Kelly's Reviews > Justine

Justine by Lawrence Durrell
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's review
May 20, 2012

bookshelves: 20th-century-early-to-mid, fiction, maghreb, mare-nostrum, worlds-lost-dead-and-dying
Read in April, 2012

I woke too soon. Unfortunately, I think that’s the problem with this one. I feel like someone getting surgery who has gotten an insufficient dose of anesthesia, or someone who opens her eyes wide in the midst of a hypnotist act. I really wasn’t looking to make you look bad, and quite frankly I’d prefer it if you’d put me back to sleep, but here I am, nonetheless, looking at you. Durrell feels like he was put in charge of the puppet show before he was ready. This is a test product, not something FDA approved to sell on the market. There’s stuff about it that works and stuff that doesn’t, and he decided to let everyone see his notes on his experiment before it was done. He tosses out sentences like he’s dictating this drunk with his legs up on his desk, jabbing his finger at some poor secretary who is being kept late to capture her boss’ “brilliant ideas” before they disappear. And some of his metaphors and incantations are, truly, brilliant. He’s able to place the right idea with the right paint color and the right speaker and send them forth one after the other until he builds up a really great rhythm that almost makes me fall asleep. But then there’s something so tinny, so echoingly bad or false that I wake up laughing in his face.

I’ve had a lot of experience with this sort of book, books that are about creating a lush phantasmagorias of dreams, cultural imaginaries, personal fears and endless regrets. These books are written as unreliable elegies that try to lift all their memories out of their boxes one by one to look at them as long as they can… and how they get transfixed or transformed doing it. This is about a lost, probably-never-fully-was Alexandria, where scenes are bundles of portentous dialogue and impressionistic descriptions, interspersed with jarring realism and humor that reaches for wry but often comes across as bitter. The thing with these sorts of books is that they require a lot of prep work, and an incredibly delicate touch in the telling. Durrell does a pretty decent job of painting the scenery and giving it a smell, a taste and a feel, at least at the beginning. He also does a perfectly fine job of inserting suitable characters to wander in it- the observant, but unremarkable fish out of water narrator, the glittering Master of the Universe, the Madonna, the Whore, and the grotesques that dance in the background and remind us that we’re watching Comedie Humaine, not Tristan and Isolde. We wander through the circles of hell for awhile, being shown everyone’s punishment, and so far we’re on the right track.

But then he forgot that the tale is not just in its contents, its in the telling. Somewhere around the halfway mark the story seems to lose momentum and focus, and becomes much more about watching the freak show than guiding us through it and making us understand that we’re going towards an endpoint that will tie all the threads together. Durrell gets really pleased with his own voice and with using characters an excuse to explore slightly ridiculous philosophy. It becomes less about an elegy and more about a political judgement, less about a world and more about a pose. The jealous, conflicted love triangle makes a pretty good amount of sense until it becomes a quadrilateral, at which point the characters start acting things instead of being things and then it becomes less a literary novel than a soap opera with tortured metaphors and unnecessary digressions into esoteric religious things. Without the momentum, it seems to lose the magic as well. In order to make the elegy worth it, you’ve got to make us understand why the living are writing it, and Durrell lost the plot for me there. This was probably in large part due to my increasing frustration wit his writing in the back half of the novel. The point was in the magic for this one, and without it, there’s not much point continuing.

I might finish it at another time, but I’d like to do it at a point where I might be able to appreciate the intent behind the metaphors and ignore the frustrating digressions. I did like the first part of this so much. But now is not that time.

To be continued.
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Quotes Kelly Liked

Lawrence Durrell
“Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us?”
Lawrence Durrell, Justine

