Henry Miller remains part of the
constellation of stars in twentieth-century literature,
Lawrence Durrell, his close friend, correspondent, occasional editor and author of the
great Alexandria Quartet, seems to be on the wane. Perhaps Miller’s legend endures
because we associate him with brash and raucous sexuality; Durrell, meanwhile, is kinder,
gentler and considerably more modest than old Hank. Yet the two bear strong comparison
in both life and work. Both set their principal novels in the sexual humus of squalid foreign
cities (Alexandria, Paris); both write in a rambling first-person voice, almost memoir-style;
both loved and feared women and spent their lives, in Durrell’s narrator’s words, trying to
“know what it really means . . . the whole portentous scrimmage of sex itself.” Sex, here,
is clearly meant to stand for life, and Durrell and Miller consciously made writing careers
on the fruits of that synecdoche.
Written in the late 1950s, the Quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mount Olive,
Clea) is truly a tour de force. The title characters are sculpted impeccably in the
contradictions of Greek myth: they are as gods in form and substance, yet have fallen into
the banal tragedies of real living. Durrell’s treatment is tender and thoughtful in a way
Miller’s mind would have bulldozed over. Through him we negotiate a series of fantastic
infatuations and aggrandized, empty loves to find, at the end, the heart of compassion.
Where Miller teaches the irreducible sanctity of the moment, Durrell recites the sermon of
long process, of brushing aside romantic delusions and finally embracing what is hard-won, but
The scene below is the narrator’s first encounter, in the bedroom of his reliable girlfriend, with* * *
the mysterious Justine, the femme-fatale who, as in many novels if not in life, sets all the
relationships in motion. Like Genet, Durrell
chronicles the seductive power of the intractable and fierce, of those beyond or incapable of love,
hardened, gem-like, in their beauty and resolve. It is hard not to love Justine, but you do so only
From Justine by Lawrence Durrell
The whole room belonged to Melissa — the pitiful dressing-table full of empty powder
boxes and photos: the graceful curtain breathing softly in that breathless afternoon air . . .
Across all this, as across the image of someone dearly loved, held in the magnification of a
gigantic tear moved the brown harsh body of Justine naked. It would have been blind of
me not to notice how deeply her resolution was mixed with sadness. We lay eye to eye for
a long time, our bodies touching, hardly communicating more than the animal lassitude of
the vanishing afternoon. I could not help thinking then as I held her lightly in the crook of
an arm how little we own our bodies . . .
But she had closed her eyes — so soft and lustrous now, as if polished by the
silence which lay so densely all around us . . . We turned to each other, closing like the
two leaves of a door upon the past, shutting out everything, and I felt her happy
spontaneous kisses begin to compose the darkness around us like successive washes of a
colour. When we had made love and lay once more awake she said: “I am always so bad
the first time, why is it?” . . .
I remember thinking to myself as I held her, tasting the warmth and sweetness of
her body, salt from the sea – her earlobes tasted of salt — I remember thinking: “Every kiss
will take her near Nessim, but separates me further from Melissa.” . . .
It was as if the whole city had crashed about my ears . . . I felt . . . . in the words
of the dying Amr: “as if heaven lay close upon the earth and I between them both, breathing
through the eye of a needle.”
© Lawrence Durrell