The Alexandria Quartet

by Lawrence Durrell

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Student Question

In Durrell's Justine, how does the city influence the characters' personalities and justify their behavior?

"We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it" (Durrell, 41).

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In Lawrence Durrell’s novel Justine, the first of a four-volume series written between 1957 and 1960, the city of Alexandria, Egypt, plays a very prominent, almost mystical role. Given the time period in which the stories take place (the 1930s and 1940s), and the period in which the novels were written, the city of Alexandria played an enormously important cultural role in that ancient country. Long before Cairo became Egypt’s capital and center of political and commercial activity, Alexandria reigned supreme as the most cosmopolitan city in the country, and served as its capital for over one thousand years, entirely in ancient times, while continuing to reflect the influences of the ancient Greeks who had once conquered it. During much of the 20th Century, Alexandria continued to hold a special place in Egypt, continuing to serve not just as its most popular and fashionable city, but as its most culturally and politically vibrant, its location on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea providing additional scenic and atmospheric advantages, Alexandria was also a very politically diverse city. Not only were the country’s intellectual elites concentrated there, but the ultra-conservative Muslim Brotherhood was also well represented in the cafes and libraries of Alexandria. It is in this context that one can view the role of Alexandria in Durrell’s novel. Early in Justine, the narrator, an unnamed Irish/British school teacher whose affair with the titular character, a beautiful Jewish woman married to an Egyptian Coptic Christian named Nessim, provides the following observation:

“At night when the wind roars and the child sleeps quietly in its wooden cot by the echoing chimney-piece I light a lamp and walk about, thinking of my friends — of Justine and Nessim, of Melissa and Balthazar. I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together: the city which used us asits flora — precipitated in us conflicts which which were hers and which we mistook for our own.: beloved Alexandria!”

And, in a later rumination regarding the influence of Alexandria on its residents’ psyches, the British expatriate recalls a discussion with Nessim:

“I remember Nessim once saying — I think he was quoting — that Alexandria was the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets — I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.”

As the city against which the love affair between the narrator and the beautiful, wealthy Justine takes place, with the turbulence of a radically changing world looming on the horizon, Alexandria serves as the novel’s most vital character. It remains popular today the notion that we are products of the environments that we inhabit; many people the world over are shaped to greater or lesser degrees by by the environments in which they are raised, including the broader cities and towns that influence our perceptions. In a discussion between Justine and the narrator, the woman contemplates the manner in which the way we view reality is colored by the atmosphere in which we are raised:

“‘How is it you are so much one of us and yet . . .you are not?’ She is combing that dark head in the mirror, her mout and eyes drawn up about a cigarette. ‘You are a mental refugee of course, being Irish, but you miss our ANGOISSE.’ What she is groping after is really the distinctive quality which emanates not from us but from the landscape -- the metallic flavor of exhaustion which impregnate the airs of Mareotis.”

So, when the narrator suggests that “we are the children of our landscape . . .,” he is restating a theme that runs throughout Durrell’s novel. And, in discussing this pervasive influence of a city upon its creatures, the narrator is using Alexandria’s ethnically and culturally diverse and socially liberal atmosphere as that in this particular city during the period in question. Alexandria had been conquered by the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs and Muslims, and its culture continues to reflect those myriad influences. The narrator of Justine suggests that the pervasive influence of Alexandria, with all that came before it, established an atmosphere in which the actions of the characters are the inevitable outcome of those influences.

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The city of Alexandria becomes a significant part of the characterizations featured in Justine.  The city itself becomes a character in the exploration. Within this narrative, the contradictions that the city possesses helps to explain the conflicted and challenging behavior of the people in it.  

Durrell paints Alexandria as a bastion of history, something he articulates as the "capital of Memory.”  At the same time, it is a location where “the wind blew out one’s footsteps like candle-flames."  This contradiction reveals how the city is a portal of the past, but yet has no memory of it.  Similar contradictions can be seen in the city's descriptions such as ethereal light that filters "through the essence of lemons" sitting next to places of child prostitution and "hooded slums."  In this contradictory parallel, beauty and repulsion exist adjacent to one another, almost coexisting in a striking condition of what reality is and what it can be. The city is  seen as "a responsive subject through which to express the collective desires, the collective wishes, which informed its culture." These descriptions help to articulate a condition of being where there is little clear in consciousness. 

Durrell shows a city in which there is a Modernist understanding of a "shift" in consciousness. Totality and understanding that used to be has become supplanted with a tragic ambiguity.  This condition impacts the characters in Justine.  Being children of the landscape, one sees the lack of totality in their actions.  The fact that Darley recalls his affair with Justine and her own dalliances through memory is reflective of the historical condition that is so much a part of Alexandria.  Yet, this memory is far from absolute and objective, reflective of candles that have been extinguished.  

In Justine's own temperament, the contradictory nature of Alexandria is evident.  She embodies the African princess Cleopatra, and yet she is of another world, reflecting a contradictory element of being tied to a specific land and being apart from all connections.  In the end, she abandons Alexandria and seeks to live out her days in Palestine. In her relationships, Justine also represents a child of her Alexandrian landscape. On one hand, she seems to be sexually liberated, moving from relationship to relationship, and yet all of these seem to be a vain attempt to reconfigure the sexual trauma experienced in her youth.  This parallels the city's contradictory nature as both a keeper of memory and extinguisher of it.  

The city is shown to be a collection of intellectual, spiritual, and ethnic diversity. Alexandria is heterogeneous and divergent.  Yet, it is also shown to be a domain where human hurt and pain seems to unify everyone.  Betrayal, threats, misunderstanding, and deception end up becoming the common links between the characters in the narrative.  Despite its diversity and sense of difference, there is a common denominator of human misery that underscores the narrative of the characters.  As with the contradictions in Alexandria itself, the characters are reflective of their landscape, enabling behavior to reflect or even be dictated by the city's understanding of behavior and conduct.  Durrell's shift in the perception of the city helps to give understanding to the actions of the characters.  Its own contradictory nature is evident in the characters, perhaps justifying their own confusion as the city itself is shown to be muddled.

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