Monsieur by Lawrence Durrell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”I dozed on my bed until sunrise and then set out resolutely to find a coffee, traversing the old city with affection and distress, hearing my own sharp footsteps on the pavements, disembodied as a ghost. Avignon! Its shabby lights and sneaking cats were the same as ever; overturned dustbins, the glitter of fish scales, olive oil, broken glass, a dead scorpion. All the time we had been away on our travels round the world it had stayed pegged here at the confluence of its two green rivers. The past embalmed it, the present could not alter it. So many years of going away and coming back, of remembering and forgetting it. It had always waited for us, floating among its tenebrous monuments, the corpulence of its ragged bells, the putrescence of its squares.”
We first meet Bruce Drexel when he is traveling home to Avignon after learning of the “suicide” of his best friend, Piers, who was more like a brother to him. In fact, he was his brother-in-law as Bruce is married to Piers’ sister Sylvie. The three of them were close, so close that idle speculation might allude to the fact that Bruce married Sylvie only to be closer to Piers (his lover). Their friend Rob Sutcliffe was so struck by their entwined relationship that he made them the subject of one of his novels. Sutcliffe, too, has perished, but his lingering shadow keeps slithering along the walls of the plot, long after he has gone, by way of his notebooks and letters. Given that I am an amateur reviewer, I couldn’t help, but laugh at his description of reviewers. ”The reviews of his new book were all bad or grudging. A critic is a lug-worm in the liver of literature.”
I can’t imagine that Lawrence Durrell ever had to suffer bad reviews, of course not.
This lug-worm in the liver of literature will squirm on.
The fact that Bruce was returning from a post far from the gothic dilapidated halls of Verfeuille and his wife Sylvie left behind begs the question of the current status of their relationship, and with Piers now gone, is the connection too tenuous to continue? There was once passion. ”When I closed my eyes the darkness throbbed around us and once more I returned to relive, re-experience the soft scroll of her tongue which pressed back mine and probed steadily downwards across chest and stomach to settle at last, throbbing like a hummingbird on my sex. I held that beautiful head between my palms like something disembodied, and rememorised the dark hair cropped down, and then spurred up into its chignon, the crumpled ears of a new-born lamb, the white teeth and lips upon which I would soon slowly and deliberately graft back my happy kisses.”
The soft scroll of her tongue and then throbbing like a hummingbird --quick, someone dash a pail of ice cold water in my face. Let me just say, it has been too long since I’ve read Durrell, but what I do remember from reading him before is the weight of every one of his sentences. His words choices are lush and unusual. His supporting characters are all fascinating, and each adds new levels of interest to the plot and, in some cases, new insight into the trinity of main characters. ”Toby as a victim of the historical virus could not look at the town without seeing it historically, so to speak--layer after layer of history laid up in slices, embodied in its architecture.” As another sufferer of the historical virus, Toby and I would be fast friends or fast enemies if our interpretations of history differed. Or maybe Piers and I would have been that special kind of friends for our mutual love of books. ”Though he had always been a bit of a dandy his choice of apparel was scanty, but choice, with a distinct leaning towards clothes made for him in London. A couple of medium-sized trunks were enough to house personal possessions of this kind; but the books were a different matter--Piers could not live without books, and plenty of them. This explained the sagging home-made bookshelves knocked together from pieces of crate.”
Probably about 80% of the bookshelves in my house have been knocked together by myself, not of crate, but of cheap pine. I build shelves myself because I have to take advantage of every square inch of my library, so shelves are designed to go from ceiling to floor to not lose precious book inches.
The characters are so interesting, do we even need a plot? Indeed, we do. The issue really revolves around: ”Trash was taking an English lesson with a French whore who had the longest tongue in Christendom. What happiness he knew, in all his innocence, what pride in this girl with the slit of a mouth--so spoiled and gracile a slender body.” Ok, I’m just messing with you. The plot does not revolve around the whore with the longest tongue. Though once you read those couple of sentences, one can’t help pondering the benefits of having such a long tongue, given her chosen profession.
The trio of Bruce, Sylvie, and Piers met a guru who led them into the deserts of Egypt for a mind expanding experience with the help of mind altering drugs. Akkad then infused his discussions with pearls of infinite wisdom that made it seem that he may possess the answers to all the greatest questions. They were all impressed, but Piers felt like he had finally found what he had been looking for his whole life. Something larger than himself to believe in. Is it a religion, a philosophy, or a cult? The most successful spiritual organizations manage to blend some of all three.
The circumstances of Piers’s suicide were, needless to say, suspicious. Unless he found and ordered a do-it-yourself guillotine kit or figured out how to rig a flashing blade with springs and levers, then someone had to help him, or should I say murder him? As Bruce pulled the pieces together, it became more and more clear that the cult in the desert may have very well had a hand in executing, as Piers liked to call himself, the last of the Templars.
The subtitle of this novel is
The Prince of Darkness
, and certainly there are gothic overtones throughout the whole novel. The setting is around World War Two, but the book has a decided Victorian feel to it. There is more light in the world in the 1940s, but this novel definitely feels like a time when darkness was only lightened by flickering candles and dancing gas flames. The writing, as I’ve mentioned, is so evocative and so succulent that I had black ink on my teeth and (normal lengthed) tongue as I masticated each sentence, trying to steal Durrell’s vast talent...and make it mine.
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