Justine: The Alexandria Quartet, Book 1 Audible Audiobook – Unabridged
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Justine is the first volume in the Alexandria Quartet, four interlinked novels set in the sensuous, hot environment of Alexandria just before the Second World War. Within this polyglot setting of richly idiosyncratic characters is Justine, wild and intense, wife to the wealthy businessman Nessim, a Mari complaisant. Her emotional and sexual wildness fuels a highly charged atmosphere that, caught famously by Durrell’s poetic language, made Justine (1957), and the three novels that complete the Quartet - Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960) - both a critical and a popular success.
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|Listening Length||8 hours and 51 minutes|
|Whispersync for Voice||Ready|
|Audible.com Release Date||July 03, 2021|
|Best Sellers Rank|| #22,642 in Audible Books & Originals (See Top 100 in Audible Books & Originals) |
#333 in Fiction Sagas
#677 in Classic Literature (Audible Books & Originals)
#1,525 in Historical Fiction (Audible Books & Originals)
Top reviews from the United States
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However, what I got was a literary book of florid prose and a deeply buried plot. It is said that the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is that the former is predicated on characters while the latter is predicated on plot. This book makes that distinction crystal clear. It is almost entirely about the characters, including Justine, a kind of Jewish manic-pixie dream girl; Nessim, Justine's Coptic long-suffering husband; Balthasar, a homosexual master of Kabbalah; Pursewarden, an author whose death leaves the narrator with a bequest; Scobie, a homosexual comic-figure; Pomby, an English diplomat; Melissa, the narrator's put-upon girlfriend; and the city of Alexandria itself. The story is told by the unnamed narrator who is kind of a poor English schoolteacher who gains access to this eclectic circle of friends and acquaintances.
The narrator tells the reader at length about the backstory of all of his friends and acquaintances, including their tastes and eccentricities and interconnections and gossip and taste in clothing and residence and on and on. The introduction I read said flat out that most people would skim this book, and I certainly did.
The writing is definitely luxurious. If you like descriptions, then this is your book. Personally, I enjoyed Durrell's idiosyncratic, varied and obscure vocabulary. I added phthisic, pegamoid, adventive, calcimined, tarbush, hebetude, and couloir to my vocabulary list. I also renewed my acquaintance with palpitant, adventive, antinomian, exiguous, etiolation, tenebrous, soutane and Corniche, although I had to look them up in order to really appreciate their use in a given sentence.
Durrell can turn a phrase. Let me share a few examples:
"I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together..." (p. 1.)
"The shops filling and emptying like lungs in the Rue des Soeurs." The shops filling and emptying like lungs in the Rue des Soeurs." (p. 6.)
"Balthazar said quietly: ‘Thank God I have been spared an undue interest in love. At least the invert escapes this fearful struggle to give oneself to another. Lying with one’s own kind, enjoying an experience, one can still keep free the part of one’s mind which dwells in Plato, or gardening, or the differential calculus." (p. 66.)
"‘The cocktail-party — as the name itself indicates — was originally invented by dogs. They are simply bottom-sniffings raised to the rank of formal ceremonies.’" (p. 124.)
"I meant of course the whole portentous scrimmage of sex itself, the act of penetration which could lead a man to despair for the sake of a creature with two breasts and le croissant as the picturesque Levant slang has it." (p. 135.)
Don't get me wrong. These, and some others, stand out sharp and crisp in long and often difficult passages, but these are good.
It also occurred to me that Durrell's writing style might have influenced that of one of my favorite writers, Roger Zelazny. The tone and the attitude seemed to correspond, and Zelazny came to prominence in the mid to late 1960s.
There is a plot, but it is often obscured by the descriptions of characters and place. The essence of the plot is based on the unnamed narrator's affair with Justine. For 80% of the book, this is mostly buried underneath the narrator's description of the city or of the activities of other characters. Because of the emphasis on telling the story as basically a series of introductions of this character or that character, without letting us know why any character is important, the story does not even stick to a chronological format. The narrator's girlfriend is introduced at one point, then, later on, the story of how he met her is presented, and at other points, she simply disappears from the story as if he had broken up with her.
Around ten percent toward the end, we get the inkling of a plot as it seems that Nessim knows about the affair and may take dire action into his hands. On the other hand, a lot of this seems to be going on in the head of the narrator because Nessim appears to quite friendly to him.
One of the difficulties in Durrell's writing style is his tendency to discuss a character for paragraphs without telling us who the character is. The character gets talked about as a "he" or a "she" and the reader has to discern from context who the character is.
Likewise, Durrell introduces a lot of characters whose importance is unclear. I get the sense that Scobie will be important in later volumes. Altogether too much interest was invested in him to be only something of a comic relief/plot device. Scobie does provide a source of money to the narrator, but, really, we don't see the narrator actually working to make money elsewhere. He seems to exist only to meet up with Justine at various places where he can have sex with her. Likewise, Pursewarden has a walk-on, then dies, leaving the narrator with money that will be useful at the end, but the way he is discussed seems to suggest that he is not supposed to be only a supporting character.
