The International Book Club

I told myself I would never go back to Cairo. It was miserable – the dust, the heat, the pollution, the poverty. But what was the worst was looking at the remnants of greatness tucked away whenever you weren’t expecting it and wondering what had happened. Walking around, I often felt an overwhelming sadness.

Before going to Cairo, I did not know that a good percentage of the people there were starving, that there government was rife with corruption. That the inequity between the rich and the poor was worse than any I had seen before. Or as a Jordanian-English acquaintance said, “Egypt is the Wales of the Middle East.”

However, I was beyond glad I got to see the pyramids. Some of the best moments I had traveling were there and I had an amazing host who was overly generous with his time showing me around, as I wrote about at the time.

Right now I’m reading Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, which is set in Alexandria, during the height of the British Empire, which seems to be everything my trip to Egypt was not. Sometime during the early half of the 20th century, a group of ex-patriots find themselves dabbling in a colonial world that caters to the stereotypes of empiric exoticism. The book is narrated by a poor scholar who finds himself in the cream of the crop of diplomats and entrepreneurs, mainly because the femme fetale Justine takes a fancy to him. Of course, she is a woman who is so exotic that no one knows her exact origins, but it doesn’t matter because her husband is a rich society man and because of her many insatiable sex drive, roving nature, and numerous affairs, he loves her all the more.

Of course our poor Irish scholar falls into this world exactly because he is the noble outsider. His world of cockroach filled flats, prostitutes who pity him, his mistress who’s also dying of consumption, and his one worn suit are the exotic opposite his new friends are looking for. He, in turn, is fascinated by their world of merchants and parties, fur coats and the Kabbala.

But what makes the scholar so attractive to Justine (and to Durrell) is that he can see something in Alexandria. Every thought he has is that of this promised land. Alexandria is his home, his true mistress, however badly she treats him. It is filled with the mysticism that makes his soul, pushing him constantly onward to try to survive in this life and obtain some sort of enlightenment. However intoxicating Justine may be, she is just another foil for Alexandria and his quest to find whatever will fill his soul. He in return is the same for her.

I had started reading this book because two of my American friends in Paris had had a long conversation about it. One of them, Martin, had proclaimed the four parts of The Alexandria Quartet “the best book in the English language,” [Justine is the first part] and thought it would make an excellent choice for an international book club. Casey immediately disagreed with its greatness. She could get no further than Justine, finding it overly tedious and its exoticism the exact sort of misrepresentative nonsense of the colonial era. I see both their points – Durrell’s mastery of the landscape in the ancient cosmopolitan city of Alexandria makes me think I should go back to Egypt. It is filled with the dystopia of modernity, but yet retains it classical soul. His prose is heavy and addictive, but it’s also stagnant, full of moments that have no relavence.

But unlike the city, the book is narcissistic. Its colonial characters drift in a world that is unknowable, and unlike Henry James whose rich, egotistical characters are bursting with realism, Durrell’s characters feel like they’ve been lifted from a Greek tragedy. They play among the stereotypes of a British Empire, not knowing it is about to decay, but they never seem to move beyond their shadowy first impressions. They are part of the decay, the pretty mess that Eygpt is, which leaves me thinking this book is a genius of a mess, one I’m not sure I want to continue with.

We’ll see what happens when I actually finish Justine.


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