The next post will be on or before Monday 27th February. You can always write to me about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org
There is a remarkable and unforgettable set piece at the start of the 1958 Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) the novel being part of the famously sultry and luxuriant Alexandrian Quartet which took dour and puritanical late 50s, early 60s UK by storm. In those days over in Blighty we had the waspish if ultimately ever more blimpish wit of Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) or that other Angry Young Man, John Wain(1925-1994) author of Hurry on Down (1953) with their knockabout comic settings in the stuffy provinces or deracinated London bedsits. Alternatively if you wanted to sample gritty things up north, there was the glaringly soft-centred antithesis of Stan Barstow (1928-2011) and his 1960 novel A Kind of Loving, with its sentimental (if prone to vomiting when drunk) hero Vic in grim industrial Wakefield. The expat Durrell instead presented us with a steamily exotic Egyptian milieu, and a heady mixture of high and low society adultery, in tandem with learned discussion of the esoteric Kabbala alongside minute psychological examination of the tormented femme fatale, Justine. Across the four novels (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea) her tragic if alluring character is forensically analysed via the decorous if pessimistic deliberations of Nessim, her husband; Balthazar the homosexual doctor and Kabbalist; Justine’s narrator the young Irish teacher Darley who is anxiously having an affair with her, and Arnaut, an Albanian who has written a fictionalised account of their anguished time together called Moeurs.
In that highly potent set piece mentioned above, the young British diplomat of the title, Mountolive is out with his friend Nessim, a wealthy Egyptian banker and Oxford graduate on a late-night fishing expedition, along with Nessim’s strange and rather frightening brother Narouz, a moody and unpredictable farm overseer who has a hare lip and a vivid scar on his face. They are on a lake on the vast family estate in the pitch dark, along with numerous servants, and are shining lights to lure the fish to the surface. The fish rise up in droves into the surrounding nets, but so also do the roosting birds nearby, awoken by all the commotion. Hundreds of huge herons and cormorants and the like flock down upon the fishermen and their tempting catch, and great care is needed or like Narouz whose face had once been opened up by a vicious beak, or one of his unfortunate servants who had lost an eye, Mountolive might well regret this exhilarating late-night adventure.
Afterwards they return to where the two brothers had tethered their horses, and waiting there on horseback is Leila their beautiful and bookish mother who is in her early forties. She has a horse ready for the Englishman, and the two of them follow well behind her two sons, and soon are covertly holding hands, so that we realise with some surprise, given the age difference, the period, and the fact we are in rural Egypt, that the two of them are having an affair. In fact, as Leila explains rather impatiently at one point, Mountolive need not be afraid of discovery, it was her husband who actually encouraged her to start the liaison. Two decades older than Leila, Nessim’s father is victim of some awful degenerative disease and is wheelchair bound, and understandably frightened that she might leave him, he decides that the young British diplomat might be a safe bet to keep her content in their remote and unvisited estate.
Later Mountolive commits an awful blunder when at the dinner table he dozily refers to his hosts as ‘Muslims’. They are indeed he remembers 2 seconds too late, Coptic Christians, and while Leila and her sons smile politely at his slip, the invalid father turns angry and starts a powerful lecture on the tragic decline of the Copts once Egypt came under British rule. Before that period, the religious minority were greatly respected, had no differences whatever with the tolerant Muslims, and they held some of the highest and most trusted offices of state; judges, chancellors and the like. Once the British arrived, they slyly chose to set the two faiths against each other, and before long Copts were excluded from all important positions, and if they wished to prosper could only, like his son Nessim, become wealthy bankers and little else.
I tell you all this at such length, not because I am writing about Lawrence Durrell, but instead about that fickle and troublesome, yet highly useful, not to say invaluable thing, known as Memory. You would agree I think that the material above, the nocturnal expedition on the lake, the clamorous hungry birds, the secret hand holding with handsome Leila, the angry old invalid, is all infinitely memorable or as I wrote deliberately in the first line is ‘unforgettable’. At which point then I have to hang my head in embarrassment and start by saying that I read Mountolive for the first time in the autumn of 1969, when the Quartet was the very first work of fiction I sampled as an Oxford student. I then read it a second time in early 2016, a mere 47 years later, after picking it up as an extremely worn and tattered American copy from a 2nd hand bookshop in Athens. Reasonably enough I couldn’t remember a thing about it after almost half a century. But then perusing it a 3rd time by which I mean within the last day or two, and only one year after my 2nd reading, the embarrassment stems from the fact that as I re-read it I recalled nothing whatever of the details I have given you above; the fish netting, the hungry birds, the servant losing his eye, the adultery, the angry old invalid, I didn’t recall a damn thing from only 12 months ago!
At first I began to feel a certain fearful consternation, the onset of dementia perhaps, brain softening because of enjoying cut price Greek red wine (and copious modicums or do I mean modica of wondrously cheap Greek white wine, if I’m being ruthlessly honest) rather too wholeheartedly. However, in my experience, damn near everyone over the age of 40 soon starts to fret about their memory, in the same way that every woman I know aged between 20 and 80, whether they be emaciated, skinny, average, ample or obese, worries that they are embarrassingly overweight. Real dementia is of course no joke, and is not about forgetting novel plots, or whether it was that hunk Matt Damon or that hunk Matt Dillon you saw in the film last year, but about e.g. forgetting your own name, your spouse’s name, where you live, and thinking that whatever you were doing or misdoing in 1964 or 1984 is happening now and for real in 2017.
