Justine (The Alexandria Quartet, Book One)

justineThe Short Version: A story of conflicted loves, beautiful language, and the city of Alexandria.  An unnamed narrator details, in vivid flashes of story and moment, his life in Alexandria and the complicated sexual struggles in which he played a central part.  Justine, Melissa, Nessim, Balthazar, Clea, Pombal, Pursewarden, and a host of others orbit around the fascinating and mystifying central figure of the city: Alexandria.

The Review: There are times when a book is delivered into your hands at a critical moment.  You and the book are bound into that moment and you know, from even as early as the first page, that you will not be the same when the book ends.  In hindsight, you may say it was the book that changed your life – but a book can change your life and still not impact you in the same way that these certain books do (see: Gravity’s Rainbow).  Instead, it was your life that was changing even as you read this amazing novel.  Those are the books that far surpass anything you might be able to say about them because, in order to describe them, you almost have to write a book yourself.  Needless to say, Justine is one of those books.

A woman of intense beauty and passionate intelligence recommended this book to me the first time we went out together.  It was an auspicious beginning to what will, hopefully, be a long and fruitful friendship, artistic partnership, and (perhaps someday) relationship.  We talked of theater, of course – that was nominally why she’d agreed to have a drink with me – but the conversation quickly turned to life and art of all forms and (as it so often does) the conversation found its way to books.  She looked me squarely in the eyes and said “there’s this author – he was a contemporary of T.S. Elliot and I found him because I have this intense connection with Elliot…” and then she told me of The Alexandria Quartet.  The passion with which she described the beauty of this series just knocked me right out.  I knew, in that moment, that I would not only read the book but that I would undoubtedly find it as wonderful as she said.  I am often skeptical of such passionate recommendations, especially from people who I’ve only just come to know – but I just knew she was right.  I bought the book the next day.

And from the very first page, I knew this book was special.  Durrell’s writing is indescribably rich – but it is not overpowering, as such flowery and over-stuffed prose so often feels.  It is, instead, the most basic type of evocative – the type that reaches straight down inside of you and activates every sense.  No matter what the time of year or location on the planet, picking up this book will – without even closing your eyes – deliver the feeling of Alexandria.  A place I have never been but now can not picture but can feel so vividly that I fear the real thing will inevitably disappoint.  The way the sun cuts through windows into a bedroom.  The dry wind, the bitter heat.  The soft spring rains.  The salt and spray of the beach.  The feel of Justine’s skin, her unique scent – all of these things felt real to me as I read this book.  In a way that even I have never before encountered so richly.

An author like Ann Patchett has a marvelous way of writing and I find her novels intensely relaxing, full of simply beautiful prose.  Durrell moves one step further, creating something so immersively beautiful that you are transported.  If I didn’t know better, I’d tell you that I could still feel the sand between my fingers.  It’s that kind of beauty.  That kind of immersion.  It is unlike anything else I have ever read.

The story is told as though through a kaleidoscope – actually, Durrell uses that metaphor at one point, talking of how a character falls away like a bead, lost forever to that particular configuration.  Except it is a TARDIS-kaleidoscope, where you can shuttle back and forth through time to experience certain patterns out of the order in which they’d fall through the traditional turning.  Our unnamed narrator (an Irishman, I’ve heard – but cannot confirm) expresses that he seeks to recount the ‘moments’ from this story not in chronological order – “That is for history,” he says – but instead in the order which their importance first became realized.  And so there is a bit of disorientation at times.  Who knows who and when we are and who is in bed with whom and all of that is sometimes a bit murky – but often comes out clear soon enough.  In the end, the plot is relatively predictable – the way love is always, to some extent, predictably not the fairytale we hope it to be.  But the way the story, like a punchdrunk show, can easily take you from one moment to the next without a logical spatial/chronological bridge is a sight to behold.  The story reveals itself over time, the characters develop and shed light upon earlier activities by the things that we read about them doing later – even if those events actually came before that initial one.  It is as though Durrell has created a perfect microcosm of the human brain: our memories are non-linear, non-traditional.  We remember moments, smells, sights, items, things about an event without necessarily recalling the entire event. The event we experience is fundamentally different from the event experienced by the lover sitting next to you, even though you were both there and saw the whole thing.

The book raises a number of intense philosophical questions about the nature of love.  Fascinating questions about why we do what we do – for example: why we hurt the people we love, even as we continue to love them.  The story seems so…well, accurate.  It never feels melodramatic or outlandish.  Instead, it feels simply correct.  Because the way these people act are the way we all act.  The way this city affects these people is the way that all great cities affect those who are most carefully attuned to those specific vibes.  It is why the cities of Boston and London and New Orleans will always hold greater and more idiosyncratic places in my heart than Philadelphia or New York or Chicago or Paris.  That is what Durrell tries to convey – the power of the city, the character of it, and the way that it can alter your life just as much as any character who walks its streets.

I finished the book after taking nearly two weeks to read it.  Part of this was because I found myself consumed in the life I’ve chosen moreso than ever before – 14 hour days at work, producing nearly 10 readings in the space of 15 days, allowing myself to be free and happy and young and strolling arm in arm at 5am in fancy dress after seeing Shakespeare in the Park. Hard to find even a moment’s peace to read.  That was a strange and unsettling experience, in a way – lacking the time to read – but it also came in handy with this book… because I did not want the book to cease.  The pure unadulterated pleasure that I derived from reading this book was so much that I found myself slowing down, taking twice the time to read half as many pages as I might ordinarily devour.  This was not because I felt overwhelmed – but because I wanted to extend the pleasure as long as I could.  Having finished this book, I immediately ordered the single-volume collected set of all four Alexandria Quartet books – because I know that I will need to read the next three as quickly as possible.  I intend to take a short break – a palate cleanser, of sorts – before I return to Alexandria… but I also know that the summer is short.  And this book – this series – will be the defining series of this summer.  This was the summer I read Durrell and the summer I fell in love with New York.  No matter what the future holds or how things change, these books will always be defined by this summer – and this summer by these books.  They are inextricably linked in such a way that I will never be the same.

Rating: 6 out of 5.  Just… incredible.  Thank you, Ms. ********.  I find I cannot thank you enough.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: The English Patient | Raging Biblio-holism

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