20 October 2016

Review: Justine by Lawrence Durrell

Trade paperback, 236 pages
Published 2011 (originally 1957)

Previously read January 2007 and June 2008
Acquired June 2014
Reread November 2014
Justine by Lawrence Durrell

I love this book, and when I was assigned to teach a class on The Modern Novel (major novels after 1900), I knew I wanted to teach it. Many of my students sort of bounced off it: it's a difficult book to follow, and it was late enough in the semester that I don't think all of my students were being particularly careful readers. (The class average on the four-question quiz was 39%, even when I scored it out of three!) We ended up having to spend one of our four class sessions just discussing what was going on in it. Yet I don't regret my decision to teach it for an instant. Indeed, I wish I could teach a whole course on The Alexandria Quartet. Probably you'd want to read Justine twice over to make it really work.

One of the reasons I love it is that, like many postmodern novels, Justine is about the act of reading itself. At one point our anonymous first-person narrator reads a book that was "in the first person singular, and was a diary of Alexandrian life as seen by a foreigner in the middle thirties," a day-to-day account of life in Alexandria "accurate and penetrating" (52). This description could, of course, be applied to Justine itself, and he seeks answers in its pages. Reading art gives us insight into what we have experienced.

But when we try to render events into comprehensible narratives, we reduce their power. The character Clea argues, "It is our disease […] to want to contain everything within the frame of reference of a psychology or a philosophy" (65). Despite being told this, the narrator still attempts to do it. "[E]verything is susceptible of more than one explanation" (65), yet the narrator is constantly seeking to find the answer, the explanation that will finally allow him to comprehend Justine. He's doomed to failure, of course, as is everyone else who has tried to figure out Justine. If you stick to science, you'll get no further than the fact that "man […] is just a passage for liquids and solids, a pipe of flesh" (81): true but useless.

Justine presents hope for the novel as a project, however. Our narrator has written Justine, and he has invented a new literary form in doing so. There are two times he sums up his approach the most effectively I think. On one occasion, he does it negatively, explaining why all his previous novels had not succeeded: "In art I had failed (it suddenly occurred to me at that moment) because I did not believe in the discrete human personality. ('Are people', writes Pursewarden, 'continuously themselves, or simply over and over again so fast they give the illusion of continuous features—the temporal flicker of old silent film?') I lacked a belief in the true authenticity of people in order to successfully portray them" (180). Ever since I first read the book, I've loved that parenthetical question by Pursewarden. It is why Justine is more a stream of incidents than a narrative: because that is all we are.

The narrator solves his problem as much as he can by devising a new way of writing, one he casually (as with Pursewarden's observation above) just drops into a parenthetical: "What I most need to do is to record experiences, not in the order in which they took place—for that is history—but in the order in which they first became significant to me" (102). That is Justine, and that is one of the reasons it is beautiful.

That said, the form of the novel, even the postmodern novel still generates explanations. Hence the reason for the book's three sequels: each in turn reveals that the books before it were not the explanation of the events they covered. "[E]verything is susceptible of more than one explanation," after all. Durrell pushes at the limits of novelistic form, and manages to create a beautiful example of one all at once.

Also, given the title of the course, I had to appreciate this line: "The modern novel! The grumus merdae [specks of excrement] left behind by criminals upon the scene of their misdeeds" (124).

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