Lawrence Durrell’s Lush Metafiction: The Avignon Quintet

I do not much enjoy literary events, but I am such a fan of Lawrence Durrell’s lush prose that I would ecstatically travel back in time to attend his readings (though It seems unlikely that he would give readings).  His gorgeous masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet, is one of my favorite novel sequences (and, by the way, you can read my post on it here.) But this summer I’ve moved on to Durrell’s The Avignon Quintet, a luminous metafictional series.

In Monsieur: The Prince of Darkness, the first novel in the Avignon Quintet (which I wrote about here),  Durrell experiments with point-of-view.  The narrative shifts are radical and there are many twists–madness, incest, suicide, and bisexuality–along the way. At the end we learn that Monsieur is a novel within a novel, and the character Rob Sutcliffe, a novelist, is the fictional alter ego of the character Aubrey Blanford, the real writer of Monsieur–or the alter ego of Durrell, who won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Monsieur in 1974.

I struggled through some of the more overblown episodes in Monsieur, but I very much enjoyed the more straightforward second novel, Livia, or Buried Alive.  Blanford is grieving over the death of his best friend Constance,  the sister of Livia, his dead wife.   A phone call from Rob Sutcliffe comforts him, though at first Blanford skewers the relationship between the writer and his creation.

All process causes pain, and we are part of process. How chimerical the consolations of art against the central horror of death; being sucked down the great sink like an insect, into the cloaca maxima of death, the anus mundi! Sutcliffe, in writing about him, or rather, he writing about himself in the character of Sutcliffe, under the satirical name of Bloshford in the novel Monsieur had said somewhere: “Women to him were simply a commodity. He was not a fool about them; O no! He knew them inside out, or so he thought. That is to say he was worse than a fool.”

Only a writer as lyrical as Durrell could get away with this flamboyant overwriting, but he is not without humor.  Blanford and Sutcliffe have much in common:  their wives were both, absurdly, lesbian sirens who led them a merry chase through Europe (Livia had sex with the female private detective Blanford hired to track her).

But Blanford tries to remind Sutcliffe he is not real.

“You are dead, Robin,” said Blanford. “Remember the end of Monsieur?”
“Bring me back then,” said Sutcliffe on a heroic note, “and we shall see.”

Much of Livia is devoted to Blanford’s  first trip to Avignon on a long vacation from Oxford with friends.  He and  Sam are invited to camp out in Avignon with Hilary, whose sister Constance has inherited a chateau from a mad aunt:  the aunt had let it crumble Miss Havisham-style around her.  (There is a high level of mental illness in The Avignon Quintet.)   Blanford falls in love with beautiful Constance, but  then her seductive sister Livia arrives.  Poor Constance!  Not only does Livia steal Blanford’s affections, but she also fascinates their friend Felix, the consul of Avignon.  One night Blanford and Felix, jealously searching for Livia, visit a brothel where Livia is said to work as a prostitute.  The rumor is not true, or at least she is not there.  Instead, she often dresses in men’s clothes and takes long walks at night, and sometimes has sex with a random gypsy girl. Yes, the decadence gets a little tiring. Why, why, why are these men so fascinated by Livia? The best parts of the novel are Durrell’s long descriptions of Avignon, its ruins, its river, its gypsy quarter, and the history of Templar heresies.

Read The Alexandria Quartet first.  The Avignon Quintet is less interesting, not for everybody.  But if you like metafiction, it’s for you.

Six Series to Lose Yourself in Over the Holidays: Balzac, Durrell, Ferrante, Burgess, Gabaldon, & Le Guin

"Marley's Ghost"

           “Marley’s Ghost”

I do not like Christmas books.

One year at a posh friend’s, we listened to Dickens’s A Christmas Carol on public radio. Luv ya, public radio, but the reader’s enunciation was excessive!  Everybody looked glazed and drank a lot of wine. I don’t drink.  And I have never cared for A Christmas Carol.

So what do I do to escape the holiday madness?  I dive into trilogies, quartets, quintets, long series…and come up for air next spring.

Here are Six Series You Can Lose Yourself in over the Holidays.

1 Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine (The Human Comedy), a series of approximately 90 novels, short stories, and novellas in which Balzac portrays French society during the 19th century period of Restoration and July Monarchy. The plots are racy and the characters memorable.   Several are available from Penguin and Modern Library, and  most are available free in nineteenth-century translations at Project Gutenberg.  Personally, I prefer the newer translations, but Lost Illusions  and Cousin Pons are good in any form.   And here is a link to an excellent Balzac blog.

