Why did I read the 1300 pages of Durrell’s “Avignon Quintet” (almost)?

Now that I’ve read most of the 1300 pages of Durrell’s Avignon Quintet, the first question most will ask is “Why?” One answer is that I am a grumpy, aging, cis-het male of letters and loved the Alexandria Quartet when I read it at age 17 and then again when I reread it 20 years later. This kind of thing is my dirty secret, my trash reading, the way pulp fiction used to be for serious-minded people.

But also: if there are good things in a book I am willing to ignore the bad things. (I call this “cleaning the fish”). And if a work of fiction is about something, I will be less critical of its flaws.  (I first noticed this with Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which Sinclair himself knew was a terrible book but which had about 40 interesting pages, and which also sheds light on the life of Leon Czolgosz.  Another time it was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, which was less artful than the later books but also spilled the beans about Fitzgerald and his ilk).

The Avignon Quintet is very literary  (or post-literary): post-preRaphaelite, post-Parnassian, post-Decadent, post-Bloomsbury, post-Aldous Huxley, post-D. H. Lawrence, post-Henry Miller, post-Pound, post-Eliot, and above all, post-Joyce. It is very nearly post-Writing. (It was not, unfortunately, post-Freud). Durrell seems to have lost his faith that Writing could ever have the power that those earlier writers believed it had – but he still Wrote. (Almost all of Durrell’s books include a version of his younger self as a clueless, earnest, overserious young author, and the Avignon books also portray his older self, the actual self writing the book, as not one but two depressed, cynical men who doubt the value of what they are doing, make dozens of horribly unfunny jokes, and seem to be drunk most of the time. There is lots of sententious world-civilizational thumbsuckery and sexological mysticism, plus lame banter, all wrapped up in a clumsy, sub-Calvino postmodern package. I would get rid of almost all of that and cut the set to a mere 700 pages.

These books call into question the idea that sexual repression was ever the main problem. Durrell’s characters are active and versatile, but they still have the earnest  Victorian need to justify and explain everything in terms of some higher purpose, and they all fear that their sexual activity is invalid, since it doesn’t work as they were promised it would. (D H Lawrence, Henry Miller, Bertrand Russell were respectively the street preacher, the PR man, and public health nurse of Phase I sexological mysticism — Freud was the St Augustine even though he came first. Its last dying twitches are here in the late Durrell).

Durrell is best on time, place, and situation, and that’s what you read him for: here, privileged over-educated, directionless Brits in the South of France and Egypt before, during, and after WWII. His plot, which involving a 20th c. Gnostic coven and the search for the Templars’ hoard, is ktschy but fun. I don’t find his main characters very interesting, even though they’re terribly complicated, but some of the secondary ones are (e.g. Smirgel, the Nazi double agent), and anyway, British one-dimensionality is one of Durrell’s themes.

Durrell (like most of his characters) was anti-political in a vaguely right-wing way.  He believed (rather like Hemingway) that the intimate, the personal and directly experience are the only things of real value, and that the public, the official, and the political are mostly harmful and fake. But both in his quartet and in his quintet the plot is driven by international and ideological politics, both of which he hated as a writer but knew a lot about as a low-level diplomat, and that’s one reason why he became a Gnostic of sorts. The Evil One rules this world.

P.S. Durrell was a sexist, homophobe, anti-semite, and racist who beat his wife. After I gave myself permission to read Celine or Hamsun the floodgates were open.

 

 

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Published in: on June 21, 2017 at 7:50 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Grateful to you for spelling this out. It helps me understand why I was never able to finish reading Lawrence Durrell whenever I tried. And now — thanks to you — I know what I might have got out of it if I’d managed. You’ve done us a service, for which we thank you!

  2. You are so awesome. I love this explanation.

  3. I too read and enjoyed the Alexandria Quartet as a teenager. I tried reading the later novels as they came out but gave up after a while. My main recollection of them is the atrociously poor standard of the proofreading in the Faber editions.


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