The Avignon Quintet

by Lawrence Durrell

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 508

The Avignon Quintet is a vast, multidimensional novel of five parts. Durrell calls the arrangement a quincunx, which is an arrangement of five objects with four located at the corners of a square and the fifth at the center (the pattern for the fives in a deck of cards). A person, with four limbs and the kundalini, corresponds to this arrangement. The kundalini is coiled energy lying at the base of the spine.

In The Avignon Quintet, Durrell is attempting, by means of the novel form, to construct a cosmology for the modern age. The story is set in Avignon, the seat of the Roman Catholic popes from 1309 to 1377. The novel’s focus, though, is not on organized religion but on its antithesis: heresy. Several of the major characters belong to a heretical gnostic cult based in Egypt and led by a wealthy Egyptian, Akkad. This wealthy cult preaches that the world is corrupt, because it is composed of evil matter that is alien to the human spirit and the true God. This world cannot be attributed to a God that is good; instead, it is the creation of a demiurge. Durrell calls him Monsieur or the Prince of Darkness: “The Prince of Usury, the spirit of gain, the enigmatic power of capital value embodied in the poetry of gold, or specie, or scrip.”

Some extreme gnostics believe that there is a way out of the corrupt world; they can refuse to accept its terms by committing suicide. In Akkad’s cult, the member who is to die is chosen randomly and the deed is done by someone else. The Avignon Quintet begins with such an execution. Bruce Drexel is arriving in Avignon to attend the funeral of his best friend, lover, and brother-in-law, Piers de Nogaret. Bruce tries to make sense of Piers’s death by recalling their visit to Egypt, during which they viewed one of Akkad’s gnostic rituals. Piers had embraced the cult’s beliefs and become a convert.

In the meantime, other characters and situations are introduced. Names and details blend into one another so that it becomes hard to distinguish them. The initial trio of characters has much in common with the next trio, Hilary, Livia, and Constance, who appear in Livia. In addition, characters who are first presented as real later turn out to be imaginary. The novelist Rob Sutcliffe, who has apparently married Bruce’s sister Pia, is not real at all; he is a fabrication of another novelist, Aubrey Blanford. Both men, of course, are fabrications of yet a third novelist, Lawrence Durrell.

Durrell, master trickster, has a serious purpose at hand. Through his spokesmen—Akkad and his clone, Affad—Durrell articulates a dark view of life, that “death sets in with conception.” Yet, if one accepts the reality of human life—that one must die—then one can improvise a new mode of existence that breaks the deadening bonds of conventionality. As Akkad explains, one can become “truthful in a way that you never thought you could be.”

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