The city of Alexandria, Egypt, in the years between the First and Second World Wars is hauntingly evoked in Justine, the first novel in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. In fact, it might be more accurate to describe Alexandria as a central character in Justine rather than as a setting. The emphasis on place pervades the novel’s formal qualities. Durrell, like a number of his fellow modernists, does not rely on a conventional linear narrative—within Justine or within the quartet—but shifts continuously between past and present. One result is that the story seems to have substantial physical, but not temporal, boundaries. The novel achieves many of its effects with images, so that it often reads more like poetry than narrative. The foregrounding of place in the novel encourages us to consider the extent to which our actions, and even our natures, are determined by our surroundings. Insofar as these features of Justine represent the patterns of memory, the book is an exploration of how we understand and recall experience. Also central to the novel is Durrell’s notion of love. Justine, whose title alludes to the Marquis de Sade’s novel by the same name, attempts to redefine love, or to define it in modern terms. But in many ways, the relationships the narrator describes—in which sexual desire as well as knowledge and narcissism play a large part—raise more questions than they answer about the nature of love.
Durrell’s purpose in giving the city of Alexandria such an important role seems to be twofold—to evoke the city with as much poetry and precision as possible and to suggest that human identity is largely shaped by place. Using rich and lyrical language, Durrell presents Alexandria as both beautiful and squalid. Light filtering “through the essence of lemons” (p. 14) and the “sad velvet broth of the canal” (p. 91) are juxtaposed with “huddled slums” (p. 43) and houses of child prostitution. Alexandria seems to exert a psychological or spiritual grip over its inhabitants. Where one is born or chooses to live, the novel implies, is not just a trivial biographical fact but a determining factor. The city’s inhabitants are subjected to its quest for “a responsive subject through which to express the collective desires, the collective wishes, which informed its culture” (p. 175). Characters’ actions and thoughts become manifestations of, and can even be explained or justified by, the city’s own temperament. Justine is characterized repeatedly as a “true child of Alexandria” (p. 27), implying that this fact dictates her behavior. For Durrell, Alexandria represents, among other things, sexual freedom, as well as skepticism, intellectualism, and exhaustion. Yet it remains unclear whether we are meant to totally absolve the characters of individual responsibility. While their actions frequently appear to be prescribed by the “collective desires” of Alexandria, it is difficult not to hold the characters accountable for the harm their actions sometimes do to others.
Place, as opposed to chronology, is also the organizing principle of the novel’s structure. Like such modernists as Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust, Durrell’s experiments reflect the idea that chronological time does not necessarily correspond with lived experience or our memory of it. In Justine, there are no references to specific dates, although a rough chronology may be constructed in retrospect, and the narrative moves back and forth in time, often without explicit transitions. The narrator, who is never named, explains that it is important for him to record events not “in the order in which they took place—for that is history—but in the order in which they first became significant for me” (p. 115). The novel follows an internal logic, juxtaposing images and ideas in the same way that poetry does, rather than setting out events in a chronological order as history does. The reader, however, may become somewhat disoriented by this kind of idiosyncratic arrangement. Durrell asks us to consider whether, by diverging from certain narrative conventions, Justine realistically represents the processing and recollection of experience.
The most provocative aspect of Justine might be Durrell’s critique, much like that of his mentor Henry Miller, of puritan or Victorian notions about love and his depiction of a kind of love that is more sexually liberated, nonpossessive, and intellectually complex. The “peculiar type of love” (p. 191) between the narrator and Justine is described as narcissistic enjoyment of a mutual experience in which neither feels the need to possess the other; the relationship fosters personal growth but not deep communication. The narrator speaks disparagingly of the “other feelings, compassion, tenderness and so on,” which “exist only on the periphery and belong to the constructions of society and habit” (p. 105). Yet there are many indications that the love Durrell describes is itself problematic. First, this new definition of love could simply be a self-serving justification for following the impulses of sexual desire. The narrator wonders if his and Justine’s relationship is “a banal story of an adultery which was among the cheapest commonplaces of the city,” and a story that “did not deserve romantic or literary trappings” (p. 87). Further, his own pain and jealousy at reading the novel written by Justine’s ex-husband raises doubts, as do other elements of the novel, about the non-possessive nature of their relationship. Finally, the destruction of both Justine’s husband, Nessim, who descends into madness, and the narrator’s partner, Melissa, who ultimately dies, suggests that the price of this kind of love may be very steep. We must ultimately ask whether Durrell is depicting love as it ought to be, unfettered by outdated sensibilities and possessiveness, or whether what he describes is actually the failure to love completely or maturely.
