Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Adventure classics -- A Gipsy for a muse


by Lawrence Durrell


Not until I started to write this did I wonder why I’ve come to think of Lawrence Durrell’s masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet -- and especially its first and most famous volume, Justine -- as historical fiction. Isn’t historical fiction set decades, if not centuries before the time of its writing?

But Justine, published in 1957, was set, ostensibly at least, only from the time of Durrell’s arrival in Egypt in the early 1940’s. Does it feel more antiquated because Durrell’s writing seems far outside not only the concerns but the timeline of mainstream English fiction? Or is it the hovering spirit of Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy -- “the old man,” as the narrator of Justine calls him -- with his references to both ancient Hellenic city and modern one that gives it a time-worn aura?

For now, I’ll leave Justine among this month’s historical fiction adventures, in “the city which we inhabited so briefly together:”  as Durrell’s unnamed narrator tells us, “the city which used us as its flora -- precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!”

The plot? As Durrell said in an interview in The Paris Review in 1959, two years after Justine’s publication, there was “very little deliberate plotting as such. . . I was prepared at any moment to throw all the data overboard and let it live its own life. . . .” (For the complete interview, see

Despite a background of political intrigue, the story is essentially a study of what Durrell, an admirer of erotic writer Henry Miller, described as “modern love.”

More than half a century later, the erotic elements seem mild, although Durrell’s lingering reputation for sexual sadism still shocks. But he also worked as a painter -- holding an exhibition of his art late in life under the pseudonym Oscar Epfs -- and he wrote with painterly instinct passages such as “Light damp clouds, earth-bound, yet seldom bringing rain. Upon this squirt dust-red, dust-green, chalk-mauve and watered crimson-lake. . . .” that make me distinguish between the writer and the flawed human being.

And, of course, he -- or he and his muse, Eve Cohen -- created the masterly character of Justine, a wealthy Jewish society woman, seen, among other places reputable and disreputable, “in the vestibule of the Cecil Hotel, among the dusty palms, dressed in a sheath of silver drops, holding her magnificent fur at her back as a peasant holds his coat -- her long forefinger hooked through the tag.”

The inspiration for Justine, Durrell implied, was the woman who would become the second of his four wives, Eve Cohen, whom he nicknamed “Gipsy.” Gordon Bowker, includes a somberly beautiful photograph of Eve in his “unauthorized” biography of Durrell, Through the Dark Labyrinth. Durrell and Eve married in 1947. In 1952, Eve suffered a mental breakdown for which Durrell disavowed any responsibility; they separated in 1955.

“He needed strong women,” Bowker writes, “who could put up with his sometimes outrageous and violent behavior and continue to love him. Eve. . .had the courage to leave him.”

Both Justine and Bowker’s biography are available at

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics looks at Sir Walter Scott’s adventure of the Crusades, The Talisman. Anybody else out there think the knight of the leopard needed a woman like Justine? Maybe even Scarlett O’Hara?)

No comments:

Post a Comment