Lawrence Durrell’s Justine: A Cynical, If Not Clinical, Meditation on Love

Justine is a novel that, in addition to being a part of a larger tableau–specifically The Alexandria Quartet–defies what most enthusiasts of literature have come to rely upon in depictions of love: that it lasts forever, that it can’t be broken or altered by what Days of Our Lives calls the sands of time. In the era that is now, it’s easy to be jaded about love. It’s a world that prides its bottom line on “the self”–improving it, bettering it, concerning oneself with it. This is, in many ways, why Lawrence Durrell’s 1961 commencement to The Alexandria Quartet is so prescient, even if it is, more often than not, an extremely cynical view of love, and its recyclability–a polite word for disposability.

Durrell’s protagonist, an Irishman who becomes referred to as Darley in subsequent novels of the quartet, is someone whose “evolved” view of love might have been impressive and avant-garde in its time, but now just comes across as garden variety fuckboy doublespeak.

Yes, Justine is nonetheless a “master” work, but with the passage of time, Darley really doesn’t hold up all that well, nor do Durrell’s obvious prejudices toward a woman of a “whorish” nature. Justine, because she has affairs and is alluring is described as a tragic figure, in many senses, with Darley noting, “There are some characters in this world who are marked for self-destruction, and to these no amount of rational argument can appeal.” Well, maybe Justine doesn’t see her behavior as self-destructive, maybe she’s just living her fucking life and hoping someone can love her as she is. And though there are those that claim to truly love her, like her husband, Nessim, the well-to-do man she cheats on with Darley, they see her as an ideal, some sort of archetype of the “free-spirited” woman to be glorified and then inevitably disappointed by somehow. This is why Nessim thinks he is noble in his perception of Justine by informing Darley, “It will puzzle you when I tell you that I thought Justine great, in a sort of way. There are forms of greatness, you know, which when not applied in art or religion make havoc of ordinary life. Her gift was misapplied in being directed towards love. Certainly she was bad in many ways, but they were all small ways. Nor can I say that she harmed nobody. But those she harmed most she made fruitful. She expelled people from their old selves. It was bound to hurt, and many mistook the nature of the pain she inflicted. Not I.”

But if Nessim wasn’t a self-involved bastard like all the rest (especially Egyptians with a particularly antiquated view of women), he would have seen one’s “gift” can never be misapplied in love. For love is all there really is at the end of one’s life. As for Darley, who himself is committing the act of philandering by carrying on his affair with Justine in spite of being with Melissa (“the patron saint of sorrow,” as Durrell paints her in his index, and as most Greek prostitutes with tuberculosis are wont to be), well, he has the arrogant gall to believe that Melissa will always be there on the back burner somehow, that she will never truly move on from him even after she learns of his infidelity. He asserts this much by saying, “But I realize that what remains unresolved in my life is not the problem of Justine but the problem of Melissa. In some curious way the future, if there is one, has always been vested in her. Yet I feel powerless to influence it by decisions or even hopes. I feel that I must wait patiently until the shallow sequences of our history match again, until we can fall into step once more. This may take years–perhaps we will both be grey when the tide suddenly turns. Or perhaps the hope will die stillborn, broken up like wreckage by the tides of events.”

How about the power is completely in his hands and that he chose to lose it by cheating on her in the first place and that any “patient waiting” he does isn’t going to bring her back to him, but only drive her further down the road to recovery from his slight? Which is, inevitably, what ends up happening when she seeks vengeance through her own affair with Nessim. What starts out as a sort of comeuppance for what Justine and Darley have done becomes Melissa’s lifelong commitment to a type of vengeful monogamy, even at the cost of losing her true love.

Though the entire time Darley was with Justine, he still loved Melissa, the dalliance was spurred by his assessment: “Here was another paradox of love; that the very thing which brought us closer together–the boustrophedon–would, had we mastered the virtues which it illustrated, have separated us forever–I mean in the selves which preyed upon each other’s infatuated images.” Yes, their Jewishness and study of the Cabbalah (as it’s spelled in the book) is, to be sure, a source of their comfort with and desire for one another. But that which we come to master and understand always bores us, doesn’t it? Or so this is the Durrell philosophy of Justine.

Justine, doomed to lose her lovers eventually, perhaps becomes cold to loss because she knows better than to expect that any man will ever stick around. Or worse, they’ll simply capitalize on her character for the sake of a story. One of Justine’s former lovers, Arnauti, writes a book about her called Moeurs to which Darley refers to often in his quest to “learn about her.” Himself a writer, Darley seems to study it more religiously than the rabbinical texts of the Cabbalah, as though Justine is an abstraction rather than a real human being. So it is thus that he is told, “You know many of Justine’s lovers remained her friends; but more often I think you could say that her truest friends were never her lovers.” And yet, perhaps her truest lover would have been the one who could fill both this role and that of friend.

For more than she is cunning in her bedroom antics, she is also a woman of wisdom, knowing much of the way of the world as a result of her ability to flit from one station in life to another. “‘Poverty is a great cutter-off,’ said Justine once, ‘and riches a great shutter-off.’ But she had gained admittance into both worlds, the world of want and the world of plenty, and was consequently free to live naturally.” Undeniably, she could have lived more naturally without all these men orbiting her like vultures, none of whom could ever fully satisfy her mind or libido. This could very well be why she occasionally turns to women for sexual gratification, among them Clea, also a friend of Darley’s. Devoted solely to her art in the wake of succumbing to the seduction of Justine, Clea is bequeathed with that clinical sort of voice that matches Durrell’s viewpoint on love, imbuing this practical matter-of-factness into Clea. This much can be seen in her comforting of Darley as he grapples with his love for Justine and Melissa: “For example, the love you now feel for Justine is not a different love for a different object but the same love you feel for Melissa trying to work itself out through the medium of Justine. Love is horribly stable, and each of us is only allotted a certain portion of it, a ration. It is capable of appearing in an infinity of forms and attaching itself to an infinity of people. But it is limited in quantity, can be used up, become shop-worn and faded before it reaches its true object.”

Or how about don’t treat people so carelessly in your love for them? Don’t just glom on to whoever’s around because they seem “right” in the moment, but show a modicum of care for the human soul in your pursuits. You know, rather than assuming that they see love as easily funnelable into different orifices as you do. Love with care, not recklessness, as has been the fashion for so many centuries, though we’re so often only given the portrayals of happily ever after to allow our hope to endure.

Yet, it’s a challenge to take these portrayals to heart when so many men, Durrell included, clearly have some misguided notions about women, such as in stating of Justine, “She was a walking abstract of the writers and thinkers whom she had loved or admired–but what clever woman is more?” Then again, at least he can admit that his appraisals are harsh; speaking through Darley, he states, “I suppose we writers are cruel people.”

Through the peaks and valleys of Darley’s love for two women, Durrell’s ultimate statement is that love is, of course, transient, and that physical attachments to it will ruin the obsessive. For “minds dismembered of their sexual part never find peace until old age and failing powers persuade them that silence and quietness are not hostile.”

Toward the end of the novel, Clea is given far more proverbial face time, her sagacity intended as a consolation to those readers saddened by the demise of love between all four parties involved. So Clea insists of her own loss of Justine’s love, “Do not imagine me as suffering from any fashionable form of broken heart. No. In a funny sort of way I feel that our love has really gained by the passing of the love-object; it is as if the physical body somehow stood in the way of love’s true growth, its self-realization.” Listen, fuck that. Give me someone’s physical body, their mind and overall lifelong devotion. All of a person, for life. That’s what love can be when people don’t get so goddamn technical about it.

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