Sink or Skim

Michael Wood

‘At night,’ Roland Barthes once wrote, ‘the adjectives come back.’ It’s an eerie and sobering thought for writers who have been trying to clean up their act during the day, but for Lawrence Durrell as for Conrad adjectives don’t come back because they never left. If there is a mystery in Conrad it’s inscrutable, if there’s a tangle in Durrell it’s inextricable. And to stay with the latter: if there’s a treasury it’s inexhaustible, creatures of habit are inveterate, dusk is blue, shadows and trams are violet, dawn is mauve – but then so are voices and a mosque.

And yet these adjectival writers are anything but confident about the language they lay out so lavishly. On the contrary, they seem to be caught between a desperate hope that one more word will do the trick, catch the reality or name the mystery, and the reluctant belief that nothing at all is going to work. Sometimes we see them trapped between these stances, as when Marlow harangues his listeners in Heart of Darkness (‘Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?’), or Durrell’s narrator in the third volume of the Alexandria Quartet, with nearly 300 pages still to go, tells us that ‘words kill love as they kill everything else.’ The different narrator of the fourth volume says ‘words are the mirrors of our discontents merely,’ but nevertheless goes on, in his phrase, ‘hunting for metaphors’. And at one point, hard at work describing ‘the very failure of words’, the same narrator throws these deficient elements around with such relish (‘words … sink one by one into the measureless caverns of the imagination and gutter out’) that you wonder if he’s forgotten he’s supposed to be failing.

It’s clear that the problem is not the adjectives, or even the purple (or mauve or violet) prose more generally. A journalist explains to Durrell’s narrator what he thinks Pursewarden, the Quartet’s great writer in residence, was trying to tell him: ‘What is the writer’s struggle except a struggle to use a medium as precisely as possible, but knowing fully its basic imprecision? A hopeless task, but none the less rewarding for being hopeless.’ This is good Modernist doctrine, and a whole slew of writers and critics from Mallarmé to Adorno would certainly sign the manifesto. But the proposition doesn’t describe what happens in Durrell’s fiction, or for that matter in Conrad’s. The goal is not precision but effect.

For this reason the adjectives are sometimes a solution, and our best clue to what is going on. Retromingent, to my slight surprise, does appear in the OED, with a use as early as 1646; but surely no one has done the word as proud as Durrell, when he describes how a small dog ‘delivered itself of a retromingent puddle’ on an ambassador’s carpet. This is perhaps the place to remember that the author of the grandiose Quartet is also the author of the very funny Esprit de Corps and Stiff Upper Lip. And what about the lovely word adventive, as in ‘the adventive minute’ or ‘that adventive moment’? Durrell also uses the word in his fine poem about Cavafy, written at the same time as the Quartet:

Never
To attempt a masterpiece of size –
You must leave life for that. No
But always to preserve the adventive
Minute …

I’m tempted to read ‘you must leave life for that’ as meaning we must leave such things to life itself; but that is not what the phrase says. Durrell’s Quartet is an attempt at a masterpiece of size (and shape and time), but he didn’t leave life for it. He stayed with life’s jokes and discoveries, the pee on the carpet and the Faustian moment; with life’s pretensions and flatnesses too. One of adventive’s meanings is ‘imperfectly naturalised’. And it’s good to learn from G.S. Fraser’s book on Durrell that however long the novelist thought about these works, he wrote them, or at least the last three, very quickly: Balthazar in six weeks, Mountolive in 12 and Clea in four. It’s good to know too that however portentous he could sound about his ambitions (‘I … am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition’), he could also manage another idiom: ‘You are uncomfortable about relativity? But my paper construct is only a toy, a shape, like a kaleidoscope made for the child of a friend … It was just an idea.’ This is the mode of Pursewarden saying he ‘always believed in letting [his] reader sink or skim’.

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