Choose Your Landscape (Imaginary or Otherwise)

The one good thing of my car being in the shop is that I have to take the train to work, which means I have two hours of uninterrupted reading time, not counting running through Union Station or the people who populate the train. However, I still stand fast on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) winning the honor of having the oddest and craziest people on mass transit.

I finally finished Durrell’s Justine after two weeks of dreading reading it. As I mentioned earlier, it is a complicated love story, the fascination of the world with the title ingenue Justine. She is exoticism to the max, and even manages to disappear into the mist like every fantasy woman does. Unfortunately, this dream is grounded when we learn in the last pages of the novel that she has devoted her self to a kibbutz somewhere outside of Jersulem.

The novel is about the agony of love, especially unrequited love, as we slowly learn every character has had an affair, physically or intellectually, with Justine. The narrator, a poor scholar, needs an out of reach object to adore. Before Justine, it is Melissa, the dancer; once he obtains her and she becomes the consumptive devotee, it shifts to Justine; once Justine leaves him, it becomes the city of Alexandria, his true love all along.

I want to say that this is the most self-indulgent literary novel I’ve read, but I feel that that is too harsh a judgement to pass upon poor Durrell. I have yet to wikipedia him, so I can imagine him the poor scholar, groveling for his own place in the literary hierarchy. Anyone with literary ambition is prone to that, but what saves him from being a forefather to Dave Eggers is his remarkable prose.

Durrell’s landscapes and descriptions are the kind of moments English majors dream of. The adjectives drip off the page, and yet he is reserved, saving the details for the most important (or revelatory) moments. There is a touch of Proust lurking there, as we get to experience Alexandria in her moments of good, bad, and ugly.

I want to give Durrell another try. Maybe not the rest of the Alexandria Quartet, but perhaps one of his stories of diplomatic life. I don’t particularly like his bored aristocrats/ex-pats enough to really want to indulge any more. It also vindicates why I think I was right about Egypt in the first place.


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