Lost Illusions Modern Library2 Lawrence Durrell’s The Avignon Quintet.   This year I devoured Durrell’s modernist masterpiece,  The Alexandria Quartet, and Prospero’s Cell, a  travel memoir.  And now I’m reading his odd metafictional  Avignot Quintet, consisting of Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastion, and Quinx.   This labyrinthine series questions the nature of reality and love, authors and their characters. Not until the end of the first novel,  Monsieur,  do we discover the characters are characters in a novel written by  the bitter character Blanford.  And then in the next books Blanford weaves together his stories with those of his  fictional characters.  He even has telephone conversations with Rob Sutcliffe, the novelist in his own novel.  Intriguing but weird.

durrell avignon quintet 51GoOSphbOL._AC_UL320_SR204,320_3 Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series: My Brilliant Friend,The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child.   These pop literary pageturners are about two difficult women who are friends from childhood to old ag,.  They are entertaining, beautifully-written, and  I swear  as popular as Gone with the Wind.   I have read the first two, and they are very good indeed, though, honestly?   The hype about them is too much.

ferrante neapolitan series quartet lctpnk325gzcumijtsdc4 Anthony Burgess’s The Complete EnderbyInside Mr. Enderby, Enderby Outside, The Clockwork Testament, and Enderby’s End.  The hero, Enderby,  is a Kingsley Amis-ish character who writes poetry while sitting on the toilet, farts a lot, and is shocked to receive a literary award.  Winning the award is his downfall, though he is up and down throughout the books.  Inside Enderby  is hilarious, but there are actually some startling serious bits that I didn’t remember.   An excellent reread of the first book, and hope to get to the others.

the complete enderby anthony burgess 51Y8C7CHQNL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_5 Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  I hope to lose myself in this popular series of time travel romances someday, because friends love them and assure me that they are entertaining and erotic.  There is also an Outlander coloring book, DVDS of the Outlander TV series (which I’ve heard is good), and totebags.  Do you think Outlander is Game of Thrones for women?

outlander gabaldon 1322638297Outlandertpb3wide

6 Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu, Tales from Earthsea, The Other WindNow that I’ve read David Mitchell’s the introduction to the new Folio Society edition of A Wizard of Earthsea in The Guardian, I would like to go back and reread the series.  Plus there were only  four books when I read it:  it has grown!

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Off to read one of my series books!

After Burnout: Lawrence Durrell’s Monsieur

All That You've Seen Here Is God Bryan Doerries 9780307949738On Sunday night I wrote about Bryan Doerries’s All That You’ve Seen Here Is God:  New Versions of Sophocles and Aeschylus.

Readership of that post was sparse. Disappointing, because my background is in classics.

And so I had “book blog” burnout. Fortunately, I am inspired again by Lawrence Durrell, that underrated writer of gorgeous modernist fiction.

Durrell MonsieurLawrence Durrell’s Monsieur, the first volume in the Avignon Quintet, is a stunning metafictional novel.  Like Durrell’s masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet, it plays with linked narratives from multiple points of view.  Durrell’s labyrinthine prose reflects the tortuous relationships between the eccentric, fiercely individualistic characters.  What is real?  What is invented by the novelist?

We do not care what is real, because the writing is luminous.

The relationships are complicated, as always in Durrell.  Durrell knows that the novelist is a trickster:  there are twists and surprises.  Who is the narrator?  It seems to be Bruce Drexel,  a doctor who has traveled on a train from Paris to Provence where his best friend committed suicide.  Bruce remembers his arrival at  dawn, and discovers “the Bruce that I was, and the Bruce I become as I jot down these words…”

Bruce explains:

The telegram which had summoned me southward from Prague was suitably laconic.  It told me of the suicide of my oldest and best friend, Piers de Nogaret; more than friend indeed, for his sister Sylvie was my wife, though the telegram was signed not by her but by the family notary.

And then Durrell switches to the third person, and we see Bruce from a novelist’s point of view.  In the next sentence he switches back to the first person.

He must be trying to objectify his thoughts and emotions by treating them as one would in a novel, but it didn’t really work.  As a matter of fact, in Rob Sutcliffe’s famous novel about us all, things began in exactly this way.

Who is the narrator?

Bruce reveals that their lives have been disturbingly described in their friend Rob Sutcliffe’s bitter novel about their strange relationships.  And, yes, Durrell includes many excerpts from Sutcliffe’s diaries and his novel. Who is the narrator? we ask again.

durrell avignon quintet 51GoOSphbOL._AC_UL320_SR204,320_The five main characters are wildly unconventional.  Piers was Bruce’s lover; Bruce’s mad wife, Sylvie, was Piers’s sister, and is now in an asylum.  Poor Sylvie was the last one to see Piers alive.  And Rob, the eerily far-seeing novelist, has been married unhappily to Bruce’s lesbian sister.  Then there’s Toby, a historian obsessed with the Templar Knights.

