Love, art, mystery: Lawrence Durrell’s Justine

Durrell raises a question we are most afraid to answer: whether, as his character Clea asserts, “Lovers are never equally matched….” Is that, he asks, the source of the pain so many experience in love…?

Justine by Lawrence Durrell (image courtesy Goodreads)

We come now to another novelist who, like Paul Bowles, skirts the edge of wide acceptance as a major literary figure. Lawrence Durrell’s reputation rests on a group of novels called The Alexandria Quartet. The first of these is called Justine after the main character, a reluctant siren whose mystique pervades the work. It’s the latest from my 2014 reading list, and it’s a work that offers one the challenge of deciding whether to focus one’s discussion on the quality of the writing, the themes the novel explores, or the complexity of the  story.

To treat Justine fairly, it’s probably best to talk at least a bit about each. This is a novel in which writing, story, and themes are intricately woven. Durrell came under consideration for (and close to winning in 1962) the Nobel Prize on at least two occasions based on this work (and the others in the tetralogy). Justine offers a good example of why.

Justine is very much Modernist both in form and content. Durrell seeks to draw attention to the narrative and to the act of writing even as he draws us into the narrative and seeks to make us forget about the writing.  But the Modernist impulse pervades the novel and Durrell talks much about love, writing and their relationship:

These are the moments which possess the writer, not the lover, and which live on perpetually. One can return to them time and time again in memory, or use them as a fund upon which to build the part of one’s life which is writing.

In another passage he admits the inadequacy of words to recount –

…the moments which are not calculable, and cannot be assessed in words; they live on in the solution of memory….

Memory, time, imagination – these are the core elements of Justine. While critics have noted Durrell’s obvious interest in psychology, their focus has been on Freudian elements, struggles between id, ego and superego. I would argue that Durrell may well have been influenced by the theories of R.D. Laing. Again and again the unnamed narrator, a writer himself, attempts to understand his lover Justine (and explain her to readers) through the imagined visions of her that others hold – his friend the diplomat Pombal; another, more successful writer named Pursewarden; Justine’s first husband, a writer (who has written a novel about her), Arnauti; and Justine’s current husband, Nessim, a wealthy Egyptian banker.  Each of these men – most of whom have been her lovers – attempts to capture the essence of Justine’s mysterious allure – and to explain her treatment of them, uniformly cruel in a self-absorbed, psychologically damaged way. Arnauti’s portrait of Justin, for example is dismissed by Pombal, a sensualist and cynic, as the solution of an artistic problem:

…real people can only exist in the imagination of an artist strong enough to contain them and give them form. Life, the raw material, is only lived in potentia until the artist deploys it in his work. Would that I could do this service of love for poor Justine.

As for the novelist Pursewarden (the narrator’s alter ego whose suicide serves as a warning of the cost of trying to make life art), he serves the important purpose of reminding the narrator that perhaps his self-torment where Justine is concerned is merely pretense: “All artists today are expected to cultivate a little fashionable unhappiness….the women he loves, the letters he writes to the women he loves, stand as ciphers in his mind for the women he thinks he wants….”

The source of Justine’s unhappiness – the source of her allure, the source of her promiscuity, the source of her impenetrable alienation – is her own psychological trauma arising from her rape as a young girl. It is a trauma she is only able to overcome by killing her rapist – an act (made possible by her husband Nessim) that then frees her from the need to attract, conquer, and then break men’s hearts. Even as she divests herself of her trauma, she also divests herself of her attractions as her friend (and another former lover), the artist Clea reports to the narrator after seeing Justine who has run away from Alexandria to work on a Jewish kibbutz in Palestine:

…in Justine’s case, having become cured of the mental aberrations brought about by her dreams, her fears, she has been deflated like a bag….It is not only that the death of Capodistria (Justine’s rapist) has removed the chief actor in this shadow-play….She has, so to speak, extinguished with her sexuality her very claims on life, almost her reason….It is not a question of growing to be happy or unhappy. A whole block of one’s life suddenly falls into the sea….

Justine’s release also brings release to her husband Nessim and to the narrator. The former sinks into a sort of sensuality that once characterized his estranged wife’s life. The latter tries to make his peace by adopting the child of his former mistress who has died and moving to an island in the Mediterranean. His self-imposed asceticism finally makes him able to come to terms with what his failed relationship with Justine has done to him – and to atone for his own failings to his friend, Justine’s husband Nessim, and to his late mistress – the parents of the child he cares for. He has learned this important lesson, and it has given him his voice as a writer:

An artist does not live a personal life as we do, he hides it, forcing us to go to his books if we wish to touch the true source of his feelings.

