Lawrence Durrell Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 6)

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Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 6)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Durrell, Lawrence 1912–

Durrell, born in India and now living in France, is a British novelist, poet, playwright, critic, translator, and author of travel books. The Alexandria Quartet, a vast portrait of landscape and character, a "feast of exotic poetry, human drama and intellectual pyrotechnics," is still his best known work. Principally an investigation of modern love, the Quartet employs the Einsteinian space-time continuum—three spatial dimensions (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive), one temporal (Clea)—to suggest the potential for endless variation of approach to the same material. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Monsieur] could not be by anyone other than Lawrence Durrell. You track him everywhere in his own snow. Who else would kick off with a night train southbound from Paris, its bluish lights strung out 'like some super-glowworm', the mistral purring outside like a cat, towards a mysterious suicide and an enigmatic madness? Where else should we find such characters as the gipsy Sabine, 'the daughter of Lord Banquo, the Jewish banker of international repute', and Casimir Ava, 'the tragic actor with his pale eunuchoid-velvet complexion and studied poses', a specialist in 'the stagecraft of suicide' with 'deepset burning disabused eyes'? Who else, it must be granted, could interpose such splendid set pieces as the description of a funeral, a petrified forest, a journey on the Nile? And who else would then pad out a legitimately elusive 'story line', not beyond a serious reader's ability to unravel, with strings of insufficiently elusive aphorisms?…

Yet at the heart of this novel there is a sober and (will this be thought a recommendation in a novel?) a solid piece of construction. It may for this reason disappoint Durrell's large body of prior admirers: perhaps, some of us may feel, it is time they were disappointed. Bruce and the siblings, Piers and Sylvie, a 'happy trinity of lovers', are in varying degrees involved in a gnostic secret society. Durrell's account makes good, comprehensible sense: the belief that, in 'a fearful act of duplicity', God has been usurped by 'Monsieur', the Prince of Darkness, and the rational order of the universe overthrown, can adduce much evidence in support of itself…. The gnostics, in this representation of them, can hope for a miraculous reversal—and devote themselves meanwhile to guerrilla-style defiances and ultimately a superior and controlled form of suicide, the great refusal, an affront to Monsieur…. Fanciful as it is in some of its details, at all events Durrell's conspectus is remote from the trendy mishmash of 'oriental wisdom' which currently promises 'enhancement' (whether of soul or orgasm) without the need for thought, effort or sacrifice.

Unhappily, the old Adam rears himself thereafter, and with him comes the self-indulgent 'Green Notebook', ostensibly the jottings of the novelist Sutcliffe, a sceptical fellow but not one-tenth as engaging as Pursewarden of the Alexandria Quartet (who gets a mention from Sutcliffe as 'the only endurable writer in England at the moment'). Worse, and finally, there arrives on the scene another novelist, the third (or is it fourth?) in the book, creator of Sutcliffe et (it would seem) cetera, who has just completed a novel called Le Monsieur—a 'new and rather undisciplined departure from the ordinary product', he (Blanford by name) tells us. Far from subtilising, all this embroidery merely trivialises.

Blanford the novelist reflects, apropos of his new novel, that 'by a singular paradox (perhaps inherent in all writing?) the passages that he knew would be regarded as over-theatrical or unreal ("people don't behave like that") would be the truth, and the rest which rang somehow true, the purest fabrication.' Possibly Durrell the novelist is cutting the ground from under his critics' feet. He certainly succeeded in making this admiring reader of Monsieur feel distinctly silly.

D. J. Enright, "Great Slow Verbs," in The Listener

(The entire section is 3,485 words.)