Monday, June 25, 2018

Lawrence Durrell's Mountolive

And it's on to Mountolive, the conventional one.

This, the third novel of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, came out in 1958, and was the second of the quartet to come out that year. According to Ian MacNiven's biography of Durrell, he'd been meditating the subject of the quartet for almost two decades when he began to write it in earnest. It was going to be set in Athens for a while rather than Alexandria, though that's hard to imagine--it seems so tied to its place. But when he started to write in earnest, he didn't slack off: he wrote four volumes, totalling a bit over 1100 pages in my edition, in something like two years. Zoom, zoom.

Mountolive is the conventional one in two senses: it is written in a more staid (as staid as Durrell ever gets I suspect) third person which mostly moves forward in time instead of bopping around. But also because David Mountolive, later Sir David, is a conventional man, especially by the standards of the Alexandria Quartet circle. He's a professional diplomat who eventually becomes the British ambassador to Egypt. He has his love affair, too--love is the avowed theme of the quartet--with the mother of the rich Coptic banker Nessim Hosnani, but in the end turns away from it. And, as fits a story about a diplomat, this novel reveals a political dimensions to events of the first two novels--the death of Capodistria, the flight of Justine, the death of Narouz Hosnani--that first seemed motivated by amorous passions. It adds another layer of complexity to the characters and to the story, something all to the good.

But while Durrell in his real life worked in minor diplomatic roles, he's not at heart a diplomat. He hangs out with demimonde artists and prostitutes, the lost and the damned. Staid conventionality doesn't come naturally to him. Agents and spies in minor European capitols or colonial outposts suggest Eric Ambler or Alan Furst and Durrell just doesn't do it as well. There were moments in this one when I wasn't really convinced.

Of Sir David:
He could not even feel happy without feeling guilty.
Now Durrell was not a stupid man, and to simplify is to falsify, but that's the problem as he sees it in a nutshell: one should be in love, be honest about sex, and be happy without letting guilt get in the way. But I think Brave New World is more like the world today: we feel guilty when we're unhappy, not when we're happy. Here: why don't you just have some soma?

Ah, well, I wasn't reading it for the philosophy, but for the talk and the scenery and the prose.

I've finished Clea, with more thoughts to go. I need to get posting!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

E. C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case

"I suppose everybody has at least heard of Trent's Last Case."
Dorothy Sayers wrote that in an undated talk she was going to give on radio but didn't. It may once have been true, but I doubt it is anymore, even among serious readers of mysteries. Trent's Last Case by E. C. Bentley came out in 1913, it was the first Trent case Bentley wrote, and Bentley wrote only two more. There aren't a lot of them and it's a long time ago. Its fame has long since yielded to obscurity.

Which is kind of a pity.

Part of its importance is just because it came early, it's true. Trent, a painter and a newspaper reporter, is supposed to be a genius detective and we're told of other difficult cases he solved for which he revealed his solution in the Record, a London newspaper. He may be a genius detective, but in this one he's wrong not once, but twice, a trick picked up by Ellery Queen on more than one occasion. And Trent falls in love with a suspect, which definitely was an influence on Dorothy Sayers herself, cf. Strong Poison, and it was a motif that went on to have a long history, going from the innocent and hardly suspected Mrs. Manderson in this one to the accused Harriet Vane in Strong Poison, to Sam Spade's actually guilty of something love Brigid O'Shaughnessy in Maltese Falcon, to the even guiltier love object of Kinsey Millhone in Sue Grafton's 'A' Is For Alibi.

The setup is this:  the first chapter tells us Sigsbee Manderson is a big man in finance; the second that he's dead, shot through the eye. Who did it? He was estranged from his wife and he was ferociously jealous of John Marlowe his personal secretary. He'd also created enemies among the American labor movement; they had a long reach; was it some American anarchist who killed him? This came out a year before Arthur Conan Doyle's Valley of Fear, another novel where the long arm of American labor was featured, and I wondered if it was an influence there as well, though it may be that Pinkerton's and Haymarket rioters were simply in the air.

