It’s a book about the contradictions of love, but unlike any I’ve seen before. The prose is exquisite, wounding, some of the most powerful I’ve seen. It feels impossible to put any sort of frame around it. The story shifts forwards an back in time (in the narrator’s words, the events are “not in the order in which they took place — for that is history — but in the order in which they first became significant for me”) so that plot can be hard to follow, but read it for the prose. It speaks for itself, so I’ve compiled a long list of quotes/notes. I won’t reach any kind of conclusion, but rather try to order my thoughts about a very chaotic novel, try to fold the events in the story together, to see the beginnings and the ends brought together through the intervening pages. Nah, actually, this post is more like throwing a bunch of quotes onto the page. They speak too strongly for themselves.
A small group of people, perambulating, interact with each other in Alexandria. The city is a character; it influences their actions and weighs heavily on their minds. The narrator and his lover Justine try to explain what they desire, explain the contours of love, justify their own actions, find some pattern the way their feelings shift. In these attempts they form hundreds of absurd but striking hypotheses that form the patchwork of the novel – because the most powerful quotes about love are not those that reach a sensible conclusion, but those utterances born out of passion, despair, confusion, and false enlightenment, a desire to make sense of things.
Why are the characters unable to resolve love, their lives? I think most people want to have one thing that that can focus on and that to suffice for us to be happy. In the absence of other goals and responsibilities, the pursuit of love grows to take up the empty space. Love, in the sense of desire, pulls one in, and one hopes that following its natural gravity one will be led to some conclusion, some kind of fulfillment. In the story this is a mirage. The characters wait forever for some synchronization of feelings that they can’t articulate but think they will know when they experience. They can’t ever come to terms with their own desires, hold their minds still for long enough to understand themselves.
Justine; trying to talk about love
The story focuses on the narrator’s affair with Justine. Justine is at the center of the story because she “takes love as plants do water.” “Her gift was misapplied in being directed towards love,” says her husband Nessim; “Her love had become turned inwards into a kind of idolatry… seemed to smoulder like a tar-barrel on the brink of explosion,” writes her previous lover, Arnauti. The pursuit of love seems the only thread in her life – and while this seems guileless on the surface and she indeed thinks herself guileless, she is a catalyst to jealousy and despair. She seems like a child, unable to understand an alternative besides the pursuit of impulse. She says of herself, “I have done so many things in my life. Evil things, perhaps. But never inattentively, never wastefully. I’ve always thought of acts as messages, wishes from the past to the future.”
“There was nothing to control or modify the intuition which she had developed out of a nature gorged upon introspection: no education, no resources of intellection to battle against the imperatives of a violent heart. Her gift was the gift one finds occasionally in ignorant fortune-tellers… she had picked out what was significant in books not by reading them but by listening to the matchless discourses of Balthazar, Arnauti, Pursewarden. (205)”
Justine has had many love affairs; the others do not know her true origin. Arnauti had written a novel based on his affair with her, which the narrator gobbles up hungrily. He had uncovered a reason for her character – she had been raped when young, and “her lovers had become only mental substitutes for this first childish act – love, as a sort of masturbation, took on all the colors of neurasthenia.” (72)
From Justine’s diary,
“Idle to imagine falling in love as a correspondence of minds, of thoughts; it is a simultaneous firing of two spirits engaged in the autonomous act of growing up. And the sensation is of something having noiselessly exploded inside each of them. Around this event, dazed and preoccupied, the lover moves examining his or her own experience; her gratitude alone, stretching away towards a mistaken donor, creates the illusion that she communicates with her fellow, but this is false. The loved object is simply one that has shared an experience at the same moment of time, narcissistically; and the desire to be near the loved object is at first not due to the idea of possessing it, but simply to let the two experiences compare themselves, like reflections in different mirrors… from here love degenerates into habit, possession, and back to loneliness.” (42)
As Justine and the narrator grow closer, she declares that “This intimacy should go no further, for we have already exhausted all its possibilities in our respected imaginations: and what we shall end by discovering, behind the darkly woven colors of sensuality, will be a friendship so profound that we shall become bondsmen forever. (17)” And yet later she comes to him as a lover, and they never find anything so profound. Perversely, she seems to be expressing her love with Nessim through the narrator; her object of love is separated from the expression of it. “Every kiss will take her near Nessim but separates me further from Melissa,” he says. (81)
How do Justine and the narrator compare? He is not so impulsive, but he follows inertially. To him, it seemed she loved him because he was detached and hoping to make that detachment hers; he was “indestructible – a person formed who could not be broken.”