Reading Progress

02/28 page 60
23.0% ""..and if I saw her as an exemplar of the city it was not of Alexandria, or Plotinus that I was forced to think, but of the sad thirtieth child of Valentinus who fell 'not like Lucifer by rebelling against God, but by desiring too ardently to be united to him.' Anything pressed too far becomes a sin.""
02/28 page 80
31.0% "" my life there is a sort of Unhealed Place as you call it which I try to keep full of people, accidents, diseases, anything that comes to hand. You are right when you say it is an apology for better living, wiser living. But while I respect your discipline and your knowledge I feel that if I am ever going to come to terms with myself I must work through the dross in my own character and burn it up.""
02/29 page 90
35.0% "As a doctor, he spends most of his working-time in the government clinic for venereal disease. (He once said dryly: "I live at the center of the city's life- its genito-urinary system: it is a sobering sort of place.""
03/01 page 110
43.0% "The contemporary psyche has exploded like a soap-bubble under the investigations of the mystagogues. What now remains to the writer?"
03/01 page 125
49.0% "His talk is a green-water jargon swept up in five oceans-an antique shop of polite fable bristling with sextants, astrolabes and isobars... Like a patron saint he has left little pieces of his flesh all over the world, in Zanzibar, Colombo, Togoland, Wu Fu... Now the retreating tide has left him high and dry above the speeding currents of time, Joshua the insolvent weather-man, the islander, the anchorite."
03/04 page 150
59.0% "In love? The word implies a totality which was missing in my mistress, who resembled one of those ancient goddesses in that her attributes proliferated through her life and were not condensed about a single quality of heart which one could love or unlove. 'Possession' is on the other hand too strong: we were human beings, not Bronte cartoons."
05/06 marked as: read

Comments <span class="smallText"> (showing 1-34 of 34) </span> <span class="smallText">(34 new)</span>

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

Don't get too comfortable. It goes downhill pretty quick after the beginning of the second book.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

"We use each other like axes to cut down the ones we really love."

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

err, hmmm, that was kind of prickish of me. you might not have planned to go beyond the first book. i'm a bit flustered and flummoxed because I'm reading the Decline of the West in total awe except that every time I feel an epiphany coming on I remember your review stating that Spengler's theories have been discredited and I wonder why you chose to intentionally wound me in particular that way when you wrote your review.

message 4: by Kelly (last edited Feb 28, 2012 03:11PM) (new) - added it

Kelly Well, as long as we're even then, I suppose. :) I probably will read the second book because this book is so good its earned it, but you will be perfectly entitled to your "I told you so" when I don't like it!

I just want to say though on Spengler that just because is wrong in substance on some stuff (and because I particularly think that his theories about monolithic cultures are not helpful and encourage really awful Us/Them reasoning) doesn't mean that his way of thinking through things isn't fascinating. It totally is. I love his stuff about things-becoming/things-become and history as nature, and his way of looking at the relation of time and culture. His writing can be completely hypnotic. Also, I talked to some professors and they said that while he gets a lot of substance wrong, there's an equal mixture of amazing stuff in there. He's a complex mess, Spengler.

message 5: by Elijah (new)

Elijah Kinch Spector Oh shit, I just bought this the other day. Can't wait to hear your thoughts.

message 6: by Kelly (last edited Feb 29, 2012 01:10AM) (new) - added it

Kelly Lovelovelovelovelovelove.

I know, intellectually, that the book has some problems (mostly in the fact that some of the thinking is a little dated), but I couldn't care less at this point. I'll let you know if anything changes, but I doubt it!

message 7: by Elijah (new)

Elijah Kinch Spector Excellent.

P.S. This is what got me to finally buy it, instead of letting it languish in my wishlist:

message 8: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly I like the part where Morris keeps talking about how silly it is... but then can't stop also saying how wonderful it is, and how it is a masterpiece. That's about where I come down as well. What a great podcast- thanks for sharing. I want to check out some of their archive now.

message 9: by Elijah (new)

Elijah Kinch Spector I know! But that's great, it can be scary to come at something that's purported to be perfect -- I'm MORE tempted to read it knowing that it's also kind of silly.

And yeah, I started on the podcast from that one, but I've listened to a few more, and they're pretty great (the Anne Frank one was great).

message 10: by Kelly (last edited Feb 29, 2012 02:12PM) (new) - added it

Kelly Elijah wrote: "I know! But that's great, it can be scary to come at something that's purported to be perfect -- I'm MORE tempted to read it knowing that it's also kind of silly."

