An angst-ridden expatriate in Alexandria has an affair with a friend’s wife.
I came across Gerald Durrell when I was in my mid-teens. I can’t remember whether it was for a class, or while re-shelving books (I worked in the school library), or maybe just chance. In any case, I found Catch Me a Colobus (with which for years I confused Philip Roth’s Goodbye Colombus). I read it, was enthralled, and over the next few years bought and read most of Durrell’s other books.
In Gerald’s more autobiographical books, he from time to time casually mentions his older brother, the writer. To be honest, I never got the impression Larry was all that good. So it was with some surprise that, years later, I found that Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet was a genuinely well-regarded set of novels. I figured that some day, I might pick up one of the books out of curiosity. The late 2013 sale by Open Road books was the opportunity; I got the entire quartet for literally a couple of dollars. I have to say that for much of Justine, I was pretty sorry I had.
The concept of the Quartet appears to be that the first three books tell the same story from different perspectives. The concept of Justine, at least, is best described by Durrell in one of the ‘workpoints’ included in this edition:
‘The narrative momentum forward is counter-sprung by references backwards in time, giving the impression of a book which is not travelling from a to b but standing above time and turning slowly on its own axis to comprehend the whole pattern. Things do not all lead forward to other things: some lead backwards to things which have passed. A marriage of past and present with the flying multiplicity of the future racing towards one. Anyway, that was my idea.’
Those words are technically spoken by Pursewarden, a character who’s a novelist, and they’re not in the novel proper. But they do describe pretty accurately what Durrell appears to be attempting.
I approve of experimentation in writing. The trick is to also tell a good story that’s not overwhelmed by the clever mechanics. For most of the book, Durrell fails miserably in this task. I spent a good deal of my time wishing the book were through, and dreading the hundreds of pages left in the Quartet (on my Nook, the whole set comes to 980 pages).
The main problem is that while jumping around in time, Durell gives few clues as to what’s happening when. Since he also fails to introduce the characters in any kind of linear sense, the sequence is intensely baffling. To give him credit, he starts at the end, which at least allows us to grasp the names of the key characters, and parts of their relationships. But the effect of the short sequences is very much like a puzzle, starting with a great mess of pieces and only gradually getting a feel for the outlines. I can only hope that now that I know those outlines, the three remaining books will be more palatable.
Another problem is Durrell’s verbiage. Apparently he was lauded for his descriptions, but I found the prose more purple and perfervid than rich and beautiful. There are only so many dying trees ‘burnt to the color of coffee’ one can take, and here, they’re layered on each other relentlessly. The language is dense, and not particularly effective. That and there are endless mentions of ‘the old poet’, who is only identified in what appear to be editorial footnotes. One of the book’s reputed draws is the flavor of Alexandria, but all I came away with was the feeling of what one expatriate’s time in the city was like.
The biggest problem, however, is the theme of the book itself. Or perhaps not the theme, but the recurring elements. In brief, our protagonist cheats on his girlfriend Melissa with Justine, who is in turn cheating on her husband Nessim. So far, so standard. The difficulty comes when our unnamed protagonist and Justine spend much of their time lamenting their infidelity, but unable to help themselves. Durrell is clearly trying to make some philosophical statements about love and life, but I simply felt that the narrator and Justine were fairly shallow people that I would not much like.
The improved toward the end, when I felt I had a better grasp of events, but that’s also when the plot finally speeds up, which may have just as much to do with it. I even have a mild interest in seeing how the early part of the book unfolded, now that I know the story – but not near enough interest to actually re-read it.
I will read the rest of the Quartet, because I bought them (even at a very low price), and in memory of brother Gerald, and because I hope the remaining books will be better. But I honestly can’t recommend Justine. It’s simply too dense and hard to get into. The first three quarters constitute the most painful reading I’ve done for decades – perhaps since the awful Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. I give this two stars, because some of the language is good, and because by the time it wraps up, there is a decent story presented. But it’s just too much work to get to.