Tag Archives: Justine

Heart of Desuetude

“He had heard and read of passion, but had regarded it as something which would never impinge on him, and now here it was…”  Mountolive – Lawrence Durrell

In the third of the Alexandria Quartet series by Lawrence Durrell, (you may recall my earlier posts on the first book Justine, and the second, BalthazarMountolive, the focus of the familiar story is now set upon the idea of power. As the story is seemingly repeated through each new eponymous character the genius of Durrell is really exposed. One begins to reassess the simplest assumptions: what looked like love was mere deception, what looked like an impossible twisted dark corner is true love, true friendship, and affection. Are life and truth so slippery as that? Yes, I suppose it is so.

“Truth is so bitter that the knowledge of it confers a kind of luxury.”  Mountolive

The love of power, the passionate ardor with which it is sought and wielded is examined with some intensity in this story, but it is backlit by a touching friendship and love affair between Mountolive and the mother of Nessim, Leila.  A tragic sort of love crushed by fate and weakness of feeling perhaps… The grunting displays of power  as well as the equally strong attempts to avoid dealing with a position of power, whether that position was sought for or not are shown through personal, national, and vocational relationships. Many people, maybe most, do not actually want to be in charge or deal with the ancillary pressure that a position of power brings; especially as power often devolves into paper pushing bureaucratic horrors.

In the gear up to a writer’s conference that I am participating in starting today (I’m a little nervous, if I focus on Mountolive maybe it will go away, maybe I’ll go away…) but I digress, there were a series of essays that we had to read, each others as well as published works; the one that I loved the most and which reminds me of the themes of Mountolive in many ways, is the one written by George Orwell: Shooting an Elephant. The final line in the story: ” I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”  struck me hard. Sometimes it really is that simple- that pathetic. The acts committed by people in power, acts that wouldn’t have or shouldn’t have occurred and yet somehow seem unavoidable, are so complex. We humans are so strange.

Truth naked and unashamed. That’s a splendid phrase. But we always see her as she seems, never as she is. Each man has his own interpretation.”  Mountolive

The last and final book in this series is Clea. She has been in and out of the first three and I am very curious about her. Durrell is never obvious in which character he will focus on or which perspective. Even from book to book a single character’s life can be revealed and obfuscated in the most interesting and authentic way.

“When you are in love you know that love is a beggar, shameless as a beggar; and the responses of merely human pity can console one where love is absent by a false travesty of an imagined happiness.”  Mountolive – Lawrence Durrell

Sculpture by Eric Ryan, my father.

Kasbah Around Your Heart

“When you pluck a flower, the branch springs back into place. This is not true of the heart’s affections.” -Balthazar, Lawrence Durrell

painting by Eric J. Ryan

I took a small sojourn away from Les Misérables to read the second of the Alexandria Quartet series by Lawrence Durrell. Once I was forced to renew the book before I had even opened it up: well, the pressure set in. I had plenty of time to read too, after I was driven back into my car by a mother screaming inane and absurdly obvious instructions to her child as we watched our children play Lacrosse. She repetitively and loudly yelled such pearls of wisdom as “Pick the ball up!” and, “Shoot the ball.”  I just had to leave when she came out with: “On target!” Oh, really? Why, Thank you Obi Wan. Afterward my son said the next time he hears a parent yell “On target” he is going to to stop mid field and loudly whisper, “Shhhhhh! Don’t tell the other team that that is what we are trying to do!” Subterfuge people! Come on. Don’t give away all of our team’s trade secrets.
At any rate, having advantageously parked alongside the field I filled the minutes when my son was not playing with Durrell.

“I am making every attempt to be matter of fact….”Balthazar

There is more humor in Balthazar than in Justine (the first in the series, Mountolive and Clea are the others). Its main theme seems to emphasize sex more than love or the sort of angst and thwarted love that comprised the bulk of Justine. It is all the same characters, but told from a different perspective. What more than perspective exposes the truth for the elusive slippery fish it is? I suppose it’s the raison d’être for these little books. I found the character of Pursewarden very appealing in a sort of dry English way. The cynical tone, place in time and atmosphere of the environment permeate, but it’s the examination of the fortresses we build up that are at the heart and…well, it’s why we read I suppose.

” No, she did not mean the words, for vulgar as the idea sounded, she knew that she was right by the terms of her intuition since the thing she proposed is really, for women, the vital touchstone to a man’s being; the knowledge, not of his qualities which can be analysed or inferred, but of the very flavour of his personality. Nothing except the act of physical love tells us this truth about one another. She bitterly regretted his unwisdom in denying her a concrete chance to see for herself what underlay his beauty and persuasion. Yet how could one insist?”

Perhaps this sort of speaking makes men shy and insecure but there is a truth to it that, while going against societal expectations of what women are suppose to be concerning themselves with, is important to understand: on both sides. It’s the all important moment of yes or no.

In the book Pursewarden is friends with D.H. Lawrence which I find highly amusing, if you’ve been following along, you might recall that he has been calling out to me lately: his book Women in Love patiently sits on my desk, awaiting my attention. Seems Pursewarden and I have a mutual friend.
We love to love or love to hate characters in novels, but sometimes it’s wonderful when you know that a character would be your dear friend and you can’t wait to get his or her opinion on all matters large and small, or just laugh together -without a yes or no getting in the way.

“but to fall in love renders one ridiculous in society.” –Balthazar

connections of my imaginings

Painting by Eric J. Ryan

When I was girl I lived in a large room full of bookshelves. The books were just there. There was a little quartet that always drew my attention. I never read them through, just a page here a page there, I was really too young for them. Still I cannot think of my years spent in that room without thinking of these books and evoking the images of their covers, the weight of their paper.
The other day I came across a quote:

“I have been looking through my papers tonight. Some have been converted to kitchen uses, some the child has destroyed. This form of censorship pleases me for it has the indifference of the natural world to the constructions of art- an indifference I am beginning to share.”  Lawrence Durrell, Justine

I knew immediately where it was from, (The Alexandria Quartets) it must have been one of the pages I read. It seemed reason enough (me happening upon this quote all these years later and more than that: remembering it) to read it.  They were my father’s books, but he died when I was two so I can’t ask him about them now. “Justine was his favorite,” my mother said when she saw me reading it.

Is it true that we look for connections and confirmations? If we find them does that make it real, or just a mere coincident signifying nothing. I don’t know, and yet I find myself being guided by these “signs”. Even if I cannot escape my heartfelt cynicism. I read it, but I know it means nothing. I will neither find my father, myself nor any one else in it beyond what is available to any reader.

At any rate, I particularly like books that are set in this corner of the world (I, for instance, prefer The Stranger to 1984 simply because I loved the setting of Algiers, it almost seemed another character to me). Granted I make it a big corner, Morocco to Persia, having only spent time in Turkey my ignorance will make allowances stretching the boundaries of the corner to suit my thesis.

To be sure Alexandria is an important part of this lugubrious tale. Justine is full of tragic love and it is an intense read if you’re of a melancholic state of mind. Every character is so unhappy and so unhappy in love. You just want to shake them out of their seemingly self inflicted misery, rouse them from the dry wind of their pathos. The atmosphere and language of the book is skillfully and wonderfully rendered: you can almost smell the sea air, feel the hot breeze on your arm. It quite haunts me. The next book in the series is Balthazar (followed by Mountolive and then Clea) which I look forward to reading and perhaps reading into.

Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us? – Justine

*Eric Ryan is my father