening white people provide an astonishing amount of very subtle background tension.

It's a soap opera in which everyone is sleeping with all the wrong people and justifying it every step of the way to the point where as the reader, you say, "Okay, I get it and I feel sorry for you but, don't touch that!" The rest of the story is learning who is Justine and how did she come to be the person she is at the time the novel presents her. It starts with rape and a man she still sees more or less everyday, and while the event doesn't come close to defining her identity that crime and the kidnapping of her first child are without doubt the events that shape her conciseness. Understand: absolutely nothing in this book is presented anywhere near as expressly concrete as what I've stated here; and that's part of the fun.

Another part of the fun is the well disguised meta-fiction in which the author seems to defend the form, or lack thereof, of the novel to his reader while coaxing them into supporting the novel's strong points. Durrell gets away with it in some very creative ways too. Justine itself is a memoir written by the narrator. There is a second book about Justine within Justine in which Justine is often quoted, and by way of parenthesis talks to the reader three times removed from the actual novel.

What I most need to do is 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. Page 115

I dream of a book powerful enough to contain the elements of her--but it is not the sort of book to which we are accustomed these days. For example, on the first page a synopsis of the plot in a few lines. Thus we might dispense with the narrative articulation. What follows would be drama freed from the burden of form. I would set my own book free to dream." page 75

The narrator and reader learn the most by watching him interact in his relationships with Melissa, Nessim, a dying conversation with one of Melissa's lovers, and the brief and oh so portentous meetings with Clea; whose perspective I can't wait to read. While she has her name on the cover, Justine is a bit too intense to deal with directly.

What her friends would say of her:

"The true whore is man's real darling--like Justine; she alone has the capacity to wound men. But of course our friend is only a shallow twentieth-century reproduction of the great Hetairae of the past, the type to which she belongs without knowing it, Lais, Charis, and the rest…. Justine's role has been taken from her and on her shoulders society has placed the burden of guilt to add to her troubles. It is a pity. For she is truly Alexandrian." page 77

What she would say of herself:

I was able to read:--'my life there is a sort of Unhealed Place as you call it which I try to keep full of people, accidents, diseases, anything that comes to hand. You are right when you say it is an apology for better living, wiser living. But while I respect your disciplines and your knowledge I feel that if I am ever going to come to terms with myself I must work through the dross in my own character and burn it up. Anyone could solve my problem artificially by placing it in the lap of a priest. We Alexandrians have more pride than that--and more respect for religion. It would not be fair to God, my dear sir, and however else I fail (I see you smile) I am determined not to fail Him whoever He is.' page 72-73

Excerpts seemingly don't work with Justine; be it a sentence, paragraph or twenty pages. The context is the entire novel.

I said early on the only reason to read was the anxiety of the characters. Also, the language is beautiful. You have to be okay with adjectives and adverbs (which so many preach the evils of in today's contemporary fiction) but they were totally okay by me. There are tons of gorgeous passages to make note of, some of which upon further thinking really resonate and others of which kinda fizzle out and make you say, 'How did he get me to stop and think this long about such a simple thought that goes nowhere?'

Hand-in-hand with the 'the language is beautiful' comment is: this book is dripping in sex. I was originally going to qualify that remark but after having time to think it over, it stands alone just fine.

Many of the narrator's vignettes seem unrelated to anything as a central story doesn't really come together until near the end. And then when love presents itself as jealousy or envy and takes form in conspiracy and murder the scenes are framed in the light of one of Justine's aphorism as if to say, "This is what you should be thinking about…" Or as she actually says in the text, seeming apropos of nothing, "We use each other like axes to cut down the ones we really love." Page 112

The book does exert a more than casual racism, an overt sexism, an atypical form, and all those much maligned adjectives and adverbs. I've never had more fun reading my notes on a book than Justine. Seeing some of my early comments and conjecture upon finishing the novel were in many ways more fun than the reading. I was wrong most of the time, grasping at air in other places, and desperately trying to create something physical when at all times the story remains nebulous. I'm not sure if Justine is indicative of Durrell's total output or even the remainder of The Alexandria Quartet. It's certainly not for everybody but it is for me.

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