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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 (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of D. J. Enright), October 17, 1974, p. 513.
Monsieur [is] a novel that absolutely smoulders with beauty and sensual stratagems, and becomes at the end a fictional card trick with a partial explanation…. Durrell's obsession with form (he spoke intelligently about this in his Paris Review interview) defeats the remarkable substance of his characterisation. He does not seem to know how deeply he is able to persuade a reader, and so he cuts down Monsieur, with an impatient show of candour, to leave it as an example of baffling brilliance….
The end … is neither convincing nor satisfying, but even this clumsiness does not completely undo the magic of the earlier part. Unlike anyone else writing today, Durrell has chosen for his subject passion on a grand scale; he succeeds, and his achievement has been in portraying this emotion with a fictional exactitude indistinguishable from truth. The failure of form aside, that portrait of love is a recommendation for this novel. (p. 545)
Paul Theroux, "Hypotenused," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 18, 1974, p. 544-45.
Here's Lawrence Durrell [in "Monsieur"] in racing trim again, crouched behind the wheel of the Grand Prix car he built himself, driving flat-out through a familiar landscape; self-parody be damned. The route is spectacular: through antique Avignon and ancient Alexandria, a moldering chateau and a desert oasis sheltering a gnostic cult whose devotees are queer for death. It's a dangerous route, too: madness, suicide, incest, the dreaded novel-within-a-novel—hazards that would overturn a lesser racer. But Durrell speeds by with ease. His fiction is a filigree of style and feeling, rococo and I think decadent—if by decadence we mean not something sinister but the primacy of style over content….
As in "The Alexandria Quartet," the point of observation proves as elusive as what is observed. There are several shifts of narrative (to be fair I must not be precise) as Durrell peers at his characters through an ever-extending telescope. (p. 67)
There is a hint of a sequel to follow, which may be just as well, for the characters in "Monsieur" now lack the complexity, the deceptiveness of those in the Alexandria series. As with Durrell's earlier novels, it is not the bizarre plot that remains in the mind, but the set pieces—the rides across the desert, the boat trip up the Nile—and the soaring flights of description: of cities, scents and the Provençal countryside, its artifacts, customs and ceremonies. With his sensuous, arcane vocabulary Durrell creates an almost palpable landscape in which past and present are clearly distinguished, but which is oddly removed from time. To read any of Durrell's mature novels is like eating a bowl of Devonshire cream—a delicious form of entertainment. I found this one, for nearly its entire course, exhilarating. (p. 67A)
Peter S. Prescott, "Prince of Darkness," in Newsweek (copyright 1975 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), January 13, 1975, pp. 67-67A.
Tastes differ. My own, when it comes to Lawrence Durrell, tends to get austere. The Alexandria Quartet … seemed to me like three too many desserts…. [Monsieur] … features an Egyptian death-worship cult, the ever so exotic travails of a sister/brother/sister's-husband ménage à trois (who are also characters in a novel within the novel), pretty pictures of Avignon, Vienna, and Egypt, frequent time shifts, and an endless flow of quasi-philosophic, epigrammatic chatter which Durrell apparently thinks bears resemblance to human thought and discourse. There are those who go for this sort of writing; its inarticulateness is catching. An admiring British critic is quoted on the jacket: "To describe the content would be like bottling a cloud of incense for analysis." Or gas. (p. 54)
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "A Very Little Fanfare," in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Eliot Fremont-Smith), January 27, 1975, pp. 54-5.
Lawrence Durrell has always made better sound than sense, but his cadenzas are so splendidly overripe (the effect being that of Berlioz played by an orchestra of gondoliers) that his novels have not suffered in the least. They are clever, evocative, atmospheric and essentially unserious.
