Monday, September 11, 2017

Edith's Diary by Patricia Highsmith

I've loved and cheered for protagonist who were objectively put, awful human beings, (Alex, A Clockwork Orange, Humbert Humbert, Lolita, Holden Caulfiled, Catcher in the Rye, Katniss Everdeen The Hunger Games) I don't know that I'd ever cheered for a character whose actions so clearly brought about her demise. Almost from the very beginning there is a dichotomy within Edith, the title character, as to her real life and how she views things. The diary is Edith's way of hiding; she hides all her truth's she'd rather not admit, dreams, hopes, and suspicions. It is her fantasy life, and at times if very clearly leaves mark on her real world existence.

It's not an epistolary novel written in journal format should anyone reading this have a thing for such presentation; the diary entries themselves were extremely short and equally infrequent. It's also not some grand plot driven narrative with amazing external forces driving things forward. I hate the term character study, but it may apply: it's long, super intimate and very very personal.

Brett, Edith's husband, is her perfect match in the beginning. Cliffie, there son is a monsterous human being from birth and only gets worse. He has absolutely no redeeming qualities and everyone, parents included, know. As she ages, her diary recalls Brett simply fading away from her life instead of leaving with a younger woman and starting a new family; Cliffie isn't a horrible person, but educated, highly intelligent, married and has beautiful children; she expeirences regular visits from non-existent family and life only gets better.

One of the most powerful forces in her life is George, Brett's elderly uncle, who lives with them as his health declines. Brett doesn't nothing, George becomes invalid, and Edith in every way becomes a nurse. It was a pretty easily identifiable starting place for so much of the resentment that mars her attitude toward other people. George and Cliffie have a very peculiar relationship...

Melanie, a distant and favored Aunt whom Edith really loves is her last bastion of rationality. When she finally succumbs to advanced age and health problems, it's not the stark encounter with Drs. Carstairs and McElroy, but Melanie's passing that truly marks the end.

I never believed she was losing it until a few impartial third-party characters started mentioning things that couldn't be ignored and just didn't add up. At that point, I was sad, sad because I really liked her. I was cheering for Edith the entire time. I do feel was short-changed and dealt poorly, and despite those things I do think she handled it all admirably. It was hard to finally admit that yeah, she's slipping. And while I did understand that she felt so many people were prying into her life at the incessant suggestion of 'see a shrink, see a shrink, see a shrink' before the end I certainly found myself saying she may need some help....

Repression; (hiding, as Cliffie hides the diary in the end!) is her main issue. By the end of the book nearly every character we like or don't like that at least knows Edith is begging her in good nature to talk to someone, and share her feelings. And so, I--even as a reader--feel a bit as though I'm betraying her as I sit here psycho-analyzing a fictional character when all that she wanted was to be let alone. She has problems, repression, and a difficulty stating how she feels, but her problems come from real not perceived wrongs, and wrongs that anyone today or then could identify with. I didn't love her because of her flaws, certainly didn't dislike her for them either. I cheered for her because she had them; and how she reacted to them, they endeared me to her because I could see myself, or anyone else for the matter, behaving in similar fashion.

Part of me feels like all her troubles started with Cliffie being such an unrelenting dick. He's not a spoiled brat just a bad egg with no explanation. He tries to smoother the family cat a child, cheats and gets caught on college entrance exams, gets drunk and break both legs of a pedestrian, puts a gun in his fathers face and laughs, and at the least oversaw if not administered George's overdose: all with no remorse. Edith nor Brett spend a lot of time dwelling on Cliffie, how he came to be who he is or what they can do to change him, but his actions certainly have a tangible impact of Brett and Edith's relationship, and every other facet of their lives.

Alcoholism is real in this book. To the point where it may even play a part in Edith's decline. It could be part cultural and indicative of the time; or these people are drunks. 

Edith is a rare character that never 'grows up' or matures. Her political views were always a bit extreme; and she only solidifies them as she gets older, while Brett and her one good-ish friend, soften and relent a bit in older age. (Boy oh boy did Highsmith have a few Nixon rants in her... ) She became more of an extremist and isolated herself the older she got, and the more untenable her life became. She also completely and totally stopped caring about other people. She became a super crotchety old lady.

I see a lot of Patricia Highsmith in my reading future.   

Sunday, August 20, 2017

And Suddenly... Poetry!

Happily for you, it's not my own poetry but someone who was really good at it.  

From C P Cavafy, as translated by Rae Dalven


The days of our future stand before us
like a row of little lighted candles--
golden, warm, and lively little candles. 

The days gone by remain behind us, 
a mournful line of burnt-out candles:
the nearest ones are still smoking, 
cold candles, melted and bent.

I do not want to look at them; their form saddens me,
and it saddens me to recall their first light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles. 

