Thus, the opening words of this epic exploration of identity. I was to spend some time living near Avignon and wanted some fiction to read whilst there that would tie me close to the city. My search on Amazon threw up Durrell's Avignon Quintet. I had not read any of his work before; I knew very little about him; I knew nothing about the five books that make up the quintet. I was so glad I bought it! As a taster, here are examples of the books wisdom: -
"Happiness, which is only the sense of wonder suddenly revived, ..." / "All ideals are attainable - that is what makes them worth having." / "While events are being lived, they travel too fast for easy evaluation." / "Too much freedom gives you vertigo." / "I had begun to participate in the inevitable. I knew then what bliss was." / "If foreigners did not exist, the English would not know who to patronise." / "To be instructively wounded is the most one can ask of love." /
Man "could not face the freedom offered by choice, whence history." And "History triumphantly describes the victory of divine entropy over the aspirations of the majority." / "Man is born free, free as a nightmare." / "This is the way my world ends, not with a bang but a Werther." / "Good writing should pullulate with ambiguities." / "Civilisation is a placebo with side-effects."
Avignon serves as a main receptacle for this exploration, but there are significant detours to other theatres: Alexandria, Cairo, Venice, Vienna, Berlin, Geneva, Paris, London, Oxford, even Bournemouth. It is largely (though not exclusively) set in the difficult years of the middle of the twentieth century. In a note to the third volume, Durrell states that, whilst not a work of history, this episode "has a high degree of impressionistic accuracy as a portrait of the French Midi during the late war [1939-45]."
The quintet's cleverness is as much down to form as to content. These are books within books within books. Durrell, as early as the second of the five, explores through his characters the structure of his literary conception. "Written in a highly elliptical quincunxial style invented for the occasion," the five books would be (says the author Blanford to his alter ego Robin Sutcliffe) echoes of each other: "they would not be laid end to end in serial order, like dominoes - but simply belong to the same blood group." The first "would provide simply a cluster of themes to be reworked in the others. Get busy, Robin!" Sutcliffe much later contemplates "the whole book arranged in diminished fifths from the point of view of orchestration. A big switchy book, all points and sidings."
But if the character of Blanford/Sutcliffe is really Durrell in matching and opposing personas, the author can at least come clean through his characters: "My style may be described as one of jump-cutting as with cinema film ... The old stable outlines of the dear old linear novel have been side-stepped in favour of soft-focus palimpsest which enables the actors to turn into each other ..." How much of the book is overtly autobiographical would require perhaps a lifetime to truly discover. But Durrell has the author Blanford write of himself, "I have no biography; a true artist, I go through life like a character in one of my own books."
It opens with a ménage-a-trois involving Piers, his sister, and her English husband, with the latter (not the sister) at its heart. At the end of reading the first chapter, I was so marvellously effected as to be unsure of myself and my presence in space/time. I read the following chapters voraciously, feeling myself being conveyed deeply into a world of Gnostic mysticism that played with my abject curiosity in the same way that Umberto Eco's novel `Foucault's Pendulum' had done many years ago. Much of the book revolves around an Egyptian prince Akkad, and like Piers's doubts about Akkad's Gnostic teachings, I had to wonder at the story I was being told: "Could it all have been a fake?" What was this book about? Was it really a murder-mystery? I soon learned that it was not: it is an exploration of identity.
For the book is replete with doubles - even triples, or more. Blanford is Bloshford is Sutcliffe is Sam; Pia is Livia is Constance; Piers is Hilary is Bruno; Sylvia is Livia is Sylvaine is Quatrefages; Lord Galen is von Esslin is Banquo. A taste of how this is cleverly developed is to find that in the third chapter the lines of the quintet's opening sentence that are quoted at the head of this review are repeated, but are now in speech marks and in the third person. This is intriguing, and one soon has a curious feeling that the narrator is not who he says he is, or rather not who he appears to be. There are deliberate slips of the pen. I might have used Blanford's description of wartime Paris as a suitable account for the quintet: "Reality, fine as a skin on milk, was called into question the whole time by this disturbance of focus ..."
The intrigue, the mystery, the interweaving of stories and relationships between the main characters is magnificently handled and await their denouement in the first book's final chapter. But what we have instead is a confusing and rambling and incoherent bumbling until the final few paragraphs shed a slither of fantastical new light, and pave the way for book two. And then, out of the blue - in this clever, multi-dimensional, rambling novel of ambiguous identities - a stray sentence, a twist of a line appears, and the hairs suddenly rise on the back of the neck. At moments like these - such as the sudden realisation that Quatrefages is seeking the Templars' treasure on behalf of Lord Galen -my praise for the work knows no bounds. Not since I read Dostoevsky's `Crime and Punishment' has a work of fiction so astounded me in this way. The superlative passages are more numerous when read with a glass of wine: Cotes du Rhone, of course.
After some detours of continental proportions, there is towards the end of the 1,300 plus pages a return to the consideration of the ménage-a-trois that opened the epic quintet. Blanford had tried "to forge a novel round the notion of this triune love. Alas, it had not come off. The idea ... would, in the reality also, fail." References to Shakespeare's sonnets are obvious, and Sutcliffe remarks that, "the situation outlined in them would have made perhaps his finest play."
