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.