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.

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.