justine by lawrence durrell

Summer Reading Recommendations

sunrise woods 1

Photograph by g emil reutter

 

Here are the top ten book reviews based on readership at North of Oxford for the first six month of 2017. Consider them for your summer reading.

 

Magnesium by Ray Buckley

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/magnesium/

Shoot the Messenger by John Dorsey

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/shoot-the-messenger/

100 Selected Poems by e.e. cummings

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/100-selected-poems-by-e-e-cummings/

Unmaking Atoms by Magdelina Ball

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/unmaking-atoms-by-magdalena-ball/

The Way Back by Joyce Meyers

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/the-way-back-by-joyce-meyers/

Seek the Holy Dark by Clare L. Martin

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/seek-the-holy-dark-by-clare-l-martin/

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’s Poetics

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/03/03/whos-afraid-of-virginia-woolfs-poetics/

Martin Fierro by Jose Hernandez

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/martin-fierro-by-jose-hernandez/

Bird Flying through the Banquet by Judy Kronenfeld

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/06/01/bird-flying-through-the-banquet-by-judy-kronenfeld/

Justine by Lawrence Durrell

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2017/01/01/justine-by-lawrence-durrell/

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Justine by Lawrence Durrell

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Review by Ray Greenblatt
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No, not 18th century French pornography by the Marquis de Sade. Rather, modern realism written by an Englishman. Birth in the Punjab, India, and death in Avignon gave Lawrence Durrell a breadth of experience, which spurred him to write about many different kinds of people–with a rich and diverse writing style.
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 He could list interesting facts in a travel book, like Reflections on a Marine Venus: “The festival of Helios was yearly in September. His priest gave the name to the year. The Colossus was built in his likeness, and the coinage of the realm bore his image, while in the great yearly festival which honored his name white or tawny lambs, white rams, white horses and red honey were offered as a sacrifice; and the wrestlers, boxers and charioteers contended for a wreath of white poplar. So great were the festivals of Helios that neighboring States sent both their best athletes as competitors and their diplomatic envoys.” (45)
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On the other hand he could employ dry humor, as in tales of the Consular Service, Sauve Qui Peut: “In the Old Days before Time Was . . . diplomacy was a quiet and restful trade carried on in soothing inanity among a hundred shady legations and embassies all over the globe . . . Minted at Eton, moulded by Balliol, and mellowed to the sunset tone of old brick by a Grand Tour, the fellow was in clover, and he knew it. Handpicked, packaged, dusted over lightly with male hormone, he was delivered to his post without a bally scratch.” (158) However, Durrell’s intent in creating Justine was much more important to him than mere fact-finding or humor and became significant to the reading public. I was most impressed by his ability to poetically describe characters and setting.
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                                                          Major Characters
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The novel Justine focuses on human relationships; and the focal point is the woman Justine. Two men are bewitched by her. Yes, she is beautiful, but ironically not one clear picture of her is given, since each person imagines her in a different way. Let us meet those three people all living in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, just before WWII begins.
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Nessim is a wealthy Egyptian businessman: “He looked up at you with that pale almond face, the expression shuttered, withdrawn, almost pleading.  And yet somewhere through all this gentleness ran a steel cord, for his staff was perpetually surprised to find out that, inattentive as he appeared to be, there was no detail of the business which he did not know.” (25)
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Eventually Nessim marries Justine: “Her love was like a skin in which he lay sewn like the infant Heracles; and her efforts to achieve herself had led her always towards, and not away from him. The world has no use for this sort of paradox I know; but it seemed to me then that Nessim knew and accepted her in a way impossible to explain to someone for whom love is still entangled with the qualities of possessiveness.” (28)
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Justine has had a troubled life and is constantly restless, trying to find herself in many ways. Darley, the writer who narrates the story, falls in love with her too. As in the various views of Justine, we see Darley only through others, as in a figure-ground. As Justine is headstrong and mysterious, Melissa is frail and honest.  Darley loves her also. “We idled arm in arm by the sea that afternoon, our conversations full of the debris of lives lived without forethought, without architecture. We had not a taste in common. Our characters and predispositions were wholly different, and yet in the magical ease of this friendship we felt something promised us. I like, also, to remember that first kiss by the sea, the wind blowing up a flake of hair at each white temple—a kiss broken off by the laughter which beset her.” (53)
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Cohen is an older man who, spurning his wife and children, pursued a relationship with Melissa. Here is how Darley first observed him: “I for my part could not bear to look at that heavy pock-marked face with its bestial saturnine cluster of tormented features smeared on it—could not bear to think of his gross intimacies with her: those sweaty little hands covered as thickly as a porcupine with black hair.”(20)
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Now that Cohen is dying, Darley has another view: “The flesh had sunk down upon his cheek-bones exposing the long slightly curved nose to its very root and throwing into relief the carved nostrils. This gave the whole mouth and jaw a buoyancy, a spirit which must have characterized his face in earliest youth.” (94)
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                                                              Supporting Characters
