“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Mais Oui, MONSIEUR: Some Lawrence Durrell-related Flummery

I mentioned in passing last week that I’d started Lawrence Durrell’s MONSIEUR as something of a non-reviewing, non-crime fiction, non-pressing-reason-to-read-it extravagance. Durrell was at one point regarded as the second coming of Joyce, and he’s a wonderful stylist, a writer of rare elegance – in his obituary, the New York Times selected this passage from CLEA as an example of the ‘quality of his descriptive gift’:
The whole quarter lay drowsing in the umbrageous violet of approaching nightfall. A sky of palpitating velours which was cut into by the stark flare of a thousand electric light bulbs. It lay over Tatwig Street, that night, like a velvet rind. Only the lighted tips of the minarets rose above it on their slender invisible stalks – appeared hanging suspended in the sky; trembling slightly with the haze as if about to expand their hoods like cobras. Drifting idly down those remembered streets once more I drank in (forever keepsakes of the Arab town) the smell of crushed chrysanthemums, ordure, scents, strawberries, human sweat and roasting pigeons.
  Nice. I try to treat myself to a new Durrell at least once a year, mainly because you need that kind of break to allow yourself to forget how agonizingly ambiguous and self-consciously post-modern Durrell was in his fiction (his travel-writing-cum-memoirs are delivered with a far straighter bat). MONSIEUR is delivered in a glancing, elliptical, self-deprecating way and becomes something of a literary version of the Russian doll, in which succeeding sections are revealed as the thoughts of the author who has written the previous section, until you get the point where what’s fact and fiction are so blurred as to be indistinguishable. It’s an interesting idea, in that the author is very loudly calling attention to the writer abnegating his authorship. A portrait of the artist as a self-effacing narcissist, if you will. The effect means that you get three or four different perspectives on the characters you’ve met in the early stages, whom you presumed were first-person narrators, so that even as you penetrate to the heart of the story you feel like you’re being drawn back out, the better to see the big picture. It’s a terrific technique.
  Anyway, intoxicated by the prevailing spirit of meta-narrative japery, I decided to pack the book in with ten pages to go, so I’ve no idea who – if any – of the ‘authors’ was the real author of the various sections.
  “But wasn’t Lawrence Durrell the real author?” I hear you cry.
  Erm, probably. But only in a glancing, elliptical, self-deprecating way.
  Funnily enough, the only other book I’ve been tempted to put away before finishing right to the end was the biography / memoir MY FAMILY AND OTHER ANIMALS, by Lawrence Durrell’s brother, Gerald. Mind you, that was because I was enjoying the book so much that I preferred to leave off before the inevitable moment when the Durrell family would have to leave idyllic, sunny Corfu and return to dreary, damp London, leaving them there (in my imagination at least) forever happy and ridiculously post-Edwardian beneath the azure Corfian skies.
  Happily, Durrell G went on to publish another two volumes of his Corfu memoirs, of which I have one left to read. Durrell L, who features in Durrell G’s books, went on to publish (among other things) the dazzlingly brilliant PROSPERO’S CELL, a memoir of his own time on Corfu, a quartet of novels set in Alexandria, and a quintet – or ‘quincunx’ – of novels set in Avignon, of which latter series I have four left to read. I imagine I’ll enjoy the Durrell G more than all the Durrell Ls combined, but that’s the hell of getting hooked on a writer – you have to see it out to the bitter end.
  Ah, reading. Do you think they’ll have books in heaven?