Tuesday, January 23, 2007

the last book I read

Justine by Lawrence Durrell.

This is the first book in the four-volume Alexandria Quartet, published in the late 1950's. As far as I understand it the first three novels in the quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive) tell essentially the same story (or at least describe essentially the same series of events) from three differing points of view, while the fourth (Clea) takes place later and presumably brings the strands together in some way. Apparently this is some sort of literary nod to Einsteinian relativity theory (three dimensions of space and one of time, if you follow me). Hugely celebrated at the time, its critical reputation (and indeed Durrell's in general) has suffered a bit since, but you think of famous sequences of novels and you think of this, along with A Dance To The Music Of Time and of course A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, neither of which, I should point out, I've ever read. And it was only 70p in the Amnesty International bookshop on the Gloucester Road, so I couldn't not buy it, really.

At the simplest level Justine is about the narrator's (never named here, though it apparently later transpires that his name is Darley) experiences of life and love during his time in Alexandria, and in particular his doomed relationship with a local Jewish woman called Justine. A whole host of other characters drift in and out of the narrative (presumably to crop up in greater or lesser detail in the other volumes), no-one seems to actually do anything as mundane as hold down a job (Darley is nominally a teacher, but doesn't seem to do much teaching), there's a lot of languid lolling about in bed with other people's wives, and not a great deal actually happens, at least not until right at the end of the book.

None of this actually matters, though, as action and excitement isn't really the point here either. Durrell apparently intended the sequence to be a meditation on "modern love", but I'm not sure that's really the point either. The point, if there is one, is just to dive into the lush sensuality of Durrell's prose (he wrote a lot of poetry as well, and it's a fine line between the two sometimes) and luxuriate in stuff like this (these are just from the first two pages): "a sky of hot nude pearl", "the lime-laden dust of those summer afternoons", "light filtered through the essence of lemons", "brick-dust and the odour of hot pavements slaked with water". If it is a love story then the city itself is the object, not any of the fairly unengaging characters who populate it. If all this sounds massively pretentious to you, then I would say: yes, that is a criticism that often gets levelled at these books, and it's not one that I'd necessarily disagree with. I enjoyed it, but Bravo Two Zero it ain't.....

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