Or was it somebody else entirely? I suspect you know the answer to that question, even if you haven't read it.

Anyway, it was pretty good, I thought. A little overwritten at the start, but then it settled down. There was some rom, but it was a little lacking in com, which is a pity and a surprise since the C in E. C. Bentley stands for Clerihew, also the name of a comic verse form he invented:
George The Third
Ought never to have occurred.
One can only wonder
At so grotesque a blunder.
Vintage Mystery Challenge. Gold.  Why. Best Of List.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Lawrence Durrell's Balthazar

"I love the French edition with its uncut pages. I would not want a reader too lazy to use a knife on me."

A bit of bravado on Lawrence Durrell's part? It's ostensibly an obiter dicta of Pursewarden, but Pursewarden is one of two novelist characters in the series, both of whom are, in different ways, stand-ins for Durrell.

In any case, I'm not inclined to take up the challenge; I like the series and it's more commented upon (both good and bad) than read I'm sure; and no doubt more neglected than either of those choices. So, no knife.

Balthazar (1958) is the second of the novels of the Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet and it operates as a corrective to the first; without the corrective it would be all too easy to take Justine as just the romantic blatherskite of some not very successful decadent writer. It's not, but it does impersonate such a thing pretty well.

Darley, the other novelist character in the series, with the same initials as Lawrence G. Durrell, has written a first volume Justine and sent it off to friends for comment. Mostly they neglect it, but one, Balthazar, a homosexual Greek doctor of their circle in Alexandria, drops in on him with the text marked up as the "Great Interlinear," and Darley learns a lot of what he wrote in the first volume was untrue. So he writes a new book covering the same period of time with this new information.

The most important corrective is that Darley, who was in love with Justine in the first volume, assumed Justine was in turn in love with him. But Balthazar says she loved Pursewarden and Darley himself was just a decoy or a substitute. He needs to rethink everything that happened.

Durrell writes in a brief headnote:
The characters and situations in this novel, the second of a group--a sibling, not a sequel to Justine--are entirely imaginary, as is the personality of the narrator. Nor could the city be less unreal. 
Modern literature offers us no Unities, so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition. 
Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix of a continuum. The four novels follow this pattern. 
The three first parts, however, are to be deployed spatially (hence the use of "sibling" not "sequel") and are not linked in a serial form. They interlap, interweave, in a purely spatial relation. Time is stayed. The fourth part alone will represent time and be a true sequel.
That makes it sound more precious than it is; perhaps the use of 'soup-mix' will give us the right sense of Durrell's attitude to his plan. In any case there's a quote (Auden, I think?) about an author's theory of his own work: that it is merely so much scaffolding towards the construction, and it should be kicked away at the end to allow the building to be appreciated on its own.

The Other Reader asked if this going-over made it dull and my answer was no. (I am unable to say how anyone might react to Durrell's hothouse prose style, though; it is an exotic taste.) Durrell likes big events; the first novel ends with a hunt scene in which Darley is worried an accident is being arranged for him--Justine's husband suspects. And in fact another character is killed (or murdered or something) during the hunt. Balthazar also ends with a grand set piece, at Carnival, and again one of the characters is murdered, with a subsequent investigation. Though the two novels cover the same period of time there is more than enough difference in the events to keep it interesting; Durrell manages his structure quite well. The third, Mountolive, begins a little before the events of the first two but then covers the same time period; it, too, has a big set piece and it, too, gives a number of picturesque travel details about Alexandria and Egypt. So, yes, it's a pretty good read.

Another of Pursewarden's so-called Obiter Dicta:
"I have always believed in letting my reader sink or skim."
Go ahead and read it fast, perhaps, but there's no need to skim.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

12th Annual CanBook Challenge Signup

Another book-reading challenge, because there aren't yet enough of them that I'm behind on...

