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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 it. For a moment it relinquishes the torn rags of the flesh, while from some hidden alley by the slaughter-house, above the moans and screams of the cattle, comes the nasal chipping of a Damascus love-song; shrill quartertones, like a sinus being ground to powder…. [Justine]

But this overreaching, as Monsieur makes beautifully clear, is really characteristic of everything in Durrell. If someone consults a psychoanalyst, it can only be Freud himself—the “endearing old Jewish gentleman,” as Durrell’s character fatuously calls him, “with his pocketful of dreams.” If someone is to learn the true story of the dissolution of the Templars, it can only be in a deserted Templar fortress near the Pont du Gard. When a group of young people hear a lecture on Gnosticism, with its doctrines of a world stolen from God, turned over to a usurper who is Monsieur, the Prince of Darkness, the radical despair of these notions must be mirrored in the petrified forest where they all happen to be having lunch—“almost symbolic,” Durrell remarks casually, as if he didn’t know how the scenery got there.

Nothing but the best, and the scene always fits the situation, just as Durrell’s plump prose always fits the grand guignol of his plots. In an essay on Wordsworth, he writes of the poet’s sister as “slowly descending the long slopes of unreason,” and likes the phrase so much that he repeats it all but literally in Monsieur (“I think he would have slid down the long slopes of unreason”). Even without the repetition, the metaphor gives a great deal of Durrell’s game away. It points to itself as decorative, literary language, and it suggests an insanity which is a kind of prop, not so much a mental condition as a sort of costume suitable for a poet’s sister (or a character in a romantic novel). The whole machinery of fiction—plot, prose, character, setting, dialogue, philosophy—becomes with Durrell a stock of allusions to literature itself, a set of signs referring us to a world of books in which all these things have their natural home. Suicide and murder, in Durrell, are not events, they are glittering tokens, heraldic emblems possessing the status of Rochester’s first wife, say, in Jane Eyre. They are names for certain forms of literary excitement and prohibition.

Unfortunately, Durrell himself is only intermittently aware of what he is doing, and his major mishaps occur when he tries to combine heraldry with naturalism—the result is usually a slither into highbrow, Mediterranean soap opera. It is all right for Pursewarden, the great writer in The Alexandria Quartet, to have a long incestuous affair with his sister, who is blind for good measure, but it is less than all right when his sister, recalling the great man, says, “He always puzzled me—except when I had him in my arms.” The Quartet is full of lines like that, would-be poignant and powerful moments skidding off into bathos. “The possession of a human heart,” Pursewarden writes, “disease without remedy.” And again: “All great books are excursions into pity.” Justine says, “We use each other like axes to cut down the ones we really love.” And again: “Who invented the human heart, I wonder? Tell me, and then show me the place where he was hanged.” The problem with these remarks is not their silly, strident tone but a lingering, helpless flatness about them, the sense of a short hop where there should have been a long leap.

In Monsieur, as in the Quartet, Durrell worries about the plausibility of what is happening:

By a singular paradox (perhaps inherent in all writing?) the passages that he knew would be regarded as overtheatrical or unreal (“people don’t behave like that”) would be the truth, and the rest which rang somehow true, the purest fabrication.

But this has nothing to do with the way Durrell’s fiction works. The only question is whether the overtheatrical or unreal comes off or not—the criterion being not verisimilitude or probability or even artistic necessity, but something akin to acrobatic excellence, an ability to stay on the high wire. Sometimes even the scenario for a daring trick is enough. There is a fine scene in Monsieur where an angry husband comes home to find his wife surrounded by her dolls, carefully kept since childhood:

When I saw the dolls I seemed at once to recognise my real rivals and an overwhelming rage seized hold of me. “So that is how it is,” I said, and all the bile of old sterile disputes rose in my throat. I did not clearly know precisely what I had divined in this infantile display, but I knew with certainty that these little homunculi must be put out of the way. They constituted an obstacle to our relationship. I seized one, and then another, and tossed them into the flames. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror, grim-faced as a German professor. Pia let out a shriek and fainted, while I continued the pillage of her dolls which I now realise must have represented a whole lifetime of memories, of childhood. It was worse than murder. But I acted like a maniac in a trance, unaware of the meaning of my acts, aware only of a blasting jealousy. It was like the sack of a town….

The writing is sloppy and tired, the psychology is trivial, and the scene has no consequences for the narrative of the book. All that matters here is the idea of the scene, the invented picture, the dolls displayed and destroyed. We do all the work, and the investments of our imaginations are transferred to Durrell’s account—with some justice, since he started us off with a vivid thought.