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For the moment putting aside this roiling plot, what bewitches me the most is Lawrence Durrell’s powerful use of character description. Let us consider six additional but very extraordinary people.
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Capodistria is the man murdered for an unknown reason. “He is more of a goblin than a man, you would think. The flat triangular head of a snake with the huge frontal lobes; the hair grows forward in a widow’s peak. A whitish flickering tongue is forever busy keeping his thin lips moist. He is ineffably rich and does not have to lift a finger for himself. He sits all day on the terrace of the Brokers’ Club  watching the women pass, with the restless eye of someone endlessly shuffling through an old soiled pack of cards.” (29)
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A French attaché Pombal is a close friend of Darley. “He sits at his desk in the Consulate-General covered by a perpetual confetti of pasteboard cards bearing the names of his colleagues. He is a pegamoid sloth of a man, a vast slow fellow given to prolonged afternoon siestas and Crebillon fils. His handkerchiefs smell wondrously of Eau de Portugal.” (18)
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A wise man, Balthazar is the one to whom many go for advice: “He is thin, stoops slightly, and has a deep croaking voice of great beauty, particularly when he quotes or recites. In speaking he never looks at you directly . . . his yellow goat-eyes are those of a hypnotist. In not looking at you he is sparing you from a regard so pitiless that it would discountenance you for an evening.” (81)
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Mnemjian is not just a misshapen barber: “He is the memory man, the archives of the city. If you should wish to know the ancestry or income of the most casual passer-by you have only to ask him; he will recite the details in a sing-song voice as he strops his razor and tries it upon the coarse black hair of his forearm. What he does not know he can find out in a matter of moments.” (32)
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Pursewarden represents the dangers of artistic fame: “His freedom, gained through a modest financial success, has begun to bore him. He has begun to feel more and more wanting in true greatness while his name has been daily swelling in size like some disgusting poster. He has realized that people are walking the street with a Reputation now and not a man.” (102)
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Formerly a sailor, Scobie is now connected with the Egyptian police force: “Eyes like dead moons, a distinct curvature of the pirate’s spinal column, and a taste of quinqueremes. It was not blood which flowed in Scobie’s veins but green salt water, deep-sea stuff. His walk is the slow rolling grinding trudge of a saint walking on Galilee.  His talk is a green-water jargon swept up in five oceans—an antique shop of polite fable bristling with sextants, astrolabes, porpentines and isobars. When he sings, which he so often does, it is in the very accents of the Old Man of the Sea. Like a patron saint he has left little pieces of his flesh all over the world.” (112)
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                                                               Alexandria: Place
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 The city seems to be a living essence unto itself. It can influence people as well as be a projection of their personalities.  Again, Lawrence Durrell is a master of powerful description. “Never had the early dawn-light seemed so good to Nessim. The city looked to him as brilliant as a precious stone. The shrill telephones whose voices filled the great stone buildings in which the financiers really lived, sounded to him like the voices of great fruitful mechanical birds. They glittered with a pharaonic youthfulness. The trees in the park had been rinsed down by an unaccustomed dawn rain.” (182)
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Likewise, the dusk is as significant: “The first blank lamps had begun to stiffen the damp paper background of Alexandria. The sea-wall with its lines of cafes swallowed in the spray glowed with a smudged and trembling phosphorescence.  The wind blew dead south. Mareotis crouched among the reeds , stiff as a crouching sphinx.” (83)  Mareotis is a lake just outside of the city.
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 The darkness adds a sinister dimension to the city: “ And then add screams in the night behind other shutters in that crooked street: the bey beating his wives because he was impotent. The old herb-woman selling herself every night on the flat ground among the razed houses—a sulky mysterious whining. The soft ‘pelm’ noise of bare black feet passing on the baked mud street, late at night.” (54)
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Each season offered a special poignancy. “I am recalling now how during that last spring (forever) we walked together at full moon, overcome by the soft dazed air of the city, the quiet ablutions of water and moonlight that polished it like a great casket. An aerial lunacy among the deserted trees of the dark squares, and the long dusty roads reaching away from midnight to midnight, bluer than oxygen.” (123)
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“In autumn the female bays turn to uneasy phosphorous and after the long chafing days of dust one feels the first palpitations of the autumn, like the wings of a butterfly fluttering to unwrap themselves. Mareotis turns lemon-mauve and its muddy flanks are starred by sheets of radiant anemones, growing through the quickened plaster-mud of the shore.” (40) Not being a writer of limited vocabulary, Durrell employs forms of the word “phosphorescent” multiply. Perhaps Alexandria’s climate held an intangible quality which intrigued him. Physics defines the word as “emission of radiation continuing after excitation ceases.”
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“The slither of tyres across the waves of the desert under a sky blue and frost-bound in winter; or in summer a fearful lunar bombardment which turned the sea to phosphorous—bodies shining like tin, crushed in electric bubbles; or walking to the last spit of land near Montaza, sneaking through the dense green darkness of the King’s gardens.” (126)
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Sometimes rain is heavy; the Pharos is the lighthouse :”Today, unexpectedly, comes a squinting spring shower, stiffening the dust and pollen of the city, flailing the glass roof of the studio . . . Prodigious archery over the parks where the palm-trees have been dragged back taut; a mythology of yellow-maned waves attacking the Pharos. At night the city is full of new sounds, the pulls and stresses of the wind, until you feel it has become a ship, its old timbers groaning and creaking with every assault of the weather.” (106)
