Naming of Parts
- Quinx or The Ripper’s Tale by Lawrence Durrell
Faber, 201 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 571 13444 0
- Helliconia Winter by Brian Aldiss
Cape, 285 pp, £8.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 224 01847 7
- Black Robe by Brian Moore
Cape, 256 pp, £8.95, May 1985, ISBN 0 224 02329 2
We name things in order to have power over them; but we must also name them to cower before them in worship. Novelists in particular are aware of the paradoxical magic of naming. To the narrative theorist, stories are made up of simple structural units, like biological cells endlessly replicating: but the novelist, who takes possession of the story by giving names to its narrative agents and formulae, is like Glendower conjuring spirits from the vasty deep but not knowing if they will come at his call. The novel is distinguished from the ancient sagas and epics by the freshness of its specification and nomination, which stamps the author’s signature (but not, in the everyday sense, his ‘personality’) on the narrative. Not only are the names in a novel its recognised trademarks, but each kind of novel embodies a different habit of nomenclature. And where names are bestowed, they may also be artfully concealed or withheld. The greatest of all novels begins with a hero of disputed name in a small village of La Mancha which the author refuses to name.
Lawrence Durrell’s Quinx or The Ripper’s Tale concludes a sequence consisting of Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness, Livia or Buried Alive, Constance or Solitary Practices and Sebastian or Ruling Passions. This series of novels-with-two-titles, containing characters with variable names and fluctuating identities, is (as we should expect) suffused with radical ambiguity. The ‘Avignon Quintet’ which Durrell has now completed is an enigmatic and secretive work, a cluster of dark passages and gaudy treasure-filled caves beside the thrusting baroque edifice of his earlier ‘Alexandria Quartet’. The very titles of the ‘quincunx of novels’ terminated by Quinx confirm this sense of Durrell having gone underground. At the same time, his art is undiminished in scale, in inventive gusto and fictive extravagance. Durrell remains unrepentantly committed to the view that a classical fiction for our age can only emerge out of formal experimentation – in this case, the pursuit of ‘soft focus palimpsest’ in place of the ‘linear’ novel of the 19th century. Where the ‘Alexandria Quartet’ referred back to Einstein and Proust, the comic anarchy of the Avignon novels is post-Joyce, post-Pynchon and post-Flann O’Brien.
In terms of subject-matter, Durrell has a shrewd eye for the sensational. Readers of the ‘Avignon Quintet’ can steep themselves in the secrets of the Templars, gypsy folklore, Nazi atrocities, the mysteries of the sperm, sexual yoga, and the rituals of an Egyptian Gnostics’ suicide club, without any of the vulgarity of solutions, explanations or no-holds-barred investigations to be found in pseudo-historical best-sellers and popular journalism. Durrell’s ideal of the novel is one of haute cuisine with great quantities of pepper and garlic, and the brew that results is more highly-flavoured than that of any other contemporary English novelist – a feature that sometimes reminds us of Dickens. The difference lies not in the ingredients of the brew but in the fact that the spirits do not always come when Durrell calls them.
At bottom, the ‘Avignon Quintet’ is a deliberate romance, with a Holy Grail, a magic circle or Round Table of characters equipped for the quest, and a threat of apocalyptic destruction regardless of whether the quest succeeds or fails. There are several allusions to the Arthurian story, and a major concern is the history of the Templars, whose legendary Grand Masters were to Languedoc and Provence what Arthur is to Wessex. One aspect of Durrell’s ambiguous Grail consists – as befits a banned author of the Thirties and a former associate of Henry Miller – of ‘love-lore’ or the secrets of sex. These, which have something to do with ‘dual control’ in the love-act and simultaneous orgasm, are passed down from master or mistress to hand-picked pupil in certain rare and long-delayed bouts of sexual intercourse. The characters of Durrell’s charmed circle work through many of the possible erotic combinations with one another, but only the favoured few join the inner ranks of the sexual magi. Those who do, convinced of ‘the existence of lovers as philosophers’, tend to wax eloquent about it. Sometimes, we are told in Quinx, this makes them a bit of a bore. It is nice to think that their author has noticed.