Monday, February 13, 2012

One From The Stacks: Justine

First American Edition (1960)
“There are only three things to be done with a woman... You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.”-- Lawrence Durrell

It would be hard to understate just how influential Lawrence Durrell's 1957 novel "Justine" has been on me as both a reader and a writer. It's one of just a handful of books on my shelf that I've read twice: once as a twenty-something on the brink of writing the great American novel, and again several years ago when I replaced my long missing original with two used copies; one of these I gave as a gift to a new girlfriend having talked up the book to such a state that it seemed unfair not to break down for a copy. (If it was a ruse, it worked; the girlfriend is now my wife and her copy of Justine – a paperback and the lesser of the two volumes – has since been sacrificed to free up valuable shelf space in the house we now share.)  

If memory serves, my original copy came from my mother's book shelf. She was and still is something of a glutton for continental period-fiction and long ornate tales written by nineteenth century Romantics (Bronte, Flaubert), and it is not hard see "Justine" as an extension of the same themes adapted to pre-war Egypt. Whatever she saw in the book, the impact must have been profound because she named my sister after its title character. I’m not sure if our Justine knows that story or -- having little use for literature -- if she’d appreciate it much if she did. I can say the similarities between the two namesakes are few if any and my sister, practical to a fault, shares none of the brooding sensuality of Durrell’s dark-eyed Jewess (Sorry Sis).   

In any case, "Justine" is one of those rare pieces of fiction that not only warrants a second reading, but demands it; and a third and fourth too if possible. The prose is so dense and the phrasing so aureate that it takes discipline and endurance to uncover the rather elementary plot line beneath. 

The book is the first of four volumes (he preferred to call them siblings) in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet – a series of novels set in Egypt’s second largest city, each but the last of which takes place during the same time frame but is told from a different character’s perspective. As such, plot isn’t really the point; it’s the storytelling that carries the tale (although at times the burden is too heavy and the story gets dropped altogether only to be picked up a page or two or five down the road.)

Durrell had exhaustive command of the English language, a painterly vocabulary and a poetic sense of timing. That’s a potentially volatile mix, and the author would be the first to admit to occasionally losing control over it. 

Discussing his writing style, he told a Paris Review interviewer:
“It’s too juicy. Perhaps I need a few money terrors and things to make it a bit clearer—less lush. I always feel I am overwriting. I am conscious of the fact that it is one of my major difficulties. It comes of indecision when you are not sure of your target. When you haven’t drawn a bead on it, you plaster the whole damn thing to make sure. And that leads to overwriting.”
But when it works (and it almost always does) it’s that same juiciness that makes Durrell such a delight to read.  Purists of the less-is-more school of American Realism may dismiss his literary coruscation as self indulgence – and in fact more than one critic has done just that. Reading it as a young man, however, "Justine" challenged me like no other novel had to that point, and it made me a more attentive reader in the process. Rereading the book as a middle-aged writer was different but no less gratifying. Mostly I was less seduced by its hyper-eroticism and more attuned to its cutting depiction of bourgeois angst and the tendency of all lovers toward willful self destruction. 

Much like Ivo Andric -- who chose the ever enduring Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge as his protagonist for his masterpiece, “The Bridge on the Drina” -- Durrell’s character of choice is not a person but an object, an element as it were– in his case the city of Alexandria, his “princess and whore.”  Alexandria, Durrell wrote, “was the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets – I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.” 

Dutton Paperback (1961)
In "Justine," Durrell turns the classic love triangle into a tetrahedron of tragic proportion, prefaced by the following quote from Freud's Letters:
"I am accustoming myself to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved. We shall have a lot to discuss about that."
The unmanned narrator (in later volumes revealed as Darley) -- an Irish schoolteacher who has emotionally abandoned his partner Melissa to engage in the seduction of Justine, the wife of a local man of means -- is left to suffer for his sins when Melissa perishes, Justine disappears, and he winds up on a remote island caring for the child Melissa has had with Nessim, Justine’s husband. 

A sad and sordid tale, to be sure. But more than anything the story is a vehicle for Durrell to celebrate the heights and depths of his beloved metropolis (he met his second wife in Alexandria and "Justine" is dedicated to her). He revels in the flies and beggars, the civil servants, the haut monde, the flaneurs, gossips, the prostitutes and their clients, and the "sweet voice of the blind muezzin, a voice hanging like a hair..."

Durrell’s prose is chewy and highly visual, as much word painting as literature, and is adorned with sublime metaphors like this -- one of my favorites, describing the character Capodistria: “…under his eyes chairs became painfully conscious of their bare legs.”  Mmm, tasty.

From the first page Durrell reveals his astute sense of color and texture:
“Notes for landscape tones. Long sequences of tempera. Light filtered through the essence of lemons. An air full of brick-dust–sweet-smelling brick-dust and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water. Light damp clouds, earth bond, yet seldom bringing rain. Upon this squirt dust-red, dust-green, chalk-mauve and watered crimson-lake. In summer the sea-damp lightly varnished the air.”
The author wrote fast, which makes his accomplishments all the more stunning to someone like me, who painfully considers each line, each word, like a surgery resident perfecting a heart bypass. He wrote "Justine" on Cyprus in just four months, taking time off to deal with threats to his life resulting from his work for the British government -- which confirms not only his mastery of the craft and command of the language, but also his ability to work in less than ideal circumstances.  

Upon completion the book drew almost immediate critical praise. And, at 48, when he finished his Quartet, Durrell was hailed for breathing new life into what many critics had lamented as a dying art form.

Writing for the Virginia Quarterly Review in 1964, critic Robert Scholes remarked: “The novel may indeed be dying, but we need not fear for the future. Durrell and others are leading us in a renaissance of romance.”
Justine (Hardback)
By Lawrence Durrell
Published by E.P. Dutton and Co. (1960) first American edition, twelfth printing
Originally published in 1957 by Faber and Faber
Purchase date 2009, from The Title Page in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania
Purchase price: N.A.
Condition: Good (no damage but missing dust jacket; Top image is of same edition)