It’s kind of hard to explain the experience of reading these books. As I write this statement, I’ve read the first two, and it’s entirely possible that further reading will change based on how each book presents the story. But for the first two books, the experience is fractured. For one thing, it’s fractured because the narrative perspective is rather subjective and impressionistic in their methods. That’s not to say they’re like reading Ulysses, though a little, but more so the experience is connected directly to the internal logic and presentation of the narrator. Also, both are specifically fractured structurally. The first lays the narrative along the landscape of Alexandria, while the second is literally broken into chunks by the physical act of writing. Each section is a fractured document being read and edited by the narrator of the first and there’s reason to hide and obscure meaning. And in both, the narrative itself hides within the mindscape of the narrator.
Justine starts us of off and is the foremost central text of the four. I believe this book was written to stand alone and be the whole of the reading experience, but as the novels built the story from the ground up more was required and new voices were required.
Justine is a novel about a love affair written by an unnamed narrator who is friends with Justine, a free-wheeling and kind of awful and beautiful and terrible woman in Alexandria, Egypt. This narrator, later named Darley in future books, is also close friends with Justine’s husband, Nessim.
This love-triangle is actually much larger than three sided and includes multiple figures and friends from around the city, but also, and brilliantly and savagely includes Darley reading from and trying to apply the lessons from Justine’s ex-husband’s novel based on their marriage.
The novel is cryptic and hard to follow, and I can’t argue that I did.
Literally a book found in a drawer that closely mirrors and follows the first novel. I am reminded on the difference between a mystery and a puzzle. A mystery is not about finding a solution so much as allowing enough of the fog to clear up to begin to put the boundaries and limits and scopes of to becomes a little more clear. A puzzle is written to be solved and contains all the pieces. Like with other fractured narratives, I want a puzzle to solve, because it limits what the novel can do and can contain. It also allows me to feel connected to and superior to the total whole. But with a novel like this, which follows the same events from above with a kind of different perspective, but not that different, add depth and complexity to the events without adding a lot of clarity. While I was supremely challenged by this novel, which was not about clarifying the puzzle of the first book, I was also more interested in and convinced by this one. I needed a break from Justine but I feel compelled to continue on after this one.
In this third volume, we get something like an “objective” voice coming in to handle the next step. Of course, this becomes complicated because there’s no such thing as an objective voice whatsoever, but instead what we get is a 3rd person narration closely hanging on the experience of David Mountolive, a British official a little older than the other characters, who provides a kind of remove from the very subjective and impressionistic experiences of the firs three, and ultimately fourth novel.
This novel is the longest and the slowest of the four, and becomes a kind of lynchpin holding the remaining pieces together.
In this fourth section of the quartet, we return to Darley, the narrator for the most of the quartet. Here we are finally removed from the influence (more or less) of Justine and Nessim, and Pursewarden, the cultural anchor of the four novels is long dead, and while there is a reckoning, he’s merely a presence.
In this novel, we focus on Darley turning his attention to Clea. Both Clear and Darley are more situated in the world and are better suited, but the alluring and destructive power of Justine still haunts everything.
Ultimately this is a very interesting set of novels and the experience of reading it is difficult to sell and explain. For one, it shares some sensibilities with Woolf and Joyce, and can be as challenging as either at times, but it’s also clearly more accessible than at least Joyce. The city truly becomes a a character in this set of novels, and this becomes challenging, because while you’re out there looking for a central locus to observe, the novels are dancing around. There’s a moment in which Pursewarden says something to effect of: there are two paths in literature, to tell a story (be a bromide) or to set a path (advance art) and you can almost feel these novels chasing that question and trying to figure out what it wants to be.
The reading experience is something akin to Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford. It reminds me of, too, of the kinds of novels that came out after WWII trying to make sense of the world after:Olivia Manning’s Balkan Trilogy, Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, Anthony Burgess’s The Long Day Wanes, and JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy.
So what is this experience in the end? I don’t know really. It’s a set of novel, and one shaky and elusive narrative at the center. You experience a lot of writing and consciousness, very little plot, and a challenge. I also read this set of novels in about three weeks, with a few books in between, and they were published over three years, so I think about what the difference would be if you approached it with more space and distance.