The Short Version: Darley, the narrator and ‘author’ of Justine, receives a bundle of… annotations from Balthazar that reveal an entirely different set of circumstances surrounding that dangerous love affair in Alexandria. Darley is forced to re-examine what he thought to be true and the narrative begins to take on a completely different tone than what we’d previously experienced.
The Review: This book is absolutely an intermediary. This is not to say that it isn’t delightful – The Empire Strikes Back is the best Star Wars film, etc – but it is entirely a middle. Whereas Justine could be considered a whole and complete entity on its own, Balthazar cannot exist without the preceding and, I suspect, the following novels. There’s something left open about this novel – as though it was an addendum to the information we received in the first book, but not enough of an addendum to satisfy the curiosity aroused.
The biggest tweaks in the novel come from the title character. Balthazar brings the estranged Darley an annotated version of his writings, smashing open his (and our) notions of what had happened previously. For example: suddenly, we find out that Justine was in love with PURSEWARDEN. PURSEWARDEN! I’ll admit, my jaw dropped in sync with Darley’s. Pursewarden, who was an ancillary character in Justine, is suddenly thrust to the fore – and we must radically reconsider everything we’ve been told. This isn’t an unreliable narrator, like a Patrick Bateman – he’s a narrator who tells us the story honestly and truthfully to the best of his ability. He isn’t lying to us, he simply tells us what he knows. It’s just that what he knows isn’t actually the complete truth – just as none of us really knows everything. We all experience events differently because we are all coming to those events with different histories, different faculties, etc. So, as a result, we must rely on the experiences and information of others in order to craft a wholly coherent image of what ‘happened’ at any particular time.
Aside from its clearly “middle-book” feel, there’s something a little bit less about Balthazar. There are scenes of vivid beauty – Nessim & Narouz in the desert, the masked ball – but (perhaps because I’d already experienced it and was thus ready for it) it wasn’t as overpowering and awe-inspiring as it was in Justine. The plot follows a similar construction, too, in that there’s the in-depth explanation of a death that provides the major action of the end of both novels and there are digressions away from the central ‘plot’ that Darley couldn’t possibly know and he then says “I’ve made this up to the best of my ability but I’m sure it went like that.”
There’s an interesting bit of information dropped into the novel that caught my mind rather quickly but I feel might go unnoticed by those who don’t have politics in their blood: I think Nessim might be a subversive. There was a moment where something was just passingly discussed that suddenly made it clear (to me, anyway) that the investigation of Balthazar’s Cabal was truly a wild goose chase and that it was Nessim who was actually a part of the dangerous hidden cabal. Also, the introduction of Mountolive (who, if I’m not mistaken, was never actually a character in the first book) adds a sense that there’s going to be something political about the last two books. Of course, there’s also the hint of war on the horizon and I’m sure that’ll be addressed.
Rating: 5 out of 5. So what if it wasn’t on par with Justine? Still absolutely beautiful and luxurious. However, it’s only a placeholder: I need to read Mountolive, immediately. Lucky for me, I have the complete quartet – so that’s that, then.