By contrast, I have been having memory lapses of an often innocuous, even farcical, albeit maddening kind since my mid-forties. 2 weeks ago, for example, I couldn’t for the life of me remember the surname of the American who wrote the whaling saga Moby Dick (1851). I could remember that his first handle was Herman and after that in true irreverent style my so-called brain heard ‘Munster’, ‘and the Hermits’, ‘Hesse’ and ‘Wouk’(author of the 1951 The Caine Mutiny who amazingly is still alive at 101!), but it was a full and exasperating hour until the right surname of the literary giant Melville (1819-1891) came smiling up at me. Of a similar randomness was the way 20 odd years ago, I would sometimes embark on the extremely fascinating anecdote that my favourite of all my own novels Radio Activity (1993) was printed in the capital of Slovakia for reasons of economy. I would add that I was greatly intrigued and baffled by this, and had witlessly asked the publisher how the hell they would post all those thousands of copies to the UK, and that surely that it would cost a bloody fortune? Of course Mike Blackburn of Sunk Island guffawed loudly to hear this, and said that no, every week a huge transit van left the Slovakian capital full of books printed in German, French and English and ultimately ended up in London where another courier would be delivering Radio Activity to Mike’s Lincoln door. And yes indeed, a colourful anecdote when you think of the disparate provenances of remote industrial West Cumbria, predominantly Catholic and peasant Slovakia, and capital of the fens and proud of its majestic cathedral, Lincoln.
The only problem with my gripping anecdote was I could never for the life of me remember the Slovakian capital’s name, and it all sounded a bit fey and ineffectual to resort to the feeble circumlocution of ‘the c of S’ (imagine sheepishly blurting ‘that oh so well-known capital of Britain’ or ‘the illustrious and legendary and much loved capital of France’ because your brain had suddenly decided to go to sleep). Worse still I had always greatly prided myself on knowing the names of more foreign capitals than is sane or healthy, and reliably in any crowded room was the only one who knew that Honduras’s is Tegucigalpa, that Togoland’s is Lome, that Gabon’s is Libreville and that Niger’s is Niamey. This was in part because around 1959 when I was 8, I was busy saving a wonderful free series called Flags of the World from the eponymous bubble gum packets, and chewed and snorted and blew my way through so much bubble gum I eventually amassed the full set, complete with such a pretty little album. They were small but magical cards of about 2 and a half by 3 inches, with a coloured drawing of e.g. a typical Albanian or Nigerian or Mongolian child on the front, alongside an inset flag, and on the reverse were revealed enthralling facts about the language spoken, the population, the capital, and the main crops and industries, if any. That all took about a quarter of the space, and above it, were some mesmerising phonetic phrases in Albanian, Farsi, Swahili, Mongolian etc. Blame Flags of the World then, I am subtly trying to hint at you, for the fact that about a decade later I was reading something as practical and infinitely fit for the job market as Sanskrit and Avestan and Old Persian at Oxford.
Flags of the World. Their like will surely never be seen again, for they don’t make children’s bubble gum like that these days, do they? They were right enough the only good thing about 1959, and yet like one’s fragile memory, whether fertile or faulty, they are and were definitely something worth cherishing
The capital of Slovakia, where my novel was printed, is of course Bratislava. Because of continued and infuriating inability over about a decade to remember its name, eventually I wrote it on a bit of paper and posted it above my North Cumbrian desk. I have never since had any problems (with remembering Bratislava I mean. I have had problems enough with plenty of other things….)
I realise all of a sudden why I had failed to recall all of those unforgettable scenes in Mountolive. By way of illustration, at the same time that I purchased it in Athens, I also bought 2 second hand Iris Murdoch novels, The Sandcastle (1957) and A Severed Head (1961). As with Mountolive I have read both of those books twice in the last 12 months, and in both cases soon recalled nearly all of the contents at the beginning of the second reading. Indeed, I could if you asked me now give a fair summary of the plot in both cases. And that is my considered point. Those Murdoch novels for all of their mannered eccentricity and improbable and borderline gothic storylines, are strongly plotted, and those plots, barmy as they are, effortlessly stick in the mind. Durrell’s novels by contrast are very thin on plot and very strong on highly intellectual and philosophical secondary sources, by which I mean when the narrator or author Durrell qua narrator, is regularly quoting someone like genius novelist Pursewarden, or sage Balthazar or husband Nessim on the fatal and problematic nature of Justine, whose tragedy was that she was raped while young by a mysterious assailant whose identity she refuses to reveal. In the same way, Leila ultimately discourages Mountolive when it comes to their affair, and writes him mile-long letters deliberating about the complex and unplumbable nuances of their relationship, and about her own unreachable nature and therefore the inadvisability of their continued carnal liaison, and perhaps just perhaps that they would be better off as good friends…
The architecture of Durrell’s kind of fiction is subtle and original and ingenious, but unlike a Gothic plot it is alas infinitely forgettable. You remember the heady flavour, but you do not remember the headless substance. Which just possibly explains why the 1969 film adaptation of Justine directed by George Cukor and Joseph Strick, was quite so dreadful. Without a strongly plotted source or any imaginative replacement, and even with the talents of Anouk Aimee (born 1932) as Justine, Dirk Bogarde (1921-1999) as Pursewarden, and Philippe Noiret (1930-2006) as Pombal it just wavered and wandered, and was stupefyingly dull .So much so, that I believe that I actually walked out of the Moulin Rouge cinema in Oxford before it ended.