Friday, 9 January 2004

Lawrence Durrell: Nunquam (1970)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1971 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1210

The completion of The Revolt of Aphrodite begins, like its predecessor Tunc, with a section which is poetic and hard to read. Yet its purpose is the opposite; Tunc is intended to lure the reader with mystification while Nunquam illuminates what was previously obscure. So here the difficult prose has a rationale which is soon revealed to the reader: it is a kind of journal written by Felix Charlock (the narrator of both novels) while he is being treated in a mental hospital after killing his own son believing the boy to the the fruit of his wife's suspected infidelity with the mysterious Julian.

The sort of revealing detail that Durrell includes in Nunquam is exemplified by the moment when the narrator describes writing "Felix amat Benedicta", and the reader suddenly realises that this is not just a pretentious way for him to express his love for his wife but also a pointer to an allegorical role for these two characters, as it reminds him/her that their names mean "happy" and "blessed". It didn't occur to me to think of the characters in this way until this point (though arguably it should have done), and this it was a sentence which transformed my understanding of both novels. The two characters are unusual allegorical figures, of course, because their experiences and natures leave them in an almost permanent state of seeming neither happy nor blessed. The Revolt of Aphrodite is revealed to be a sardonic, cynical, symbolic drama.

The plot of Nunquam, once Felix is judged cured and able to return to his work for Merlin, is basically a retelling of Frankenstein. Felix's former lover, the film star Iolanthe, is dead, but Merlin decides to use her as a prototype in a project to create a mechanical being, aiming to recreate her appearance, memories and personality. This part of the story also clearly fits into some kind of symbolic and satirical picture of modern society, even if its precise meaning is not so clear. (The purpose of this section is more obviously satirical than most of the rest of the pair of novels, though the whole is about the emptiness of modern capitalism.) Durrell uses his update of the Frankenstein story to paint a pretty negative view of science; for example, Felix imagines the laboratory complex as looking rather like Belsen, and its name evokes the idea that the engineers are just playing (their motivation for recreating Iolanthe is indeed quite vague).

There was still a lot I didn't fully understand about The Revolt of Aphrodite (for three reasons: some things are deliberately left obscure; others will become clear only on a second or third reading; and others require background I do not have, particularly of Spengler's Decline of the West on which the novels are a commentary in fictional form). Nevertheless, Tunc and Nunquam have both had a deep effect on me, and are going to remain with me for a long time.

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