The Quest of An Everyday Soccer Mom to Read the Modern Library's 100 Best Fiction Books of the 20th Century.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

#70...The Alexandria Quartet...Justine

"Far off events, transformed by memory, acquire a burnished brilliance because they are seen in isolation, divorced from the details of before and after, the fibres and wrappings of time. The actors, too, suffer a transformation; they sink slowly deeper and deeper into the ocean of memory like weighted bodies, finding at every level a new assessment, a new evaluation in the human heart."

How much can we rely on memory as truth, and how well can we really ever know another person? Lawrence Durrell tackles these questions in Justine, the first installment of his four-part Alexandria Quartet. Set in the ancient city of Alexandria, Justine is primarily the memoir of an unnamed man and his affair with a beautiful married Jewish socialite. Because of a horrifying incident in her past, Justine finds herself unable (or unwilling?) to be monogamous and so flits from affair to affair. Although her husband Nessim is presented with strong evidence of her affairs over the years, he is unable (or unwilling?) to believe it, until Melissa, the girlfriend of the narrator, comes to Nessim with her knowledge of the affair. Thinking two wrongs make a right, Melissa and Nessim begin an affair, which results in a child. When Nessim finally takes his revenge on the man who hurt Justine, Melissa dies, and Justine inexplicably flees her life in Alexandria for a Jewish kibbutz in Palestine, the narrator adopts the child and retires to a remote island to write about his memories of Justine.

Durrell uses two very unreliable sources of information to define Justine: memory, and the stories of her discarded lovers. Before we judge her as readers, we have to take this into account. As anyone knows, the further away in time an experience is, and the more wrapped in feeling it is, the more likely our memories of the experience will be skewed. Justine's previous husband wrote a book about her, but admits that his memories of their time together may not have been completely accurate: "Did this sort of thing happen so often or is it that my memory has multiplied it? Perhaps it was only once, and the echoes have misled me." The quote from the beginning of the post also emphasizes the deceptive truth of memory. We also have to account for the bias that results from the memories of past lovers. I would never want one of my ex-boyfriends to write a book about me and have people accept that as how I am. The narrator says it best: "How much of him can I claim to know? I realize that each person can only claim one aspect of our character as part of his knowledge. To every one we turn a different face of the prism." I think most of us agree that the part of the prism that would be reflected by an ex-lover might not be the most flattering picture in the world.

Durrell also challenges us to define love. Can you love someone when being unfaithful to them? Can you love someone through an intellectual avenue rather than just purely sexually? Can you really love something without a desire to possess it? My definition of a love relationship would be monogamy and commitment, which is the more conventionally accepted format...and clearly, Justine's definition is 180 degrees different from that.

I ended the book wondering why Durrell would want us to feel so negatively about Justine. Maybe it is my personal experiences and values that turned me against her.

I liked this book. It started a bit slow but grew on me. Happily I am not as turned off about reading the next three books as I was during the first few pages of Justine.

Grade: B+


  1. I had been hoping we'd get around to reading the same book at the same time. I'm finishing Justine now, and I'll be moving on to Balthazar over the weekend.

    Mostly I've been trying to figure out why Durrell named Justine after the novel by Marquis de Sade...

    (Also, I moved The Treacle Well over to WordPress, so I have a new site design and a new URI)

  2. Wonderful! I cannot wait to read your review. :) Your new site looks awesome.

  3. I haven't even heard of this book, but I like how you said that the author paints Justine in such a negative light. I kind of drew parallels between your review of this book with Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. She was also painted in pretty bad light by other characters for similar reasons, but it's interesting how you said that Durrell challenged us to define love. Anyway, you've definitely piqued my interest, but I'm not sure about reading four books...

  4. You can do it! The books are only about 200 pages each, and book #2 kicked off with a giant exciting revelation, so I am super psyched. Apparently the other three books tell the essentially same story as "Justine", but from different POV' everything you thought was true in "Justine" could turn out to be completely false.

  5. Hi Pam

    I am currently completing my own big challenge to read my way through every country in the world according to The Lonely Planet's The Travel Book which puts the number at 230 countries. I am blogging about it at
    I remember seeing the Modern Library list a while back and geeky as this sounds I merged that with a number of other top 100 lists to try to find the definitive list (and then discovered someone else had done that as well and I could have saved myself a heck of a lot of time!). I think the Modern Library list is an excellent one and have read a number of books from it. I am hoping that you might offer me some suggestions on my blog of books you read from the list that evoke a strong sense of the country in which they are set e.g. A House for Mr Biswas gives an excellent portrayal of life in Trinidad. It might help me with what to read for each of the countries I am visiting. Please feel free to post suggestions at any time if you do get a cance to check out my blog as I am keeping a list which I will put on the site once I work out the best way to do that! Meawhile, I'll keep popping back to your blog to see how you are doing and hopefully find some gems for my own challenge!
    All the best,
    Alex aka The Literary Nomad

  6. Ahh, and here's your review of "Justine." Well done! Yup, I'm gonna read this soon. Cheers! Chris