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About the Author
Born in Jalandhar, British India, in 1912 to Indian-born British colonials, Lawrence Durrell was a critically hailed and beloved novelist, poet, humorist, and travel writer best known for the Alexandria Quartet novels, which were ranked by the Modern Library as among the greatest works of English literature in the twentieth century. A passionate and dedicated writer from an early age, Durrell’s prolific career also included the groundbreaking Avignon Quintet, whose first novel, Monsieur (1974), won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and whose third novel, Constance (1982), was nominated for the Booker Prize. He also penned the celebrated travel memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (1957), which won the Duff Cooper Prize. Durrell corresponded with author Henry Miller for forty-five years, and Miller influenced much of his early work, including a provocative and controversial novel, The Black Book (1938). Durrell died in France in 1990.
Read an Excerpt
or Solitary Practices
By Lawrence Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
In the beginning the two tall gate-towers of medieval Avignon, the Gog and Magog of its civic life, were called Quiquenparle and Quiquengrogne. Through them the citizens of this minor Rome passed by day and night, just as memories or questions or sensations might pass through the brain of some sleeping Pope. The clappers of the great belfries defied the foul fiend with their rumbling clamour. The shivering vibrations fanned out below them, thinning the blood to deafness for those in the street. It was quite a different matter when the tocsin sounded – it made a gradually increasing roar such as a forest fire might do, or else sounded like the vicious hum of warlike bees in a heating bottle. He had lived so long with them as history that now, half-starved as he was, the very war sirens seemed to resemble them. After the tremendous beating he had endured – to the point of unconsciousness – he had been thrown into a damp cell in the fortress and attached to the wall with such science that he could not completely lie down, for they had hobbled his neck to a ring in the wall, as well as pinioning his elbows. Quatrefages had now reached a stage of blessed amnesia when all his various aches and pains had merged into one great overwhelming distress which elicited its own anaesthesia. He had subsided in ruins on the floor, and leaned his head against the wall; but the rope was just short, by intention. The pressure on his carotid, in a paradoxical sort of way, kept him from going out altogether. He heard the soft rumbling of military vehicles as they mounted the cobbled slope and rolled down into the garrison square; the rubber wheels slithered and the engines roared in and out of gear. For him it was as if a long line of knights were riding away by torchlight upon some heroic Templar adventure; the garble of horses' hooves upon the cobbled drawbridge bade them goodbye. A sort of vision, born of his fatigue and pain, allowed him to delve into the real subject-matter of his life – for it was he who was documenting the Templar heresy and hoping to run down clues as to the whereabouts of the possibly mythical treasure. Now he had fallen into the hands of the new Inquisition, though the priests of the day wore field-grey and bore swastikas as badges and amulets. With them death had come of age. So this was to be the outcome of his long search – to be tortured to reveal secrets he did not possess! When he laughed in a desperate hysteria they had smacked him across the mouth, knocking his teeth into his throat. But all this came much later....
As for Constance and Sam, they were not alone, for the whole world seemed to be saying goodbye; yet the present was still a small limbo of absolute content, of peace, among the vines. The high tide of a Provençal summer would soon be narrowing down towards a champion harvest which must certainly rot, for by now the harvesters had almost all been called to arms, leaving only the women and children and the old to confront these other armies of peaceful vines. There they stood, the plants, in all their sturdiness, staring up into a sky of blue glass, with all their plumage of dense leaf and dusty fruit spread out as if in an embrace.
The lovers were very inexperienced as yet, neither knew what a war was, nor how to behave towards it. This created an uncertainty which was made more agonising by the fact that their love-making had only just begun; they had wasted more than a month of adolescent skirmishing before coming to terms with each other. Their vertiginous embraces could not disguise the stark gaps in their physical knowledge of the love-act. And now, on top of it all, to be overtaken by the unwanted war which might be forced upon them by a mad German house-painter: no, it was impossible to believe in this war!
