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Justine, the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell: An Interpretation of a Scent

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Photograph: Mahmoud Nasr (Alexandria, Egypt)

Written in retrospect, Lawrence Durrell’s Justine (first volume in his tetralogy, The Alexandria Quartet) is an attempt on part of Darley, the narrator, to be reconciled with Alexandria, the city that transfigured his life. During his stay in Alexandria, Darley is constantly torn between his love for Melissa and Justine. He associates his love for the two women with the kinds of perfumes they wear, particularly that of Justine, which Darley searches for in a moment of yearning to be with her. This urgent search for Justine’s perfume parallels Darley’s vain endeavor to find the true essence of the city and foregrounds the resemblance between Justine and Alexandria. However, the perfume’s name, Jamais de la vie, foreshadows how Darley is eventually overcome by Justine, Melissa and the city itself.

Jamais De La Vie: An Interpretation of a Scent

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The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell

The perfume’s name, Jamais de la vie, which literally translates into “never in this life” is significant in relation to the following aspects: Melissa dancing to the rhythm of a song with the same name, Darley’s last hold on Justine, and Darley’s inability to come to terms with the city. Darley’s first description of Justine’s perfume and its name are given early in the novel to subtly instill in the storyline a sense of inevitable, somber finality, which is gradually built up until the end of the novel. The loving description of Justine’s perfume, “I inhaled the warm summer perfume of her dress and skin – a perfume which was called, I don’t know why, Jamais de la vie” ( Durrell 26, 27) comes in opposition to that of Melissa’s “scent-bottle”, which Darley does not admire but merely “studies”, laying out the contrast between the two women and giving a glimpse of the true nature of Darley’s love. His love for Melissa initially stems from pity after rescuing her from a party gone awry, while his love for Justine is driven by a want to unravel the mystery behind her vague persona, as can be seen in his being invested in analyzing Arnauti’s book, Moeurs, and Justine’s diary.

As Darley sets out to purchase Justine’s perfume, he begins to realize that what adorns the haunting scent is Justine herself. She imparts her character on the perfume and not the other way around, as Darley says:”[s]omething was always missing – I suppose the flesh which the perfume merely costumed” (155). A few lines later, Darley himself draws a comparison between Melissa and Justine’s perfumes, acknowledging the discrepancy between the two characters, “[w]hen I took home the little bottle they found in Cohen’s waistcoat-pocket the wraith of Melissa was still there, imprisoned. She could still be detected” (155). Justine’s “wraith”, however, is not imbued in her perfume when the flesh is separated from it. Rather, her “wraith” exists in the city itself; the city that bears a close resemblance to Justine, both of which eventually elude Darley.

”[s]omething was always missing – I suppose the flesh which the perfume merely costumed” (155)

A few lines later, Darley himself draws a comparison between Melissa and Justine’s perfumes, acknowledging the discrepancy between the two characters, “[w]hen I took home the little bottle they found in Cohen’s waistcoat-pocket the wraith of Melissa was still there, imprisoned. She could still be detected” (155). Justine’s “wraith”, however, is not imbued in her perfume when the flesh is separated from it. Rather, her “wraith” exists in the city itself; the city that bears a close resemblance to Justine, both of which eventually elude Darley.

The comparison between Melissa and Justine’s perfumes sheds further light on the two characters and Darley’s relationship with them. In Part One, Darley finds “a small empty scent-bottle of the cheap kind that Melissa used” (25), which he “took … back to the flat where it stayed on the mantelpiece for some months” (25). It is important to note that Darley immediately realizes that Melissa’s perfume is “cheap”, since it corresponds to her simple-mindedness, in addition to her physical and mental frailty. Moreover, the only time Melissa and Justine are somewhat spiritually identified with each other is when Melissa dances in a bar to “a popular song which had once been the rage of Alexandria, Jamais de la vie” (94). Melissa being related to Justine’s ephemerality by the name of the perfume may be a means of foreshadowing Melissa’s ultimate death, since the phrase “never in this life” is associated with those who prove to be unattainable.

The name of Justine’s perfume can also be related to her impending departure from the city, which Darley alludes to by saying, “[a]nd as if to restore my memory I smelt my sleeves for traces of Justine’s perfume” (154). This preamble to Justine’s fleeing from the city is said in connection with her perfume, which can be interpreted as: never in this life will Justine be faithfully bound to Darley, but rather, he shall only be left with the “trace” of her perfume, a mere intangible memory. Moreover, Darley mentions that Justine’s perfume “was not among the most expensive or exotic” (155), which is a revelation that deconstructs the illusion of exoticism that she had been building for herself. This allows Darley to view Justine in a different light away from her bewitching persona, which further emphasizes the multifaceted symbol of perfumes.

