It is not the easiest thing to discuss a novel that is the fourth of a series of five. Sebastian is not properly intelligible without an acquaintance with its predecessors, Monsieur (1974), Livia (1978), Constance (1982); and the ultimate destination, if there is to be one, is not yet visible. As it happened, I read them in the wrong order, but such is the vitality and attack of Durrell’s writing that it hardly mattered. Enter them anywhere and one is sucked into the stream.
The series is called a ‘quincunx’, which suggests a fifth central element tying the whole pattern together. For that we must wait and see. The structure at first recalls that of the Alexandria Quartet, but this is a mistake. What we have here is not the same story retold from different viewpoints, but duplicated themes and situations, the same motifs working themselves out with different characters. Two siblings deeply involved with each other and a third person who loves them both; homosexuality, especially among women; mental breakdown, especially among women; suicide, or (which is not the same thing) voluntarily accepted death – these all recur with an ominous regularity that is not that of realistic narrative. Yet if you require a novel to be one entire and perfect chrysolite in the Henry James manner, Durrell is a non-starter. His fiction is made up of wildly different elements which there is no attempt to harmonise. He has ebullient moods and phases, and he wants to get them all in. There are the great descriptive set-pieces, often motivated by the spirit of place – here Egypt and Provence: Christmas in a crumbling château near Avignon, a ride across the desert, a boat journey up the Nile. Such passages in the Alexandria series were sometimes frowned on as over-luscious, but they are not so here. They remind us that Durrell began his career as a poet, and they bring in an element of poetry that the dusty shopwindow of the English novel has not seen for a long time. There are the surrealist-erotic episodes; Durrell the farcical pornographer in the Henry Miller manner. Opinions may vary, but for myself a little of this goes a long way. There are reflective and speculative interludes, on the nature of art and the conduct of life. Recurrently through the series the doctrines of a certain Gnostic sect are discussed and partly expounded – to what effect is not yet wholly apparent. Their central tenet is that the good God has been dethroned and the government of the world usurped by a malign impostor – a doctrine not difficult to sustain, but as with most Gnostic sects, it is not clear what we are expected to do about it. Then, like a train coming out of a tunnel, we find stretches of straight historical-social narrative: a picture of the French Midi during the German occupation, for example.
Freud is a considerable presence throughout – not swallowed whole, but acknowledged as an essential interpreter of our state. Happily it is the square old Freud we learnt at our mother’s knee – infantile sexuality and the family imbroglio – not the deranged semiotician lately invented by the French. And since Constance, the protagonist of the last two volumes, is a clinical psychiatrist, the Freudian reflections are firmly built into the narrative. Elsewhere it must be admitted there are lapses. The Henry-Millerish episodes can sink into bar-room smut, the speculative musings into yoga for beginners. There is some by-play of a rather Nouveau Roman variety by which the personages of the story are represented as each other’s imaginary creations. Two of the characters are novelists, and one of them starts life simply as a ‘character’ in one of the other’s books. But he later takes his place on equal terms with the rest of the cast, and is no less substantial. This bit of bafflement is little more than a decoy to lure the unwary into Pseuds’ Corner; but at least it touches with an engagingly light hand on some recent critical worries; and it leads to a brilliantly witty dialogue between the author and his creature in the first fifty pages of Livia. Or, as you might prefer to put it, the occultation of the proairetic code foregrounds by its intertextual reference the multi-level fictionality of the metanarrative text.