Melwyk at The Indextrious Reader is currently hosting a challenge to read 13 Canadian books in a year, from Canada Day (July 1st) to Canada Day. I'm in for the new year.

Right now I have no idea what the thirteen books I will read are, though there's a Matt Cohen I just picked up at a Little Free Library on the top of my book pile. In any case here are their placeholders:

1.) Peter Robinson's The Hanging Valley
2.) Carol Shields' Jane Austen
3.) Françcois Blais' Document 1
4.) L. R. Wright's The Suspect
5.) Myrl Coulter's The Left-Handed Dinner Party and other stories
6.) Ewan Whyte's Desire Lines: Essays
7.) Cora Siré's Behold Things Beautiful
8.) Ronald Bates' The Wandering World
9.) Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale
10.) Randy Boyagoda's Original Prin
11.) Gabriella Goliger's Girl Unwrapped
12.) Cora Siré's The Other Oscar
13.) Endre Farkas' Never, Again
14.) Saul Bellow's Dangling Man

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Lawrence Durrell's Justine

Justine is the first volume of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. It came out in 1957 and was the beginning of a boomlet to give Lawrence Durrell the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Durrell was one of those writers for whom the world would be saved by honest talk about sex. With that attitude, of course he was influenced by Freud. D. H. Lawrence, I'd say, stands at the head of this tradition in English, and Henry Miller, a great friend of Durrell's, is of the camp. Mostly men, but you could possibly add Durrell and Miller's friend Anais Nin. Justine's name is taken from the novel by de Sade, and each of the four books in the series begins with a quote from de Sade's Justine, though Durrell picks quotes more philosophical than prurient. (Knowing de Sade only by reputation, I'm not sure how difficult that is.) Thinking honestly about sex will save the world is an attitude that's hard to accept any more, though there may remain some truth in it for sexually marginalized communities. But if Durrell's outlook is now passé, can the novel series still work? Let's look into it!

The novel is told (mostly) in the first person voice of Darley, a writer still unsuccessful as of the time of the story. He falls in love with Justine, the Jewish-born wife of Nessim, a wealthy Copt banker. This is the main love triangle. Other characters include Clea, a painter, who previously had a love affair with Justine and is still pining for her; Pursewarden, a much more successful novelist; Pombal, a French diplomat and Darley's roommate, who passes on recommended prostitutes to Darley; Balthazar, an aging Greek homosexual doctor; Melissa, an exotic dancer dying of tuberculosis; and Scobie, a cross-dressing policeman. Quite a cross-section of ethnic and sexual types.

There are also extensive quotations from Jacob Arnauti, another novelist, a French-Albanian, who was previously married to Justine and wrote a roman à clef about her called Moeurs, though he himself has left the scene. With quotes from Moeurs and from Justine's diary and reports of Nessim's dreams set in a historical time, Durrell as Darley allows himself to jump around in time and POVs. But it all occurs in a rather elaborate hothouse prose:
We turn a corner and the world becomes a pattern of arteries, splashed with silver and deckle-edged with shadow. At this end of Kom El Dick not a soul abroad save an occasional obsessive policeman, lurking like a guilty wish in the city's mind...Pursewarden is speaking of the book which he has always wanted to write, and of the difficulty which besets a city-man when he faces a work of art.
Chosen relatively at random, but that's not unrepresentative.

Durrell was also a travel writer and writes well about places. I read his Bitter Lemons about Cyprus a while ago and liked it. I don't know Alexandria, but this felt exotic and he convinces.

Though this is basically not a funny book, but a melodrama, the diplomatic corps does provide some humor. The Other Reader and I both read Durrell's Antrobus stories and laughed at the Woosterish absurdity of British diplomats in Serbia and other places. That also shows up here in parts.