I do not want to turn back, lest I see and shudder--
how quickly the somber line lenghthens, 
how quickly the burnt-out candles multiply.    

An Old Man

In the inner room of the noisy cafe
and old man sits bent over a table; 
a newspaper before him, no companion beside him. 

And in the scorn of his miserable old age, 
he meditates how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, the art of the word, and good looks.

He knows he has aged much; he is aware of it, he sees it, 
and yet the time when he was young seems like 
yesterday.  How short a time, how short a time.  

And he ponders how Wisdom had deceived him;
and how he always trusted her--what folly!--
the liar who would say, "Tomorrow.  You have ample time."

He recalls impulses he curbed; and how much 
joy he sacrificed.  Every lost chance
now mocks his senseless prudence.  

...  But with so much thinking and remembering
the old man reels.  And he dozes off 
bent over the table of the cafe.  


Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built big and high walls around me. 

And now I sit here despairing. 
I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind;

for I had many things to do outside.
Ah why didn't I observe them when they were building the walls?

But I never heard the noise or the sound of the builders.
Imperceptibly they shut me out of the world.  

There are many other really really good ones that I like, "Ithaca" and "The City" but I'm too lazy to type them out.  So go find a copy and read Cavafy's for yourself.  

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Clea by Lawrence Durrell

For my comments on Justine, Balthazar, and Mountolive, the first three books of the Alexandria Quartet, follow the respective links.

I've been looking forward to Clea since I finished Justine. I felt it would be my favorite. I was sure it would have the most to offer and be the most substantial in the series. My immediate thought after finishing this book has to be nothing other than, “God damn. There's a lot of exclamation marks in this book....”

The war, which was always in the background and even in Clea never gets main character treatment, is finally such a big deal that it has to get more than merely casual mention as it had in previous entries. Darley, the narrator of Justine, is back as narrator in Clea. He has to come back to Alexandria, and his return is marked by death all around him: as in warships are actively bombing the city as he makes his entrance. Its the same intangible, beautiful rambling narrative and lack of concrete substance that he gives in Justine. Even while the city is being strategically shelled Darley's general oblivion is held in perfect tact. The gravity of the matter is only felt by the reader; why? Because everything we love about the previous experience of reading three books is embodied in the city and all the people too. The city under fire works so well but Durell never indulged it. It was just a thing in the background—we don't read this book for epic descriptions of war. But the next morning characters noticed rubble in the streets, inaccessibility of certain roads, and people died. He in no way painted the picture but he damn sure sold it to me. Lastly, the juxtaposition of everyday life in the city: the call to worship; fishing in the harbor; nightlife, in contrast with the war kinda caused an internal struggle between 'everything is gonna be okay,' and all the drama the actual characters stirred up. Enough of the war and the city; on to the good parts...

In Clea, we see exactly how much of certain characters lives we missed in Mountolive; Justine's had a stroke, Nessim lost an eye and a finger, both are on house arrest and aren't free travel about the city (as if Nessim could be held down). The perfect couple has fallen but I never thought Justine could be a such a bitch, especially not in Darley's eyes! She even defends herself to Darley saying she lied but he lied to himself in deifying her. She's not only bitter, but defeatist, which is kind of a shocker considering... ya know... the other three books....

Oh, and if ever I was gonna have a fictional dad it would be Nessim. Just saying.

There's is a lot going on, and I don't feel bad saying that it took me some time away from the book after having finished it to say so. Everyone who remained behind is falling apart: badly. Justine, Nessim, even Bathazar. His teeth, his terrible and ill-advised love with an actor, he went full cray with the 'drunk, drugs, and brothels' bit. A large part of him also enjoyed suffering; if not that then the being made to endure his self-inflicted wounds. (I'm not gonna talk about periodontal disease right now, but yeah... that too.) I'd go so far as to say 'endurance' is a theme for all the characters that stayed behind. Darley retreated and found some measure of internal peace; everyone else in Alexandria has further flipped their shit (I mean seriously; Scoobie “El Yacoub” has been made a saint, and I even believe it!) which is saying something considering the mental constitution of some of the characters from the start. If you've read Justine, and one should most certainly be strictly doctrinaire when reading this particular series, think of how nutso it is to say Darley of all people is the normal person and everyone else is the train wreck. Yeah, that's where we are...

I felt in Clea there was more to concretely dislike than any in other book in the series. Pursewarden, a voice I most truly felt to be that of the author's, trivialized Justin's rape; even went so far as to say in as many words that she enjoyed it—then he defended his comments. I also felt Durrell just got a bit lazy from time to time.

