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Stale Incense

Tunc

by Lawrence Durrell
Dutton, 359 pp., $6.95

Blessed McGill

by Edwin Shrake
Doubleday, 234 pp., $4.50

In What is Literature? Sartre argues that whereas the poet is concerned with words rather than with things or ideas, the novelist, as a prose writer, must move beyond words to the real world, and so inevitably involve himself with questions of direction and commitment. Sartre is expressing contempt for poetry, while pretending to shield it from the harsh realities of prose. Anglo-American criticism has moved in an opposite direction by trying to treat large areas of prose literature as a form of poetry. Yet to account for my divided attitude to Lawrence Durrell’s writing Sartre’s distinction is useful: I enjoy Durrell’s poetry, which, though slight, is elegant and witty, but I find his novels, which have been widely praised for their “poetic” quality, tedious and sometimes absurd. The prose becomes mannered, whereas in the poems Durrell does not need to say much, and the little he does say can be pleasingly uttered. But in the novels, and particularly in the intricate but hollow Alexandria Quartet, he tries to say a great deal at great length, with much pretentiousness and vulgarity. At the same time, there are passages of great power, so that one cannot altogether dismiss the prose—the famous duck shoot in Clea, for example.

These passages suggest that the high praise lavished by critics on successive volumes of the Quartet, as they appeared during the past ten years, was although mistaken, not perverse. Justine, Balthazar, and the others brought color and excitement into an English literary scene dominated by the provincial brashness and drabness of the “angry young men”: here, at last, it was felt, was fiction with some life in it, color, texture, and stylish, complicated sex. The passing of time has shown how factitious most of these qualities were, and no one recently has advanced the claim for The Alexandria Quartet, made in the early Sixties, as a masterpiece of modern fiction (George Steiner predicted for it a place “just below” Wuthering Heights).

Where some of these critics seem to have gone disastrously astray was not in their relish for Durrell’s prose, for not all of it is bad (or at least the kitsch is superior kitsch), nor even in their eagerness to escape from Welfare England to an Alexandrian never-neverland, but rather in their strange willingness to take at face value Durrell’s claims to be a formal innovator. He remarked of the Quartet: “Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe of a continuum. The four novels follow this pattern.” Here Durrell is doing no more than indulge in mystification, in a way that illustrates what seems to me the crippling weakness of the Quartet, the lack of an intelligence adequate to keep together its willfully complicated structure. One can write good lyrics in a fairly mindless way, but to produce a big novel one needs a reasonably powerful mind. It is here that Durrell fails most conspicuously, despite his invocation of Einstein. (If anything, he shows an unfortunate bias toward the intellectually bogus, evident, for instance, in his admiration for Groddeck.) As formal experiment, the Quartet looks back to Proust, Joyce, and Gide and contributes nothing to their treatment of time, space, and multiple narrative; just as in atmosphere and content, the stress on cruelty, excruciating eroticism, and sensuous perversity has a heavily fin-de-siècle air; in Anthony Burgess’s words; “The decadence smells of stale incense.”

Yet, if the passing of time has made it impossible to take the Quartet seriously, perhaps the last word hasn’t yet been said about it. A year or so ago I reread Justine and found that although there was much nonsense in it, the book seemed more impressive than when I first read it in 1957. There is, perhaps, a clue in an early review by Lionel Trilling; he remarked that there is nothing very sexy about the eroticism, but that Durrell sees love as a desperate, corrosive force. His sources are French: Proust stands behind Durrell, and behind him the anatomizing of the passions that we find in classical French tragedy: “His Justine is in the direct line of Racine’s Phèdre.” This approach can never be anything but alien to Anglo-American readers, but Trilling may have indicated a way in which parts at least of the Quartet deserve serious attention.

DURRELL’S NEW BOOK, Tunc (Latin for “next” or “then”), is a thin, relaxed novel, which, though as full of absurdity as the Quartet, no longer even suggests that the author is convinced by what he is writing about. The new book has much in common with the earlier fiction, such as exotic settings—Athens and Istanbul instead of Alexandria—but the high bravura style has been considerably muted, even though there is the same predilection for very high or very low living: an aristocratic salon on the one hand, a brothel on the other.

In a note at the end of Tunc Durrell remarks that “here and there in the text attentive readers may discern odd echoes from The Alexandria Quartet and even from The Black Book; this is intentional.” A phrase like “odd echoes” is drastically understating, for what we find in Tunc is persistent, unashamed self-imitation. If the manner is quieter and the exoticism less flashy, many familiar faces and properties remain unchanged. Darley, the narrator of the Quartet, reappears as Felix Charlock, a recording engineer and inventor who tells the story in Tunc. Pursewarden, the aphoristic novelist, is now divided into two people: Koepgen, a White Russian monk and poet, and Caradoc, a scabrously witty architect. The transvestite, Scobie, reappears in a more shadowy guise as Sipple, a broken-down clown “with tendencies.” The women, too, are much the same: the little Greek whore Melissa is Iolanthe, an Athens prostitute who ends up as a world-famous film star, acquiring a tragic dignity on the way. Halfway through the book, Charlock is given a well-paid job by a huge international company called Merlin, and, more or less as part of the deal, he marries Benedicta, the founder’s beautiful daughter, who is another version of Justine: equally neurasthenic though a great deal richer. (She also has six toes on one foot, which makes her somewhat more Gothic.)

