Thursday, 29 September 2016

Postcards from Lawrence Durrell's Avignon

'Onward,' writes Deborah on the back of this postcard as she begins to read The Avignon Quintet.

Some while ago I had an email from a woman called Deborah in America.  She was in the middle of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet and wanted - in fact needed - to talk about it with someone.  When she was finished I suggested she read his Avignon Quintet, though I hedged my suggestion saying she might find it rather loosely constructed, unevenly written, possibly completely awful (I was repeating various remarks I have heard about it), but that I thought there are at least two and a half very good novels within the five, including a powerful and brilliantly observed historical account of the German occupation of Provence during the Second World War.

In the event and right from the start with the first volume, Monsieur, Deborah swept away all my qualifications about the Quintet which she read with a freshness and enthusiasm that reawakened my best feelings about the books. 

For example I had this email about the first volume.

'I enjoyed Monsieur, I certainly did not want to stop reading it.  My bookmark was covered with new words to look up too!  If I have anything to complain about it is my own fault - I was reading it a little more analytically than usual, having read the Alexandria Quartet. Certainly comparisons are inevitable.

'I love Durrell as a writer, and this book is so beautifully written, line for line.  And I admire that Durrell was always trying to do something new with the novel form: I was captivated by the layering of the stories within the book...

'The book is grim, and the clouds of death and mental illness make it, for me, a great read.  It is a book written by an older person. I am in a place to appreciate that.

'I love the complexity of the religious aspect, and having been a zen Buddhist who studied the old koans with a teacher for more than a decade, I was moved by the search, the questioning, the being knocked-off-one's-pins aspect of Piers' religious search.  That rang true. 

'I think Durrell was a wordsmith and poet, as ever.  There are some unforgettable moments, and it is haunting, atmospheric.  I do want, and yet don't want, to read more - if you know what I mean.'

I very much enjoyed getting Deborah's reports, mostly by email, but sometimes very briefly on the backs of postcards.

I like postcards, sending and receiving them, and encouraged Deborah to do the same.  And so a flow of Avignon postcards have passed back and forth between us, in some cases Deborah creating her own.  A selection follows with some of the remarks which Deborah scribbled on the reverse.

'This card has a very different perspective than most Avignon cards. I am experimenting with the "write-over" technique.'

I had told Deborah that it did not matter if the postcard was already written on; just write over it, using an interlinear, or at a right angle, or in a different colour.  Deborah wrote across this one at a right angle in fuschia; the original postcard was first sent in 1935.

'More nightwalking in Livia, with Felix and Blanford both in turmoil together, ending up propped in oil cans in front of a brothel window in the dark.'

'The open windows, the curtains blowing, the smell of lavender in the air.' 

'I am just now exactly halfway through the Quintet.  Sam's death, Freud, Alexandria in the collage with Avignon.'

'Having finished Constance, and in awe of that last chapter, I am carrying Sebastian which has begun with that intriguing gnostic-oriented conversation between the Prince and Affad. Hours of pleasure ahead. From my own experience it was interesting to see Constance enter the world of yoga in Sebastian.'

'I am reading and enjoying Sebastian, thinking about Durrell.'

'The sun is harsh but the shade is dark.  Scent of honeysuckle at dusk.  Plenty of olives.  Don't you wish you were here?'

'This photo with its summerlight does not match the darkness of the Tu Duc chapter I have been re-reading in Constance.  Durrell really captures the cold and darkness of Nazi occupied Avignon - what a contrast to the warm golden days before the war.'

'Here the calendar page turns and we start to feel summer is already behind us.  And soon I will turn the last page of Quinx with its confusion, dancing and startling revelations.'

Deborah took her time over Quinx, as she told me in this email.

'I succumbed, after overnight guests, to a nap, but woke after minutes, so I read Quinx, which has been sorely (and deliberately in some ways) neglected.  I completed the chapter where Sabine reunites (in more ways than one) and leads our characters to the fortune-telling.  What follows is a most engaging stream of dream as they head off to Avignon - almost like riding off to the underworld - I loved it.

'I really don't want this series to end.'

A few days later another email.

'I meant to say before I came down with this cold (I have had no rest and the most fitful sleep) that I found I had very little to say at the end of Quinx.  I found it to be a very satisfying ending, and I am basking in all the bits and pieces which I enjoyed very much. 

'The Constance volume is of course the climax of the whole quintet, but what comes before and after is quite curious and engrossing.  It will stay with me for a long time.

'Blanford says "And here I was hoping not only to tell the truth but also to free the novel a bit from the shackles of causality....An impossible task you always tell me, but the higher the risk the greater the promise!"

'I think Durrell succeeded.'