jueves, 2 de diciembre de 2010

Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness by Lawrence Durrell

Some decades ago I read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and all his travel books. The term addict could easily have been an under-statement of my obsession with the author’s work. I also discovered Tunc and Nunquam and drooled over Dark Labyrinth, Sappho, the Collected Poens and the rest. Soon afterwards, following a break of a couple years from Durrell’s work, I bought a copy of Monsieur and expectantly embarked upon what I anticipated would be a return to the sublime, sometimes intellectual complexities of the sophisticated, often Bohemian travellers that populate his work. I reached page sixty-five, which promptly fell out when I flipped it over in a frustration that had been growing from page one. The people in the Avignon books seemed different. They were of the same ilk as those I had previously revered, but somehow these people were fundamentally less engaging than the Alexandria residents with their guarded complexities. In Monsieur, they seemed stuffy, self-obsessed, bound up in the over-complicated minutiae of what I now saw as an isolation, not a liberation, of travel. Thirty years on, I gave just finished Monsieur, its time on my bookshelves in the intervening years being merely decorative. It retained a mild disappointment, but this time I was completely engaged.

Piers has died. His life-long friend, Bruce, is on his way to the rambling but grand old house in the south of France to see to his friend’s affairs. Bruce recalls their friendship, the tripartite relationship they shared with Piers’s sister, the delectable but unstable Sabine.

Sutcliffe, the writer, was also a long-term mutual acquaintance. His frustration with his own creativity as never diminished. His notes testify to how hard he tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to sustain his task. And there are others, such as the delicate Pia and a man called Toby, who seems to be exactly what men called Toby ought to be.

But the central dimension of the book is not the interpersonal relationships between the characters, which form a kind of currency via which the main themes are traded. It is when the Egyptian Gnostic Akkad enters the story that things start to hang together. They went to meet him at Macabru in the desert, where he provided an hallucinogenic stimulus and invited them to a vision, which some of them shared. It changed Piers’s life, while others could not get past their scepticism. But in fact the experience changed all of their lives in that it revealed aspects of themselves that each, independently and perhaps collectively, would rather have not admitted until that day. Some of them continued to deny.

And laced over the top of all this is a filigree of plot arising from the fact that Piers’s full name was Piers de Nogaret. He was no less than the last earthly survivor of a line that led back to the Grand Master that saw an end to the Knights Templar. The ancestor, the historical figure that became the head of one of the most powerful orders of medieval Christian warriors, was born of parents who were themselves burned as Cathar heretics, so perhaps there was the motive. Perhaps…

To cap it all, there’s also sexual confusion. There are homosexual tendencies that seem to be linked to religious cravings. There’s the usual Henry Miller-esque hetero variety that so often suffuses through Durrell’s characters. And here there is more than a suggestion of incest in the dusty rooms of that Avignon chateau.

Confused? So was I. And don’t expect much resolution. Perhaps now that I a tad older than when I first read Lawrence Durrell, I am more willing to accept this. Monsieur, the first of a set of five books, becomes thus a meditation on motive, religiosity, belief and Lord knows what, juxtaposed by a sense of place and history, and all layered with a near scatology of bodily functions. And when it comes to the crunch, why should a corpse need a head anyway?

This time I got past page sixty-five, which fell out again, by the way. Monsieur is not the kind of novel that contemporary, plot-hungry readers might crave. It is a page-turner, but you have to go back as often as forward. That’s life, I suppose.

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