ABOUT LAWRENCE DURRELL
Lawrence Durrell was born in Darjeeling, India, in 1912 to an English father and an Irish-English mother. At the age of eleven, he was sent to England to be formally educated, and remained there until the early 1930s when he went to Paris to start a career as a writer. There Durrell met the American writer Henry Miller, who became his mentor; he and Miller remained friends for the next forty-five years. In 1935, Durrell moved to the Greek island of Corfu, and his first novel of note, The Black Book, was published in 1938. During World War II, Durrell served as a press attaché to the British embassies in Cairo and Alexandria. After the war, he held a number of diplomatic and teaching jobs in Rhodes, Belgrade, Athens, and Cyprus. He eventually settled in Sommiéres, in the south of France.
Durrell was married four times. Three of the marriages ended in divorce, and his third wife died of cancer. One of his two daughters committed suicide several years before his own death in 1990. Her mother was Eve Cohen, Durrell’s second wife and the model for the character Justine.
Durrell’s most celebrated work is The Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960), comprised of the novels Justine, Balthazar,Mountolive, and Clea. He produced two other cycles of novels, The Revolt of Aphrodite (1968-1970) and The Avignon Quintet(1974-1985), neither of which achieved the critical or commercial success of The Alexandria Quartet. He also published numerous volumes of poetry, much of which appears in Collected Poems, 1931-1974 (1980), and a memoir about living in Cyprus, Bitter Lemons (1957).
- The narrator says that “we are the children of our landscape; it dictates behaviour and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it” (p. 41). How does the city affect the personalities of the characters in Justine? To what extent does it justify their behavior?
- Why does Justine refuse responsibility for her relationship with the narrator, saying that “we are not strong or evil enough to exercise choice. All this is part of an experiment arranged by something else, the city perhaps, or another part of ourselves” (p. 27)?
- What does the narrator mean when he describes Justine as a “true child of Alexandria” (p. 27)?
- Why does Justine claim that her relationships with other men lead her closer to her husband, Nessim?
- How accountable are Justine and the narrator for the fates of Nessim and Melissa?
- What does Balthazar mean when he says that Justine and the narrator are “natural traitors” and that they “are dead and live this life as a sort of limbo” (p. 86)?
- Clea says of Justine that “like all amoral people she verges on the Goddess” (p. 77). Why does Justine’s amorality make her godlike?
- Why does the narrator go in Melissa’s place to see Cohen when he is dying? Why is he so affected by Cohen’s illness and death?
- Is Capodistria’s death planned by Nessim? Why doesn’t the death of Capodistria give Justine the relief that it should or that others believe it will?
- Why does Melissa ask that the narrator not be told when she is dying?
- What relationship do the “Consequential Data” at the end of the novel—fragments, observations, poems—have to the preceding parts of the novel? Why does Durrell include them?
- Why does the narrator describe Alexandrians as trying to “reconcile two extremes of habit and behaviour… extreme sensuality and intellectual asceticism” (p. 98)?
For Further Reflection
- Why do the inhabitants of a particular place seem to possess characteristics derived from their location more than from their individual personalities?
- Should we place passionate love or individual desire above bonds of friendship or loyalty?
Marquis de Sade, Justine (1791)
The narrator attempts to corrupt the virtuous Justine by exposing her to a variety of sexual vices and simultaneously engaging her in philosophical dialogues about nature, religion, politics, and sex.
Lawrence Durrell, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea (1958-1960)
Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea complete The Alexandria Quartet, retelling many of the same events in Justine from different perspectives and filling in missing information.
E. M. Forster, A Room with a View (1908)
Lucy Honeychurch must decide between her proper English suitor and a man she falls passionately in love with during her stay in Florence.
D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)
An upper-class married woman, Constance Chatterley, has an affair with the gameskeeper of her husband’s estate, which inspires in her a sexual and spiritual awakening.
Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (1934)
Set in 1930s Paris, Tropic of Cancer combines memoir and fiction to present an unapologetic view of the life and sexual adventures of a young expatriate.