Saturday, 13 December 2003
Lawrence Durrell: Tunc (1968)
Review number: 1204
The titles of the two novels which together are known as The Revolt of Aphrodite are taken from a Latin quotation familiar in translation - "It was then, or never". This fact is one which either you know or which you find out when you read the second, an action which generally makes Tunc rather clearer.
For here we are not staying in the relatively accessible territory of The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell's best known collection of novels. Indeed, the first seventy pages or so of Tunc are extremely difficult to read and through their concentration on words as words rather than as constituent parts of a narrative serves as a reminder that their author first made his literary name as a poet. The novel settles down a bit after this, though it is still possible to discern the influence of James Joyce and the techniques of stream of consciousness writing.
The narrator, Felix Charlock, is an inventor, who is involved in the early days of electronic engineering - at the start of the novel, he has developed a miniature sound recorder which he is using to tape voices for analysis on a primitive computer. While Cryptonomicon fans might be interested in this in itself, it is not particularly important to the story exactly what his inventions are, though the snatches of speech he records are used as an element of the novel's text. What is important is that he attracts the interest of the mysterious Merlin corporation, and falls for the daughter of one of its senior executives.
Charlock becomes involved with Merlin without knowing much about the company, and spends most of the second half of the novel trying to understand just what he has got himself into. He is confused by things like the executive always available by phone but completely elusive physically, or the company's involvement with one of his former mistresses, now a film star, or the possible reappearance of a former employee who had been reported dead. This gives the second half of the novel something of the air of an investigation into a secret society, like John Fowles' The Magus or even the Illuminatus trilogy.
Apart from Joyce, parts of this novel remind me of Iris Murdoch, or Durrell's own Alexandria Quartet. (The Avignon Quintet, which is even more similar, was written later, as was The Magus.) It is well worth making the effort to read the earlier sections, set in Athens and Istanbul; once the action moves to London, the more prosaic background is reflected in the less poetic writing. Without the sequel, there is much which doesn't get explained (the titles of both the books and the pairing for one thing, make little sense in relation to the content of this novel), so reading Tunc is likely to be quickly followed by reading Nunquam.