There is a tendency in the austerer literary circles to regard Durrell as a slightly obsolete, over-theatrical, decorative painter, a sort of Frank Brangwyn of the novel. Every reader may well find something to make him bristle in these pages, but where we don’t like it we had better lump it. Otherwise we shall be missing a great deal: missing a last lingering regard, from a very odd angle, on some odd but representative corners of the old world, Europe and the Near East, with its inherited squalors and grandeurs, its richness of feeling, and its decay – before the last war delivered it over finally to the hypermarkets, the word-processors and the terrorists. For all their complex interconnections, each volume has its own centre, and sufficient integrity to function independently. Sebastian is largely a pendant to Constance, and carries a huge load of retrospect, hard to hold together in the mind and impossible to summarise, but it has two new themes of its own, one touching, the other tingling with suspense. The scene is principally Geneva, and the central thread is the relation of Constance with her enigmatic lover Affad, which now seems threatened. The new themes are the healing by Constance of Affad’s autistic child, and her simultaneous treatment of a dangerous criminal psychopath. Neither of these has any roots in the previous complex of episodes, yet they seem to arise out of it, surprising but inevitable, like most of Durrell’s prolific inventions. These novels forego the support of portraying a settled society. The characters are mostly transients and immigrants in the places where they find themselves. Their loyalties and affections are directed to a few kinsfolk or a small group: but for all the betrayals and violent disorders of feeling, they have loyalties and affections. There is a range and freedom that we do not find among the pinched ironies of much contemporary fiction.
One advantage of writing short books is that you can write a lot of them. Emma Tennant’s last novel Queen of Stones appeared only a year ago. It now reappears in paperback. On the archetypal theme of lost children, it combines the factual and circumstantial with vision and nightmare – a newspaper cutting, a social worker’s report, a psychiatrist’s case-history with the terrors and confusions of a band of children lost in a sea-fog, and the disturbed fantasies of those of them who are nearing adolescence. And there is a shocking ending, the explanation of which remains obscure. No one knows what happened and no one can find out. The strength and imaginative intensity are inescapable. Some doubts set in, on reflection: the sheer physical implausibility of some parts of the children’s three-day ordeal, including the grisly finale. But that it ends in an unsolved mystery is not a failing: it is integral to the conception, which revolves round the impenetrable obscurity of the children’s minds.
Woman Beware Woman is quite evidently by the same hand. There is no similarity in the theme or setting, but the air of obscure foreboding, the fog-wreathed uncertainty, is the same. The quasi-Elizabethan title suggests a drama of revenge, which this is. The scene is Ireland. Minnie, the narrator, is summoned from a dreary life in London to go back after ten years’ absence to the house on the west coast where she has spent much of her childhood. It is the residence of Hugo Pierce, the celebrated novelist. But Hugo has just been found dead in the neighbouring woods, and Minnie is needed to stand by and help Moura his widow. There are two sons, Gareth and Philip, both gone to America. Years ago Minnie was engaged, or thought she was engaged, to Philip: but it came to nothing and her life has been empty ever since. So Minnie comes to a house dense with painful memories. Dense, too, with mysteries. It seems likely that Hugo has not as was thought died of a heart attack, but has been murdered; and this provides the surface plot. Who killed him and why? But a host of other ambiguities springs up.
Emma Tennant is extremely skilful at packing into a very short compass long perspectives into the background of her characters and dark surmises for their future. ‘Everybody loved Hugo’ – but it seems on further examination that he was a posturing humbug with a charm as bogus as his Irish accent. Gareth the second son is a pale exhausted ghost – we see why when we meet his wife. Philip the eldest is unaccountably absent. A few pungent scenes give a blood-chilling impression of modern Irish society: the big houses taken over by Germans and rich Americans, a populace ever ready to gang up in support of a murderer. And it soon begins to appear that Moura the widow has her own suspicions and her own obscure scheme of retribution. I cannot pretend to outline the intricacies of the plot, for two reasons. The first is the extraordinary compression. There is enough complex human material here for a long novel, besides much glowingly vivid scene-painting. The second reason is that I really don’t know what happens. A powerful sense of menace and of the obscurity of human motives is conveyed, but in the end I do not know who went where, and when, and what was in which mackintoch pocket. And since much stress is laid on these circumstances one is clearly meant to know. The difficulty is compounded because there are many hints throughout that Minnie is an unreliable narrator, and finally, perhaps, that she has been deceived and deluded throughout. This sets out to be more than a mystery story of the whodunnit variety, but for all the power and authority of the writing it runs the risk of ending up as rather less. Or perhaps I am being stupid. All the same I feel that Emma Tennant has such a masterful hand with mystery that she enjoys it a little too much.