“The Alexandrians still moved inside the murex-tinted cycloram of the life they imagined. (“Life is more complicated than we think, yet far simpler than anyone dares to imagine.”) pg 65

Those are two very fine sentences but I do wish that the primary characters were experiencing those things first hand than the recap. If only because Darley is the narrator and that was how such details were given in Justine. There is also a supremely heavy over-reliance on Pursewarden; a character that died in the previous book. He is quoted on seemingly every page. The air of, “Pursewarden said...” is likened to the teachings of Mohamed or Jesus as being recited by the Holy. As if by quoting him the speaker admits to wanting to have lived or live the most messed up life ever... If the dude had to be such a force in the book—such a necessary force—then don't kill him; or write a new character to take his place or just finish the series.

I think we can add anti-Semite to the list of bad things as well.

Durell loves to rhapsodize about 'art, writing, and style,” usage and definition of each that to me were tedious from the start and they he only kept going. All were done from the dead voice of Pursewarden. Similar points had been made before but done better as they had previously served to further then narrative. In the “Brother Ass,” Chapter (that I'm sure the author felt would be remembered by history in the same light as “The Grand Inquisitor”) Purewarden, Durell, is being self-indulgent peacock puffing out his chest and tail feathers. The “Great Stylist,” is begging for compliments after bashing other prominent English writers to set himself apart. It was exhausting and more than once I considered skipping that chapter and upon completion of the book don't feel I'd have been any worse for the wear should I have done so.

I'm sure it all made mathematical clarity to Durell but many of his “points” are ramblings with no real meaning that get lost in length and intentionally (artistically; perhaps?) nebulous prose.

“The sexual and the creative energy go hand in hand. They convert into one another—the solar sexual and the lunar spiritual holding an eternal dialogue. They ride the spiral of time together. They embrace the whole of the human motive. The truth is only to be found in our own entrails—the truth of Time. Pg 141.

Seriously? What does he think he's saying in the above?

If I'm to be wholly honest—which I hate doing—I had no idea I actually liked this book until I wrote this commentary.... And, of course, it should go without saying that that goes for the series as well. It doesn't really work; it's not supposed to; it's anything but traditional. It's also not perfect. It's really really good.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell

For my commentary on Justine and Balthazaar, books one and two of The Alexandria Quartet, follow the respective links.
"For the artist, I think, as for the public, no such thing as art exist: it only exists for the critics and those who live in the forebrain. Artist and public simply register, like a seismograph, an electromagnetic charge which can't be rationalized. One only knows that a transmission of sorts goes on, true or false, successful or unsuccessful, according to chance. But to try to break down the elements and nose them over--one gets nowhere. (I suspect this approach to art is common to all those who cannot surrender themselves to it!) Paradox. Anyway." pg 115
So it's a bit unfair to include the above as it was spoken by the narrator of Justine but I've come to feel that is the true voice of the author (Darly or Pursewarden; I'm not sure yet). Perhaps even a defense of The Alexandria Quartet.
"Somehow his friendship for them had prevented him from thinking of them as people who might, like himself, be living on several different levels at once. As conspirators, as lovers--what was the key to the enigma? He could not guess." Page 192
And suddenly, everything is illuminated... Unlike it's predecessors Mountolive is simple in it's presentation, flows, and makes sense. It feel like a traditional novel and in that regard it left me wanting a bit of the lavish presentation of the previous two books and also made me sigh with relief. The Alexandria Quartet being my only frame of reference with the author, reading something straight-forward from Durrell is a bit unsettling. I kept expecting to be literarily attacked--ambushed--in some new clever way but Mountolive resolutely marches forward in linear fashion following the lives of it's characters and exposing the plot we been over for what is now the third time through yet another lens. And let me come out and say that that last magic trick--telling the same story through different eyes--truly is magic, because it really shouldn't work. The title character may have been mentioned once or twice in Balthazaar and seeing how such a primary, intregal-to-everyone character, could have been all but left out until now is stunning. We see him spend a year with Nessim and Narouz in Egypt as an English exchange student in his late teen-aged years. We see him and Leila fall all-the-way in love. We see him leave and become a successful diplomat. We also see A LOT of the other characters and gain some serious understanding of their persons. For instance: "Underneath her lightness he recognized something strong, resistant and durable--the very character of an experience he lacked. She was a gallant creature, and it is only the gallant who can remain light-hearted in adversity." pg 47. That is about Lelia, Nessim and Narouz's mother, not Justine... "Darley is so sentimental and so loyal to me that he constitutes no danger at all. Even if he came into the possession of information which might harm us he would not use it, he would bury it." pg 210 As spoken by Justine and which completely explains the narrative point of view of the quartet's first novel, fixation on sentiment, and near oblivious eye turned to the obvious thought of every reader, "Something else is going on..." As for Mountolive, his early relationship with an older woman mars him for life: he seeks out married women in his later liasons, he ages and matures a bit too quickly, and the hold Leila has over him is extraordinary. Poor Clea is everyone's crutch: she reads to Samira (a brilliant parallel micro-story within the story of it's own), she puts up with Darley, she indulges Narouz, and even buys into Nessim's bullshit. Of Pursewarden, well, this book is as much Pursewarden's as it is Mountolive's... While the book is about and focused on Mountolive, it is Pursewarden who drives the plot. Pursewarden sleeps with the wrong people--and here I'm not talking about his sister, rather Melissa--and learns some very interesting knowledge about Nessim. While reading Balthazaar I had a thought that Nessim was running guns to someone and Balthazaar was a spy. Whom the guns were run to and who the spy really is I was wrong about. Through an event no more subtle than suicide we see Pursewarden give the world the finger and all of his closest acquaintances as well. He forces everyone to act when they would rather be stay where they are. Once the knowledge is out there, it can't be taken back. The end of the book is a bit of a race to see who will mess up first and on what scale. It takes getting to book three for the true plot of this story to clearly present itself. And even then, once we concretely know what is going on, its still the characters that keep one reading. (I am priding myself by keeping to my original promise of not making comparisons to other works of fiction as I stated in Justine.) As to Durrell being Durrell, his language finally managed to get on my nerves in a sex scene with Pursewarden and Melissa; who, by the way, has slept with everyone but isn't really a ho since 'ho' is kinda her stated profession. He relied too much on analogy and allegory and for far too long and considering the narrative voice in the rest of the novel it almost came across as pulp fiction, base or vulgar. Even though it was just regular old trashy sex. I almost forgave all the intimacy with Pursewarden as it plays on the relationship with his sister: they were lovers, it happened, it could never happen again, and he always sought, and failed to recreate what he once held as an ideal. Hmm... I ain't said much about the book because as I've said about the first two: there's not a whole lot of 'plot' driving this story. Fans of page-turning thrillers and spy novels beware; this one moves at a leisurely heart rate. That said, the story given is extraordinary.

