Justine. A young Anglo-Irish writer, L. G. Darley, reflects on his life in Alexandria, Egypt, around the time of World War II, and on his three great loves: Melissa, Justine, and Clea. Darley resides on a Greek island, writing and gaining perspective on his love affairs.
He first recalls Melissa, a poor cabaret dancer who sometimes engaged in prostitution. They begin their love affair as “fellow bankrupts”: He is a writer who cannot write, and she is a dancer with no talent. They have nothing in common, except that they have both been through Alexandria’s “winepress of love.”
While living with Melissa, Darley meets his second great love, Justine, who attends one of his lectures on Alexandria’s famous poet, Constantine Cavafy. Justine, “solitary student of the passions and the arts,” is a modern incarnation of Cleopatra. She captivates men with her esoteric searchings into the nature of knowledge and with her magnificent body. After the lecture, Justine invites Darley to her home, so that he can meet her husband, Nessim, a fabulously wealthy Coptic banker, who also shares in her metaphysical speculations.
Although Darley respects Nessim, he cannot refrain from falling into an affair with Justine. She rules his mind to such an extent that Darley seeks insight into her nature from the novel Moeurs, written by Justine’s ex-husband, Arnauti. In Moeurs, Arnauti created an emotionally complex character like Justine, who was sexually abused by an uncle. Arnauti fails to unravel Justine’s secrets, and Darley, too, is tormented by the decline in Justine’s affections and by his belief that Nessim learns of the affair. Tensions reach a climax at a duck shoot that Nessim arranges at Lake Mareotis. Darley fears that he will be murdered by the jealous husband. Instead, another body is found floating in the lake. The corpse turns out to be Capodistria, the relative who abused Justine. When the hunters return to shore, they discover that Justine fled. Darley feels as if the whole city crashes around his ears. Later, Darley hears through Clea that Justine is working on a Jewish kibbutz in Palestine and that Capodistria is still alive.
Darley takes a job teaching English at a school in Upper Egypt for two years and keeps in only limited contact with Melissa, who is in a clinic to cure her tuberculosis. Melissa dies before Darley can see her for a last time. He agrees to adopt her child, who is the issue of Melissa’s brief liaison with Nessim after Justine’s departure.
By the end of the novel, Darley draws closer to Clea, a lovely artist who is recovering from a lesbian affair with Justine. Together Clea and Darley analyze the events that have transpired, recalling the wisdom of their enigmatic literary friend, Percy Pursewarden, who recently committed suicide.
Balthazar. On the Greek island, Darley completes his manuscript, presumably Justine , and mails it to his friend, Balthazar. Balthazar knows the secrets of his fellow Alexandrians. After reading Darley’s book, Balthazar travels to the island to set Darley straight and present him with his own commentary—the Interlinear—penned between the lines of Darley’s manuscript. The Interlinear provides Darley with new information regarding the characters about whom he wrote. One revelation is that Justine’s true love is Pursewarden. Darley is stunned, forced to take a new perspective on his reality, an essential task for one who aspires to be a writer. After Balthazar departs, Darley picks up an old photograph and stares at the images of his friends. He is ready to begin the torturous process of reassessment by examining the many facets of his...
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There is a wild carnival attended by Narouz Hosnani, Nessim’s brother. Narouz, a rough-hewn religious fanatic, manages the family’s country estate. He attends the carnival because he hopes to see his great secret love, Clea, who loathes him. Instead, he murders a man, in the guise of Justine, who made lecherous advances to him.
This volume closes with a letter that Pursewarden writes to Clea just before his suicide. He proposes “a new way of living with joy” and calls for relationships based on loving-kindness.
Mountolive. The British ambassador to Egypt is David Mountolive. The omniscient narrator chronicles Mountolive’s life—how he began his diplomatic career in Egypt as a guest at the Hosnani estate and rose through the ranks to become ambassador. The Hosnanis, particularly Leila, Nessim and Narouz’s mother, give the young Mountolive his education in Egyptian mores. Mountolive falls in love with Leila and carries on a passionate affair with her out of sight of her disabled husband. When he is posted elsewhere, they stay in touch through letters. With the passage of years their ardor fades. Their meeting, after Mountolive was appointed ambassador, is a disaster. He is repulsed by how much she aged, and she is disappointed in his lack of character.
More knowledge is gained regarding Justine’s true affections. She is, in fact, Nessim’s devoted wife. She shares Nessim’s political goal: to conspire against British interests in Palestine. She becomes involved with Darley and Pursewarden, both minor functionaries in the British legation, in order to spy for Nessim. The plot falls apart when Melissa inadvertently stumbles onto its details and informs Pursewarden during the one night of passion they shared. He, in turn, faces a dilemma, torn between his friendship with Nessim and his official duties. His suicide appears to be a way out of the quandary; before dying he lets both Nessim and Mountolive know that he uncovered the conspiracy.
Retribution arrives swiftly. Nessim was bribing the minister of the interior, Memlik, to overlook his activities, but learning of the plot, Mountolive forces Memlik to suppress it. Memlik decides to spare Nessim and sends his agents to kill the other leader, Nessim’s fanatical brother, Narouz. Narouz suffers an agonizing death. His last request is to see Clea again. She reluctantly goes to his deathbed but arrives too late.
Clea. Darley leaves his island retreat to return to Alexandria and is nervous about seeing Justine again. She is much changed. The collapse of the conspiracy made her a recluse, and a slight stroke diminished her beauty. Darley realizes he has grown beyond her narcissistic type of loving. He is more in tune with the gentle Clea, who, like him, is struggling to become an artist. Clea and Darley begin a love affair amid the shelling of World War II.
Inexplicably, Clea and Darley drift apart. They decide to separate, but, before doing so, they go on one last excursion. Accompanied by Balthazar, they travel by boat to a nearby island. As Clea is swimming underwater, Balthazar accidentally releases a harpoon which goes through Clea’s hand and pins her underwater. Darley springs to save Clea’s life by hacking off her hand.
Although the two separate, they seem likely to reunite. Both resolve their artistic problems: Darley is able to start writing, and Clea is painting extraordinary canvases with her artificial hand. She writes to Darley that she is “serene and happy, a real human being, an artist at last.” Darley, too, feels as if “the whole universe” has given him “a nudge.”