Durrell meanders, but his style is elegant and poetic.  We read him for style.  This novel is fascinating.  The five characters, especially Piers, are involved with a cult of Gnostcism. There are beautiful descriptions of their trip to the desert in Egypt, where they are introduced to the rituals by Akkad, a trickster who compels them to question everything.

The historian Toby’s research into the medieval Knight Templars circles back to Gnosticism, a subject Durrell also treated in Balthazar, the second novel in The Alexandria Quartet.

And in the final section we spend time with another novelist, Blanford, and everything we know is thrown into question.

Loved it, loved it, loved it!  I am all about The Avignon Quintet now.  Monsieur is possibly even better than Justine, the first novel in The Alexandria Quartet.

Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet

 The telephone is a modern symbol for communications which never take place.”–Balthazar by Lawrence Durrell

These are first editions.  I wish I had these...

I wish I had these first editions.

Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet is not for everybody.  In his gorgeously-written, percipient tetralogy, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, the prose is moody and lush.  The narrative is psychologically-oriented and fragmented. Over the course of the quartet, Durrell’s narrator, Darley, reiterates and augments a series of events in the lives of his lover Justine and a group of friends in Alexandria, Egypt.  Other characters, particularly Balthazar and Clea (Mountolive is the hero of the prequel), contribute their viewpoints, so that a clearer picture is revealed.  Published from 1957 to 1960, these books are elegant but occasionally too flowery.   In the ’50s, Durrell’s poeticism flourished.

I first read The Alexandria Quartet in my student days in Bloomington, during a typically humid, hot Midwestern summer, with oversized verdant plants climbing and blowsy flowers blooming. I spent most of my time sweatily reading in the back yard.  And I fell in love with the lyrical voice of Durrell/Darley, the schoolteacher-novelist narrator who falls in love with  Justine, the exotic, promiscuous, mysterious woman no man can apparently resist:  she is a kind of Cleopatra.

Before Darley met Justine, he was involved with Melissa, a frail, hashish-smoking exotic dancer. Darley, Melissa, Justine, and her husband Nessim develop a complicated relationship afterwards.

I have had many such glimpses of Justine at different times, and of course I knew her well by sight long before we met:  our city does not permit anonymity to any with incomes of over two hundred pounds a year.  I see her sitting alone by the sea, reading a newspaper and eating an apple; or in the vestibule of the Cecil Hotel, among the dusty palms, dressed in a sheath of silver drops, holding her magnificent fur at her back as a peasant holds his coat–her long forefinger hooked through the tag.

When I am in a certain mood, I can read this kind of prose forever.  And so here I am, many years later, rereading Durrell.  I recently treated myself to a used Folio Society set.  (Yes, I know!  What am I thinking?)  They were replacements for paperbacks falling apart.

Justine folio society 22073In the Folio Society edition of Justine, there is a brilliant introduction to the quartet by Peter Porter, which has enhanced my enjoyment of the books.

He writes,

The shape of the Quartet suggests a musical analogy–that of the Theme and Variations.  Justine introduces not one theme but a plethora of them as the lovelorn but unconfident Darley, seemingly a displaced person in the turbulent city, meets one after another of the people who are to be the actors in his story.  Justine binds them all together…  Perhaps she is Durrell’s version of Virgil, seconded to guide Dante through the Inferno.

I have finished Justine and am halfway through Balthazar, which clarifies many of the mysteries of the first book (or at least seems to).  Balthazar, a homosexual doctor who is a close friend of both Justine and Darley, has read Darley’s manuscript about Justine.  He returns the manuscript” crosshatched” with his own observations, and it changes the text of Justine for Darley and for us.  He learns that Justine had not been in love with him:  she was in love with the novelist Pursewarden, and used Darley so her husband would not be too jealous.  (Poor Darley!)

There are frequent references to Cavafy, who wrote of Alexandria: “There’s no new land, my friend, no / New sea; for the city will follow you, / In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly …”

The four-volume novel is all ambience, I promise you, though there is some plot. I did love this more when I was young, but perhaps I was more susceptible to lyricism then.  When we are young we all have our “Alexandria,” and that mine was the academic but gorgeous Bloomington sounds ridiculous, but, as far as it goes, it is true!  And so I loved The Alexandria Quartet.

And here is a picture of the paperback set I had then.

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