Reading the first paragraph of Durrell’s Justine

The sea is high again today,

What do we know, or think, or guess, or assume, from those six words?

The narrator is by the sea. Not necessarily, of course; there could be satellites or telephones involved, or there could be no narrator at all but just an omniscient narrative voice. But the spatial immediacy of “the sea” (rather than “the sea at Brighton” or “the sea outside her window”), and the temporal placedness of “again today”‘ both suggest a particular person by a particular sea, speaking at a certain time.

Justine coverThe sea is high. With wind most likely; high waves and whitecaps rather than high tide. The sea has been high before, we suspect yesterday at least. It is probably daytime now (“today” rather than “tonight”).

Is the height of the sea a good thing, or a bad thing? A joy or a challenge? We don’t know from the first six words, so onward.

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind.

Now that is a sentence.

Probably this is not someone clinging to a piece of wreckage in mid-ocean, or hoping for calm seas to launch a tiny fishing boat. This is someone in a position to thrill to the wind.

But notice that it is a flush of wind. “Flush” and “thrill” call to mind the cheek flushed hot with blood from some personal thrill. So here the blown surface of the ocean is the skin, thrilled and flushed by the wind; the wind is the blood of the sea. But the wind also flushes cheeks from the cold. Chill and thrill, wind and blood, skin and sea. And only a dozen words in!

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter

A specific time now, and a cold one. Is this favoring the cold side of the previous sentence, chill and wind over thrill and blood?

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring.

Balance is restored. The second sentence mirrors the first, calls out the cold and the warm more explicitly, and more abstractly.

Notice that there is now someone in the text, and it is you. He did not write “I can feel”, “He could feel”, or “can be felt”.

Note also that it is not the warmth of Spring, or its coming, its approach, its flavor or texture. The inventions of Spring!

Also it is “winter”, but “Spring”. A subtlety of balance here? The concrete winter by the sea in contrast with the symbolic or idealized Spring that invents? Or just some typesetter’s quirk?

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday,

Now, looking up above the sea, there is the sky; a sky of hot nude pearl. What a phrase! Is it hot as in actual heat, or hot as in glare? Pearl is a color, the texture of color; what is it for pearl to be nude? Bare, simple, unadorned. So my eyes imagine the sky bright and (of course) pearlescent (nacreous!), hotly pale to look at, but not enough to heat the air (my cheeks still flushed with the wind).

And we’ve been aware of the sky in the morning, before midday, and at least up until midday; perhaps all morning, or a good piece of the morning, standing on a headland watching the sea and feeling the wind (and the inventions of Spring).

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places,

Sheltering from the wind, and also from the hot glare of the sky. This is a place with crickets, and also a place with some shelter. Think of sheltered places large enough, small enough, for crickets. No mention of people, of whether there are any people seeking shelter also.

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes,”

Here is the wind again, crossing a sentence and a half to thrill again, and this time to unpack the great planes. What great planes? Is this a pun on the Great Plains? Is the wind blowing into the cargo holds of enormous airplanes, scattering underwear from suitcases and printouts from briefcases out across the runways? Probably not. :)

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of Spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…”

Not just unpacking, but actively and violently unpacking, ransacking! The printouts and underwear are scattered far and heedlessly, the wind is looking for something (for what?) in those cargo holds. Or the great planes are (more likely) the planes of the sea, the earth, and sky. The wind violently unpacking the plane of the horizon, flushing the cheek of the sea, bringing both the cold of midwinter and (with the hot nude sky) the inventions of the Spring, as though it were searching for something. For what?

And that’s the entire first paragraph. We aren’t entirely certain we know what the great planes are (spoiler alert: eleven pages later I’m still not entirely certain), but we have had built in our minds a balanced structure of warmth and cold, winter and spring, blood and sea water, topped by hot nude pearl, and underlain by those sheltering crickets. Earth and Air and Water, and we can either allow that heat to stand for Fire, or let that spot stay empty, and be left, after this first paragraph, with (among other things) a missing place for Fire, like a missing tooth, that might (or might not) be resolved in later paragraphs.

Yes, this is a somewhat pretentious reading! :) But when I started reading this book (which regular readers will remember we bought in Boston the other week), I was so struck by the language (not in a Barthelmian or Leynerian way, but in an entirely or mostly entirely other way) that I stopped and read the first few paragraphs over and over, and then the same for the first page, the first two pages. And I decided to write a weblog entry about it!

(A serendipitous and perspicacious airline seat-neighbor suggested that I ought to be reading poetry that way if I like reading that way; I agreed while admitting that I’d never really managed to do that. What poet should I try it on? The burning tyger? The mistress going to bed?)

And that’s all! :) I’m incredibly sleepy at the moment, having gotten home from the airport and Secret Expeditions this morning at about 3am. I am still awake mostly because I am hoping Verizon will call back about whether or not they can actually give us what the salesmen promised to get us to switch to FIOS, and also because I wanted to actually post this (actually to post this) before it went out of my mind. But now I think I will give up on Verizon for the night and go to bed and/or to sleep. And you can post comments! :)

Night!

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2 Comments to “Reading the first paragraph of Durrell’s Justine”

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