Play It Again, Sam

Monsieur

by Lawrence Durrell
Viking, 309 pp., $8.95

The wind tugs at the olive-trees behind the house, and the vast Adriatic sky shifts from pale pink to deep purple. The sea stirs the driftwood on the small beach. I have come here to think things through, to try for one last time to put our several, broken lives in order. The child is inside, leafing through a tattered copy of Justine….

There is really no point in parodying Lawrence Durrell, because he does it so well himself, and nowhere better than in his new novel Monsieur:

Outside the mistral purred. In the slowly thawing gardens were the memorable flaccid palms set in their circles of moulting grass. There was still snow-rime in the flowerbeds….

It is much later in the year now, when I try to reassess the meaning and value of all these episodes on paper: in search of some fruitful perspective upon my own life here in the old château—the queer solitary life which I have at last adopted….

In Monsieur the Greek island of Justine has become a Provençal château, and Alexandria has become Avignon, but little else has changed. The focus of our attention is still a shabby, famous, history-ridden city, and a set of lurid, extreme events and conditions: suicide, madness, incest, syphilis, two sorts of homosexuality, a secret sect, and a headless corpse. In the front of the stage is a survivor, picking up the pieces and telling the story—Durrell has been using this narrative form since The Black Book, first published in 1938, where the island was also Greek, although the city was London, seen through the eyes of a moody and assertive Prufrock.

In the wings of Monsieur hover Gnosticism, the Knights Templars, Alexandria itself, Venice, the despair and decay of a great writer. In the intermissions there are stately prose poems describing a festive old Provençal Christmas in an ancestral home, and a trip up the Nile in a felucca, “a timeless journey,” as Durrell puts it in his all too imitable language, “into ancient Egypt.” Even the notes and epigrams scattered all over The Alexandria Quartet (composed of Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, published between 1957 and 1960), those jaunty banalities wearing the sad mask of profundities, find their echo here: “An idea is like a rare bird which cannot be seen. What one sees is the trembling of the branch it has just left.” Monsieur is a short concentrated tour of Durrell’s domain. The author, recently returned from the contemporary world of Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970), takes us back to his old dream-territories.

The effect of the visit is to soften some of Durrell’s faults and to suggest he is not quite the kind of writer we thought he was. I imagine even the most fervent of his admirers find his prose a bit overripe on occasion:

The city with its obsessive rhythms of death twanged round them in the darkness…. [Mountolive]

The city unwrinkles like an old tortoise and peers about …

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