Goddess: Anouk Aimee played the lead in the 1969 movie of Lawrence Durrell's novel
Goddess: Anouk Aimee played the lead in the 1969 movie of Lawrence Durrell’s novel

Justine. By Lawrence Durrell.

Feeling guilty, disillusioned and emotionally drained you leave a boozy chaotic party where couples are having sex, drinking too much and being ill. It’s getting dark, you’re a little bit drunk and you’ve taken the wrong turning through the back streets of Alexandria on the way back to your home where the baby sitter is waiting to be relieved. Around each corner is an extraordinary scene: a camel butchered whilst still alive in the road, an old woman herb seller selling her body in the street, and an ancient money lender asleep in an open window – his snores echoing down the road. You double back and try again, mixing up the crescents and the crossroads, the people and places, never quite sure how you somehow managed to get home.

At every turn Durrell presents Justine’s meandering narrative with exotic images, strange characters and vivid descriptions of a long lost pre-war Alexandria described by the over educated, under-employed, pretentious and unreliable narrator Darley. His memories of the time seamlessly overlap, flip backwards and forwards and leaving a sense of confusion and dazed impressions from the chaotic party you have just left. Is Nessim a seedy playboy and a murderer rather than a wealthy, sophisticate? Is Melissa a door mat and Justine a two timing flirt?

If the events and plot are hard to pin down the descriptions delight. Here’s Darley’s view of the comedic character Scobie who, “is a sort of protozoic profile in fog and rain, for he carries with him a sort of English weather.” And of Podre: “…a whim rather than a man. He was born to be a cartoonist’s butt.” And of Alexandria itself – main character in the novel – the first in Lawrence’s Alexandrian Quartet – a city that holds the Cecil Hotel, the Café Al Aktar and “the clearing house of information” Mnemjian’s barber shop. A city of the poetry of C P Cavafy, the Rue Nebi Daniel and the Atelier des Beaux Arts. Or as Darley puts it: “A city that becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.”

Harry Mottram

Four stars