But Sam's uniform had arrived – it was as if the war had advanced another stealthy pace towards them. It needed altering, the uniform, and the cap was a trifle too large. Sam felt both glory and foolishness as he tried it on before the mirror on the balcony floor of the old house. She said nothing as she lay humbly naked on the gold and blue coverlet, cupping her chin in her hands. He looked so sad and abashed and so very handsome – a naked man in a military tunic and cap without badge as yet! Sam gazed and gazed at himself, feeling that he had undergone a personality change. "What a pantomime!" he said at last, and turning, embraced her impulsively with a wave of desperate sadness. She felt the buttons cold upon her breast as he pressed himself upon her with the ardour of his uncertainty. In the prevailing world-madness they had decided to do something quite mad themselves – to get married! What folly! Both said it, truly both felt it. But they were anxious to get closer to each other before parting, perhaps forever. Meanwhile the damned uniform had been the cause of the first quarrel among the four boys during that marvellous summer.
It was soon over; it occurred while they were playing pontoon by moonlight on the rose-trellised verandah where day-long the lizards dozed or skirmished on the crumbling walls. It had been largely Blanford's fault; he had started it by being pompous and high-minded on the subject of conscientious objection and had added fuel to the irritation this had caused by sneering at men in uniform who had surrendered their identity to the "herd-mind". It was the fashionable talk of the day in literary circles. The moon was so bright that they did not really need the old and shaky paraffin lantern which stood by them on the table. "Cut it now, Aubrey," cried Hilary, and his sister Constance sharply echoed him, "Yes, Aubrey, please." But she could not forbear (for Sam had looked really wonderful in his new uniform) to add her own barb to the conversation: "Just because Livia has been making you suffer so much, keeping you on a string all summer!" Blanford paled to the ears as the shaft went home. He had really had a miserable time with Constance's sister who had provoked in him a self-destructive calf-love which she only half-assuaged while at the same time manifesting an almost equal partiality for his young friend the consul, Felix Chatto, who now sat furiously staring at his hand and saying, "Your bank, I think!"
Livia had made fools of them both. No, it was not by mere caprice, that is what made her so fascinating – it was simply that there seemed to be no continuity between successive impulses, she jumped the points and did not bother to reflect upon any hurt she might be causing. She was either heartless, or else her heart had never been touched. It was vexatious to think of her in these terms, but there were no others. Both Aubrey and Felix were hovering about the point of making definitive declarations when she suddenly took herself off as she had always done in the past, leaving as an address a Paris café and a second one in Munich. Poor Blanford had even gone so far as to get her a ring – she had allowed it to get to this point. No wonder he was behaving in such an acid way, conscious of his own miscalculation but also of the huge weight of the love Livia had provoked in him. And then on top of this the cursed war!
It gave Constance a sudden pang as she watched them from the upper window of her room, their rosy, youthful features full of trust and inexperience, so unfledged and so uncertain. Her brother Hilary sat in his usual way, one leg over the other with his cards held lightly in his brown fingers. How handsome he was, with his blond hair and his fine sharp features and blue eyes! His bearing expressed a sort of aristocratic disdain which contrasted with the simplicity and warmth of Sam's address. Blanford and Felix were less striking – one might have divined that they were just down from Oxford and were bookish young men. But Hilary looked like a musician, sure of himself and fully completed as to his opinions and attitudes. At times he even gave the impression of being a somewhat supercilious young man, almost over-sophisticated and over-bred. He lacked his sister's gorgeousness and her warmth. His coldness masked him, where she remained always vulnerable. She felt sorry now for having stung Blanford and tried to make amends as best she could, while Sam, from the depths of his intoxication (after all, he was loved), allowed his magnanimity to overflow in expressions of friendship which were, for all that, quite sincere and full of concern for his friend. Earlier that evening they had all been down to the weir for a cold swim and Sam had said, "Constance is always asking me how you can let yourself be made miserable by Livia whose behaviour never varies, and is quite predictable." Blanford groaned, for he knew what was coming: another dose of the intoxicating Viennese lore which Constance was stuffing down their throats from breakfast to bedtime – all the Freud she was acquiring in the course of her studies in Geneva. "Livia is a woman at war with the man in herself, consequently a castratrice," said Sam; it was extremely funny, his expression as he uttered the words. He himself understood nothing of these sentiments, he had learned them by heart from his beloved, who had a tendency to be rather bossy in intellectual matters. "Constance can go to hell with her theory of infantile sexuality and all that stuff," said Aubrey manfully.
