70. The Alexandria Quartet: Justine by Lawrence Durrell

(I'm dropping the "Uncomfortable Plot Summaries" because I'm terrible at them. -M.R.)

Year Published: 1957
Pages: 203
First Sentence: The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

The List has several cheats like The Alexandria Quartet, which is to say items that are not actually novels, but rather a series of novels. This particular instance is definitely not as egregious as A Dance to the Music of Time, coming up in the 40s (so about a decade from now), which is twelve books long. Ha! So what I'd like to say right now is that I reserve the right to quit any of these series if I'm not enjoying them, but I do have to read at least the first book of all of them.

So, then, Justine.

I'm reading The Alexandria Quartet in one big, nearly-900-page volume, partly to enhance the sense of cohesiveness and partly because that's what was at the library. I had essentially no expectations other than extreme arduousness, but I ended up hooked to this book right from the beginning.

The plot is buried under a young Englishman's non-chronological narrated reflection. To quote him:

What I most need to do is to 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.

This is precisely what he does. In the most basic, crude sense, Nameless Narrator (I love it when first-person narrators don't have names, and I can't explain why) becomes involved with Justine, a married woman who is... well, it's hard to explain. To call her a femme fatale would be to incorrectly state the case, but that's about as close as I can get. There's a lot of discussion of what love is, what we want from other people, what we can give them. The plot, such as it is, involves the couple's efforts and struggles to elude their respective primary partners' notice of their affair.

This sort of dithering and obtuseness would probably frustrate me if not for the fact that Durrell's prose goes down smooOOooth. It's poetic without the obtrusive metaphors that I hate so much. His observations are sharp and meaningful. I found myself sliding over (not skimming, but not paying close attention to) the denser bits with the feeling that I'll have to come back to this book sometime, and that when I do, I'll get something completely different from it.

The weakness of the book is maybe the characters, whose relationships with each other are clear but whose individual personalities are murkier. That's kinda one of the themes of the book, though, so I'm not sure it's actually a weakness.

Balthazar (the title of Book Two) and Clea (the title of Book Four) are both introduced as characters in Justine. They're mostly peripheral to the main action, although I assume several dangling threads will be picked up in the rest of the books. The most mysterious book so far is Mountolive, which comes third, and that name hasn't come up anywhere yet.

- - - - -
She would come a few minutes late of course, fresh from some assignation in a darkened room, from which I avert my mind; but so fresh, so young, the open petal of the mouth that fell upon mine like an unslaked summer. The man she had left might still be going over and over the memory of her; she might be as if still dusted by the pollen of his kisses. Melissa! It mattered so little somehow, feeling the lithe weight of the creature as she leaned on one's arm smiling with the selfless candour of those who had given over with secrets. It was good to stand there, awkward and a little shy, breathing quickly because we knew what we wanted of each other.
- - - - -
...'Comment vous défendez-vous contre la solitude?' he asked her. Melissa turned upon him an eye replete with all the candour of experience and replied softly: 'Monsieur, je suis devenue la solitude même.'
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