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Or in the other extreme a sandstorm: “The harsh sobbing air dries the membranes of throats and noses, and makes eyes raw with the configurations of conjunctivitis. Clouds of dried blood walk the streets like prophecies; the sand is settling into the sea like powder into the curls of a stale wig. Choked fountain-pens, dry lips—and along the slats of the Venetian shutters thin white drifts as of young snow. The ghostly feluccas passing along the canal are crewed by ghouls with wrapped heads.” (131)
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A fitting conclusion to these descriptions of Alexandria would be a train station at night where one vividly feels life’s arrivals and departures. “The long pull of the train into the silver light reminds me of the sudden long pull of the vertebrae of her white back turning in bed. ‘Melissa’ I call out, but the giant sniffing of the engine blots out all sound. She begins to tilt, to curve and slide; and quick as a scene-shifter the station packs away advertisement after advertisement, stacking them in the darkness . . . The shadowy figure is sliding away down the steel rails into the darkness; a final lurch and the train pours away down a tunnel, as if turned to liquid.” (91)
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                                                               Philosophy
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So much happens in the novel Justine to so many persons. Each person seems to have a personal philosophy of life and is apt to discuss it in the course of the book. As a conclusion to a review of a book that offers a descriptive banquet, let us touch on some key philosophical strands.
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The concept of prayer is explored: “I caught the sweet voice of the blind muzzein from the mosque reciting the “Ebed”—a voice hanging like a hair in the palm-cooled upper airs of Alexandria . . . The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy consciousness like a serpent, coil after shining coil of words—the voice of the muzzein sinking from register to register of gravity—until the whole morning seemed dense with its marvelous healing powers, the intimations of a grace undeserved and unexpected.” (22)
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         Memory is a constant motif throughout the novel: “Far off events, transformed by memory, acquire a burnished brilliance because they are seen in isolation, divorced from the details of before and after, the fibres and wrappings of time. The actors, too, suffer a transformation; they sink slowly deeper and deeper into the ocean of memory like weighted bodies, finding at every level a new assessment, a new evaluation in the human heart.” (206)
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Here is a view of Art: “The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies in this—that only here, in the silence of the painter or the writer can reality be reordered, reworked and made to show its significant side. Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold—the meaning of the pattern. For us artists there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life; in this way, not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfill it in its true potential—the imagination.” (14)
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However, love is what all the characters are searching for and evaluating. Some people feel that love is limited quantitatively: “Love is horribly stable, and each of us is only allotted a certain portion of it, a ration. It is capable of appearing in an infinity of forms and attaching itself to an infinity of people. But it is limited in quantity, can be used up, become shop-worn and faded before it reaches its true object.” (115) This is certainly in opposition to Christian love which teaches that it can grow with usage like a muscle.
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A danger of love is jealousy: “But here too I was sufficiently detached to observe how much love feeds upon jealousy, for as a woman out of my reach yet in my arms, she became ten times more desirable, more necessary. It was a heartbreaking predicament for a man who had no intention of falling in love, and for a woman who only wished to be delivered of an obsession and set free to love.” (69)
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Here is a startling analogy of how we must work our way from a physical to spiritual love: “You climb through the physical body, softly parting the muscle-schemes to admit you—muscle striped and unstriped; you examine the coil ignition of the guts in the abdomen, the sweetbreads, the liver choked with refuse . . .You are searching for a co-ordinating scheme, the syntax of a Will which might stabilize everything and take the tragedy out of it.” (124)
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But we must happily admit that there can be joy and awe in true love. “We did not dare to link arms, but our hands kept meeting involuntarily as we walked, as if they had not shaken off the spell of the afternoon and could not bear to be separated.  We parted speechlessly too, in the little square with its dying trees burnt to the colour of coffee by the sun; parted with only one look—as if we wished to take up emplacements in each other’s mind forever. “ (77) I have not explicated the complex plot of this novel. My intent was primarily to show Lawrence Durrell’s powerful descriptions of character and setting. Yet, in this section we can observe the moral issues with which the characters wrestled.
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Lawrence Durrell worked in all literary genres: fiction, poetry, drama, essays;  also in letters, travel and humor. But especially in the novel he probed character and incident so deeply that in his writing career he was compelled to create multiply connected novels: two books made up the work titled The Revolt of Aphrodite; The Avignon Quintet; and The Alexandria Quartet.  In this latter series, for me, Justine fascinates and sparkles the most intensely.
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Ray Greenblatt has written articles for: English Journal, Sea Change, Drexel Online Journal, Joseph Conrad Today, Bookmark Quarterly, Sunstone Press. He is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal and teaches a Joy of Poetry course at Temple University-OLLI