Actually the whole theory fascinated and repelled him, and he had eyed with distaste the clutch of pamphlets in German which she carried about all through the summer. "Freud!" He knew that one falls in love, oh yes, for quite other reasons. Livia had discovered one of his notebooks and, without asking permission, had riffled through it. She was lying on the bed and as he came in she looked up, like a lizard, like a snake, as if she were really seeing him for the first time. "I see," she said at last, drawing a surprised breath. "You are a poet." It was an unforgettable moment: she went on staring at him, staring right through him as if by some optical trick, right into his future. It was as if she had suddenly invented him anew, invented his career and the whole future shape of his inner life by the magic of such a phrase. One cannot help loving someone who divines one so clearly, throws one's whole obscure destiny into clear focus. What could she have been reading among his sporadic scribbles? Just squirts of thought which one day might become poetry or prose or both. "My death goes back a long way to a time when women were coy or arch, or both, or neither, or simply MUD – the outstretched legs of mud into which I dribble my profuse and living blood, my promise of need, while my harp, whose sinews echoed all time, rebounded on the silence where it found it." She did not have to add that it was beautiful, her eye said it for her. He felt found out, both elated and terrified.
Hilary dealt them another hand and became snappy and priggish about Blanford's decision to retire to Egypt with the Prince. "It will look like running away," he said, and Blanford snapped back, "But I am, that is precisely what I am doing. I feel no moral obligation to take sides in this ridiculous Wagnerian holocaust." Constance reproached her brother at once, saying, "O, let's not spoil this marvellous summer we've had...." and instantly the images of Provence, of Avignon, and the sweet limestones of the surrounding hills rose in their memory with a sort of lustful repletion. What an experience it had been – the whole Mediterranean world opened before them as if on a scroll.
"I'm sorry," said Hilary and Blanford echoed, "So am I." They had been living in the vast, echoing, ugly old house for weeks now, in close friendship and affection. These small bickerings left a bad taste. Tu Duc – that was the name of the place. Constance had inherited it. The name rang in their minds like a drumbeat, signifying everything they had encountered and enjoyed during this long, unhurried stay above a village which was only a stone's throw from Avignon of romantic renown. City of the Popes!
Later that night some of these regrets surged up among the dreams of Constance, but not too powerfully to spoil the moonlight on the window-sill, the smell of honeysuckle and the deep gloating warmth of the male body beside her. It was marvellous to spend the whole night with a man, to feel the drum of his chest rising and falling under her fingers while he slept. Their love-making was becoming increasingly expert with practice. At times it seemed that they were on a toboggan travelling at ever-increasing speed down a dizzily whorled snowrun. A toboggan often out of control. "Sam, for goodness sake: I am terrified you will make me pregnant." She had not foreseen this love affair and, though an emancipated young woman with the whole of science at her fingertips, she had left what she called, rather irreverently, her "tool kit" back in Geneva. Nor could Sam help himself. "I can't help it," he gasped, and steered her more and more forcefully towards the slow dense crisis which at last overwhelmed them. They were panting, exhausted, as after a race. Sam, who specialised in quotations from limericks to which he could never put a beginning or an end, quoted from one now: "So he filled her with spunk, and then did a bunk, that stealthy old man of Bulgaria."
