Saturday, 18 June 2005

Lawrence Durrell: Balthazar (1961)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1963 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1298

The introduction to this novel, the second in the Alexandria Quartet, briefly explains one of the structural ideas behind the novels. I'm not sure of the extent to which this is meant to be tongue in cheek, because it is the sort of idea often found in satires of intellectual writers who don't understand much science. The explanation given for a quartet of novels the first three of which cover the same events from different perspectives is that they were inspired by the idea of spacetime most famously used in Einstein's theory of relativity - the first three novels corresponding to space dimensions, and the fourth to time.

I particularly like the way that Balthazar is set up, the reason that the narrator is persuaded to revisit the story of his affair with Justine. Having published his novel about the affair (the novel Justine, in other words), he received a packet of papers from his friend Balthazar. These basically tore the novel apart, explaining that although things appeared in one form to the writer, his view was not always terribly accurate, his passion for Justine making it impossible to read between the lines. This naturally prompts a re-examination of his memories - from which comes the novel Balthazar. The narrator is driven to find out to what extent Justine really loved him. What did their friends - and particularly her husband - really think about their relationship?

Since one of the interesting aspects of Justine is the way in which the woman is a symbol for the city of Alexandria, to reassess her and the affair is for Durrell to reassess his view of the Egyptian port. At least, that is apparently the case, because of course Durrell is perfectly aware of the ironies involved and is quite deliberately manipulating them. There are quite a few levels to the narrative, though it reads perfectly straightforwardly - particularly because the main interest in Balthazar is in the change derived from the narrator's altered feelings brought about by the letters which arose because of his fictional counterpart to the real novel Justine (and not forgetting that the real novel may not necessarily be identical to its fictional version) which he also narrated. But it is not all meant to be taken seriously; Balthazar is also meant to entertain the reader. As an endpiece to this novel like the notes that form Justine's afterword, Durrell includes some supposed quotations from novelist character Pursewarden in Wildean vein; among them is a little barb at those who take literature too seriously. This returns full circle to the suggestion that there is something tongue in cheek about the theory of relativity being the inspiration for the structure of the four novels - just one detail from a thought provoking novel.

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