All this, I realize, is as twisting and confusing as the streets of the city where it takes place – Alexandria, Egypt. As many have written, Alexandria is a an important character in the novel. Think of it in the way one would think of Egdon Heath in Return of the Native. I cannot agree with those who would say that Alexandria is the most important character in Justine, any more than I would call Egdon the main character in Hardy’s novel. In both cases setting has great influence on character and action. But both novels are studies in how events change character – and, as in Return of the Native Eustacia Vye’s struggle with her desires drives the narrative, in Justine, the title character’s struggles with her trauma do the same.

Ultimately, perhaps what Alexandria, what Justine, what the narrator’s broken heart and found voice, what the novel teaches is summed up in its closing question:

Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?


6 replies »

  1. I’ve read “Justine” four or five times, most recently a few years ago, when I was even more dazzled by Durrell’s skill. Especially how he’s all over the place until the end when he deftly wraps everything up. Will no doubt read it again in a few years (loved the rest of the Quartet as well).

    • That jerking readers around in the order of events (and in time) is classic Modernist style, Russ. I, too, was impressed by his pulling all the threads he seemingly had started and dropped together so beautifully (and neatly) in the last third of the novel. Not an easy feat, I can tell you – and I write novels. 😉

      I’d be interested in your take on the role of Alexandria, Russ. So much of what I came across while doing background for this essay argued that Alexandria is the most important element in the book. You see above how I felt about that idea. Given that you’ve read the book a number of times, you digested it very well by now. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Alexandria as the “hero” of “Justine.”

  2. I see that several posts on this site contain Durrell’s name. For example there is the post of 1 September 2009, ‘Personally, I think Conrad and Cary hold up pretty well, but Durrell doesn’t, sadly’. This suggests that Durrell has been read and does not measure up. But a post on 19 October 2014 gives the finalised reading list for this year and states, ‘We shall see whether Durrell surpasses Bowles and reaches greatness’, suggesting that Durrell has not yet been read (or not yet Justine). Now today’s post announces that Justine has finally been read. Which leaves me confused. Are all these posts by the same person, by Jim Booth? If you have previously read Durrell but find that he does not hold up, what was it of Durrell’s that you read if not Justine and The Alexandria Quartet? This last post says that Justine explains why Durrell came close to winning the Nobel Prize. So does Durrell hold up or not?

    • Michael,

      The Sept. 2009 piece was written by another S&R writer, Wufnik, not by me. So that opinion about Durrell’s fiction is his, not mine. Hope that clears up your confusion.

      At that point (2009) I had read some of Durrell’s travel writing but had not taken on his fiction. “Justine” was my first foray into his novels.

      Here’s what I think: “Justine” is quite a feat of writing – it has its Modernist hobby horse shortcomings (too much wanting to monkey around with language to draw attention to words and some messing with plot order and time sequencing that can be slightly annoying). But I give him all due credit for pulling everything together beautifully in the last third of the novel and leaving this reader not just satisfied but impressed. It’s far better than most litfic I read from more contemporary writers. An impressive performance…

      Should Durrell have gotten the Nobel rather than Steinbeck? Probably not, in my opinion. But another finalist that year was J.R.R. Tolkien. You bet Durrell should have gotten the nod over Tolkien. No comparison in the quality of their writing – Durrell is far superior – again, in my opinion. As writers I think Durrell certainly stands up to Steinbeck – I simply think Steinbeck wrote more high level work than Durrell. Don’t know if that’s the criterion the Nobel committee uses or not – but It’s a solid one I could agree with if that’s how they decided.

  3. Herr Booth: It was so many moons ago that i read “Justine’ I am sure that I did not fully comprehend/appreciate it. I will embark on a journey thru my dusty shelves to find it and give it its worthy attention. Incidentally, have you reviewed/commented on “The Five’ by Vlladmir Jabotinsky? II would be interested in your opinion on this great work. Wishing you the best in your practice of proper mental hygiene and a gluten-free America.

    • Thanks, Pavlov, for the thoughtful comment. I am planning to give the first half my 2015 reading year to literature in translation. I will add Jabotinsky’s work – I’m re-reading some Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, and Aksakov. Jabotinsky will make a wonderful addition. Thanks for the recommendation….