Tuesday, 31 May 2005

Lawrence Durrell: Justine (1957)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1961 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1295

The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell's most famous work, begins with this story of an obsessive affair, between the young poet who narrates the novel and society woman Justine. The novel is more about the setting of postwar Alexandria, though, and Justine herself is to some extent a symbol of the city, which makes the novel extremely atmospheric even without lengthy passages of description. The groundwork is laid here for themes which become more important later in the series of novels (particularly since the first three cover the same events from different perspectives) - cabalism and gnosticism, for example - but Durrell is careful only to hint at what later volumes hold.

With this novel, Durrell's background as a poet is very clear, perhaps more so than in any of his other prose. There are certain kinds of literature where every word should have a purpose - thrillers are one, where the aim is to advance the action - but it is of poetry that this is most true, as it is an art form where words are almost everything, like the notes in music (rhythm being the most important other component). In most poetry, every word (with the possibly exception of particles like "the" - which may still contribute through rhythm) is there to contribute to an effect. Lawrence Durrell's prose has the same feeling: the position of every word in every sentence seems to be carefully thought out. Sometimes when writers do this, it can have the effect of making what they produce hard to follow: but this is not Finnegans Wake or The Wasteland. And while I'm thinking about Joyce and Eliot, it is clear that both are influences; but the novel's title also indicates a homage to an earlier writer with a different kind of notoriety: to de Sade, who also wrote a novel with the title Justine.

The novel ends with a fascinating little series of notes, apparently made as aids to composition (and I suspect designd to look like this) and entitled "workpoints"; these include translations of Cavafy, the poet of Alexandria whose work is a major influence, and three-word sketches of Justine's characters.

As well as being his most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet is the ideal introduction to Durrell. The Antrobus stories, while fun in a Yes, Minister vein, are more like his brother Gerald's writing and are not at all typical, and the travel writing is much more journalistic, as one might expect. It would be safe to say, though, that any reader who enjoys Justine will like the rest of The Alexandria Quartet, The Avignon Quintet and so on; but a reader who dislikes Justine will not find reading any of these other novels worthwhile. They are novels where the pleasure of reading them requires work from the reader; they are not meant to be read at speed but carefully, allowing each sentence to have its effect. I think the effort is well worth it; others may well not.

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