Monsieur is no exception. The author of the lush and intricate Alexandria Quartet here invents a novelist named Blanford, who invents a novelist named Sutcliffe, who caricatures Blanford mercilessly as "Bloshford," a bestselling hack. The book is one of those box-within-box amusements: Sutcliffe, as a character in a novel by Blanford, cracks up in the process of writing a novel in which he misinterprets the situations of some of his friends, other Blanford characters. These convolutions lead to the expectable mild ironies of viewpoint, but the plot is too sketchily developed to constitute the novel's reason for being. It seems rather to be a private joke at which Durrell, smiling at his own writerish tics, then smiles at himself smiling at himself. (p. K3)
[There] is far too much material here for a conventional novel. Durrell's book could be seen as a sheaf of sketches and diagrams for another quartet of novels, and the objection could be made that in its present form nothing really is carried through to completion. But as always, the real subject of Durrell's writing is the flow of astonishing sense impressions left by his elegant words. The book is light, intelligent and agreeable; it simply lacks the density to be important, and so much the worse for density. (p. 85)
John Skow, "Infernal Triangle," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), January 27, 1975, pp. K3, 85.
People unaccustomed to abstract thought are likely to collect platitudes as children collect withered dandelions and to present them for your admiration with the same shining-eyed wonder, especially if they have become accustomed to assuming that life is as neatly formulaic in its ideas as in its physics, and that there are philosophic equivalents of E=mc2. "It is late," writes one of Lawrence Durrell's narrators in "Monsieur," "and the strong Marc we drank after dinner has set me thinking furiously. The sharp differentiation of the sexes in our culture was shaped most probably by monogamy and monosexuality and their taboos." Another narrator, earlier on, hands us a slightly fresher bouquet: "I saw quite unmistakably that man had set astray the natural periodicity of sexuality and so forfeited his partnership with the animal kingdom. This was his central trauma…."
The novel's structures are equally wilted. There's a mystery story, set principally in Avignon, narrated by a dull Dr. Watson type who reports clues without understanding them. (This doctor is so dull he assumes that death masks require decapitation and that the decapitated head would not be buried with the body.) There's the old pop-theology plot in which a strange and sophisticated mystic arbitrarily singles out a group of dull foreigners and initiates them into weird ceremonies at which the unprotesting congregation is subjected to kindergarten banalities. (It's as if a Chinese were smuggled into St. Peter's to hear the Pope explaining that "we call ourselves Christians, and we believe in one God in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.") And there are novels being written within the novel. (See, preferably, Gide's "The Counterfeiters.")
The writing seems hastily improvised. In one scene the characters dine, finish off with cognac, and then sit down to dine all over again; in another, they head toward a ferry … no, a Ford … no, it's a ferry. A character about to retire had retired almost a year ago. Running next to a lake, the doctor can see his reflection in it. Another character snores through her mouth, and a third lies "spread-eagled on the sofa with his face in his arms"; yet another "would stand against the wall and cry into the wallpaper, throwing behind her arm over those poor eyes." The writing often gives this odd impression of being translated badly. We hear of a "female stag" and "a magnificent marble fountain of filigreed workmanship." Someone's talk is "literally drowned in meaning," and about cabdrivers we are told that "soon they would be sauntered away into the town sleeping."
The "Monsieur" of the title is the devil; those interested in that subject should read Robertson Davies's fine novel "Fifth Business." As for "Monsieur," it is regrettable that Durrell's advisers should have allowed him to publish it in its present formlessness. (p. 4)
J. D. O'Hara, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 2, 1975.
Once it is said … that Monsieur is an intricate and lovely book, it must also be noted that even its deepest effects are somehow ephemeral. Although it is, among other things, a "novel of ideas," these ideas do not especially strike or stick in the mind. Too, there are some serious problems with the central human relationship in the novel—a repellent ménage à trois combining adultery, incest, and homosexuality, which is regarded by the narrator as if it were, before anything else, a romantically mysterious and pretty, if somewhat extraordinary, love idyll. Perhaps because of the emphasis on surface and tone over substance, the "happy trinity of lovers" does not seem, finally, something credible, solid, or compelling. Altogether, reading Monsieur is rather like watching a visually enchanting movie; there is no gainsaying the delight of the experience, but, by the same token, one might very easily be left, once the lights go up, wondering about the substantiality of what has gone before. (p. 29)
Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), February 8, 1975.