And this, it seems to me, is largely how The Alexandria Quartet works. It offers us the idea of a series of great novels centered on a single, splendid, festering city, an investigation of modern love and modern politics, a study of individual lives from varying angles, an exploration of exotic underworlds of sex and religion, a patient, Proustian tracing of the passage of time, “that ailment of the human psyche.” It doesn’t embody the idea, doesn’t give us the novels it proposes. But it doesn’t ruin the idea either, doesn’t stand in its way—it keeps it alive for a thousand pages or so. And it does other things on the way, some good and some not so good. It is very funny, as in the stories of Scobie and in a good deal of the dialogue given to Pursewarden, and it is sometimes wise, although not usually when it thinks it is being wise. It has a number of overwrought splendors which are a bit rich for some tastes but not to be rejected out of hand.

And then it is dramatic, in a rather cheap and obvious way, always exchanging subtle and complicated forms of doubt and mystery for brash and anodyne forms of the same thing. Thus interesting questions about Justine’s identity become dull questions about whom she really loved (Darley, Pursewarden, or her husband Nessim, after all). Troubling questions about Pursewarden’s character become dim questions about why he committed suicide (in order to liberate his sister from their love, or because of embarrassing political information he had stumbled on). Questions about the nature of reality regularly turn into questions of obstructed or misinterpreted fact. “What is the meaning of human action?” becomes “Who killed Toto de Brunel?” The same is true in Monsieur: an article found in a magazine and then, eerily, not to be found in other copies of the same magazine, loses all its strangeness when we learn that it was a trick played on a Gnostic novice by his master, a test of his faith and his need.

When T.S. Eliot spoke of Durrell’s Black Book as “the first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction,” he was responding, no doubt, both to Durrell’s genuine talent and to his sense of literature as a high vocation. But in the Quartet, as in Monsieur, the talent is less in evidence than the skills. I have just described—the ability to walk a tilting tightrope, and to evoke books that you haven’t quite written—and the vocation, curiously, has disappeared into a continuing romantic fiction about the vocation.

Of course there is a simple self-indulgence in Durrell’s showing us his notes and sketches, as he does in the Quartet and again in Monsieur, thoughts and phrases he has not managed to get into his books, pretentiously called consequential data and workpoints, and so on. But the main effect of this, since the notes are not as brilliant as they ought to be, is to create an illusion of the writer actually at work. This is how he does it: we are in the atelier, and the writer is writing for us, doing his stuff while the tourists stand around. It doesn’t matter what he writes, so long as we see him at his magical business, throwing words on paper.

With what a fearful compulsion we return to it again and again—like a tongue to a hollow tooth—this question of writing!” This remark of Pursewarden’s, in Clea, goes to the heart of Durrell’s work, and yet it remains a romantic image: a portrait of the writer possessed and saddened by his lonely trade, while Durrell is plainly having the time of his life painting the portrait.

Of course, there are writers everywhere in Durrell. There are Darley, Pursewarden, and Arnauti in the Quartet. In Monsieur there are Bruce, the narrator, Sutcliffe, a novelist, Toby, a historian, and Blanford, another novelist who has invented Bruce, Sutcliffe, and Toby (and who, as an extra turn of the screw, has Sutcliffe read Pursewarden). People write diaries, almost everyone in Durrell writes letters. Balthazar is purportedly based on a vast interlinear commentary on Justine, the novel that preceded it. Yet in all this we are shown not what it means to be a writer but how Durrell feels about the life he has chosen. He is as excited now as he was in The Black Book about the sheer idea of being a writer, and draws pictures of his writing self on all the walls of his fictional world.

How was India?” a girl writes in Monsieur. “Starving and God-drunk and tattered with dry excrement?” She has dim memories of India as she writes this, but she is really creating the country she wants to see, and in Durrell she would speak the same way about it even if she had returned from India only yesterday. One can almost see a Calcutta Quintet opening with the words “Starving and God-drunk and tattered with dry excrement.” Durrell writes romances, as George Fraser has suggested, but literary romances rather than philosophical ones. Like Anthony Hope, Durrell has devised a Ruritania, only it is a Ruritania of novelists and poets. His adventure stories all invoke writing as their principal adventure, and his odd critical reputation, inflated in some places and too slender in others, arises from our tendency to confuse allusions to great literature with great literature itself, and then to get annoyed at our own confusions. It is as if we were to take the play-politics of The Prisoner of Zenda, say, for the real politics of Nostromo. Once we have sorted out the tangle, there is no reason for us to be hard on The Prisoner of Zenda.

Certainly Durrell himself, in Monsieur at least, is movingly aware of the loneliness that waits at the end of a life lived so thoroughly in the excited mind. His novelist, Blanford, goes out to dinner with an old friend in Venice, and talks with her the whole evening about his new book, about its success and failure in re-creating the life and death of her husband, who committed suicide. Not only is Durrell inventing Blanford and his book, and his friend and her husband and his suicide, but Blanford is himself a portrait of the echoing isolation in which such inventions start and finish. There is no one else in the restaurant in Venice. His friend died some years ago. The novelist, now and forever, nunc et semper, is talking to himself.

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