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NA304012 - DURRELL, L.: Justine (Abridged)

Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell



Justine is the first volume in The Alexandria Quartet, four interlinked novels set in the sensuous, hot environment of Alexandria just before the Second World War. Within this polyglot setting of richly idiosyncratic characters is Justine, wild and intense, wife to the wealthy businessman Nessim, a Mari complaisant. Her emotional and sexual wildness fuels a highly charged atmosphere which, caught famously by Durrell’s poetic language made the four novels that complete the Quartet both a critical and popular success.


Introducing Justine, the author gives an account of the conception of The Alexandria Quartet, which explains both the work’s erotic character and its elaborate, interwoven schemes: ‘I am accustoming myself,’ he writes, ‘to the idea of regarding every sexual act as a process in which four persons are involved. We shall have a lot to discuss about that.’


The ‘discussion’ begins in Justine, which can stand on its own as a novel, though its meaning grows in the subsequent works. Justine is a beautiful Jewish girl brought up in a poor part of Alexandria who is loved both for her beauty and also for her inability to give herself to her lovers without ‘check.’ The storyteller is the Irishman Darley, who becomes obsessed by her heartlessness: ‘She seemed so ignorant of the little prescribed loyalties which constitute the foundations of affection between man and woman,’ he reflects. Forces she cannot control also trap Justine. Indeed, the city of Alexandria is perhaps the book’s main character and it guides and shapes her actions.

In The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell is experimenting with place, space and time, and the erotic reflections and refractions that bring a web of characters together in sexual and political intrigue. Each character has obscure dimensions; nothing and no one can be fully known. The strange and complex city, the difficulty, obscurity and variety of love and eroticism and the, many voices of felling are explored in a rich and poetic prose. Durrell called the book ‘a four-dimensional dance, a relativity poem’ and ‘a four-card trick in the form of a novel,’ which might ‘raise in human terms the problems of causality and indeterminacy.’ But the heart of its appeal is its density of emotional feeling and its haunting, sensual, in some ways very non-English prose.


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

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