History: This book was published in 1957, is the first volume in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet.
The novel is an experimental work of fiction in terms of structure and style. There are no specific references to dates, although the reader may construct a rough chronology in retrospect. However, this is problematic because the narrative moves back and forth in time, often without explicit transitions. Durrell utilizes a highly poetic, allusive, and indirect prose style, similar to the "epiphanies" of James Joyce, which places more emphasis on the lyrical dimension of the novel. Durrell's narrator explains that it is important to him to describe 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". Although the "chief protagonist" of the novel appears to be the eponymous Justine, Durrell builds the structure of the work around the conceit that the city, Alexandria, is the most important player; nevertheless, many colorful and fully drawn characters abound: the minor French consular official Gaston Pombal, with whom the Narrator shares lodgings; the Idealized-but-Feared Doppelgänger novelist Pursewarden; the tubercular Greek prostitute Melissa; the Greek broker Capodistria; and the cross-dressing transvestite Scobie.
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.
Though tragic love is the central concern of the novel, there are also hints at a deeper symbolic dimension in the form of the Kabbalah, which the main characters all devoutly study. There are also hints at a more extended socio-political narrative touching on the ineptness of the British secret service, which takes centre-stage in the next two books, "Balthazar" and especially "Mountolive".
Plot: Justine is one of four interlocking novels which each tell various aspects of a complex story of passion and deception from various points of view. The quartet is set in the Egyptian city of Alexandria of the 1930s and 1940s, and the city itself becomes as much of a complex character as the human protagonists.
Justine is narrated by an Englishman, who is not named in this novel, but is referred to as "Darley" in the later novels of the quartet. He is a struggling writer and schoolmaster. From a remote Greek island, he retells his time in Alexandria and his tragic romance with Justine - a beautiful, rich, mysterious Jewish woman who is married to a wealthy Egyptian Copt, Nessim. The narrator and Justine embark on a love affair, and as they try to conceal their growing passion from Nessim, the narrator's friend, the love triangle grows increasingly desperate and dangerous.
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.
Review: Justine is a work of ethereal beauty whose text at times borders on poetic prose. With the exception of Proust, I cannot recall an author who so tenderly employs the use of metaphors to illustrate and develop his themes. Durrell has created an inveterate masterpiece whose characters are victims of their unfettered passions and longings, and cannot help but inflict pain upon those closest to them. The way Durrell describes a glance of Justine's or the narrator's anguish upon the recollection of his beloved Melissa is absolutely moving.
The novel is basically structured upon the recollections of the narrator and the interwoven relationships he was a part of in pre-war (WWII) Alexandria, Egypt. Love is examined on many different levels within this work, each character a personification of a separate plateau, whose apex is only pain and misfortune. Justine is a novel whose indigenous beauty stems from her character's proclivities and shortcomings-they are victims of an unbridled passion that is at times tender, yet always ruthless.
Opening Line: “The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind.”
Closing Line: “Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?”
Quotes: “These are the moments which are not calculable, and cannot be assessed in words; they live on in the solution of memory, like wonderful creatures, unique of their own kind, dredged up from the floors of some unexplored ocean.”
“There are only three things to be done with a woman... You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.”
“Art—the meaning of the pattern of our common actions in reality. The cloth-of-gold that hides behind the sackcloth of reality, forced out by the pain of human memory.”