Reviews - What do customers think about Balthazar (The Alexandria Quartet, 2)?
From Another Angle Jun 21, 2008
BALTHAZAR, the second novel in Lawrence Durrell's ALEXANDRIA QUARTET, is a less daunting proposition than its predecessor, JUSTINE. The author points out that the first three novels (these two plus MOUNTOLIVE) all overlap in time, looking at the same events from different perspectives; only the fourth book, CLEA, is a true sequel. Nonetheless, it is essential to read JUSTINE first; the greater clarity and expansiveness of BALTHAZAR is possible only because the reader already knows most of the characters and events; there is not enough explanation for the story to stand on its own.
The set-up is simple. The narrator (who now has a name, Darley) receives a surprise visitor to his Greek island, Balthazar, the doctor who had played a secondary role in the earlier novel. He bears with him the manuscript of JUSTINE, which Darley had sent him for comment, and has just time to return it together with his own interleaved notes and marginalia, before his ship leaves again. So Darley/Durrell is left with this huge volume of new material, which he calls "the great Interlinear" as though it were a sacred text. He realizes that several of his assumptions in the original story were mistaken, and so is forced to tell it again, sometimes quoting Balthazar directly, sometimes reimagining it in his own voice.
The book is clearer than JUSTINE in several respects, as though emerging from smoke into light. Durrell seems to use fewer unexplained foreign words, though he still breaks into French at the drop of a hat. The chapters are shorter and more clearly marked. The narrative dwells longer on a few connected characters, or a linear sequence of events. While the climactic duck shoot was the only action set-piece in the earlier book, there are many here: Nessim's ride into the desert with his brother Narouz, the street festival of Sitna Mariam, the Venetian-style masked carnival, and several others. The effective addition of a second narrator (Balthazar) means that not everything is filtered through Darley's sensibility, so other characters develop greater individuality through the cross-lighting. I am not sure that they all become more likeable -- in particular, there is one scene with Clea near the end which strains my previous view of her as a hovering angel -- but it is easier to understand them. There is also more use of direct speech, so that the two older British characters, the writer Pursewarden and Scobie the old sailor, develop distinct (and rather funny) voices.
Add there is still the rich color and cadence of Durrell's descriptive language, a little overdone perhaps, but full of surprising word-choices and sharp observations, especially when capturing sounds: "From the throat of a narrow alley, spilled like a widening circle of fire upon the darkness, burst a long tilting gallery of human beings headed by the leaping acrobats and dwards of Alexandria, and followed at a dancing measure by the long grotesque cavalcade of gonfalons, rising and falling in a tide of mystical light, treading the peristaltic measure of the wild music -- nibbled out everywhere by the tattling flutes and the pang of drums or the long shivering orgasm of tembourines struck by the dervishes in their habits as they moved towards the site of the festival." No longer does this writing overwhelm the narrative it contains, nor does it merely decorate; rather, it articulates and propels the action, as this four-book sequence comes to seem less an outré experiment and more like a true novel of impressive scope.
Alexandria again - and no answers despite new clues... Jul 8, 2007
"Balthazar" is the second of the sibling tomes of Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet". The novel allows the reader to dive again deep into Alexandrian life and see everything what happens already in "Justine" from a different angle.
Darley, the narrator, still living in seclusion on the remote Greek Island, has sent the story (i.e. Justine) to one of the Alexandrian friends, Balthazar, the Jewish, gay doctor interested in philosophy and theology, initiator of the Kabbalah group, suspected of spying activity. Balthazar during his short visit on the island gives Darley the manuscript back together with a substantial amount of notes, which (with Darley's comments) are reconstituted in this volume. Darley was prompted to add a lot of the notes, as, reflecting upon them, he realized that despite his doubts, expressed in "Justine", many things he took for granted are completely different than he thought.
Balthazar sees the events described in "Justine" from his own point of view, and, having often more information or just different sources than Darley, his versions of events add to or change the descriptions from the first volume. New characters are introduced, and those, who were merely mentioned or hinted upon (Pursewarden, Mountolive, Leila, Narouz), become central, and their preoccupations and emotions are at the first plane. These shifts, instead of clarifying things that were blurred and mysterious in "Justine" make the narrative even more slippery and allusive. New avenues open for each event, tales within tales are discovered, which need their own explanation, and the atmosphere is even more dreamy... The motivations of ome characters, especially Nessim, seem to change completely from what Darley perceived, as new events are revealed. The search for the truth obviously cannot end here, so the reader needs to proceed to "Mountolive".