That was awake, but it was when he lay asleep that she could spend ages watching him, head on elbow, full of the mystery of his lazy gladiator's body which seemed to store heat like a vacuum flask. She loved to feel the soft tulip of his sex lying against her side, in repose now in his deep sleep, but so quick to wake at her summons – at a wave of a wand almost, and it woke the sleeping cobra of their youthful desires. Her blood ran cold when she recalled that for more than a month he had not spoken to her, had stayed cold and distant as a star when she was simply dying to become the target for his affections. She had pretended, like a fool, to be having a love affair with an older man, a psychiatrist, and the result of this foolish piece of boasting had been to chill Sam to the backbone; how long it had taken to rectify this silly error! As a matter of fact she had last year slept with a doctor, but that was curiosity, and she had no mind to repeat it, so insipid had it turned out to be. But now Sam! In him she had succumbed to the least intelligent, the most simple-minded man you could imagine. But she was ferociously in love now, she felt like a wild cat; she had decided that she would endow him with all he needed of marvellous brain and sensibility and insight – all these treasures she had reserved for him. He would realise through her all that she divined in him now, hidden under his callowness and shyness, under his fitful reserves; she would pierce through his crust of flippancy, the friendly footlings of his idols, like old Wodehouse, and strike sparks off his inmost soul! How he would have trembled, poor boy, if she had put all these sentiments into words. It was bad enough as it was, his feeling of total inadequacy! But such a programme would have put him into a real panic.
In the middle of the night he woke her, and turning her face to him asked in a husky whisper, "Tell me, darling, do you think me a coward for offering my services?" It was obvious that Blanford's thoughtless talk had wounded him. Nor was he satisfied with the passionate, simple complicity of her embrace, though an agony of sympathy was echoed by it. "Answer," he said doggedly, as one might demand something in writing. "Of course you are not! In spite of that stupid vote in the Union – typically Oxonian! Of course you are not!" she said hotly again, hugging him to her until she was all but out of breath. "It's quite right that England doesn't mean anything to Aubrey – why should it? But I should be hard put to explain why it means anything to me."
He closed his eyes upon the word and saw a sort of jumbled composite picture of grey buildings, low hills, and wrinkled rivers, and backing them all the romantic image of the golden Kentish Weald in harvest-time, raised like a golden buckler to heaven. He was reminded, too, of a brief and awkward love affair with a girl who was picking hops. He had been lent one of those funny little oast-houses by the parents of a friend, ostensibly to study. The affair was awkward and pitiful, though the hop-picker was brave and beautiful and as blonde as Constance. But what a trial their ignorance turned out to be, for she feared pregnancy, and he feared some venereal affliction about which he knew hardly anything! In the lavatory of a nearby pub there stood what looked at first sight to be an automatic fruit-drop or cigarette machine; but it was full of French letters. The legend said, "Place two shillings in slot and tug handle of the Dispenser sharply!" What a wonderful word – "Dispenser"; what a miserable wreck of an affair; what a beautiful girl worthy of someone more experienced and more at ease; what a fool he had been not to show more skill and kindness! But in spite of everything the shining Weald was there, in his inner consciousness, raising its blazing corn to heaven under a deafening sunshine! In a sense, too, weald for weald, Constance had become part of this picture, had merged with it. (All these matters would sort themselves out once the war was over – if ever it decided to break!) At lunch he had said, "How I wish the damn war would break!" which Blanford had echoed with, "How I wish I could wish!"
Excerpted from Constance by Lawrence Durrell. Copyright © 1982 Lawrence Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsONE In Avignon,
TWO The Nazi,
THREE Into Egypt,
FOUR Paris Twilight,
FIVE In Geneva,
SIX A New Arrival,
EIGHT A Confession,
NINE Tu Duc Revisited,
TEN The General,
TWELVE A Visit from Trash,
FOURTEEN By the Lake,
FIFTEEN The City's Fall,