IN SMALLER WAYS, too, Durrell seems to be cannibalizing his earlier writings. At one point Durrell assumes the heavy-lidded gaze of a French moralist: “And then, what do you make of the faces of the young? As if they had smashed the lock on the great tuck box of sex only to find the contents had gone moldy.” Compare this with these lines from a poem called “Alexandria,” published in 1946: “Searching in sex like a great pantry for jars/Marked ‘Plum and apple.”’ (Durrell is addicted to the repetition of the portentous word “great.”) One might add, in passing, that the sensibility that can see sex as a “great pantry” or a “great tuck-box” looks somewhat insensitive, but Durrell has long upheld a “pagan” and “Mediterranean” resistance to too much fussiness in these matters. Not for nothing is he a friend and admirer of Henry Miller.

Durrell also acknowledges a debt to The Black Book, which was published thirty years ago. Despite its boyish obscenity, it is a spirited work and superior to the later novels: it contains some vigorous surrealist prose, and makes a fierce attack on what Durrell calls the “English death,” in ways that have something in common with Lawrence’s attack on the same thing. In Tunc Durrell seems to be rewriting parts of The Black Book. Here, for instance, is part of a lecture by the drunken and maniacally articulate Caradoc:

For we have all done our spell in the womb, have we not? We were all inhabitants of prehistory once, we all squirmed out into the socalled world…. In the first twenty-four hours after birth we must recognize a total reorganization of the creature in question from a water to a land animal. No transformation from chrysalis to butterfly could be more radical, more complete, more drastic…. Light and sound pierce eye and ear like gimlets. No wonder I screeched.

In The Black Book Tarquin writes in his diary:

Where shall I trace those first parents of mine who generated all history by the first faulty contact of sperm and ovum? Where the faulty placenta, the first deviation of the fetus let down delicately on its cord to rock in the amniotic fluid? How shall they be celebrated? Where shall we see the first microscopic flaw in function which gave us the world of fire, of stone, of oxen, of numbers, of terrors—and of gods? Perhaps I was swung between the loins of a troglodyte, natural as fruit though faulty, in the womb of blackness squeezed; my head out of shape, my cretin’s eyes pressed out under sweet sickly white lids like those of a fish; my limbs shoved out and shinbones bandied. I am sure my brain was jumbled in its sack, teased by bone pressure, until I laughed, lolling my head back, heavy, heavy, to protest that the sun was night-black….

Tunc differs from The Alexandria Quartet in not being confined to Levantine settings: some of the action takes place in London, where Charlock, after his marriage to Benedicta, is installed in a luxurious house in Mayfair surrounded with every material comfort. Durrell has been an expatriate for most of his life, and his attempts to render contemporary England show a striking unreality. Here, for instance, is Charlock Christmas-shopping in London:

Loudspeakers everywhere were playing “Silent Night,” pouring the spirit of the Christ child over everything with this amplified crooning of organs and xylophones: into the frosty streets with their purple-nosed crowds of milling hierophants, busy buying tokens of the miracle—poor pink-witted, tallow-scraping Socialist mobs….

The blimpishness of the implied political attitudes, that heavily dated word “crooning,” all suggest how far Durrell’s responses are still rooted in the Thirties: at that time, when he wrote The Black Book, his hatred of conventional English life was based on real knowledge and was the product of real feeling. This is so no longer.

EDWIN SHRAKE’S Blessed McGill might be put alongside Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam? as a novel about the problems of being a Texan, although he looks back to the great days of Texas in the last century. Peter Hermano McGill is the son of a Texas Ranger and a Spanish mother; much of the novel is in the form of a Western, and follows Peter’s splendid and terrible adventures among the Indians of the Southwest, ending with his death and subsequent surprising elevation as a beatus of the Catholic Church (allegedly the first North American thus to be honored, so displacing Blessed Mother Seton). The high adventure in Mr. Shrake’s book is interwoven with a lot of fascinating material about the lives and customs of the Indians, some of it slightly angled to the modern reader, as in the account of Peyote trips.

Mr. Shrake’s attitude to the Indian combines the traditional concept of the Noble Redskin with sophisticated anthropology: there is a pervading sense of cultural relativism, and the book suggests that if the white settlers were bastards, the Indians they exploited and slaughtered were not, when it came to the point, all that noble either. Mr. Shrake shares the fashionable impulse to rub the reader’s nose in revolting scenes of violence and mutilation. Still, it is an interesting book.

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