Rebecca Hill is compared on her dust-jacket to Eudora Welty, and Louise Shivers’s novel comes with an endorsement from Eudora Welty herself. So we are headed for the rural South, a region that has always been richly rewarding to American writers. Blue Rise is set in Mississippi, but it is far from being a self-congratulatory old-time wallow. The inhabitants know how quaint their culture is and sell it in antique shops. It is Mississippi revisited, by Jeannine, a young woman who has escaped from it to marriage in a northern city. She is astounded on her return to find the group of Baptist women from which she springs still suffering patiently at the hands of violent or faithless husbands, and devoutly believing that this is their only possible destiny. They lie to themselves. Jeannine’s brutal father is posthumously turned into a saint; her old school friend, married to a worthless small-town seducer, prays to God to be made a better wife; every action is buzzed over and supervised by a horde of relations. This tribal life centred on the family and the church is treated by Jeannine in a tone of fierce but sometimes anguished comedy – the anguish coming to a head in the resented but inescapable relation with her mother, a tough representative of the old school.
Unfortunately Blue Rise is two books in one. The second theme is Jeannine’s standard Middle American marriage. It is a failure, and so is the narrative that recounts it. The subtle picture of a split between two cultures disappears, and we are left with that staple of current American fiction, the hymn of hate of the suburban matron for her spouse.
‘Do you love me, or do you love the way your life goes when I do what I’m supposed to do?’ I asked him late one night. Larry had taken to reading the newspaper in bed, and there were times when I failed to outwait him.
Quite so. But there are some topics (like the death of Little Nell, and the sufferings of sensitive boys at English public schools) that are no longer available to serious fiction. As far as this novel is concerned, the Confederates have it all their own way.
The title of Here to get my baby out of jail, which is from the words of a song, fails to do it justice. But there are no other reservations to be made about this beautifully complete short novel, which never puts a word wrong or a sentence out of place. And the rightness here seems that of spontaneous insight rather than contrivance. Again it is a woman’s voice – a girl of 20, wife of a struggling North Carolina farmer. The tale belongs to a kind of which there are several fine examples in modern American fiction: a limited consciousness, a small and artless linguistic range, yet with vistas of suggestion far beyond anything that is overtly said. It is a tragedy, a small-scale tragedy, yet with a door open to reconciliation at the end. Roxy the girl has never been out of North Carolina: surrounded by the busy self-sufficiency of a small town and a kindly family, she is happy enough with her tobacco-farming husband and her two-year-old baby. Until she is unresistingly seduced by the new farm-helper, Jack Ruffin (ruffian?), and her placid little train of life falls to pieces. She tells her own story, without excuse or explanation, to the violent and horrifying end, and she tells it in her own words, which are never out of character, and have their own sort of poetry. At one point Roxy is taken to the Tobacco Festival, to which she has never been before. It is a time of tension, for her husband is treating her with unaccustomed tenderness, but she is acutely aware of the nearness of her lover. And she is enchanted by the sight of the Tobacco Queen:
The float she rode on was like a dream, and she was beautiful. The lights shone on her arms and made them as smooth as moonlight. Her dress hung around her in gold folds. It was like a hoop skirt from the Civil War days, layers and layers of big skirt over hoops, and the layers were all made out of golden tobacco leaves, leaves cured the brightest colour. They lay like petals on a rose. Her long, dark hair hung down over her shoulders. Ava, I heard her name whispered and echoed through the crowd. As the crown was placed on her head, everybody in the stadium slowly stood up like people in the seventh-innings stretch at a ball game. And everybody started singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ while fire-works were shot off. It made goose-bumps go up and down my arms.
We can’t do this sort of thing in English English. We either patronise our simplicities, or taint them with vulgarity, or load them with a message. This tale has no axe to grind, political or social. The language is limpid, transparent, without irony or afterthought, so that it can give full human stature to characters who have no intricacies or pretensions, and can treat a violent passionate explosion with both reticence and candour.