Digested classics: Justine by Lawrence Durrell

'I had lost the will to live, gazing in a desultory, yet artistically languid, manner into my vacant subconscious and whiling away the taedium vitae with stray girls'

I have escaped to this island with the child, Melissa's child. As the night is snatched from darkness by Arcturus, I think of my friends and of my beloved Alexandria, with its iodine-coloured meidan of Mazarita, where the open petal of Melissa's mouth fell upon mine like unslaked summer. Ah Melissa!

The child and I are alone. I have not named it yet, though it will, of course, be Justine. I am neither happy nor unhappy: just poetically distrait. At the time I met Justine, I was a happy man. A door had opened on an intimacy with Melissa and, like all solipsistic egotists, I could not resist. I do not judge myself or others. That is far too common for a tired aesthete. I merely comment. And what of Justine? Was she trapped in a projection of a will too powerful which Alexandria threw down? And ought I to get out more?

I had lost the will to live, gazing in a desultory, yet artistically languid, manner into my vacant subconscious and whiling away the taedium vitae with stray girls. This was the unpromising material on which Melissa poured her shimmering nectar. For a week, her former lover, a bestial furrier, stalked the streets, intending to shoot me. But this was Alexandria, where everything was over-analysed under the sun's burning zenith and nothing really happened. Unfortunately.

Of Justine? She was exigent, yet we shared a flirtation so profound it went beyond sexual attraction. "It can come to nothing, this passion between a poor schoolteacher and a married society beauty," I said. "The city gives us no choice," she replied in all seriousness.

She had approached me with the authority of a Lesbian, quizzing me on the antinomian nature of irony. Whatever that is. She had brought me back to meet her husband, Nessim, but here I must play with narrative structure for we talked not of Alexandria but of Plotinus and she urged me to meet Balthazar to discuss Gnosticism and to consider the work of a demiurge.

That Nessim had her watched, I for a long time doubted. She was too protean. Yet this was all just an overture to our friendship disintegrating into a ravenous sexuality. We could not stop ourselves. We spoke in French, with each kiss a painful sunrise. She was as angry as a mad demon. "You thought I simply wanted to make love," she shouted. We quailed with melodramatic intensity.

I went home to Melissa. "You are in love with Justine," she said. "No," I replied. "It is much worse than that." Is narcissism a habit? Was I too strong to be loved? Was I utterly deluded?

Through Nessim, I came to move in the cobweb of Alexandrian society. I came to blanch at the banality of Melissa's life as a dancer. "If you loved me, you would poison me," she said.

My landlord told me the French consul longed to replace me as Justine's lover and tormented me with the story of her first marriage to Arnaute, a French Albanian. How she longed to be beaten for the remission of her adulterous sins. "Engorge-moi in a syllogistic love," she would implore him. Can real people only exist in the imagination of great artists? Non.

I felt jealous of a man who lived, yet no longer existed. The force morale had deserted me. "There is no justification for us," Justine yelled. "Balthazar says we are dead and live in limbo."

To have written so much and to have barely mentioned Balthazar is an omission. He was the doctor of venereal diseases who cut through Alexandrian scepticism with his devotion to the Cabbala. We talked in Delphic riddles of Sufism, Capodistria and of Justine's Jewish roots, while reading the aphorisms of Heraclitus. "I am a poet of the subconscious," I said. "Then you should meet Clea," he answered.

Ah Clea! The numinous, unknowable Clea, the painter of victims of venereal disease - a minor one of which I was recovering from myself. "I do not deny myself love," she said. "I am living in the beauty of an achieved relationship with a woman."

Justine and I devoured the paradoxes of the Ptolemaic universe with a love too powerful for mere emotion. "Nessim has changed," she said. Yet I could not heed the warnings that a personage wanted to kill me. Rather I revelled in the thrill of being asked by the Secret Service to observe the Cabal, which they had mistaken for foreign agents. I could not even refuse when Nessim invited me to go shooting.

"Your wife is no longer faithful to you," Melissa blurted out one evening to Nessim. His madness was the Devastatio described by Swedenborg and yet he felt her kinship as they ran naked into the sea together. It was as if the four of us were conjugal complementarities.

"Capodistria has been shot," a beater cried. There was no doubt Nessim had shot him, blaming the Cabal for taking his wife away from him, though we never spoke of this. Justine disappeared that day and neither of us ever saw her again.

"You might have guessed it was Justine I once loved," Clea later wrote to me. "She has extinguished her sexuality and is working on a kibbutz. Melissa has died of cancer, having given birth to Nessim's star-crossed child. Can we be friends?"

Nessim could not bear to be close to the succubus so I took it in. I have left Clea's letter unanswered. So much more enigmatic!

• John Crace's Digested Reads appear in G2 on Tuesdays.


John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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