New Read: ‘Justine,’ by Lawrence Durrell

Am I the only English teacher out there who hasn’t heard of Lawrence Durrell? Was there a Lawrence Durrell course in college that I missed? Apparently, when he was alive, he was a critically-acclaimed novelist. Upon the release of his first novel, The Black Book, T.S. Eliot remarked that Durrell was one of the great hopes for modern English fiction. The back-matter of Justine, the novel I picked up at the library today, claims that “with this gemlike work of dangerous eroticism and treacherous ¬†perception, Lawrence Durrell reinvented the modern novel.” So why haven’t I heard of him before? I guess this is hopeful, if anything, for it goes to show that good novelists — even ones that have been dead for decades — can surface and surprise you with their brilliance.

Justine is the first novel in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, a series of novels that take place in the exotic Egyptian coastal city. When I pulled the book off the shelf, I wasn’t expecting much — I rarely do when I pull books at random from the shelf — but a quick glance at the first page left me stunned. Just take a look at the lyricism of the first few paragraphs:

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes….

I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child — Melissa’s child. I do not know why I use the word “escape”. The villagers say jokingly that only a sick man would choose such a remote place to rebuild. Well, then, I have come here to heal myself, if you like to put it that way….

At night when the wind roars and the child sleeps quietly in its wooden cot by the echoing chimney-piece I light a lamp and limp about, thinking of my friends — of Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar. I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to city which we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us as its flora — precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!

I have had to come so far away from it in order to understand it all! Living on this bare promontory, snatched every night from darkness by Arcturus, far from the lime-laden dust of those summer afternoons, I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must may the price.

I find myself swept away by those last two paragraphs in particular: “the iron chains of memory” — “the city which used us as its flora” — such intriguing diction! Brilliant, really. And notice, too, the painful truth soldered into the end of that section: “I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past. It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must may the price.” This is not the simple, cut-and-dry prose of your average writer, or even your moderately-good writer; Durrell’s style is complex and wholly satisfying, rich and savory. I read these words out loud and they feel in my mouth like a succulent Pinot Noir. I don’t usually read novels out loud, but the lyric qualities of this prose are such that for Durrell, I might make an exception. The novel is rather short, too, but given the complexity of the prose, I’m sure I will finish feeling quite drunk on Durrell.

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