Saturday, October 31, 2020

Back to the Classics Challenge 2020: Justine


I had ambitious plans to read Lawrence Durrell’s entire Alexandria quartet for the challenge in 2020 but unfortunately, I’ve only managed the first book and don’t see myself tackling the other three in 2020. My blogging friend Major called it, when he commented on my January 3, 2020 opening post for the challenge, 

I found it impossible to understand, I was totally lost, I had no idea what the writer was doing. I was routed, utterly defeated. Not even Pynchon challenged me so.”

I’ve only read one book by Pynchon and it was pretty tough going, so I’m giving the point to Durrell here, BUT I do know what Major meant. Much of the dreamy, plotless, non-linear narrative of Justine was incomprehensible to me. 

Here’s what I did get: Everybody loves Justine. Justine loves no one but has affairs left and right, possibly because she was sexually abused by an uncle as a child, the book suggests. Justine has an affair with our nameless expat British narrator. He, in turn, is in a relationship with a tubercular prostitute with a heart of gold, Melissa. Justine’s husband, Nessim, is tolerant of his wife’s behavior, until he isn’t and then he takes up with Melissa.

Here’s what I think I got: Justine is supposed to represent the city of Alexandria. Or maybe all three of the main characters supposed to represent facets of the city: Nessim the Coptic Christian, Justine the Jew, and Melissa the Greek (The Arab and Muslim population are pretty much ignored by Durrell). 

Here’s what I did not get at all: At some points, Durell switches to the past…maybe the Napoleonic invasion of Alexandria or maybe the Persian invasion or the Ottoman invasion…all which were centuries apart from one another. Who knows? It’s all very dreamlike and enigmatic.

As a reader, I need a lot more plot than this book provided. I usually have a tin ear for gauzy, poetic writing.  But I think the biggest problem was that even when I did understand what was happening, I didn’t care a whit about any of these people or what happened to them.  However, I know and respect other readers who LOVE these books, so I do think this is very much a matter of “reader taste”.

I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2020 category “20th Century Classic”.


18 comments:

  1. Ha! Yes, well, there's a lot of gauzy writing in the Quartet...

    I liked it--in fact I read the whole thing through a second time a couple of years ago, after I'd started blogging so you can go find my profound thoughts, should you wish ;-) but there are lots of reasons not to like it. I do think it gets significantly better for reading all four of them--they complicate each other.

    He is easier than Pynchon (and I like Pynchon!)

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    1. Thanks for the comment reese! I will go check out your profound thoughts! And I will read the other three, hopefully next year. The entire quartet is on the Modern Library list and I have vowed *shakes fist* to finish it. :D Luckily none of the individual books are very long. And who knows? Maybe he will grow on me?

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  2. Yipes! I was hoping to read this at some point but now I'm not so sure. Perhaps in my retirement when I have scads of time to read. Until then, I think there are many books I'd put before it. Thanks for the honest review!

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    1. Thanks for the comment Cleo! You may enjoy the book more that I do. I am just not very good with poetic, lyrical writing. Like you, I have a super long list of books to be read someday when retired...trouble is, authors keep publishing new books! :D

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  3. Hi Ruthiella! I was wondering how you'd like Justine, when I saw it on your challenge list. Given our previous exchanges regarding plot vs. atmosphere/mood, I'm not terribly surprised that it isn't your cup of tea. Like Reese, I loved the books, which I've also read twice; also like Reese I do think they make more sense when considered as parts of a whole, i.e., separate chapters in one mammoth book. That being said, I can totally understand why many readers are turned off by these works (I do think Durrell has fallen at least somewhat out of fashion these days). Aren't the differences in what each of us like wonderful and don't they make for very interesting exchanges?
    P.S. Just for the record, I've never been able to read any of Durrell's other works, some of which are sitting on my shelves. Also, I really must try the Alexandria Quartet again, to see if its old magic still holds . . .

