By Lawrence Durrell
New York: Penguin Books, 1991
First U.S. publication, 1961.
ISBN # 0-14-015319-5
253 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett

I first read the whole of the Alexandria Quartet in about 1970. I was gripped by the novels, felt the power of the darkness, was challenged by the mysticism, relieved I wasn’t suffering in love as several characters in the novel. And I couldn’t stop reading.

Now so many years later I have returned to JUSTINE. I’ve been now and again re-reading some books whose power and memory have lingered on.

Three of the novels of the quartet carry names of major characters, Justine, Balthazar and Clea. Mount Olive is the third volume.

JUSTINE is set in Alexandria, Egypt a bit before World War II. It is narrated by an unnamed British school teacher who is having a love affair with Justine. It is this narrator who tells the story some years hence, writing from a relatively remote Greek island.

Justine is married to Nessim, but Justine and the narrator are deeply in love. Nessim seems to know, but chooses and or pretends, for as long as he can justify it, not to know. The narrator feels terrible about the situation, is worried of what Nessim will do, but too much in love to break it off. Justine at least appears to not care at all.

The tone of the novel is very dark, and while Nessim is very rich and, at his expense, many of the main characters live a quite decent life, the “feel” of the novel is one lived in a dark, dirty, dangerous and discouraging city. Several of the characters are from the underclasses and live on the margin of civilized life.

There seems to be a contradiction there between the fact of Nessim’s wealth and the lack of it on the part of many of the others. But, Melissa sort of explains this:

“ . . . to receive the attention of those who considered Nessim influential and presumed that if he spent his time with me I must also, in some undiscovered fashion, be either rich or distinguished.”

In another place we read:

"They called their little group “The Cabal,” a small group which studied the Cabbalah.

“We are all hunting for rational reasons for believing in the absurd."

Many at least practice some one of the major religions of the region, but none seem very religious in the more traditional senses of that notion.

As if all that weren’t enough spice Lawrence Durrell adds some danger and intrigue with an international spy plot which again involves several of the prominent characters in the novel.

Eventually Melissa, nominally the narrator’s lover, despairs of her place in his life (living with him much of time, but quite aware that he will always love Justine), so she decides to confront Nessim with Justine’s infidelity, making it impossible for him to continue pretending he doesn’t really know. All explodes, Justine flees to work in a commune in Palestine and seems to undergo a radical change of life. Ironically Melissa and Nessim fall in love and even have a child.

I loved the novel in my second reading, but it wasn’t as grabbing or shocking as during my first read. That wasn’t simply because I had some memories of the first reading. Rather, I’ve aged some 40 years, experienced much more of the world and even lived in situations not so terribly different from the characters in the novel. Nonetheless, it was still stimulating, exotic, grabbing, challenging. I made a good choice to return to this classic. I don’t think I’ll stay for the whole trilogy. While I want to re-read some of my favorite books from years past, I still want to keep reading books new to me, so it will only be an occasional dip into my past reading for a re-read, perhaps John Dos Passos will be next.

Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu