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’.

Durrell was not trying to write precisely in an imprecise medium. He was trying, sometimes precisely and sometimes with unbelievable slackness, to tell us, like George Meredith in his day, what he knew about ‘modern love’, and to find narrative forms that suited his slippery subject. The point is that the slackness may be as important as the precision; and that there are whole reaches of the novels that are neither slack nor precise but something else.

Durrell wrote a lot before and after the Quartet: poems, plays, a book about Cyprus, other novels. T.S. Eliot greatly admired The Black Book, and two early novels, Pied Piper of Lovers and Panic Spring, have recently been reissued by ELS, a Canadian press. Still, so much of Durrell’s reputation rests, or fails to rest, on the Quartet that this does seem a good place to start one’s second (or third) look. The Folio Society’s handsome new edition, with its alternately haunting and embarrassing photomontages and a fine introduction by Peter Porter, is a perfect invitation to rereading.

There are many people who are sure the Quartet is a masterpiece of some sort, however patchy; and there are people who are sure it’s not a masterpiece because they find it unreadable. I have, at different times, belonged to both of these groups. My dazed admiration for the first three novels, which I rushed to buy as they came out, certainly suffered a blow when I got to Clea, which seemed to me then (and seems to me now) just too full of bathos to do the noble literary work it is supposed to do. ‘I found her extraordinarily beautiful at first sight, although a little on the short side.’ ‘He always puzzled me – except when I had him in my arms.’ But I do understand my old admiration, in a way I don’t understand my later grumpiness, which set in towards the end of the 1960s, when I found nothing but fakery in the Quartet and the later novels, as if Durrell had written not books but simulations of books, long, allusive evocations of acts of writing not quite taking place. There are certainly plenty of patches where he is doing this; but nowhere is this the only thing he’s doing, and my second, solemn, snippy view misses huge zones of serious and interesting achievement. The Quartet has its own sharp view of criticism, good and bad. When our narrator appears to have given up his rather clunky artistic ambitions (to frame his friends ‘in the heavy steel webs of metaphors which will last half as long as [Alexandria] itself’) and says he is thinking of writing a book of criticism, his friend Clea, a painter, hits him across the mouth so hard he has to go to the bathroom to mop up the blood.

Among the considerable achievements of the Quartet are the large set-pieces: the duck shoot on Lake Mareotis at the end of Justine; the carnival at the end of Balthazar; the ecstatic Coptic wake at the end of Mountolive. All of these scenes are patiently, lovingly described, for their own sake rather than for any symbolism they may deliver – the prose is rich but not richer than the material. And yet each of these scenes contains a twist or a mystery. In the first a body is discovered and identified – wrongly. In the second the wrong person gets killed. In the third the wrong person is killed too, but not by mistake. The ongoing and often rather vapidly declared theme of multiple perspectives is here put to real work. It is no longer a matter of whether Justine was betraying her husband with Darley, the uncharismatic narrator of three of the four books, or with Pursewarden, the novelist whose stature grows with every volume; whose supposed stature, let’s say, since even Durrell’s friend Henry Miller had his doubts about this character. ‘I never get the conviction that he was the great writer you wish him to seem.’ I don’t think this shortfall weakens the Quartet as much as it might, since we are not required to believe in Pursewarden’s greatness, only in his friends’ eagerness to canonise him after his suicide, and Darley’s reluctant identification with the man he used to patronise. It is true that Pursewarden talks a lot, and left an extraordinary amount of aphoristic litter behind him.

