“Must I now rework my own experiences in order to come to the heart of the truth?”
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be Yes.
I came to the first volume of this quartet, Justine, with a fair degree of enthusiasm. I quickly lost that after bogging down in that book’s mire of reflections layered on philosophy on reminiscence on memory. Justine became an agonizing test of endurance and will, as I constantly checked just how much more of a slog each chapter would be.
It was therefore with trepidation that I approached this second book, Balthazar. I had understood that each of the first three books told essentially the same story, from a different perspective. This device has worked for others (recently, for Orson Scott Card with his Shadow series), and it’s an interesting idea. Plus, I had done the hard work of piecing together the story in Justine. In short, I had hope.
That hope soon dissipated, blown away by a relentless storm of overwrought images, inapposite metaphors, and languid introspection. In Balthazar, we hear from the titular character only indirectly, via his comments to the protagonist about the manuscript of Justine. Balthazar, a fairly minor character in Justine, now suddenly becomes a key figure in all of its events, and a source of undisputed truth.
We learn that the core concepts and relationships of Justine were false, and the narrator spends endless pages dissecting and redissecting his memories. Worst of all is his endless discussion of the re-evaluation itself. If the first book was chaotic and complex, this is simply long and almost unbearably tedious. It’s not particularly difficult to follow (though several brand new characters are suddenly shown to have always been on stage), but it is also not particularly interesting. To be blunt, it was not just dull, but tiring – not quite as hard to get through as Justine, but just as self-involved. Durrell shows from time to time that he has a sense of humor, but he steadfastly refuses to use it.
And then the book just stops. Durrell inserts a mildly mysterious crime or accident, but it seems designed more to provide some sort of climax than to actually fit the story.
Throughout the book, the narrator’s view of the past, and perhaps the past itself, are irrevocably changed by Balthazar’s revelations. Yet not only were the revelations themselves not very credible, the narrator’s reactions to these bombshells were distant, as if the woman he had been so obsessed with had suddenly become a figure of history – though he tells us this is not so.
I give credit to Durrell for an ambitious effort, and for his courage in experimentation. The concept – re-evaluating years’ long relationships in the light of new information – had promise. Some of his description is very effective, some of the phrases memorable (“I love the French edition with its uncut pages. I would not want a reader too lazy to use a knife on me.”, “In a book of poems: ‘One to be taken from time to time as needed and allowed to dissolve in the mind.’ “). But overall, the book sags under the sheer weight of monotony, held up by the very thin reed of our interest in the narrator’s thoughts.
As with the first book, I cannot recommend this. If you lived in Alexandria in the first half of the last century, it may be of interest. Otherwise, even if you’ve read Justine, I advise you to stay clear. As for me, well, I bought the quartet, and I’ll read it. Only 600 pages to go, and a faint hope that some of them will be better.