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.    

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Wow; I'm really late to the party. It seems everyone already knows this collection is amazing and there is no chance that I'm telling anyone anything new. So, on-board the thoroughly departed years ago bandwagon I go...

If this collection is indicative of the rest of Saunders output, I'm torn: he's funny; really, organically funny. He's also very, very contemporary. Not a bad thing, only to say I'm not sure the 'jokes' will make as much sense or be as readily funny as they are now in fifteen years. (Which means it's really good to be a reader right now! GO READ THIS BOOK!) If his previous stuff is similarly contemporary, it's probably reading a bit dated; I'm sure we all have encountered this 'problem' before with writers.

Middle class, working, Americans of today are all he has to talk about: Blue collar, military Veterans, and suburbanites. And also SF. Or—let me be more clear—Science Fiction. A lot of that happens too. It's hard to call it SF when the New Yorker and Harper's publish the stories. It's really, really hard to call it SF when you get a NBA. But a lot of this collection, I'd go so far as to say, “The best of this collection,” is SF.

It's always dark, and sometimes that is easy to forget, and it's always funny; and that is unforgettable.

'Victory Lap' was my favorite. Juxtaposing two family's 'model' children in different light, making me laugh all the way through. Then scaring me into thinking something terrible was going to happen to one then the other, then both. It's the little dose of reality mixed into the suburban satire that is scary, because it's so real. The, 'this could never happen to my kids' fears we have never even come to mind in Saunders' stories until they do; and even when they do, somehow it's still hilarious. Which only makes things more intense.

Sometimes things are funnier than darker, as in 'Exhortation.' A waaaay too long work Memo that underscores, the immediacy of a given department's need to improve and how HQ will 'fix' things if they don't. I've had that job. Twice. I've seen my take on the real corporate version of that Memo. Saunders isn't throwing darts in the dark: he knows what he's talking about. Its a funny 'Ha-ah' not funny 'Laugh at my tears' kinda story. Or something. (Trump was elected yesterday; I'm trying so hard to not make appropriate jokes for fear of tarnishing the authors work!)

The best story, not necessarily my favorite, was the most SF. Expecting me to say the 'The Simplica Girls Diaries?' The one you may have heard about? No. I'll say I didn't care for that one, and then not substantiate as to why though I've many reasons. (I can do that because the Harper's and New Yorker people don't read my blog and I don't have to explain myself to them.) 'Escape from the Spiderhead' immediately reminded me of 'Calliagnosia,' by Ted Chaing but better. I'll say nothing else until you've read both; then we can talk until the sun comes up.

And all of the next day too.

It's SF and literary fiction; who cares? It's really, really good. (But seriously, when was the last time anyone ever cared about literary fiction?) Don't miss out; don't put it off any longer. Read it now. I mean, I haven't even talked about, 'the good stories,' yet!   

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.