Durrell makes a major effort in fiction only at comparatively rare intervals. The 1960s were a fairly fallow period. In 1963 he published his play An Irish Faustus, in 1965 another verse play Acte 1 have spoken of these in the introductory section: both acted in Germany, Faustus with considerable success (it went into repertoire), they aroused no critical interest at all in England; and the performance, ten years after its publication, of his first play Sappho (the richest of the three in purely poetic language, though the least tightly constructed as a drama) at the Edinburgh Festival of 1960 evoked only tepid or sometimes actively hostile responses from the critics. A new volume of Antrobus stories, Wodehousian pictures of Embassy life in the Balkans, Sauve Qui Pent, published in 1966, was found only mildly amusing, and a critic in a good critical journal, Ian Hamilton's The Review, found Durrell's one new volume of poems of the 1900s, The Ikons, tasteful but rather dead, too reminiscent of Walter Savage Landor.
His most ambitious book of the 1960s was Tunc, published in 1968, and followed in 1970 by its sequel Nunquam. Tunc sold, as Durrell always sells, remarkably well, but tended to puzzle and bewilder English critics. There were some superficial resemblances to The Alexandria Quartet, as also to The Black Book: the handling of prose was, it seems to me, free from the congestion of The Black Book and from the sometimes too conscious 'fine writing' even of the much more freely handled Alexandria Quartet; but the characters were, as Durrell admitted himself, much more 'puppets': the scene ranged from Athens to Constantinople to London to Paris and, in the sequel Nunquam, to Switzerland, to Constantinople, and back to London, but the evocation of place, though often brilliant, was much more rapid and sketchy. There was no attempt in the story-line at surface plausibility. One might have been reminded, indeed, in the plot-line, of a thriller by Dennis Wheatley. Durrell was writing not a novel, even in the sense in which The Alexandria Quartet for all its bravura extravagances is a novel rather than a romance, but a philosophic romance, such as Godwin's Caleb Williams or Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Appealing for once simultaneously to his popular and sophisticated audiences, he constructed a story which is full of thrills, horror, and suspense; but, as with Godwin and Mary Shelley, the Gothick romance appealed to him mainly as a vehicle for the expression of ideas.
An intelligent reviewer in The Times Literary Supplement noted this fact, but felt that the choice or use of ideas was in a sense 'opportunistic'. I think such a remark did an in-justice to Durrell's engagement and sincerity. He believes, with Spengler, that we have now reached, in Western Europe, America, and perhaps all over the world, a stage which should not be called 'culture' but rather 'civilization'.
Our lives no longer grow out of an organic local culture, as in a sense the lives of the characters in The Alexandria Quartet grew, but out of McLuhan's 'global village', the world of instant mass communication; and our lives tend to be shaped and channelled by great international consortia, like The Firm in Durrell's double-decker, over which we have little democratic control, and from which we find it hard to escape once we have signed our contracts with them (there is a strong reminiscence of the Faustus story here).
All this is reminiscent of Orwell's 1984 and Huxley's Brave New World. What is original in Durrell's approach is the idea that individual attempts to escape from The Firm, from the bureaucratic and mass communications society, are futile: it is better, in the end, to co-operate with The Firm and to inspire it with a spirit of benevolence and freedom. No individual can be free, unless all men are free; the hero, Felix Charlock, caught up in The Firm, and then futilely attempting to escape from it, and then cunningly dodging brainwashing in a Swiss sanatorium, in the end after the death of Julian (the head of The Firm, at first Charlock's ruthless enemy, and then his friend) takes The Firm over, and arranges to have all the microfilmed contracts, which bind its slaves to it, burned. He remains, however, rather sceptical. Freedom is a very difficult thing to choose and members of The Firm may wish to continue to work for it, even after they are not in danger of death if they refuse. But if the whole spirit of The Firm has changed, this eventuality may be less disastrous than it seems.
It would be pointless to summarize the thrilling, intricate, but deliberately highly improbable plot of Tunc and Nunquam here. One may merely state that Durrell, here as elsewhere always highly professional, knows exactly what he is doing, though what he is doing may disconcert many of his earlier admirers. Incidents and descriptions are deliberately garish and shocking, there is a lot of use of what one might describe as poster-colour: Durrell, in an age which is growingly non-literary, is deliberately competing for attention with, say, pop art and horror comics. If the passages one remembers most in The Alexandria Quartet are, so to say, erotic and lyrical, the typical note of Tunc and Nunquam is macabre and grotesque (there are some fine erotic and lyrical passages in Tunc and Nunquam, just as there are some fine macabre and grotesque passages in The Alexandria Quartet, but the proportions have shifted).
The most illuminating comment on the general form of Tunc and Nunquam that I have read is by Northrop Frye, who, in his Anatomy of Criticism, published in 1957, could not possibly have had these two stiff unwritten and un-conceived novels in mind, but might almost have been foreseeing them:
The essential difference between novel and romance lies in the concept of characterization. The romancer does not attempt to create 'real people' so much as stylized figures which expand into psychological archetypes. It is in the romance that we find Jung's libido, anima, and shadow reflected in the hero, heroine, and villain respectively. That is why the romance so often radiates a glow of subjective intensity that the novel lacks, and why a suggestion of allegory is always creeping round its fringes.
Charlock, Benedicta, and Julian fit the roles of libido, anima, and shadow exactly, and Charlock's reconciliation with Julian and inheriting of, and transforming of, Julian's post in the Firm is in line with Jung's psychology of integration. On the other hand the 'suggestion of allegory . . . always creeping round its fringes' is what has irritated readers who like their allegory clear-cut, as in The Pilgrim's Progress or Gulliver's Travels.
Frye notes that
'certain elements of character are revealed in the romance which make it naturally a more revolutionary form than the novel'.
The archetypal figures in Tunc and Nunquam, like archetypal figures in dreams, both break many taboos and make us aware of primeval taboos we had forgotten. The double-decker story is much less visual than any previous work of fiction of Durrell's and makes more use in its prose technique and, in a sense, even in its plot of the auditory imagination, puns, ambiguous allusions, emblematic names, the idea of auditory hallucination. Consciously, the romance is an allegory about a somewhat ambiguous concept of 'civilisation' the decay of culture, the growth of international bureaucracy, the death of religion. Unconsciously, it may be a projection of some inner stress, some near-breakdown, which its author may have at least imagined and some of its readers may have suffered; that would help to give the double-decker its power for those readers, and I am one, who find it powerful.
There is plenty of comedy in both works but the comedy in Tunc and Nunquam is much nearer farce, or barrack-room bawdry, and has also an agreeable quality of self-parody: as when Felix Charlock, the hero, quotes 'our most distinguished modern poet' and an asterisk refers us in a footnote to the name of Lawrence Durrell. I think reviewers ever-mindful of the 'high seriousness' of the novel as a form have done less than justice, on the whole, to the verve and high spirits of Tunc and Nunquam. If the deeper meaning of The Alexandria Quartet is a mystical or transcendental meaning, the deeper meaning of Tunc and Nunquam is a social-philosophical one. It seems to me a serious and sane meaning: as a university teacher, for instance, I would agree with Durrell that what we need is a general spirit of freedom in our institutions, a greater flexibility and generosity, rather than individual rejection of, or rebellion against, the idea of an institution as such. Durrell, I think, has never written more freshly and entertainingly than in these two books. As he said at his press conference on Nunquam, when he looks at the world around us, he is filled with grim forebodings but deeper than that is an innate optimism, a Yea-saying to Life itself It is always now or never, and Tunc and Nunquam, for every human soul. We are not chessmen or items in a census or a sociological survey. At any moment, we may say 'Yes', and be free.
Tempted very much by some aspects of his life and character, his youthful wish to be a best-seller, by his official posts with Embassies, The British Council, and government Information Services, by his sheer natural amenity and good manners, to be a conformist, Durrell has again and again made a sideways leap into the unexpected, the disturbingly new, into freedom. Quite apart from the permanent value of his best writing, I think his career, his readiness to accept new situations, new places, new jobs, to be serviceable, and his other readiness to sweat at creative freedom when it is offered to him, hold out a valuable lesson, an exemplary lesson, to the younger writers of today. He has never stopped trying and learning. He has never thought the world owed him a living; but the world has been his oyster, which he has opened, not like Ancient Pistol with his sword, but with his pen.
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