Darley proceeds to examine Melissa’s empty perfume bottle while “measuring [the old furrier’s] love against [his] own; and tasting too, vicariously, the desperation which makes one clutch at some small discarded object which is still impregnated with the betrayer’s memory” (26). This remark of “desperation” is ironical, for Darley himself will be put in the same position when he desperately sets out to find Justine’s perfume, who is also a betrayer. Justine’s perfume, however, bewilders Darley unlike Melissa’s. The fact that Darley does not easily recognize the kind of perfume Justine wears sheds light on Justine’s complex character and the struggle to understand the enigma of her personality, for Darley says, “everyone … knew the perfume Justine used except myself” (155), which is the same struggle he has with Alexandria, as is apparent when he says:

“I have had to come so far away from it in order to understand it all” (17)

The similarity between Justine and the city can be further detected when Nessim voices his opinion of Justine saying, “[b]ut those she harmed most she made fruitful” (33). This quotation echoes Darley’s later words of the city, “this letter of acceptance … marks my separation from the city in which so much has happened to me, so much of momentous importance: so much that has aged me” (182). Hence, it can be seen that Justine and the city both have the same positive effect on Darley, that of maturity. However, Darley’s colonial and denigrating perspective of Alexandria prevents him from fully acknowledging this effect.

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Alexandria, Egypt, by: Mahmoud Nasr

Darley’s narrow perspective does not enable him to view the city as anything but a bygone one with its “dust-tormented streets” (17) that are inhabited by “flies and beggars” (17). Darley’s inability to look beyond the city’s peculiarity -in terms of its housing multiple nationalities, its narrow, yet intricate alleys, its Arabs, and the inexplicable effect it has on the people- daunts him, leading him to believe that the city “precipitated in [them] conflicts which were hers and which [they] mistook for [their] own” (17). Darley, however, fails to see that what casts an ominous spell on his life is not the city, but rather his obstinate mind that refuses to realize that the essence of the city lies in its being unfathomable. Moreover, the characters have an almost innate belief that the city is the source of struggle that afflicts their lives, “[w]as all the discordance of their lives a measure of the anxiety which they had inherited from the city or the age?” (147), which echoes Constantine P. Cavafy’s poem, “The City”.

“The City” is a recurrent motif that exemplifies the fallacy that dominates Darley’s life and the impossibility of adapting to the city’s enigmatic character unless he is able to realize that the fault exists in his own perception, not in the nature of Alexandria itself. Christopher G. Katope writes of Lawrence Durrell’s drawing on Cavafy’s poetry:

“during his years in Alexandria, [Durrell’s] state of mind in the atmosphere of the city was such that he must have felt an affinity with the Greek poet” (126)

The difference between Cavafy and Darley lies in Darley’s refusal to embrace the city’s eccentricity, whereas Cavafy was able to recognize that the key to living in the city was to adopt a new, unprejudiced outlook on life, which freed him of the mental shackles that he attributed to the city. Darley, however, seems to be unable to reach this conclusion and continues to grapple fruitlessly with the city until his moment of departure. Nabil M. Abdel-Al writes, “[b]y finally fleeing Alexandria, characters recognize their helplessness and inability to grapple with the city and its daunting spirit” (14). This quotation is an assertion that Darley fails to comprehend the essence of Alexandria. In other words, “never in this life” would Darley be able to demystify Alexandria, simply because the city’s allure lies in its inexplicable intricacy that perturbs Darley, eventually driving him out entirely.

Darley’s struggle to understand the workings of the city can be seen as analogous to that of his love interests. One way of doing so is by studying Justine and Melissa’s perfumes. Since the first mention of the name of Justine’s perfume, Jamais de la vie, a sense of foreboding is introduced, leading up to the ultimate defeat of Darley by Justine, Melissa and most importantly, Alexandria. Darley’s conflict with the city is not settled, but rather he ends up escaping the city altogether.


 

Works Cited:

Abdel-Al, Nabil M. “Spirit of the Place in Lawrence Durrell’s Justine and E.M. Forster’s
Alexandria: A History and a Guide.” Durrell in Alexandria: On Miracle Ground 9,
Conference Proceedings, Alexandria Egypt, June 1996
. Ed. Shelly Ekhtiar.
Baltimore, MD: International Lawrence Durrell Society, 2005. 14. Print. 

Durrell, Lawrence. Justine. The Alexandria Quartet: Novels. London: Faber and Faber, 1958. 17+. Print.

Fahmy, Khaled. “The Essence of Alexandria.” Manifesta Journal. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2016.

Katope, Christopher G.. “Cavafy and Durrell’s the Alexandria Quartet”. Comparative Literature 21.2 (1969): 126. Web.

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