And the fascination with Justine, and the basis of the relationship between the narrator and Justine, are also a mystery. Their chemistry seems more stipulated to than demonstrated.
And maybe this is why this book is good literature. It has me thinking and questioning.
I was ready to drop the project of reading all four books midway into Justine, but the last ten percent of Justine seems to have hooked me and I intend to push on to Balthazar and see if I can get some answers to my questions.
I was surprised to see 1 and 2 star reviews. I'd suggest to these people to read it again. All four together form this incredible little space in a world far away - characters so enjoyable and delightful - a city and culture so different yet completely understandable. Justine starts is all off and if you commit totally during those first few pages, the rest will be one of the most satisfying reads you've had the pleasure of.
The premise of Justine could be seen a simple. It's about love and how much pain it can cause. Alone Justine would be a simply stunning book, but leading off for 4 makes it a true revelation. There is pain and joy in this book at anyone can relate to, in fact embrace, and once you get there, the book is difficult to put down.
Lawrence Durrell doesn't miss a word, doesn't blink an eye, planting surprises in each corner of his mysterious Alexandria. Reading this book one can't help but think of another way to live, in another place, with all the secrets that hide in the eyes of everyone you see.
Justine is a great book. Sometimes it takes a little effort to get the prize.
When the narrator first meets Justine, or the hunt near the end, or when Pursewarden ostensibly passes out drunk--these scenes are all written with a precision that contrasts with the overwrought navel gazing periodically indulged by the narrator.
I liked the book quite a bit, surprisingly. I'm often put off by florid prose but for some reason it works here when it is employed. Perhaps it's the necessary ingredient creating that languorous sense of the place. I imagine some people will really dislike the book because of it, but I will move on to Balthazar with only a brief wait.
Top reviews from other countries
L'écriture se substitue à la meilleure caméra : rien n'échappe à l'analyse, et — avantage sur le cinéma — on peut poser le livre pour laisser l'émotion descendre en soi.
Ce que j'écris ici, vaut moins pour les protagonistes du QUATUOR d'ALEXANDRIE (dont je ne connais ou crois ne connaître que le premier : JUSTINE) que pour la description poignante des quartiers pauvres d'Alexandrie.
Justine appartient à une petite communauté juive venue de Russie (fuyant sans doute les pogromes) et qui a trouvé refuge dans les quartiers pauvres de la ville. La misère de son environnement, enfant, est insoutenable. Là où elle dort, le sol est en terre battue et c'est là que circule la nuit une vaste colonie de rats.
Le curriculum vitae de Justine est lacunaire. Au début du roman, belle femme juive intelligente, elle est marrée à Nissim, richissime banquier
copte. C'est à l'occasion d'une conférence sur l'art du narrateur (instituteur ici) que ce dernier fait la connaissance des époux, de culture européenne. Un flash back nous apprend que Justine a été mariée à un écrivain connu qui lui a consacré/dédié un livre : MOEURS, (dont Durrell nous livre des fragments) des noms comme l'Adlon
sont mentionnés (l’Adlon fut le plus beau palace de Berlin).
Elle a voyagé en Europe.
Un FLASH FORWARD dans le présent la trouve au bras de Nissim (le banquier qui a un palais et une Rolls Royce), mari qui ferme les yeux sur toutes ses frasques et aventures sexuelles, passées et présente de Justine. Elle est néanmoins surveillée d'un oeil pour
qu'il ne lui arrive pas malheur et, dans le présent du récit, elle est retrouvée dans un bordel du quartier misérable où les prostituées qui n'ont pas plus de 10 ans, sont en présence d'un gros matelot.
Que fait exactement Justine en ce lieu ? Veut-elle revivre le viol qu'elle a connu, petite fille dans ce même quartier ou bien simplement « souffrir en voyeur ».
J'ai encore lu une vingtaine de pages (au milieu du livre) : impossible d’aller plus loin. Mais avant de ranger le roman sur une étagère, ai lu ses 10 dernières pages — une lettre de Cléa au narrateur désormais à Corfou où il s’est retiré pour écrire — : Justine est en Israël, dans un kibboutz, en jeans, ses mains autrefois si belles sont méconnaissables.
L'écriture de Durell est maîtrisée, certes, mais le personnage difficile à cerner : trop de "non-dits". Le profil de Justine est si composite que l'on en vient à se demander si elle a existé (comme existent Anna Karenine ou Madame Bovary) ou si elle n'est pas plutôt un patchwork fantasmé de Durrell.
Le paroxysme du malaise pour moi fut la mise en pièce d'un chameau vivant — simplement épuisé de fatigue —dans la rue, aux yeux de tous et des enfants.
On ne lit pas pour souffrir : je ne poursuivrai pas cette lecture.