This is why we are bookfriends! I totally agree with that way of thinking. It took me about five years to talk myself into reading Ulysses- then I got to class and the professor did this whole bit about how it was about immature sex jokes and Joyce sort of screwing around and trying stuff. Why didn't anyone tell me that five years before?? Made (at least parts of it) a much more fun experience.

message 11: by Elijah (new)

Elijah Kinch Spector I... still couldn't hack Ulysses. Even a sentence or two made me mad. But I respect your reasoning. Shit, I was so surprised when I found out that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are both REALLY funny. Like really, really funny.

I think that smarty-pants book-learnin' types have happily built up a mystique over a lot of things to make themselves seem smart, and now that's probably a pretty large part of why a lot of people don't read, or don't read anything vaguely challening.

message 12: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Agreed. And yeah, some chapters of Ulysses still made me annoyed too, but they're all so different I got over it.

I need to read more Tolstoy. Anna K isn't the funniest book in the world, but others might have more promise.

message 13: by Elijah (new)

Elijah Kinch Spector This is gonna sound weird... but War and Peace is actually really funny, at times. Mostly in the "Peace" sections, but not entirely.

message 14: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly I could see some dark gallows humor in the war sections, a la Catch-22. But you know, 19th century, and Russian. I will read that thing one day!

message 15: by Miriam (new)

Miriam After you're done with LD (not before) you should read My Family and Other Animals.

message 16: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Oh? Are there hidden references to the Alexandria Quartet in his brother's children's work? :)

message 17: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I don't think so, but I haven't read the Quartet. It's just really hard to take Larry seriously after.

message 18: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Is he in it? Either way, it looks like a lot of fun!

message 19: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Yes, he's the older brother.

message 20: by Elijah (last edited Mar 01, 2012 12:59PM) (new)

Elijah Kinch Spector Of course he's hard to take seriously, look at the little guy!

Don't you just wanna pick him up and swing him around and squeeze him like a teddy bear?

message 21: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly That podcast did say that he told people he had circus dwarves be the witnesses at his first wedding in order to make him look taller! I'd believe it! :)

message 22: by Manny (new)

Manny Justin wrote: "Don't get too comfortable. It goes downhill pretty quick after the beginning of the second book."

Ah come on. I just love the scene with the hippopotamus-hide whip. One of my favorites.

message 23: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly The fact that the later books somehow manage to combine the words "hippopotamus" and "hide-whip" in some sort of plot point already makes me want to read it more.

message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

Manny wrote: "Justin wrote: "Don't get too comfortable. It goes downhill pretty quick after the beginning of the second book."

Ah come on. I just love the scene with the hippopotamus-hide whip. One of my favor..."

yeah, that's somewhere around the time the guy has a horseback-riding-induced orgasm, isn't it? no thanks.

message 25: by Elijah (new)

Elijah Kinch Spector I am so in. Everything you say just makes me want to read these books. Hilarious and bizarre, I can do.

message 26: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Ditto! I am on board for some magical insanity.

message 27: by [deleted user] (new)

So what's the verdict/status?

message 28: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly On pause until school's finished, unfortunately! I want to give it the attention it deserves. I'm afraid in my mind state I'd miss out on so much.

message 29: by Rebecca (new) - added it

Rebecca I see other people have already pointed out My Family and Other Animals, but thought I'd add that according to Gerald's portrayal of him he quite probably was "dictating this drunk with his legs up on his desk"!

message 30: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly Yeah, it sounds like he was quite a character. Perhaps more worth reading about than some of his own creations.

message 31: by mark (new)

mark monday watch the movie version if you feel like watching something TERRIBLE.

message 32: by Elijah (new)

Elijah Kinch Spector Oh Lord, I can only imagine. Is it a Caligula style "Oh no, this isn't PORN, it's AAAAART" movie?

message 33: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly As long as it falls into the category of so bad its good, preferably with as much pretentious dialogue as possible, I am on board!

message 34: by mark (last edited May 22, 2012 01:44PM) (new)

mark monday i wish it were Caligula-style so-bad-it's-good. althought it does have amusingly pretentious dialogue, it is of the classy all-star-cast branch of 70s (i think) hollywood filmmaking. so some pretty cinematography, some interesting actors... but mainly just eye-rolling and laughable.

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