The story of the affair with Darley is told in Justine, of the affair with Pursewarden in Balthazar. It’s fun to work through the corrected view, but hard to care very much whom Justine preferred. After all, she’s named after a character in Sade, she’s supposed to be sleeping around. But in the murder scenes I’ve evoked, much more is at stake than a place in a bed. We think at first that Capodistria, the man killed at the duck shoot, is the victim of a belated revenge, finally paying for a rape he committed long ago. Since it’s not Capodistria who is dead, but a nameless corpse transferred from the morgue, we now need to know why Capodistria had to be spirited away. He was, it turns out, part of the plot against the British Mandate in Palestine in which many of the main characters are (inextricably) entangled, and which a diligent British officer in Egypt has uncovered. Most of this story is told in Mountolive, and if the switches of sexual partners seem a little ordinary, the thought that much of this sexual activity is a cover-up for clandestine politics is pretty exhilarating. Something of this view is lurking in Darley’s early, only half-understood suggestion that what is called love is ‘a sort of mental possession in which the bonds of a ravenous sexuality played the least part’.

Nessim, the Egyptian leader of the conspiracy, and the supposedly betrayed husband, has married Justine because she is Jewish and disposed to help the cause, and because her beauty and her unhappiness make her an ideal partner. Nessim is a Copt, and explains that ‘for us there was no real war between Cross and Crescent. That was entirely a Western European creation. So indeed was the idea of a cruel Moslem infidel. The Moslem was never a persecutor of the Copts on religious grounds.’ The accusation is that the British – the speech is addressed to David Mountolive, later to be his majesty’s ambassador to Egypt – have never understood any of this, and can’t tell one Arab from another. The person killed at the carnival was mistaken for Justine, and the person whose funeral we witness is Nessim’s brother, killed by the Egyptian government in a brilliant deliberate error. With this murder they find a scapegoat, and satisfy the British, who are complaining about Egyptian inaction with regard to the conspiracy. And they are also able to leave Nessim alone, and keep receiving the handsome bribes he is paying. It’s true that all this seems closer to the fiction of John le Carré than to the theory of relativity, but a set of novels is surely none the worse for that.

Durrell’s second wife, Eve Cohen, the model for Justine, at the Scottish School for Girls. From ‘Vintage Alexandria’ by Michael Haag (American University in Cairo Press, $39.95).
Durrell’s second wife, Eve Cohen, the model for Justine, at the Scottish School for Girls. From ‘Vintage Alexandria’ by Michael Haag (American University in Cairo Press, $39.95).

And then there are the carefully rendered deaths, remarkable in their variety. There is the dying of the furrier Cohen, former patron of Darley’s fragile mistress Melissa, a man who lies in a hospital ‘among the migrating fragments of his old body’, and whom Darley visits because Melissa won’t go to see him. A curious intimacy, almost a tenderness arises between the two men. The old man begins to sing a popular song, Darley recalls the Cavafy poem about the god abandoning Antony, and thinks, ‘Each man goes out to his own music’ – an elegant untruth but a fine epitaph. There is the death of love itself when Mountolive finally meets up again with his once beautiful Egyptian mistress, Nessim’s mother. Here we see the Gothic streak that marks the Quartet more and more as it goes on. It’s not enough that she should have had smallpox and become completely disfigured in the meantime. She is also desperate, a little drunk, and overweight. ‘Her large jowls shook with every vibration of the solid rubber tyres on the road’ – they are in a horse-drawn cab. This is sheer authorial cruelty, but the shocked Mountolive doesn’t fare any better. When she asks him to do something to protect Nessim, he says: ‘I cannot discuss an official matter with a private person.’ Which is worse, the jowls or the priggishness? And there is, best of all, the ludicrous, horribly appropriate death of Scobie, the Englishman who works in the Egyptian police force, and has what he calls Tendencies, among them the habit of dressing up as a woman when the moon is full. Scobie is the best kind of Orientalist. He walks like ‘a White Man at large’, and he loves the Egyptians. ‘You see, the Egyptians are marvellous, old man,’ he tells Darley. ‘Kindly. They know me well. From some points of view they might look like felons, old man, but felons in a state of grace, that’s what I always say.’ He is beaten to death by a crowd of British sailors who don’t welcome his advances, and it is a weakness in the always firm and lucid Clea that she, who is so fond of the old boy, will not be able to bear this news. She is told that he fell down some stairs.

