Balthazar (novel)

Balthazar, published in 1958, is the second volume in The Alexandria Quartet series by British author Lawrence Durrell. Set in Alexandria, Egypt around World War II, the four novels tell essentially the same story from different points of view and come to a conclusion in Clea. Balthazar is the first novel in the series that presents a competing narrator, Balthazar, who writes back to the narrating Darley in his "great interlinear."

First UK edition
AuthorLawrence Durrell
CountryUnited Kingdom
SeriesThe Alexandria Quartet
PublisherFaber and Faber
Publication date
Media typePrint (Paperback and Hardback)
Preceded byJustine 
Followed byMountolive 

Epigraphs and citations

Durrell initially titled the book Justine II in his drafts. The novel includes several last minute changes to the publisher's proofs, perhaps most significantly the replacement and expansion of the novel's introductory Note. The NOTE begins: "The characters and situations in this novel, the second of a group – a sibling, not a sequel to JUSTINE. ..." And later: "Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe of a continuum. The four novels follow this pattern. the three first parts, however, are to be deployed spatially...and are not linked in a serial form. They interlap, interweave, in a purely spatial relation. Time is stayed. The fourth part alone will represent time and be a true sequel. ..." The corrected proofs are held in the McPherson Library at the University of Victoria.

Both the epigraphs are from de Sade's Justine; the second, longer one begins: "Yes, we insist upon these details, you veil them with a decency which removes all their edge of horror; there remains only what is useful to whoever wishes to become familiar with man;....Inhabited by absurd fears, they only discuss the puerilities with which every fool is familiar and dare not, by turning a bold hand to the human heart, offer its gigantic idiosyncrasies to our view."

The book is dedicated to Durrell's mother: "these memorials of an unforgotten city".

Plot and characterization

The book begins with the Narrator living on a remote Greek island with Nessim's illegitimate daughter from Melissa (now either four or six years old – marking the time that has elapsed since the events of Justine); however the tone is very dark and opposed to the light and airy reminiscence of Prospero's Cell – Durrell's travelogue-memoir of his life on Corfu. The prolonged nature-pieces, which are a highlight of Durrell's prose, still intervene between straight linear narrative – but are uniformly of askesis and alone-ness – and have a more pronounced "prose-painting" feel to them pre-figuring Clea.

Part One

This section is given over to the story of the Interlinear, and quickly and unceremoniously undermines all the "facts" of Justine. Balthazar arrives on a passing steam-boat with the loose-leafed Inter-Linear – as the narrative manuscript that Darley, the Narrator had sent to Balthazar in Alexandria is now "seared and starred by a massive interlinear of sentences, paragraphs and question marks....It was cross-hatched, crabbed, starred with questions and answers in different coloured inks, in typescript." A few secrets are rapidly revealed with a minimum of ceremony (please read the book for these). The Narrator's memory then proceeds to Alexandria, where Darley continues to reminisce lamentingly, and seeks and sometimes finds, the characters of the earlier books.

Profligacy and sentimentality...killing love by taking things easy...sleeping out a chagrin...This was Alexandria, the unconsciously poetical mother-city exemplified in the names and faces which made up her history. Listen. Tony Umbada, Baldassaro Trivizani, Claude Amaril, Paul Capodistria, Dmitri Randidi, Onouphrios Papas, Count Banubula, Jacques de Guery, Athena Trasha, Djamboulat Bey, Delphine de Francueil, General Cervoni, AhmedHassan Pacha, Pozzo di Borgo, Pierre Balbz, Gaston Phipps, Haddad Fahmy Amin, Mehmet Adm, Wilmot Pierrefeu, Toto de Brunel, Colonel Neguib, Dante Borromeo, Benedict Dangeau, Pia dei Tolomei, Gilda Ambron.

Part Two

This section is primarily related in Balthazar's voice, and is about the novelist Pursewarden – who is modelled on the British Novelist Wyndham Lewis. There is also the story of Scobie's demise: he has gone in drag to the harbour and is beaten to death by sailors, whom he might have tried to "pick up"; one of the first descriptions of "Hate Crimes" against homosexuals in Modern British Literature. In the description of the aftermath of his death, the denizens of Scobie's quarter ransack his house, steal his meagre possessions and drink all the bootleg arak he has been distilling in his bathtub. This leads to two deaths and twenty-two severe poisonings – which Durrell calls 'Scobie leaving a mark on the world'.

Part Three

This section is about carnival time in Alexandria, and a murder that happened during the height of Darley's affair with Justine – although not mentioned in the earlier novel, at all.

Part Four

This section is given over to reminiscences of Clea in which Balthazar reveals to Darley that while he had short-sightedly been caught up in his intrigue with Justine, and finding solace from its emotional fall-out in the arms of Melissa – the person who "really loved" him was Clea. This section works best if read closely before starting Clea.

Meditation on "Modern Love"

Durrell writes in the Author's Note : "The central topic of the book is an investigation of modern love. ..." What he means by the term, he leaves undefined but the subject-matter: prolonged affairs between the protagonists, mutual synchronous polygamy, homoeroticism and transvestitism, psychological and actual sado-masochism – with nary a hint of a socially-conventional romantic or sexual relationship – gives the reader a pretty good clue as to what he is about.

The book abounds in aphorisms – probably an exemplary use of the fecund observations a poet-littrateur writer's journals – such as: "When you pluck a flower, the branch springs back into place. this is not true of the heart's affections" is what Clea once said to Balthazar."

Or as when Justine proposes making love to Nessim on their first meeting: "No, she did not mean the words, for vulgar as the idea sounded, she knew that she was right by the terms of her intuition since the thing she proposed is really, for women, the vital touchstone to a man's being; the knowledge not of his qualities which can be analysed or inferred, but the very flavour of his personality. Nothing except the act of physical love tells us this truth about one another ..."

Or Pursewarden, to Pombal: "On fait l'amour pour mieux refouler et pour decourager les autres."

To Balthazar: "As for Justine, I regard her as a tiresome old sexual turnstile through which presumably we must all pass – a somewhat vulpine Alexandrian Venus. By God, what a woman she would be if she were really natural and felt no guilt!"

Or "(One of the great paradoxes of love. Concentration on the love-object and possession are the poisons.)", thus neatly subverting the entire premise of Justine. Which is why Balthazar and not Justine is the true "Modern Novel" in the entire Quartet. It might even be argued that the success of Justine is entirely due to its fulfilling the public's expectations of what a novel is supposed to be about, and look like – although the distinct authorial voice and the stylistic magnificence had no small part to play in its enduring fascination for the discerning prose reader. Even Mountolive was described by Durrell as "a straight naturalistic narrative" – as is Clea with its usual fulfilment of plot devices like temporal progression, conflict and denouement. Balthazar alone stands ironically apart, thanks to its mordant interlinear.

Or "As for Pursewarden, he believed with Rilke that no woman adds anything to the sum of Woman, and from satiety he had now taken refuge in the plenty of the imagination – the true field of merit for the artist ..."

Or, "We are all looking for someone lovely to be unfaithful to – did you think you were original?"

Or, "The human race! If you can't do the trick with the one you've got, why, shut your eyes and imagine the one you can't get. Who knows? It's perfectly legal and secret. It's the marriage of true minds!"

Or, "Great heavens! Here we are quarreling like a couple of newly-weds. Soon we shall marry and live in filthy compatibility, feasting on each other's blackheads. Ugh! Dreadful isogamy of the Perfect Match ..."

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