Other characters and views
Melissa is a foil to Justine; while Justine is strong and self-centered, Melissa is passive and selfless. Her beauty is “a beauty which filled one with the terrible premonition that it had been born to be a target for the forces of destruction” (203). She views her experiences in love with a “weariness and distaste which suggested that they had been born of necessity rather than desire. (45)” When she can take the narrator’s unfaithfulness no more, Melissa finally tells Nessim that his wife is no longer faithful (though Nessim knew long ago); and they become lovers. Why this as an inevitable outcome? he explains, “Loving is so much truer when sympathy and not desire makes the match; for it leaves no wounds. (206)”
Clea “had been poured, while still warm, into the body of a young grace: that is to say, a body born without instincts or desires.” (126) She is stable; she isn’t led by her feelings and is uninterested in relationships, and it seems to free her up to interact much more simply and generously with others, offering reflection and advice. The narrator says of her that she is “denying herself marriage,” but she responds, “my solitude does not deprive me of anything”; to her, “the physical body somehow stood in the way of love’s true growth, its self-realization.” She talks meditatively about love to the narrator: “the love you now feel for Justine is not a different love for a different object but the same love you feel for Melissa trying to work itself out through the medium of Justine.” (128) He doesn’t seem to take her seriously though – there seems an unbridgeable gulf between their attitudes, as if he can’t understand how she doesn’t rely on feelings to guide her. The narrator – after Justine has left, when he is leaving Alexandria – justifies the necessity of keeping one’s feelings alive. “To the student of love these separations are a school, bitter yet necessary to one’s growth. They help one to strip oneself mentally of everything save the hunger for more life.” (234)
Pursewarden is the novelist. During his life he never succeeded very well in communicating his thoughts – though some of them seem to be a response to the themes of the book. For instance, he tells the narrator, “think of yourself as a sleeping city… million legs of a centipede carrying on with the body powerless to do anything about it,” trying, it seems, to explain the illusion of our top-down control of ourselves. After reading his book posthumously, Clea shares her thoughts on Pursewarden:
An artist does not live a personal life as we do, he hides it, forcing us to go to his books if we wish to touch the true source of his feelings… Underneath all his preoccupations with sex, society, religion, etc. there is, quite simple, a man tortured beyond endurance by the lack of tenderness in the world. (249)
The narrator disliked Pursewarden, it seems, for no other reason than that Pursewarden is successful. Of himself, he says,
In art I had failed because I did not believe in the discreteness of human personality. (Are people continuously themselves or simple over and over again so fast that they give the illusion of continuous features – the temporal flicker of an old silent film?) I lacked a belief in the true authenticity of people in order to successfully portray them. (199)
(This line particular resonates with me because it articulates perfectly a key trouble I’ve had in my own writing.)
The narrator blames much of their circumstances on the city, a character in itself. “All this is part of an experiment arranged by something else, the city perhaps, or another part of ourselves,” he says. (18)
Alexandria is “great wine-press of love (4).” “The pale lengthening rays of the afternoon sun smear the long curbs of the Esplanade, and the dazzled pigeons, like rings of scattered paper, climb above the minarets to take the last rays of the waning light on their wings (9).” He imagines a “race of terrific queens which left behind them the ammoniac smell of their incestuous love to hover like a cloud over the Alexandrian subconscious. (11)” In the streets “the black ribbon of flies attach[ed] itself to the lips and eyes of the children. (15)” “The copulation of boabs shaking the house like a palm-tree… Everywhere the… mad giggle under the pepper-trees… Such things as children see and store up… A camel has collapsed from exhaustion. (55)”
History echoes from the desert.
“The infantry marched in undress though they knew it to be madness… Macedonian slingers-of-the-line farting like goats… Their enemies were of a breath-taking elegance – cavalry in white armor which formed and dissolved across the route of their march like clouds… They were as desirable as a flock of women…life had become a sexless strap sinking deeper and ever deeper into the flesh…” (179)
“Alexandria: the capital of Memory. The narrow street was of baked and scented terra cotta, soft now from rain but not wet. Its whole length was lined with the colored booths of prostitutes whose thrilling marble bodies were posed modestly each before her doll’s house, as before a shrine. They sat on three-legged stools like oracles wearing colored slippers… Unaware that their mother city was dying, the living still sat there in the open street, like caryatids supporting the darkness, the pains of futurity upon their very eyelids, sleeplessly watching, the immortality-hunters, throughout the whole fatidic length of time. (190)”
The narrator spends two years in Upper Egypt, away from Alexandria, sees “the bilharzia-ridden peasantry whose patience and nobility shone through their rags like patents of dispossesed royalty… the blind cattle turning the slow globe of their waterwheels, blindfolded against monotony – how small can a world become? (237)” When he comes back, Alexandria seems like a capital city.
After Justine’s inertia throughout the story, it is her who finally breaks the chains binding her, Nessim, and the narrator by leaving Alexandria. She gives all of them freedom from a story spiraling out of control, at cost to all of them. It leaves behind an emptiness they have to fill after their singular pursuits of love. Clea writes of her, “Having become cured of the mental aberrations brought about by her dreams, her fears, she has been deflated like a bag.” (247) The narrator “was afflicted by a gradually increasing numbness, a mental apathy which made me shrink from contact… The sun seemed to have scorched up my appetite for everything–food, company, and even speech. I preferred to lie in bed staring at the ceiling… the heavy cigarettes soothed the mind, emptying it of every preoccupation.” (238)
Nessim also changes. He is no longer lithe, “his body had already submitted to a dozen pregnancies,” he has a “flabby charm” and “foolish authoritativeness”; he takes girls’ hands so they can feel his thick wallet. The narrator calls him a “vulgar double of the Nessim I had once known. (245)” Yet “he has become truly himself since his wife went away. All Alexandria says so… The truth was that he had become like all Alexandria.” Perhaps that is what the setting imbibes: a kind of thick skin as protection, a covering of feelings; somehow the characters thought they could thought they could escape it with passions and extravagance.
“Sometimes I wonder whether these pages record the actions of real human beings; or whether this is not simply the story of a few inanimate objects which precipitated drama around them.” (250)