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NA304612 - DURRELL, L.: Balthazar (Abridged)
Lawrence Durrell’s novel Balthazar is the second volume in his Alexandria Quartet. Darley, a writer, has been involved in the events and complex emotional relationships portrayed in the first volume Justine. And all the central characters have been influenced, above all, by the mysterious Egyptian city of the story, Alexandria itself: ‘Landscape-tones: brown to bronze, steep skyline, low cloud, pearl ground with shadow oyster and violet reflections. The lion-dust of desert; prophets’ tombs turned to zinc and copper at sunset on the ancient lake’.
Darley, the narrator of the first volume, has now left the city and is
living on a remote Greek island with the child of a dead lover, Melissa. He writes of love, as he saw it between those whom he knew in the past, when he lived in the great metropolis of many races and religions. He feels he knows the truth about Justine and her love for him, about her feelings for her husband Nessim, indeed about the complex web of relationships and viewpoints that have arisen among the story’s many characters, to form an ever-changing pattern:
“Justine, Melissa, Clea…There were so few of us really — you would have thought them easily disposed of in a single book, would you not? So would I, so did I. Dispersed now by time and circumstance, the circuit
broken forever…I had set myself the task of trying to recover them in words, reinstate them in memory, allot to each his and her position in my time. Selfishly. And with that writing complete, I felt that I had turned a key upon the doll’s house of our actions”.
But, after all, Darley has not fully turned the key on the actions and the story. He has sent the manuscript of Justine to Balthazar, the Alexandrian doctor who had known the actors and agents far better than Darley, and been acquainted with many of them for all of their lives. One evening Balthazar himself arrives on the island. He brings him the manuscript: Darley sees that the papers are “scarred and starred by massive interlinear of sentences, paragraphs and question marks”. This seems to him to be somehow symbolic of the very reality he and his friends had shared — “a palimpsest upon which each of us had left his or her individual traces, layer by layer”.
Balthazar leaves and Darley realizes that he must examine all the
experiences he has detailed with new eyes, accustoming himself to the truths Balthazar has added. He must look again at how “The politics of love, the intrigues of desire, good and evil, virtue and caprice, love and murder, moved obscurely in the dark corners of Alexandria’s streets and squares, brothels and drawing rooms — moved like a great congress of eels in the slime of plot and counter-plot…To set it all down in cold black and white, until such time as the memory and impulse of it is spent. I now that the key I am trying to turn is
Balthazar thus reopens the story begun in Justine, drawing out new meanings and combinations from the tale. It explores the mystery of the deaths of some of the characters — Pursewarden, Scobie, Capodistria — and Darley’s growing awareness of the elusive strangeness of life itself. Again, a central theme is the problem of telling any human story, since all lives are refracted in other lives, and much in human experience is unknowable. In this volume Durrell’s rich, dense prose enlarges, and his sense of life grows more complicated — leading us onward to the final two works of the sequence.
Lawrence Durrell was born in 1912 in India. When he was ten, the family returned to England and he went to school in Canterbury and then took many jobs, ranging from racing driver to a post in the Jamaica police. He eventually persuaded his family to move to Corfu: these years were recorded by his brother Gerald in My Family and Other Animals (1956) — it was like living ‘ in one of the more flamboyant and comic operas,’ he notes. During the 1930s he lived in Bohemian Paris and was friend and collaborator of Henry Miller. Later he spent much of his time as a journalist, teacher and diplomat in the Middle East.
He began writing early and published an unsuccessful first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, in 1932. A second, Panic Spring (1937) appeared under a pseudonym. The third, The Black Book (1938) was a powerful erotic work published in Paris. He became noted as a poet and wrote travel books, plays, critical works and a children’s novel.
In 1957 he published Justine, the first volume of his ambitious The Alexandria Quartet, which made him famous. Balthazar and Mountolive followed in 1958, Clea in 1960. Appearing at a time when realistic novels were the norm, this exotic and experimental work was both a critical and popular success. The setting is Egypt and particularly Alexandria, the period immediately before the Second World War. The plan was experimental and elaborate: four novels are interwoven and contain the same characters —couples who come together and part as love grows and then wanes.
Lawrence Durrell published many other novels, including Tunc (1968) and
its sequel Nunquam (1970), and The Avignon Quintet, consisting of five novels published between 1974 and 1985. His last book, Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence was published the year he died, in 1990.
Notes by Elizabeth Bradbury
ABOUT THE READER
Award-winning actor Nigel Anthony has worked in television (Coronation Street, Slender, Casualty, and others) and in theater, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and with Alan Ayckbourn at Scarborough. He is, however, best known for his numerous broadcasts on BBC Radio for which he twice won Best Actor awards. For many years has been one of the leading actors in that medium and as a master of vocal disguise, has played countless character roles.
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