Lawrence Durrell, quite on purpose, wrote Justine, the first of four novels that together became known as The Alexandria Quartet, like a “spiral staircase,” each step taken changing the perspective of how things are seen. “I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child – Melissa’s child,” he write on the very first page. At night, when “the wind roars and the child sleeps quietly in the wooden cot,” he thinks about Justine and Nessim, Melissa and Balthazar and about the city, Alexandria. Alone with the child on the island, he will try to reorder reality, to show what was most significant.
He sees all this, he is determined to see all this, the way that each of us sees things in our own remembered past, not as the sequential events they were when they unfolded, but as we first come to learn about them; the way, for example, we learn, much later than it happened, a friend’s, or a lover’s, betrayal. He will “record experiences, not in the order in which they took place – for that is history – but in the order in which they first became significant for me.” It is only here, on the island, “that I am at last able to re-enter, reinhabit the unburied city with my friends….Here at least I am able to see their history and the city’s as one and the same phenomenon.”
Justine, the novel, is about Alexandria, the city, because Justine, the woman, is “only an extension of the spirit of the place.” With “five races, five languages,” and “more than five sexes.” Alexandria is different than other places. Everyone knows everyone, or knows something about everyone; everyone knows about Justine, married to Nessim, a man so rich that he cares nothing about money, and indeed is “possessed by a positive distaste for it.” Stranger still, Nessim “appeared to be quite faithful to Justine – an unheard of state of affairs.” Justine, however, is not faithful to him. Durrell does not approach her; she approaches him.
Durrell is not married, but shares his bed at regular intervals with Melissa, a dancing girl, of whom Purswarden, a well-known writer, said after watching her dance that he would propose marriage to her, “But she is so ignorant and her mind so deformed by poverty and bad luck that she would refuse out of incredulity.” The difference between the two women could not be greater, or more tragic. Melissa loved “my weaknesses because there she felt of use to me; Justine brushed all this aside as unworthy of her interest.”
Justine has so many theories about herself that it is never quite possible to trust her conclusions. She is always searching for something, something that will tell her what, and who, she really is. Durrell, her lover, is driven to the same search. It is the question, the central concern, of everyone who knows her, or tries to know her. Everyone wants her, and if she does not go so far as indiscriminate promiscuity it is only because before she gives her body she has already sufficiently imagined the act. Almost before their affair has begun, she remarks that, “This intimacy should go no further, for we have already exhausted all its possibilities in our respective imaginations.”
When Melissa tells Durrell that he is falling in love with Justine, he tells her that it is worse than that – “though I could not for the life of me have explained how or why.” He realizes later that it has something to do with “the curiously ingrown quality of love which I have come to recognize as peculiar to the city rather than ourselves.” Much of what he learns about Justine comes from a book, a diary, written by her first husband, Jacob Arnauti, a story of Alexandrian life seen by a foreigner in the early thirties. The author is engaged on research for a novel he wants to write. One of the characters, Claudia, is like Justine. “She gave herself to me with such contempt,” he writes, “that I was for the first time in my life surprised at the quality of her anxiety; it was as if she were desperate, swollen with disaster.”
Durrell comes across a line that seems to explain everything. Claudia – really Justine – admits that “I hunt everywhere for a life that is worth living….The doctor I loved told me that I was a nymphomaniac.” The author would like to write a book about her, one “powerful enough to contain the elements of her….: It would have to be a “drama freed from the burden of form. I would set my own book free to dream.” Which, we now understand, is precisely what Lawrence Durrell is trying to do.
If everyone is fascinated by Justine it is perhaps, at least in part, because Justine is so fascinated with herself. She has reason to be. Clea, a friend of Durrell’s, tells him: “The true whore is man’s real darling – like Justine; she alone has the capacity to wound men.” But, then, Justine “cannot be justified or excused. She simply and magnificently is….Like all amoral people she verges on the Goddess.”
Clea has little interest in love, and even less interest in men. The only experience that “marked” her was one with a woman, who, unsurprisingly, was Justine. Clea tells Durrell that Justine had been “raped by one of her relatives,” and “from this time forward she could obtain no satisfaction in love, unless she mentally recreated these incidents and so re-enacted them.” A line from Arnaud’s diary comes back to Durrell: “There is no pain compared to that of loving a woman who makes her body accessible to one and yet who is incapable of delivering her true self – because she does not know where to find it.”
Balthazar, another main character, makes his first appearance only when the story is nearly half over. He is “one of the keys to the city,” someone Durrell took “very much as he was in those days and now in my memory I feel that he is in need of a new revaluation. There was much that I did not understand then, much that I have since learned.” Balthazar, a physician who is often found in bed with a sailor, or some other man or boy whose name he never knew, understands the city in ways others do not. Alexandria “is really a city of incest – I mean that here the cult of Serapis was founded. For this etiolation of the heart and reins in love-making must make one turn inward upon one’s sister. The lover mirrors himself like Narcissus in his own family: there is no exit from the predicament.” Incest has a deeper meaning than what, on a first reading, this might suggest, and perhaps more meanings than one.
With women, with men, with her own haunted fantasies of violent abuse, Justine makes those who are brought within the sphere of her sexuality begin to change places, to become the very person they have betrayed. Nessim, betrayed by Justine, begins to love Melissa; while Melissa “would hunt in him for qualities which she imagined I must have found in his wife.” This is not as strange as it seems, or perhaps stranger than it seems: “One always falls in love with the love-choice of the person one loves.” Incest is everywhere. The four of them: Nessim and Melissa, Justine and Durrell, “were unrecognized complementaries of one another, inextricably bound together.” Nessim and Melissa, both of them betrayed, “talked now as a doomed brother and sister might….In all their sympathy an unexpected shadow of desire stirred within them, a wraith merely, the stepchild of confession and release.”
Justine, at the end, finally leaves Nessim, but she does not run off with Durrell; she simply disappears. A world war is coming. When Clea gets a card from Justine, who is working on a kibbutz in Jerusalem, the story seems over, but there is an unresolved problem, not about Justine, but about Melissa, or rather, the child she has had with Nessim. There is an incestuous connection even in this. Justine had had a child of her own, years earlier, a child who had been kidnapped and never found. It all makes sense to Balthazar: “I look at it this way: by one of those fearful displacements of which only love seems capable the child Justine lost was given back by Nessim not to her but to Melissa.”
Melissa is in the hospital, and when she dies, Durrell promises to take the child if Nessim does not want her. And then, following the spiral staircase of the story, we are back where we started, the child sleeping peacefully in the wooden cot while Durrell, alone on the island, begins to write what he remembers about what Alexandria and its more than five sexes had been.