Monday, November 14, 2016

Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell

Go here for comments on Justine, book one of The Alexandria Quartet.  

"How disgusting, how unfair love is! Here I had been loved for goodness knows how long by a creature--I cannot say a fellow-creature--of whose very existence I had been unaware. Every breath I drew was unconsciously a form of his suffering, without my ever having been aware of it. How had this disaster come about? You will have to make room in your thoughts for this variety of the animal. I was furious, disgusted and wounded in one and the same moment. I felt almost as if I owed him an apology; and yet I also felt insulted by the intrusiveness of his love which I had never asked him to owe me." Page 231

The above could serve as a microcosm for both Justine and Balthazar.

"Seen across the transforming screens of memory, how remote that forgotten evening seems. There was so much as yet left for us all to live through until we reached the occasion of the great duckshoot which so abruptly, concisely, precipitated the final change--and the disappearance of Justine herself. But all this belongs to another Alexandria--on which I created in my mind and which the great Interlinear of Balthazar has, if not destroyed, changed out of all recognition." Page 226

The above is a hint as to the beautiful confusion and impending enlightenment that is reading Balthazar.

Durrell makes much of Balthazar not being a sequel to Justine but a 'sibling.' Much of the meta fiction in the in the first book is present in the second and, at very pointed times, he draws so much attention to the writing itself as to make me roll my eyes. (Not that it's ever taken much for me to do so…) All said and done, I have to admit, Balthazar is not a 'new' book; there is no, 'What happens next…' in the story. Rather it's a very curious, telling of events that were happening concurrently as Justine only at the time of writing Justine our unnamed narrator (who finally gets a name in Balthazar!) was unaware.

While Justine is so intimate and so forced and focused through one set of eyes, Balthazar, both the novel and the character are able to give perspective on events. Which really makes one want to go back and read Justine again and re-evaluate events we already thought we knew.

Justine was essentially a memoir of a very specific time for the narrator, he sent the manuscript to Balthazar to get it off his chest; Balthazar basically sent it back with marginalia 'corrections.' It's odd that we learn the most about the main characters relationships through Balthazar as he isn't in love with any of the main characters. Justine was playing everyone for a fool--the narrator more than most; Pursewarden a minor character in Justine becomes a rock star (basically the real McCoy of how the narrator fashions himself) and Nessim is both knowingly cuckold and the orchestrater of a grand scheme not even Balthazar knows in full. I should also say up front that Balthazar seems a very reliable narrator and is full of information, but while he fills in many of the blanks in Justine he also seems equally reticent to 'tell all.' It is done in part to spare the narrator's feelings and in part to be respectful as not all he knows is his to disclose. (His cutting off of a few of Clea's letter's midway was particularly painful.)

At the heart of the story, insomuch as Justine had a 'story,' we see that Nessim and Justine's marriage is a business arrangement. The terms are very tangible and Nessim's endgame is anything but. More than any other character Balthazar's new information changed the way that Nessim is perceived. It wouldn't say that Balthazar makes Justine out to be a story of deception but certainly nothing is what it seems. And there in lays the most prevalent theme of the novel: masks.

"We sat once more to our meal, fellow bondsmen, heavy with a sense of guilt and exhaustion. Hamid waited upon us with solitude and in complete silence. Did he know what was preoccupying us both? It was impossible to read anything on those gentle pock-marked feature, in that squinting single eye." Page 214.

Having read the novel, that passage got me thinking about anything but the moment it portrays.

Nearly everyone is hiding something and it's the few open and honest ones in the story who seem to get hurt the most; which is probably why Justine seemed so sensitive as it was written by the most vulnerable character. Some characters have to hide in domino during carnival; others--Nessim's family--behind veils or horrific birth-scars (which makes Nessim's hiding in plain sight so amazing!); some cross dress; while still others lean on homosexuality to avoid confronting awkward or unwanted relationships. Finishing Balthazar in many ways feels like never having read Justine to begin with; or perhaps that I didn't really read it correctly.

As with Justine, the writing itself is the most arresting part of the novel. Unlike Justine, the writing is so plain, simple, oddly tangible, concrete and ultimately linear as to make you think something is wrong, but then again aren't all books supposed to read like that? Balthazar isn't the 'artist's attempt' as the narrator's efforts was in Justine, rather it's the enlightened professor reading the student's work and saying, "Let me tell you what's up…" In Justine it was easy to get lost in the abstract beauty of Durrell's words and presentation. Balthazar is noting like Justine in that regard but may be more profound as the scaled down to normal form and substantially less florid prose make it easy to think about what you're given in both books. As pretentious as it sounds Durrell pulled it off: Balthazar is not a sequel: it's the exact same book as it's predecessor only with one-hundred percent new content.

"I suppose (writes Balthazar) that if you wished somehow to incorporate all I am telling you into your own Justine manuscript now, you would find yourself with a curious sort of book--the story would be told, so to speak, in layers. Unwittingly I may have supplied you with a form, something out of the way! Not unlike Pursewarden's idea of a series of novels with 'sliding panels' as he called them. Or else, perhaps, like some medieval palimpsest where different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other, the one obliterating or perhaps supplementing another. Industrious monks scraping away an elegy to make room for a verse of holy Writ!" Page 183

If nothing else Durrell was a great critic of his own work and a damn good salesman…

"I wonder why only now I have been told all this? My friends must all have known all along. Yet nobody breathed a word. But of course, the truth is that nobody ever does breathe a word, nobody interferes, nobody whispers while the acrobat is on the tight-rope; they just sit and watch the spectacle, waiting only to be wise after the event. But then, from another point of view, how would I, blindly and passionately in love with Justine, have received such unwelcome truths at the time? Would they have deflected me from my purpose? I doubt it." Page 130

To say something concrete of the story: I think Melissa knows everything (which, if true, makes her the most out-of-the-blue complex character in the whole story); Balthazar is mean to say the least and as forthcoming as he is, he is equally holding back; the narrator is the most naive person alive; Nessim is up to something (good or bad, but something…); I love this book.

I feel duped; you see, I've read this book before. The first time I read it, it was called Justine. I read it a second time and it was called Balthazar and it seems absurd to be blown away upon re-reading such a familiar book.

There seems to be a theme in the series: the most unlikely character is always the narrator, or perhaps that's how it always is (or should be). We'll never get to read from Justine's point of view or Nessim's. I have no clue what Mountolive could possibly contribute but I can't wait to find out. As much as I want to read what Clea has to say it seems so appropriate that she has the last word.    

No comments: