As the second of my Books by Memory series this is a rather tangential book review that uses memory to approach a book, rather than focusing in a more analytical way. This time I am reminiscing on Lawrence Durrell’s Justine. Before getting into my memories, I feel it is worth clarifying that I am not talking about the novel by the Marquis de Sade, although I’m sure that would provide many interesting memories to explore.
I cannot actually remember when I started reading Justine. I think I bought a copy of The Alexandria Quartet, after getting hooked on the TV series The Durrell’s (loosely based on Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy), but did not ever get more than a few pages in for some time. In a way it was the complexity of the plot and the intricate, almost filigree nature, of the prose that meant I kept picking it up but never reading more than a handful of pages.
The thing that spurred me into properly picking up Justine, was a nice blend of situations. First of all, I was getting a train from London back to university in Exeter and knowing that for the claim that it is only a 2-hour train, it can be more like 3, I felt I should take a second book as well as the novel I was currently reading.
As I already was stretching the limits of my bag, I wanted a very slim book that would slot into a coat pocket. I then saw a copy of Mr Durrell’s Esprit de Corps, which is a collection of narrative sketches from Durrell’s time in the diplomatic Corps.
Having finished my novel before Bedwyn (the train had a technical hitch so had a little rest just after Newbury, giving me plenty of reading time), I ended up reading Esprit de Corps for the rest of the journey. I enjoyed it so much that the next evening, when I had some friends coming over for drinks, I dipped back into Justine.
That could have been it, and just another faltering start to the book, but as I seem incapable of organising drinks with any sense of detail, I had a bit of time to kill before people turned up and I thought I might as well make myself a drink. After all I had already done the hard part of juicing lemons and mixing up some sugar syrup.
So, there I was sitting, sipping a White Lady, seeing that everyone I’d invited was a bit delayed. What else was I to do but sit, watch the sunset, and read. There is something about reading as you watch the sun set.
I was rather lucky that in second year I lived in a flat on the top floor of a building, which was almost perfectly oriented so one of the windows in the kitchen got a view of the sunset (apparently the other window gave an equally good view of the sun rising, but I will have to take my flatmate’s word for it, as I never woke up so ruinously early).
This might all sound rather perfect, fitting the sense of luxury present both in Mr Durrell’s prose, and in his presentation of Alexandria in the ‘30s. Yet, I wasn’t reclining on some threadbare, yet chic, chaise longue, instead I was perched on the most uncomfortable sofa that could possibly exist, short of being made of nails, and even that might have been better for my back.
It was the sort of fake leather sofa that tries rather too hard to be trendy, and was so solid that you could use the seats as a solid flat surface for drinks.
Such a book, was not harmed by my discomfort as once became immersed, I was far too immersed to care about how I was sitting. In part it is the almost poetic attention to the prosody that makes the prose flow so well. I also do think there is a specific mindset needed for reading such prose.
You need to be alert enough to deal with complex sentences that might go in different ways to how you expected, but also if you are overly intently reading, you will get hung up on the individual sentences and fail to appreciate their effect as a whole.
Plus, the way the plot of Justine jumps around in time, means that you need to get into the rhythm of the work to naturally get what is going on, rather than having to step back from the narrative to consider how it fits into the book.
Although I say that it was the long wait for my friends that let me get fully immersed and so build the momentum to properly launch myself into the narrative, I cannot think of Justine without thinking of a specific word. Perhaps I think too much about words in isolation, but often I will come away from a book, or even a whole authors range, with a very strong memory for a single word.
This tends to be stronger when it is a word I have not seen before. In the case of Justine, it was “pudicity” which did not hinder my understanding, as the context and my knowledge of related words in other languages meant it only took a moment to grasp its meaning. But that moment of thought, even if it is just that it is a rarely used word, always seems to cement that word into that memory.
It does help that in this instance the nature of the book makes me think of a related word. I recently saw the word “apudity” invented on Twitter (By Dr Francis Young, in this tweet) and it used the way “pudicity” words as a justification. “pudicity” means something like “modesty” and has a Latin root, “apudity” follows the same pattern of formation and uses the Latin “apud” as its root, and means something like the sense of a being in a specific place.
You cannot read Justine, without seeing Durrell’s specific feeling of Alexandria, and how particular those feels are to it. It is not a feeling that can easily be condensed into attributes or descriptors, instead it flavours every aspect of the novel.
That is why, as I was sitting there, sipping my White Lady (or rather my second, as I waited a good half hour) Justine was able to capture my mind in that moment, for it is really just a single moment stretched into a narrative. Time might pass, but the moment remains.
And I can easily imagine myself sat in that same kitchen, watching the sun sinking over the centre of Exeter with Exewick framing the distant sky, reading the other volumes of The Alexandria Quartet, even if I now live in a different city.
Similarly, each time I raise a White Lady to my lips, there will be a hint of the memory of Justine. Even if that hint is overlaid with more pertinent memories, and perhaps for those other memories, for Justine, is a book of memory, both in its narrative structure, but also in its writing, for it is undoubtedly based on Durrell’s memories of Alexandria and Cairo in the ‘40s.
So, it feels fitting, that such a book has left such strong memories, and will continue to assert such gravitational pull over any future memories of The Alexandria Quartet.
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