As well as deep truths peppered in the text, there is much tosh too; poems and streams of consciousness, puns and senseless aphorisms (sic). But one can forgive Durrell his occasional Bacchanalian lapses of taste. Partly this is due to the greatness of his literary conception but also because his almost esoteric philosophy at heart has a sound basis: the exploration of identity has a meaning, for Blanford declares at the end that, "the book, my book, proved to be a guide to the human heart, whose basic method is to loiter with intent ... until the illumination dawns!"
I hold The Alexandria Quartet to be perhaps the greatest novel in English literature. The less well known Avignon Quintet, I guessed, was never likely quite to measure up; unfortunately this expectation proved right.
Of course the Quintet is, in many parts, a beautiful book, or collection of books. Durrell takes the reader to Egypt again, and his depiction of the south of France, where he lived, makes for a vivid and appealing painting of a country: Provence, that has now changed beyond recognition. His speculations on the gnostics and the cat-and-mouse game around the templars' mystery are interesting and had the potential to guide the kind of multi-layered story developed in `Alexandria'.
But the five-tome piece has none of the sober coherence of Durrell's earlier work. The novellas, and too often the characters, are related by a writer's trick, not through the plot itself. They are also marred, in `Livia', by an attempt at a historical rendering that falls flat by purposely ignoring chronology. And Durrell rambles; of course he is witty and brilliant, but no one can always be brilliant over asides that take perhaps half of this 1,300 page block.
The Quintet remains readable and in many parts absorbing, but it is for true devotees of the author. I wonder if Durrell was tainted by the French `nouvelle vague', which seems to have influenced the book's construction and characterisation, or whether he was simply aiming too high in trying to exceed his own, unmatchable masterpiece.
on 19 December 2013
In Egypt, in Alexandria to be precise, if precision be our goal, Lawrence Durrell once attempted to fuse fiction into a relativistic universe that, poorly interpreted, might blur perception to render all positions relevant. The aim was vast and its non-achievement eventually irrelevant, for the quartet that grew out of it proved to be an enduring masterpiece. Half a generation later, and self-referentially, Lawrence Durrell began a quest to go one better. Over the decade it took to construct, this magnum opus grew into a Quincunx, five books that formed a whole, five petals of a great flower of a novel, all attached, apparently, to a non-existent core. So now, thirty years on, what does a new visit to Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastian and Quinx reveal?
Perhaps Blanford should be offered the opportunity to open the discussion. Who is Blanford? Now there's a question. "My style may be described as one of jump-cutting as with cinema film. The basic illustration is of course the admission that reincarnation is a fact. The old stable outlines of the dear old linear novel have been side-stepped in favour of soft focus palimpsest which enables the actors to turn into each other, to melt into each other's inner lifespace if they wish. Everything and everyone comes closer and closer together, moving towards the one. ... But the book, my book, proved to be a guide to the human heart, whose basic method is to loiter with intent..." This is how Blanford himself describes his own work, for he, we are told, is the author.
A word of warning: Lawrence Durrell is as good as Blanford's word. Lawrence Durrell is a wrier, a novelist, who invents Blanford, who is also a novelist. In his novel, Lawrence Durrell has his creation, Blanford, write a novel, in which he invents a character called Stucliffe, who is a novelist, and who writes a book. Characters that Durrell invents, or even perhaps knows, live alongside Blanford, himself a fiction, and are reinvented by Sutcliffe, under different titles but with the same character, in his own fiction, which really is written by Blanford, who is Durrell.
So we have a fiction within a fiction, featuring the same characters, but with different names. They sometimes meet one another and, ego to alter ego, discuss the others and sometimes themselves. Here and there, just to clarify things, the writer also includes thoughts and actions from characters in the Alexandria Quartet, who seem to relish being cameo-quoted in these new surroundings. Don't worry, because they don't exist either.
Blanford's assertion that material will be inter-cut has to be taken seriously. There is barely a page in the five novels of the Quincunx that does not slip from a layer of apparent fact into fiction in order to render it fact and the source fiction. And, of course, the whole thing is nothing more than the musings of Durrell, who perhaps intends to loiter a little longer than he ought.
The five books of the Quincunx, Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastian and Quinx, often approach an approximation of plot. There's Tu Duc near Avignon in France, an old house near the city of Popes. It has its own memories, almost its own character. But is it real? Of course it isn't! Just ask one of the characters to confirm its fiction. There's a cult of Gnostics in the Egyptian desert who seem to convene like some diplomatic corps whose party has lost its bearings while on its way to an official gathering. There is drug abuse, and a lot of sex. They are human, after all, aren't they?
There is also mental illness and breakdown. There is congenital deformity, illness and death. There is sexuality of every persuasion, visits to bordellos and yearnings for more, something more. There's a Templar treasure to be discovered, a Nazi occupation to endure, labour camps and internment, novels to be written, relationships to perfect. Confused? Why should anyone be confused? What, after all, is there to be confused about? We wake up and, as long as we loiter around long enough, we go to bed and, if we are lucky again with the loitering, we sleep or, if we are a tad luckier, make love. So what?
Lawrence Durrell's Quincunx, the Avignon Quintet, feels very much like an author's commonplace. It's a disjointed and sometimes deliberately obtuse, often intentionally banal set of musings. It's five books that head in no particular direction and go nowhere on their extensive travels, but explore character along the way, without ever really getting near any of the humanity they encounter. They dip into history which is always present, and seek material consequences in ethereal ideas. And, sure enough, it loiters around in its unfocused way for what increasingly seems like a lifetime. And where does it go? Where does it finish? Now there' a question...