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4.0 out of 5 stars A scribbler's life, 19 Dec. 2013
This review is from: The Avignon Quintet: Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastian and Quinx (Paperback)
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...
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