Quinx or The Ripper’s Tale 
by Lawrence Durrell.
Faber, 201 pp., £8.95, May 1985, 0 571 13444 0
Show More
Helliconia Winter 
by Brian Aldiss.
Cape, 285 pp., £8.95, April 1985, 0 224 01847 7
Show More
Black Robe 
by Brian Moore.
Cape, 256 pp., £8.95, May 1985, 0 224 02329 2
Show More
Show More

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.

Another aspect of Durrell’s Grail is that it embodies the secrets of novel-writing, of producing a work of art which (again, as we are told in Quinx) ‘should show high contrivance as well as utter a plea for bliss’. This quest is pursued by means of facetious dialogues between two would-be novelists, Sutcliffe and Blanford, one of them supposedly the other’s creation, and both a curious blend of Oscar Wilde, Peter Pan and l’homme moyen sensuel. The mist of uncertain identity which shrouds Sutcliffe and Blanford radiates out to the other members of the charmed circle. Monsieur, like Justine at the commencement of the ‘Alexandria Quartet’, must now be regarded as a hoax-novel offering a compellingly melodramatic but wholly misleading introduction to the characters and themes of the series as a whole. Akkad, the Gnostic seer in Monsieur, later reappears as Affad or Sebastian, an Egyptian banker whose story implies a Manichaean struggle between eros and thanatos, or procreation and suicide. Constance, the mid-point of the ‘Quintet’, is named after Durrell’s principal female character, a sober and capable psychoanalyst: but Constance is unable to impart sanity or constancy to the others. Her place at the centre of the quincunx is that of a beleaguered queen whose companions and courtiers, including such carnival creations as the millionaire Lord Galen and the gypsy sibyl Sabine, are for the most part dedicated to maximising anarchy.

The charmed circle or square of the ‘Avignon Quintet’ may be said to include all Durrell’s characters – those to whom he has given names. That is, the bond of naming proves stronger than merely human hatred or enmity. The novels span the years of the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of France, with Quinx supposedly set immediately after the war’s end. Extremes of murder, torture and insanity in the earlier novels have not sufficed to alienate Durrell’s characters permanently from one another. In Quinx there is a series of unlikely reconciliations of old enemies, including Nazi officers and supporters of the Resistance. Hatred, for these characters, is simply the inevitable obverse of love, so that to be beyond the reach of reconciliation and blood-fellowship is to remain anonymous.

Quinx takes in a grand celebration of blood-fellowship in the form of the first post-war gypsy festival at Les Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue. Durrell gives no hint that those who gather there must be the lucky survivors of persecution and the death-camps: this would tend to undermine the general atmosphere of bonhomie. Constance and her companions go down to the Camargue in a hired bus crammed with ‘hampers of elaborate food and wine’, which give the trip ‘the allure of a scouts’ picnic’. This is not the only occasion when Durrell seems to be reducing life to the level of schoolboy japes. Where Alexandria in Justine was the ‘winepress of love’, in Sebastian the novelist Sutcliffe refers to the cunt as the ‘tuck-box of sex’. Sex in Durrell (remember The Black Book?) has never exactly been for the squeamish. At Les Saintes Maries Sabine tells the story of a Bulgarian count whose recreation was to ride to hounds after a human quarry, preferably a young gypsy woman with a child at her breast. The hunt would end with the count coming to orgasm as he watched woman and baby being torn to pieces. Finally ‘everything was silent and the waters of the estuary turned carnation-red as the hounds ate their fill.’ ‘Carnation-red’ is unmistakeable Durrell. And how revealing it is that this anecdote begins with a certain show of humanitarian feeling and moral outrage, and ends in the vein of a video nasty. Sutcliffe, listening to the tale, is ‘quite pale with lust’, and Sabine presses home her advantage. ‘We must fuck,’ she breathes, and fuck they do.

