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Monday, November 16, 2015

Justine (1957) by Lawrence Durrell

Book Review
Justine (1957)
by Lawrence Durrell

  Lawrence Durrell is one of those quintessentially 20th century figures who criss-crossed the globe in the service of the increasingly decrepit British Empire.  He was born in India to English parents, briefly attended school in England and then spent the rest of his life hop-scotching between various locations in the Mediterannean, notably Alexandria, the location for Justine and the three related novels which followed it.  He also lived in Corfu, Cyprus, Yugoslavia and Argentina, mostly working on behalf of the UK government as a "press attache."  His most famous literary associate was Henry Miller.  Durrell famously cavorted with Miller and Anais Nin when the latter lived in Paris.

  His primary literary achievement is the Alexandria Quartet, and Justine is the first book in the series.  Durrell squarely occupies the literary space of "Englishman abroad," where an English protagonist butts heads with lovers and locals in some exotic locale, most often Mexico but also anywhere else in the entire world as well.

  Here, the locale is Alexandria, Egypt, historically a cross-roads of the Mediterranean where Egyptians share space with Greeks, Christians and Jews.  The Irish narrator goes unnamed in this first volume of The Alexandria Quartet, but the book largely concerns itself with the affair between the narrator and the married Justine, a beautiful and highly "exotic" Sephardi Jewess who is married to a rich Arab.

  Justine is written as a work of high modernist fiction.  There are no time cues and Durrell frequently shifts the action backwards and forwards in time without cueing the audience.  This technique turns the city itself into the main character, and its likely that any contemporary reader will be left with a greater feeling for the city than the characters themselves.

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