Alexandria becomes even more of a main character in this novel, and definitely the one with the strongest and versatile personality. Most of the other characters, struck by destructive love (again the analysis of love is one of the main themes, although the secret service intrigue gets more momentum), are impressionable, prone to spontaneous, sudden behaviors, and transient. The climactic event, as the hunting party was in Justine, is this time the carnival ball, where the reader roams the streets together with the characters in disguise... and is a witness to another death.
"Balthazar" is even more full of aphorisms than "Justine" - there seems to be a sentence for any occasion, and whereas the generalizations of love may appear trivial, childish even, the truths about literature and theoretical background of Durrell's enterprise to create a novel which would reflect its times, are amazingly formulated and put into the mouth of the surprising number of the writer characters (look especially for what Pursewarden has to say).
In summary, this is another delightful volume, different than "Justine" and only giving the reader the appetite for more of Durrell's Alexandria!
In-Group Conks Out Mar 22, 2007
I admit that I have not read "Justine", the first novel of Durrell's famous Alexandria Quartet. Perhaps if I had started at the beginning, I might have had a more favorable impression. Yet I do feel that BALTHAZAR can stand alone as a novel, even if a reader were to be better served by reading all four in order. Durrell's writing is fabulous. Lemon-scented, mauve, pearly Alexandria with the white stalks of its minarets, "the town that breaks open at sunset like a rose"; beggars beside the Rolls Royces, the human flotsam of the Mediterranean, the tawdry revels of the Christian carnival---all appear so pleasingly haunting and decrepit. Durrell's novel is full of "wisdom"--perhaps a lifetime's supply of epigrams on every conceivable subject, saved over the years by the author as he thought of them on sleepless nights, or written down as he heard them at the cafes and salons of the Middle East. To paraphrase the author, "reading joins you to a work, then divides you". I plunged headlong into BALTHAZAR, hoping for a good read, but came out worse off. I felt I had been offered a plate of decadence and cynicism, and not wanting to play the chicken, taken several bites. I didn't like the taste. What I felt, most of all, was that I was an outsider; the observer of a clique or in-group. The author/narrator knew, all the characters knew, but I didn't know. The prose was designed to keep me from knowing. I had to guess or intrigue with myself in order to find out where this novel was going and who all these people were. I did not enjoy the experience very much, though I admit that it might be just the ticket for some. I repeatedly asked myself, "Is it worth finding out ? Do you really care ? Or are these just a bunch of people hopelessly sunk in jealousy, perversion, sex and substance abuse, who prize infidelity above all ? Is this what the author considers usual life ? Why should I try to discover who really loved or cared about whom ?" I concluded that it didn't matter to me very much.
The group broke apart through death, anger, jealousy, and fatigue. BALTHAZAR traces the collapse of this in-grown little society within colonial Alexandria, before the tides of nationalism drowned its international, "Levantine" character forever. If you admire style, eliptical narrative, and skillful description laced with epigrams, this could be a five star novel. Not for me.
no title Jan 16, 2006
Like "Justine", written in a hauntingly sensual style, but far more readable. Took me a much shorter time to read it. There are so many memorable passages of beauty and wisdom in both, one could fill a small notebook - on love and the human condition, and the beauty of nature. Durrell certainly had an alert and unusually articulate mind, writing both with poetry and precision. Published in 1957, yet timeless, as all classics are. I think it is supposed to take place before World War II. "Balthazar" has far more excitement than "Justine", moves at a quicker pace. Here we see all the same characters, yet all in a new light; we see farther and grasp what we see with new understanding. We get fresh info about Pursewarden, Nissim, Narouz, Justine, Darley (the narrator), Melissa, Clea, Pombal, Amaril, Leila, Mountolive, and the outrageous comic scenes built around Scobie. Throughout the entire four volumes that comprise "The Alexandria Quartet", Durrell is constantly backfilling, a technique I particularly love, until at the last, all is revealed. That same technique was also used by Sir Charles Percy Snow in his 11 volume series "Strangers and "Brothers", but perhaps to a lesser extant. Durrell is the master here in letting us see only so much, no further, until the last volume. A rave review
Balthazar Jul 21, 2003
The second in Durrell,s Alexandria Quartet, Balthazar further develops this story of infidelity, jealousy, and murder. Balthazar, the foppish little Alexandrian, reveals secrets that further add to the story started in Justine. Balthazar introduces us to the beautiful and sensitive Clea but the story centers around the sensous and bi-sexual Justine.