Durrell announces in a note that the first three novels are ‘siblings’, placed ‘in a purely spatial relation’. ‘The fourth part alone will represent time and be a true sequel.’ This is grand, perhaps ‘somewhat immodest or even pompous’, he says in the same note; but actually it flattens out and understates the intricacy of the relations among the books. The second, Balthazar, has to do with time as well as space, since it involves Darley’s rewriting, with the help of his friend Balthazar’s copious notes, the story of the first novel. Even the first was full of alternative readings of the same event or person, so it’s a little dim of Darley to have to wait for the second volume to understand he’s in a perspectival work. The third novel has an omniscient narrator, and is perhaps the most successful, although formally the least inventive, of the three. But it too has flashbacks, and some wonderful comedy set in Moscow, Mountolive’s posting before he returns to Egypt. The chief place and time in all three are the same, Alexandria just before the Second World War – the photomontages in the Folio Society edition showing tight-permed hairdos and boxy suits catch the date for us, as perhaps does the word ‘frocks’ in the novel – and Clea takes us into and through the war.

The last volume is, as Durrell says, a sequel, but a sequel, in one sense, is just what these adventures can’t have. The set-pieces, the deaths, the love affairs, the politics, all the running commentary on love and the city, the dream-images of Alexandria as capital of memory and capital of superstition, none of this can go anywhere. The elements can only talk to each other, sometimes beautifully and sometimes foolishly, and then die. I think it is Durrell’s unacknowledged perception of this problem that produces the proliferation of Gothic effects in the last volume: Justine’s stroke and drooping eyes, Nessim’s losing one eye and one finger in a bombing raid, the revelation of Pursewarden’s incest with his sister, even if she was, as Darley says, a little on the short side, and the truly garish ending in which Balthazar, playing with a harpoon gun while he and Darley and Clea are out for a sail and a swim, manages to nail Clea’s arm to an underwater wreck. There is nothing for it but to hack Clea’s hand off, which Darley duly, roughly does. Elsewhere Clea herself says eloquently that ‘it is terrible to depend so utterly on powers that do not wish you well,’ and much of the Quartet convincingly shows us the power of love and other afflictions as what G.S. Fraser calls unwilled events. But an accidental harpoon through the wrist is not a representation of a hostile power, and not merely an unwilled event: it is the narrative equivalent of the excessive adjective – too much, too fast, and trying too hard. If I tell you that Clea’s artificial hand, once she gets used to it, allows her to paint better than she has ever done before – to become a truly great painter, the implication is – you will know where you are: somewhere between Edmund Wilson’s theory of the necessarily damaged artist and the movie version of Titus Andronicus.

There is also a shift over time – the time that runs through the first three volumes and accelerates in the last – in the sense we are given of Alexandria, which detaches itself more and more from the East, and more and more from anyone’s affection. By the end of the Quartet all the Europeans we know have left or are about to leave, and the Egyptians are abandoned to the pathologies that were once supposed to be so fascinating. Scobie’s ‘felons in a state of grace’ become ‘the miasma of Egypt’. There is distanced talk of the ‘Oriental woman’ and the ‘Oriental spirit’ and we are reminded that Alexandria, unlike Cairo, is ‘still Europe’. But not, finally, European enough. Even the dusty glamour of the city falls away – it grows jowls, so to speak, like the once-beautiful Leila. Darley can conjure up a bit of lyrical prose for a farewell (‘I feel it fade inside me, in my thoughts, like some valedictory mirage – like the sad history of some great queen whose fortunes have foundered among the ruins of armies and the sands of time’) but this rings a little hollow since he has already told us that he now sees the city ‘as it must always have been – a shabby little seaport built upon a sand-reef, a moribund and spiritless backwater’. We can accept the pathos of the fabrication, the belated understanding that the dream-city was created by the dreamer, and suspect the banality beneath the magical exotic lives evoked for us throughout the Quartet. But the banality, however real it may be, is not truer than the magic, and it’s a little disappointing that the sequence itself can’t remain faithful to its old enthusiasm for the gleaming city and its complicated lovers. Shabby, moribund, spiritless – not much chance of an adventive moment there.