Love — wanton, all-consuming, passionate love — is the theme of Lawrence Durrell’s classic romantic novel, Justine, set in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria just before the outbreak of the Second World War.
Two couples are inexorably drawn to each other in a romantic entanglement that ends in death and separation and the birth of a girl who finds a home with the narrator, the English schoolmaster Darley. She is the motherless child of the woman who loved him, by the husband of the woman he loved.
Such are the toils of love when the woman at the centre is Justine — the beautiful, imperious, elusive Jewess, Justine, who, the narrator learns from an autobiographical novel written by her former French Albanian husband, can never give or take satisfaction in love because every time she has sex with a lover, she re-imagines being seduced as a young girl by a relative.
But that makes her no less desirable to the narrator and her present husband, “Prince” Nessim, a Coptic merchant prince, who are both hopelessly in love with her.
Others pay the price. The husband has his revenge — or so it is believed — on the relative, who dies in a duckshoot accident.
And the other victim is Melissa. Sweet Melissa. The Greek cabaret dancer who loved the narrator unconditionally — and knew, though they stayed together, Justine was the woman he loved.
But, instead of leaving him, she told Nessim about the affair he was having with his wife.
That was how she ended up having a baby by Nessim — two dejected lovers seeking consolation in each other.
Durrell describes the beginning of their affair with marvellous clarity.
They talked now as a doomed brother and sister might… In all this sympathy an unexpected shadow of desire stirred within them, a wraith merely… It foreshadowed, in a way, their own lovemaking, which was so much less ugly than ours — mine and Justine’s. Loving is so much truer when sympathy and not desire makes the match; for it leaves no wounds. It was already dawn when they rose from their conversation, stiff and cramped, the fire long since out, and marched across the damp sand to the car, scouting the pale lavender light of dawn. Melissa had found a friend and patron; as for Nessim, he was transfigured.
Sensuous prose and rich character studies fill every page of the book.
Melissa is adorable. How could the narrator not fall in love with her? Look at the way she reacted when they met in a cafe and he lied to her that he had been suffering from “a minor but irritating venereal irritation”.
I had been horrified I said at the thought of having to make love again before I was quite well. At this she put out her hand and placed it on mine and laughed, wrinkling up her nose: laughing with such candour, so lightly and effortlessly, that there and then I decided to love her.
We idled arm in arm by the sea that afternoon, our conversations full of the debris of lives lived without forethought, without architecture. We had not a taste in common. Our characters and predispositions were wholly different, and yet in the magical ease of this friendship we felt something promised us. I like, also, to remember that first kiss by the sea, the wind blowing up a flake of hair at each white temple — a kiss broken by the laughter which beset her…. It symbolized the passion we enjoyed, its humour and lack of intenseness: its charity.
And then he meets Justine in a dark hall while giving a talk on writers. It is she who pursues him. She accosts him in a cafe with a question about his talk.
Put simply, she is night if Melissa is light as a summer’s day.
A femme fatale, Justine utterly consumes the narrator until she mysteriously disappears when the relative who first seduced her — Capodistria — dies in a duckshoot.
Then Melissa leaves too. “I shall always come back if you want,” she tells the narrator.
He also leaves Alexandria to take up a teaching job.
They exchange letters, but he only sees her after her death.
When a friend phones him to say she is ill at an Alexandria hospital, he hurries back. He wants to marry her. But when he arrives at the hospital, she is dead. Then he discovers she has had a baby by Nessim.
Taking the baby into his care, he begins writing his memoir. Justine begins on a romantic note:
The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the invention of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…
I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child — Melissa’s child. I do not know why I use the word “escape”. The villagers say jokingly that only a sick man would choose such a remote place to rebuild. Well, then, I have come here to heal myself, if you like to put it that way…
At night when the wind roars and the child sleeps quietly in its wooden cot by the echoing chimney piece I light a lamp and walk about, thinking of my friends — of Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar. I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us as its flora — precipitated conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!
With time, comes change.
Justine, the narrator learns in a letter from a friend, has become a plump, hardworking settler at a Jewish kibbutz near Haifa.
The friend, a rich beautiful artist named Clea who once loved Justine, ends her letter by offering a new relationship to the narrator:
I do not know why but it is towards you, my dear friend, that my thoughts have turned more and more of late. Can one be frank? Is there a friendship possible this side of love which could be sought and found? I speak no more of love — the word and its conventions have become odious to me. But is there a friendship possible to attain which is deeper, even limitlessly deep, and yet wordless, idealess? It seems somehow necessary to find a human being to whom one can be faithful, not in the body (I leave that to the priests) but in the culprit mind? Once or twice I have felt the absurd desire to come to you and offer my services in looking after the child perhaps. But it seems clear now that you do not really need anybody any more, and that you value your solitude above all things…
The story ends:
I have decided to leave Clea’s last letter unanswered. I no longer wish to coerce anyone, to make promises, to think of life in terms of compacts, resolutions, covenants. It will be up to Clea to interpret my silence according to her own needs and desires, to come to me if she has need or not, as the case may be. Does not everything depend on our interpretation of the silence around us? So that…
That is how Justine ends. But it is only the first novel in Lawrence Durrell’s famous Alexandria Quartet. Published in 1957, Justine was followed by Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958) and Clea (1960).
Clea ends with another letter from Clea to the narrator. She describes how Justine and Nessim have met again in Alexandria, greeting each other with love and laughter. Some fires never go out.