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    1. Thanks for the comment Janakay! I wholeheartedly agree that our different tastes as readers make for fabulous exchanges. This is what I love about blogging/bloggers. Any book is made even better by discussion, IMO. And you are completely right to peg this kind of book as just not my cuppa.

      I do understand that when the books were first published, they were incredibly popular and I suspect his magic will still entrance you. :D

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  4. Mostly, thinking of Janakay's response here. The first time I read the Alexandria Quartet I liked it so much I also went out & got a bunch of others. Durrell's bad qualities are definitely stronger in some of the other books. I started rereading the Alexandria Quartet after I finished the Avignon Quintet (which I thought was poor) because I wondered could I have been that mistaken in the Alexandria Quartet. Alexandria definitely > Avignon... ;-)

    But I also loved the Antrobus stories. If you like Durrell's farcical sense of the diplomatic world which shows up sometimes in Alexandria, Antrobus is hilarious. His memoir/travel writing can also be very good. I especially liked Bitter Lemons, where he's living in Cyprus in the 50s and the violence over Enosis (the potential union of Cyprus with mainland Greece) is heating up.

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    1. First to Ruthiella: apologies for the duplicate comment (please delete the extra if you can); I having my usual problems with blogspot.
      Second for Reese: thanks for the input on the Avignon Quartet, the first book of which happens to be one of my dust catchers. I wasn't familiar with the Antrobus stories, which sound like something I'd like. I'll definitely check them out!

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  5. Yikes. I'm not sure this book is one I'd like...or understand. I think I'd rather just read a good travel book about Alexandria. At least those have pictures. ;D

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    1. Thanks for the comment Lark! I forgot you've actually been to Egypt. I think a good travel book about Alexandria would be fascinating...historically it has such significance and is one of those cities where there is nothing like it elsewhere in the world. :)

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  6. Hi Ruthiella, I am sensing that Justine is one of those modernist novels where pages can go buy and the reader doesn't know what happened. I had that experience with The Sound and the Fury and its why I've stayed away from Ulysees but there is a funny story involving James Joyce who years later tried to read his book Finnegan's Wake and couldn't get through it "too much of that stream of consciousness crap". He went on to really trash his book and it makes for very funny reading and so maybe I should read something by Joyce because in addition to his being a great writer he had a sense of humor about himself

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    1. Thanks for the comment Kathy! That is hilarious about Joyce! I've read Finnegan's Wake and I don't know how anyone could follow it, including the author. :) Justine isn't quite that obscure, thankfully. I think for readers who have a fine ear for the atmospheric and the poetic - where what happens is less important than the portrayal of a mood or vision, it probably has a lot to offer in its writing.

      I still have The Sound and the Fury to read some day, but I can only manage one or two of this kind of book a year. Maybe in 2021?

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  7. I haven't read Justine, but maybe I'll give it a pass. I need both a plot and characters that I can care about, even if I don't particularly like them.

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    1. Thanks for the comment jenclair! I agree, I normally need a plot and characters to hang on to. I also don't necessarily need to like the characters, but I have to at least find them interesting. :D

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  8. I've thought about reading this quartet myself but it actually really sounds like a bit of a slog. Not sure I have the energy to deal with it, these days anyway.

    Thanks for the review -- I liked your format of what you got, thought you got, and didn't get. I may borrow that!

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    1. Thanks for the comment Jane! Please, the format is all yours. :)

      I wouldn't want to try to deter you from trying the books. Who knows? Maybe you will love them. It's really a style thing.

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  9. I had a beautiful box set for many years while I tried to motivate myself to read this. I think there must have been a moment before my last move when I decided to give donate it to More Than Words, a lovely used bookstore outside Boston that provides job training to youth who have been in trouble with the law.

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    1. Thanks for the comment CLM! I am sure someone really loved finding that box set for their shelves. I think readers always hope their donated books will find the perfect reader for them. :)

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