I want to use my blog as a way to take notes on books that I read. I considered using my other blog on LiveJournal, but the format for this Mindsay blog is better, and a nary couple readers may be interested in my ideas.
Reading: Justine, by Lawrence Durrell
Durrell's project in this, the first installment of what the editor calls the "Alexandrine Quartet" of Durrell's novels, is to define, remake and project the city of Alexandria, the city that is not "on the right side of the Mediterranean" (p. 31). I do believe the blurb on the back of the book, that says that Durrell creates a "self-contained universe" in writing this novel (of a city?).
Of course, in the classic formulation, the plot is pushed along by love and dalliance; I think of Leonard Cohen's novel, which I've not read, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Kundera. Young people that work, socialize (but not in any crude sense), have sex, try to find meaning. Justine promulgates a sort of languor of literature; reading, I sense the laze that must define Alexandria and parts of the Levant, 180 degrees against the media projection of the Middle East--a place of angry, dirt poor youths, AK-47s and religious fundamentalism. Durrell's Alexandria is a sort of backwater--the characters are all above the fray, i.e. wealthy or "in a position," and excitement usually occurs when they cease to inhabit their bubble. Thus we see the poverty, rats, disease, prostitution, crumbling buildings.
What's interesting to me right now is the languorous relationships, the seemingly by-necessity refusal of Puritan sexual code (although none have been broken thus far in the novel) that sets this novel apart form The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles. This first-person narrative is told from the perspective of a British editor (I think), while TSS is told straight-orientalist pleasure-seeker. There is less of an Us and a Them in this Durrell novel; the narrator is the straight man, unperturbed, and unperturbed the shocking sights.
From the blurb on the book's backside, I know that these characters will have sex, subvert normal conceptions of sexual relationships, yet in the end not "learn" in this place that once housed the world's greatest library. From an early scene, page 47:
Then--and this I remember clearly--the mania for self-justification seized her (we spoke Frech: language creates national character) and between those breathless half-seconds when I felt her strong mouth on my own and those worldly brown arms closing upon mine: "I would not mistake it for gluttony or self-indulgence. We are too worldly for that: simply we have something to learn from each other. What is it?"
And so on. The sexual feel thus far has a naturalistic taste; the character Justine is married but has sex with other men, and will with the narrator; this behavior is not blameworthy; it's natural(istic). As if the natural extension of intimacy--of testing human intimacy itself:
It was, if you lik, the flirtation of minds prematurely exhausted by experience which seemed so much more dangerous than a love founded in sexual attraction.
The novel makes me want to go and seek this sort of dalliance, and I've been feeling unclosed off from others in this way lately. "Only Connect" starts Forster's Howards End. Definitely a concern; this is a British novel. (The short introduction says Durrell was born and partly raised in India, but his name indicates that he is/was white.)
What I come away from reading the early part of this novel is the leveling that this "languor of literature" does: the lack of judgment and separation, how the populace is described as "a joint"--i.e. borderless, the opening of a space for people to connect without the pet concerns of social power, position, institution. But, as concerns plot, this may only be a temporary eliding/belying.