Lawrence Durrell is a born storyteller and a clumsy stylist. His gifts and his shortcomings are both on display in Monsieur, a gothic thriller packed with the bizarre incidents, enacted in exotic settings that readers expect from the author of Alexandria Quartet….
As plots go, this one is no more farfetched than the events related in a masterpiece such as, say, Balzac's Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans (called Harlot High and Low in the paperback edition). I make the comparison deliberately, since both writers exhibit the same urge to dramatize conflicts in the most extreme terms, the same willingness to run the risk of seeming ludicrous. Moreover, Durrell has some of Balzac's power to invoke believable characters—not that we ever believe the characters invented by either writer could inhabit our improvised, provisional world, though we do sense they are vibrantly alive in their own glamorous fictive spheres.
If I mention the relationship of a writer to his characters, I do so because Durrell wants us to consider this relationship. Monsieur is not only about a three-sided love affair and gnosticism. It also deals with the writer's job of disguising life as fiction, of firming shapeless experience into shapely art….
At his best Durrell is an old-fashioned realist who can create suspense and lend authenticity to his colorful stories. But he has also always been attracted to nifty devices. In Alexandria Quartet the device of successive points of view, each correcting the preceding one, intensified the realism; we saw the characters in the round and from odd angles. The device of successive "authors" in Monsieur, which sounds so similar, is fatally different. For in Monsieur we witness the dematerialization of the fabric Durrell has so painstakingly spun. We watch the cast vanish before our very eyes.
And when they vanish our attention returns to the style, and no one could be happy with it. The prose is all paste jewelry….
Durrell's jejeune pursuit of ideas led him to adopt an uncongenial narrative strategy. Nevertheless, his big, careless talent still manages to toss off many scenes that burn with adolescent ardor.
Edmund White, "Lawrence Durrell: A Gnostic Acrostic," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), February 16, 1975, p. 3.
While the rest of British fiction has been marching steadily backward into a sober 19th century realism, Lawrence Durrell has doggedly refused to budge from his experimental, post-Proustian niche. He is endeavoring to resuscitate a dead tradition, the avant-garde movement of Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence and others, a tradition closer to us than the world of George Eliot, which is undoubtedly one reason why Durrell is a more successful steward of his tradition than Angus Wilson and Anthony Powell are of their dogged, anemic social commentaries.
The crushing supremacy of the new realism, however, seems to have retarded Durrell's reputation until the appearance in 1957–60 of the popular and critical blockbuster, The Alexandria Quartet. The general reader responded to its exoticism and melodrama, the critic to its bravura prose style and elaborate structure. Durrell was acclaimed a new Major Novelist at once. He followed with several works—e.g., Nunquam, Tunc—that unmistakably failed to confirm his new status, being little more than divertissement.
Durrell's latest novel, Monsieur, can perhaps be seen as an effort to regain his footing in the world of letters by returning to the serious, thematically weighty stance of Quartet…. The search for love is again a prominent theme, as are such Durrellian preoccupations as the multiplicity of truth, the salutary effects of Lawrentian primitivism and the nature of the artistic process….
The brilliance that Durrell flickeringly displays in Monsieur makes its deficiencies all the more regrettable. Admittedly this is a decadent sensibility, forever crying for madder music and stronger wine, owing as much to Norman Douglas and Aldous Huxley as it does to Proust and Joyce. Still, he is an intriguing and erudite decadent; his gargoyle-like characters are distorted in fascinating poses and expressions and the baroque passageways of his plotting take many an ingenious turn.
Robert F. Moss, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 22, 1975, pp. 30-1.
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….
The Alexandria Quartet works [by offering] 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. (p. 17)
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….
Durrell writes romances, as George Fraser has suggested [see CLC-4], 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. (p. 18)
Michael Wood, "Play It Again, Sam," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), March 6, 1975, pp. 17-8.