Here it is, the long-delayed review of Book Two in The Alexandria Quartet. WARNING: There is no possible way of crafting an in-depth review of the book in question without giving away major aspects of the plot and therefore it would be unwise for those who haven’t read the book to proceed any further.
Balthazar, published in 1958, represents a change of angle rather than a direct continuation of the events of Justine. The narrator’s gaze is fixed upon the past once again and so in this novel Durrell sets out to create the story over, divulging new information that entirely changes the history of the narrator’s love affair with Justine.
The novel begins exactly as the last one did, on the lonely Greek island the narrator (later on revealed to go by the name of Darley) now contents himself with, raising Melissa’s child and watching the mail packet go by every week. He claims to have put Alexandria away, sealing it and its figures into a story, the Justine manuscript. Having sent it to Balthazar, it is returned to him stuffed with margin notes, details unknown to Darley and so begins the task of assimilating them. Though set in a series of standardized chapters where Justine drifted elliptically within three parts, Balthazar still has a loose, unmoored quality you’ll recognise from the first book.
The greatest difference between the two novels is therefore the quietly ruminative aspect of Balthazar. In design, Justine coalesced from nothing, growing in intensity until the murderous culmination on the shores of Mareotis; Balthazar, by contrast, meanders through individual setpieces such as a masked ball, Nessim’s visit home or the dysfunctional relationship between Pursewarden and Justine. It fills in gaps in the original narrative and Darley spends much of this novel in the grips of uncertainty – whether deception ever ends, whether honesty is even possible.
There is still drama, passion and incident but the overall feeling upon conclusion is of a much slower and more contemplative story, breaking down the order Darley was so intent to impose upon his past. Questions arise of moral motivation and Balthazar says ‘It is wiser perhaps not to make a judgement.’ Yet Darley observes It is easy for me to criticise now that I see a little further into the truth of her predicament and my own. Thus the twin narrative contrasts the dispassionate and clinical approach of Balthazar with the baffled hurt Darley must now account for all over again. It forms a fascinating companion piece (I could almost describe it as the ghost of Book One) though it does lack something of the oh-so-satisfying ‘dramatic’ design of Justine.
The biggest revealment comes early on when Balthazar announces that Justine was actually in love with Pursewarden and Darley was just a decoy. On the tail of this information, the whole affair becomes even more crushingly futile than it seemed the first time round. To protect Pursewarden from her husband’s potentially dangerous jealousy, Justine involved and needlessly hurt several extraneous people – all for a ploy of no use in view of Pursewarden’s suicide. This helps to expand the lens of a La Rondeian love affair, as Schnitzler’s play was a simple circle and Durrell goes far beyond that in complexity. His cast of lovers are intertwined in a cruelly elaborate lacework and as more intricacies are revealed and the death toll creeps a little bit higher what most astonishes me is Durrell’s continued feat of avoiding the most dire melodrama – by revealing things out of step, by beginning each volume slowly, using careful observance and exquisite language, in all ways offering the reader time to acclimatize.
My lengthy hiatus between volumes led me to newly discover the remarkable deftness with which Durrell portrays the women involved, each rendered with sympathetic exactitude and leaving me stunned with the resonance of lines such as these: Poor fool, she was not spared anything in the long catalogue of self-deceptions which constitute a love-affair. She tried to fall back on other pleasures, to find that none existed. She knew that the heart wearies of monotony, that habit and despair are the bedfellows of love, and she waited patiently, as a very old woman might, for the flesh to outgrow its promptings, to deliver itself from an attachment which she now recognised was not of her seeking. Waited in vain. Each day she plunged deeper. It is a strange balance between sympathy and cynicism which illuminates the whole cast.
I would say that this is in every way an equal accomplishment to the first book and so it is only my own personal preference that views Balthazar as slightly less compelling than Justine. Partly because of the mellow and more philosophical style mentioned above and also due to the lack of Melissa, my favorite character, so neglected and meek that she could have walked out of a Victor Hugo novel. She’s scarcely mentioned and focus is moved elsewhere: To Pursewarden, an enigmatic specimen even after pages of Balthazar’s recollections and, alas, something of a stuffed dummy allowing Durrell to air his views on the art of the writer. I might say that Darley and Arnauti were more than enough on that subject and yet that would be to misunderstand the genre at work here, as Durrell was clearly a 20th Century decadent – with all the delightful annoyances that come with the turf, including a tendency to authorial intrusion.
Other new characters coming to light include Nessim’s simple and unsophisticated brother Narouz, caught in the grips of an unrequited love; Leila, mother of Nessim, a proud and educated Egyptian turned hermit after the disfigurement of smallpox; Toto de Brunel, a most foolish murder victim; Amaril the excessively romantic doctor; John Keats the journalist, always showing up where he’s not wanted… Durrell does not give equal time to all members of the cast (new or old), aiding along a sense of realism as the characters go about their own lives, casually drifting in and out of the narrative as they become more or less important. Also, the extra characters and connections facilitate a sense of conspiracy and the shady world of politics begins to emerge from the text. In Justine the subject was treated as a jest, what with Scobie’s Secret Service. Mountolive is allegedly the political movement of this quartet and if so, then Durrell used Book Two to ease the way from farcical to serious.
Most of the time, Balthazar is a sad and melancholy work of art – so finely drawn it is a joy to read and yet at the same time it brings with it a sense of agony at the suffering so continually expressed by the cast. Darley’s dislike of himself shines through, particularly in the first half of the book, while still reeling at the new light cast by Balthazar. With the certainty of Justine’s love gone, he becomes the more bitterly cynical about the past. Only Pombal remains unscathed and helps (along with Scobie) to provide comic relief. In fact, one thing I’ve never heard said of Durrell or the Quartet is that he’s got a sense of humour on display but he most assuredly does. There is Pombal with his ridiculous trouble with women, growing a moustache to try to ward them off, and Scobie with his salty, slangy storytelling:
He looked archly at me round his pipe and suddenly cheered up. He began one of those delightful rambling monologues – another chapter in the saga he had composed around his oldest friend, the by now mythical Toby Mannering. ‘Toby was once Driven Medical by his excesses – I think I told you. No? Well, he was. Driven Medical.’ He was obviously quoting and with relish. ‘Lord how he used to go it as a young man. Stretched the limit in beating the bounds. Finally he found himself under the Doctor, had to wear an Appliance.’ His voice rose by nearly an octave. ‘He went about in a leopard-skin muff when he had shore leave until the Merchant Navy rose in a body. He was put away for six months. Into a Home. They said, “You’ll have to have Traction” – whatever that is. You could hear him scream all over Tewkesbury, so Toby says. They say they cure you but they don’t. They didn’t him at any rate. After a bit, they sent him back. Couldn’t do anything with him. He was afflicted with Dumb Insolence, they said. Poor Toby!’
Such moments offer relief from the grim heartbreak, philosophical thrashing and disillusionment that are the main themes of the text. To have a little humour balanced so carefully throughout helps to shore up my sense that on completion I will be able to pronounce The Alexandria Quartet one of the greatest accomplishments of 20th Century literature.
Onwards now to Mountolive.