Orgy and feasting, the revelry that turns sour, and the intimate connection of petite and grande mort are, here as elsewhere, Durrell’s specialities. Quinx (like Livia) ends with a banqueting scene beneath the Pont du Gard, prior to the opening-up of the Templar treasure – an ending indicative of the author’s Pied Piper’s view of the narrative art and his sense of the novel itself as a treasure-chest or tuck-box. Wrapped up in the tuck-box, Fortnum and Mason’s nestles with Woolworths, or, as G.S. Fraser once put it, Durrell combines a ‘delicate mastery of his craft’ with effects sometimes ‘insolently and boldly shoddy’. Such a paradox is already implied in the double title (not, I think, a title and subtitle) Quinx or The Ripper’s Tale. The Ripper may be the Bulgarian count, he may be Sutcliffe (referred to on one occasion as ‘the old Ripper’), Blanford who is supposedly Sutcliffe’s creator, or possibly others among Durrell’s cast of characters, who all belong to the fellowship of the rippers, the ripping and the ripped. (Or, of course, he may be Durrell himself.) The title The Ripper’s Tale is, in fact, a floating signifier which short-circuits the cognitive function of naming. It is one of the built-in redundancies of a profuse and intricate text which, like a Pynchon novel, abounds in systemicity holding out the – constantly deferred, and perpetually subverted – promise of an overarching system. Sutcliffe in Quinx has some unkind and contemptuous remarks about the American novel, which Pynchon presumably exemplifies: but that is all part of the magician’s patter and bluster.

If naming in the ‘Avignon Quintet’ is a slippery and enigmatic casting of spells, in Brian Aldiss’s ‘Helliconia Trilogy’ its function is remorselessly cognitive. Helliconia is a remarkable instance of what is nowadays called world-building, a specialist activity which has reached the stage of do-it-yourself articles in recent issues of the bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America. In the past – the classic instance being Ursula Le Guin’s magnificent The Left Hand of Darkness – it may be supposed that Science Fiction authors built their worlds single-handed. Nowadays a team of expert consultants is recommended, including a biologist, a geologist, an anthropologist, an astronomer, and preferably Professor Tom Shippey of Leeds University to advise on the philology. A novel written under such conditions needs as much planning as a mountaineering expedition; and Brian Aldiss has performed the Science Fictional equivalent of scaling the Matterhorn.

The production of new matter demands neologisms. To signify an alien planet we require unfamiliar names. Philological expertise or sensitivity to language are crucial adjuncts to space travel, at least of the fictional sort (the lesson we all learned from C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet). Aldiss’s habits of word coinage perhaps owe something to Lewis’s. Helliconia Spring, the first volume in the trilogy, began with a barrage of outlandish names, the purpose of the naming being to emphasise those parts of the alien world which in our case we had not got. The new names have become steadily naturalised as the trilogy progressed. Some of them contained very little mystery in the first place; we didn’t need telling what a helliconian male did with his prodo, or a female with her queme. Others, once understood, turned out to encode crucial aspects of Helliconia’s racial and planetary history. With Helliconia Winter the strange world has become a relatively familiar world whose deeps have been plumbed and charted. The map of the planet which Aldiss’s new novel (unlike its predecessors) carries on its end-papers thus conveys the same pleasures as a map of Houyhnhnm-land or of Treasure Island. In Helliconia Winter it is the developments on Earth during the next half-dozen millennia, which Aldiss reports in summary form, which strike us as truly disorienting.

Helliconia differs from Earth in two essential respects. First, human beings have to struggle for predominance with another intelligent species, the phagors. Secondly, Helliconia’s two suns, Freyr and Batalix, give it a Great Year bringing periodic Ice Ages. Men, the ‘sons of Freyr’, prosper in the summer of the Great Year while the phagors come to the fore during the winter. Helliconia is evidently a fictive metaphor for certain aspects of terrestrial life, and this metaphorical dimension is reinforced in the latest volume by explicit references to the concept of the nuclear winter. In addition, events on Helliconia are watched, down to their smallest detail, by scientists on an observation satellite beaming television pictures back to Earth. The Helliconia transmissions – Earth’s last art – or ‘Eductainment’-form – are screened to crowds of people in huge communal auditoria. The transmissions run parallel to Aldiss’s narrative.

Seen as ‘Eductainment’, the ‘Helliconia Trilogy’ is an embodiment of Science Fiction’s claim to be the Bible of the future, an estranged and parabolical structure conveying knowledge of man’s place on Earth and in the universe. Human life on Helliconia survives within a delicate ecosystem, which its more ruthless and rational members are unwittingly trying to destroy. The individual episodes of Aldiss’s planetary history are chosen to illustrate the dilemmas of knowledge and power, and the prickly and acrimonious relationship between a society’s knowers and its rulers. In particular, there is an emphasis on father-son relationships within a context of hereditary despotism. (Interestingly, the ‘Trilogy’ begins and ends with the author’s open letters to his own son.) ‘Father! You are the Oligarch!’ – the long-delayed Freudian cry of the protagonist in Helliconia Winter – echoes, in retrospect, throughout the earlier volumes.