Despite the sometime elaborateness of the prose, and the tendency of multiple characters to speak in epigrams, I think it's a book best read quickly. It's also probably a book best read when you're young, which I'm certainly not now, and wasn't really when I first read the book twenty years ago. If you were young, you could read it for the talk about sex and literature. Nowadays I already have opinions about D. H. Lawrence and Joris-Karl Huysmans. But when you're young and don't know anything, and you come from the provinces, (well, lower-middle-class Chicago, north side near the lake, but not on the lake) you want to know about these things, you want to hear people talking about them, because nobody you know does.

Durrell doesn't really do irony in micro, but he does in macro, and this short novel, 250 pages in my edition, if read by itself, could feel like it fits the dismissive description of the Nobel Prize committee notes: 'monomaniacal preoccupations with erotic complications.' But reading it quick and moving on to the second (and third and fourth) of the series while the first in your head successfully complicates what might otherwise be taken as a rather simplistic novel. I read the quartet the first time in eleven days, on a road trip to Cape Cod, where the other guests at my father-in-law's getaway, a couple older than us, said, "Oh, yes, we read that. We liked it," rather dismissively. That felt very cosmopolitan, very Durrellian. I'll probably take longer than eleven days this time because who has the concentration? There are blog posts to write, Tracey Breaks The News episodes to watch, news items to get outraged over. Still I've finished the second already as I write this (Balthazar) and have started the third (Mountolive). They do successfully complicate the characters begun in the first novel. They are meant to be read as a series. The Other Reader asked me, which is the best? And I hawed and hemmed for a bit, but I couldn't say: in fact, any one by itself has merits, but the series has to be read as a whole for maximum impact. It's only a thousand pages. (Said with a smile.)

There are a number of reasons why I reread this series now, but one of them is I just finished Ian MacNiven's biography of Durrell from the Toronto Public Library. They only had one copy and I was worried they were about to decommission it; I've had that happen before. But also, via Kat's Mirabile Dictu blog, I read this. Which made me want to reread the Alexandria Quartet and maybe also pull some of the unread Durrell off my shelf.

So do I recommend it? Well, yes, I do.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Olga Tokarczuk's Flights

Two weeks ago the Polish author Olga Tokarczuk's Flights won this year's Man Booker International Prize. Now there's a reason to finish a book I started a while ago...

That's a little unfair, though, because it gives the impression I disliked the book, which isn't true. What is true is that it offers somewhat fewer of the simple narrative pleasures--though not none; it can be essayistic and is not particularly a page turner; there are epigrammatic sections like the following:
A Very Long Quarter Of An Hour
On the plane between 8:45 and 9 a.m. To my mind, it took an hour, or even longer.
Which is amusing, but may not advance the story much.

The frame narrative is told by an unnamed character who, I suppose, is very much like Olga Tokarczuk in person. She travels to conferences on planes and she talks to people in her travels. The stories she is told in these conversations get embedded in the overall narrative. And here Tokarczuk is good at the basic pleasures of storytelling. A woman disappears for a few days with her son during a vacation in Croatia; the narrative follows her husband, who worries, and then becomes jealously obsessed. Another woman, a Russian, is saddled with a handicapped son and a husband back from some war suffering from PTSD. She tries homelessness for a few days. In a third story, a dying man calls on his ex-lover to administer a mercy killing; she sneaks off, leaving her husband for a few days, pretending she's going to a conference on her subject.

I can see how all these fit into our theme of flights.

But then there's a recurring strand about the preservation of bodies. Mummification and the like. Body parts preserved in bottles. This is more gothic in nature, though it's not treated exploitatively, but dispassionately. Chopin's heart after his death is smuggled into Poland. The most extensive of these was the story of Philip Verheyen who in the seventeenth century wrote and illustrated the first comprehensive description of human anatomy. Interesting enough I suppose, though it occasionally pinched at my squeamishness. I also couldn't see how these stories connected to the general theme. They just seemed to stand off to the side.

So I liked it but with reservations. I didn't read any of the competition so I can't say whether the judging committee chose well or poorly. If you like things like The Man Without Qualities or W. G. Sebald this should suit.