Naming is crucial here at several levels: naming as metaphor, naming as melodramatic revelation, naming as the key to human survival. Aldiss’s dense specification of Helliconia as metaphor produces a species-rich world of kaidaws, arang, hoxneys, nondads, brassimips and many others, not to mention the phagors with their cowbirds (but has Aldiss forgotten that the cowbird is a common American passerine resembling a blackbird?). As the year draws on, the hoxneys lose their stripes, the phagors begin to roll back the frontiers of human civilisation, and other species prepare for hibernation. Luterin, the hero of Helliconia Winter, spends ten years’ imprisonment in the caves of the Great Wheel to escape the consequences of exposing his father as the Oligarch. His eventual re-emergence seems to symbolise the possibility of human beings surviving the forthcoming Ice Age. On the fateful day of Myrkwyr, the autumn solstice, the ruling classes carouse away their fears while the common people cry out to Freyr ‘as if by naming the star they could have power over it’. It is a fittingly epic moment, a moving conclusion to Aldiss’s boldly-conceived and sturdily-executed history. Where ‘Helliconia’ differs from the admonitory visions of earlier Science Fiction writers such as Wells, Orwell and Stapledon is in its refusal to pretend that it is anything other than a fantasy-construct devised for metaphorical ends. Aldiss’s warning of the perils facing mankind is reared on purely nominalist foundations. To this extent ‘Helliconia’ belongs to the category of the self-conscious novel, not to the fiction of attempted prophecy.

Brian Moore’s Black Robe is a revisionist historical romance, beginning as a rational renaming exercise but ending by reciting the familiar names of Christian worship. The missionary tale, in which the hero dodges poisoned dart and cooking-pot and finishes by baptising whole tribes of godless savages, was doubtless a favoured item of devotional reading for many of our great-grandparents. In order to rewrite the missionary tale, Brian Moore went back to Francis Parkman’s history of The Jesuits in North America and to the 17th-century Relations, the voluminous letters sent by the Jesuit fathers back to their superiors in France. Not surprisingly, he discovered a view of the Iroquois and Algonkin tribesmen bearing little relationship to the Red Indians of 19th-century fiction and folklore. The French settlers spoke of ‘the Savages’, not of Indians, and the tribesmen referred to the French as ‘Normans’ and the Jesuits as ‘Black Robes’. Nor did they employ the ceremonious speech and picturesque names of the Longfellow and Boy’s Own Paper stereotype of the Indian brave. In the interests of historical restoration Moore makes full use of a contemporary novelist’s licence, so that his Catholic priest is routinely addressed as a ‘fucking sorcerer’ and a ‘silly old prick’ by his future parishioners.

‘The devil rules this land,’ says Father Laforgue as he prepares to enter the Canadian wilderness: ‘Belial rules here; he rules the hearts and minds of these poor people.’ To which his companion, a half-savage colonial boy, replies: ‘Animals? The Savages are truer Christians than we will ever be.’ Neither classification is, in fact, correct. Moore does not spare us gruesomely unchristian scenes of cannibalism and tribal torture. On the other hand, by the time Laforgue has completed a perilous journey by canoe from Quebec to Georgian Bay he has been tormented by Sex and Doubt and has more or less come round to the modern liberal view that the Indians might have been better left alone and that their mass conversion was the prelude to cultural genocide. Laforgue twice narrowly escapes from the cooking-pot, thanks on the second occasion to a miraculous eclipse (such things are not unknown on Helliconia, either). Finally, Grace reclaims Father Laforgue and it appears that the Savages would, after all, be truer Christians for having been baptised. We end not with names but a Name: the ‘words of salvation’ and the text of a prayer.

Moore says in a preface that the stimulus for Black Robe came originally from reading the Collected Essays of Graham Greene. Notwithstanding historical research and the intervention of Greene, this modern missionary tale seems no less written to a formula than its 19th-century predecessors. Vividly and conscientiously-imagined within its own terms, it will, I think, be a profound disappointment to most of Moore’s admirers. One has the impression not so much of an act of contrition directed at Mother Church as of an attempt, by a highly inventive and cosmopolitan novelist who is also a Canadian citizen, to placate the temporal powers of Canadian Literature: a lit candle for Can. Lit.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences