Related collections and offers
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
By Lawrence Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1970 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
Aut Tunc, aut Nunquam,
"It was then or never...."
Petronius The Satyricon
Asleep or awake—what difference? Or rather, if there were a difference how would you recognise it? And if it were a recognisable difference would there be anything or anyone to care if you did or not—some angel with a lily-gilding whisper to say: "Well done."? Ay, there's the rub.
My head aches, it isn't only the wound—that is on the mend.
"Guilty in what you didn't know, what you hoped to escape merely by averting your face." Ah!
He wakes, then, this manifestation of myself so vaguely realised that it is hard to believe in him: he wakes in a room whose spare anonymity suggests one of the better-class hotels; no feudal furniture, no curtains smelling of tobacco or cats. Yet the towels in the bathroom are only stencilled over with a capital "p". The Bible beside the bed is chained to the wall with a slender brass chain; owing to some typographical mishap it is quite illegible, the ink has run. Only the title-page can be made out. Well, where am I, then? In what city, what country? It will come back, it always does; but in waking up thus he navigates a long moment of confusion during which he tries to establish himself in the so-called reality which depends, like a poor relation, on memory. The radio is of unknown provenance; it plays light music so characterless that it might be coming from anywhere at all. But where? He cannot tell for the life of him—note the expression: for the life of him! His few clothes have no tabs of identity, and indeed some have no buttons. Ah, that strikes a vague chord! There is a small green diary by the bed, perhaps that might afford a clue? It has the other one's name in it. Felix Ch. But the book seems very much out of date—surely the Coronation was years ago? It seems, too, full of improbable Latin-American itineraries; moreover in the middle a whole span of months is missing, has been torn out. Gone! Vanished months, vanished days—perhaps these are the very days he is living through now? A man with no shadow, a clock with no face. Something about Greece and Turkey? Had he ever been to Turkey? Perhaps it was the other one. That blow on the head had occluded his vision: the darkness turned violet sometimes and was apt to dance about in his skull. (How she trembled in bed, this astonishing revivalist of a dead love.) But of course he had!
April to October, but where were those vanished weeks, and where was he? I would give anything to know. It doesn't look like spring at all events; from the window the snow meadows tilt away towards tall white-capped mountains; a foreground of pearling sleet upon window sills of warped and painted wood. Some sort of institution, then? (Dactyl, you are rusty and need taking down.) Nothing of all this did you notice until the image in the mirror one day burst into tears. Well, keep on trying. No luck with the soft descriptive music. I must have had a meal for the remains lie there, but they are quite unidentifiable. Last night's dinner? I turn over the remains with my fork. Brains of a hall-porter cooked in Javel, one hundred francs? I press the bell for the maid but nobody comes. Then at last I cry out as I catch sight of the little Judas in the door. The pain of regained identity. Ahhhh! It opens for a second and then slowly closes. This is no hotel. Doctor! Mother! Nurse! Urine!
Someone starts banging, fitfully, on a wall nearby and screaming in a frothy way; thud upon the padded wall, and again thud: and the peculiar reverberation of a rubber chamber-pot upon the floor. I know it now, and the other knows it too—we slide into one identity once more, as slick as smoke. But he feels desperately feverish and he takes my pulse, and his sweat smells of almonds. O all this is quite perfect! Hamlet is himself again. Fragments of forgotten conversations, the whole damned stock-pot of my life memories has come back to me; and with it the new, the surprising turn of events which has given me the illusion of recovering Benedicta (Hippolyta saying: "How sick one is of les petites savoirs sexuelles").
I can see no reason why all this should have happened to me, but it has; they go on, these harpies both male and female, tearing their black hearts out. "I received nothing but kindness from him (her) and repaid it with double-dealing though meanwhile unwaveringly loving (her-him). Staunch inside, infirm without, lonely, inconstant, and mad about one woman (man)." These raids on each other's narcissism. And yet, if what she tells me is true? It would be going back to the beginning, to pick up that lost stitch again; going back to the point where the paths diverged. Hark, someone is calling my name—yes, it is my name. Lying beside her I used to reproach myself by saying: "You were supposed to know everything; you arrived equipped to know all, like every human being. But a progressive distortion set in, your visions withered slowly like ageing flowers." Why did they, why have they?
She says that now she is allowed to visit me because neither is observably mad; we are simply mentally mauled by sedatives. "And you, as usual, are pretending." But then if I like to be mad it is my own affair—doctors are scared of schizophrenes because they can read minds, they can plot and plan. They pretend to pretend. Ah, but I care for nothing anymore. Quick, let us make love before another human being is born. More and more people, Benedicta, the world is overflowing; but the quality is going down correspondingly. There is no point in just people—nothing multiplied by nothing is still nothing. Kiss. Eyes of Mark, beautiful grey eyes of your dead son; I hardly dare call him mine as yet. (And what if you are lying to me, that is the question?)
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John,
Bless the bed that I lie on,
Bless the pillow I slide off,
Giving Sascher-Masch the slip
With his twice-confounded whip.
Let them take me from behind,
But not too very sudden, mind.
Polymorphouse and perverse,
Revelling in the primal curse.
Serenity, Senility. Serendipity ... ah my friend, what are you saying?
* * *
Of course I am on my guard, watching her like a hawk. A hawk, forsooth? She will feed me on the fragments of field-mice still warm, broken up tenderly bit by bit in those slender fingers. She will teach me to stoop. Of course a lot of this material is dactylised, belonging to lost epochs; they have recovered my little machines for me and returned them to me (give the baby his rattle now!). I recover bits here and there which in the past Abel might well have appreciated. Turn them this way and that, they smell of truth—however provisional it is; as when raising those deep blue, very slightly unfocused eyes she said: "But the sexual act is by its very nature private, even if it takes place on the pavement during the rush hour." When I ask why I have been brought here she adds, on an imperious note: "To begin again, to recover the lost ground. There is much that will be explained to you—a lot by me. For God's sake trust me this time." It is as enigmatic as her way of saying "Help me" in the past. Must I resume the long paperchase once more, Benedicta?
* * *
I suppose that I owe my survival to the last-minute breakdown of Abel, or something of that order. I can't believe that any other consideration would have motivated my capture. Of course nobody knows how to put it right except me and I won't show them under duress. All this is surmise, of course; nobody has said anything. And I am shown every mark of sympathy and consideration: many of my toys have been returned to me, and a place set aside for me to work if the mood is on me. I resist these soft blandishments, of course, though it is hard in a way: time hangs heavy. I admit that I took up an offer to work on the Caradoc transcriptions, largely out of curiosity. The executors want some "order brought into them", whatever that means. Indeed the notion itself is unwise since this type of material, by its very haphazardness, creates its own kind of order. "Attempt to capture the idea quite naked before it strays into the conceptual field like some heavyfooted cow." Thus do I kill time till time kill me.
And now, as I have explained, she has come back, for how long I don't know, or for what reason; but changed, irremediably changed. Yet still the beauty of the domed egg-of-the-highmasted-schooner visage which smiles turn into a stag: still the slant calamitous eyes. Illness, imprisonment, privation—might not all this have brought us close together? I wonder. Why, she even helps me with my papers now. The boy's death hangs over us, between us, the something unspoken that neither knows how to broach. Resilient as I am, that was a thrust right through the heart of my narcissism; and the bare fact does not yet seem to correspond to any known set of words. So I shuffle paper a bit, reflect and allow my moods to carry me where they will. As for the executors, they do not care what I do with the material provided it goes into covers and provides money for the estate. But ... there are no inheritors to claim it so some committee of cranks will divert it to crank projects: old men smelling of soap and singed hair. Pelmanism for rodents, birth control for fairies ... that sort of thing: everything for which Caradoc, if indeed he is dead, did not stand. (I hear those growls, I have them recorded.)
And then, from time to time among my own ruminations float fragments which might almost seem part of another book—my own book; the idea occurs fitfully to me, has done on and off for years. But so much other stuff has to be cleared first: the shadows of so many other minds which darken these muddled texts with their medieval reflections. Abel would have been able to give them shape and position and relevance; human memory is not yet whole enough to do so. Was it, for example, of Benedicta that I once said this—or was it Iolanthe? "Perhaps it is not fair to speak abusively of her, to note that she never thought anything which she did not happen to think. No effort was involved. Shallow, unimpeded by reflection, her chatter tinkled over the shallow beds of commonplace and platitude, pouring from that trash-box of a head. But what beauty! Once in her arms I felt safe for ever, nothing could happen to me." Prig!
Today is cold again, a Swiss cold. It has all started to become very clear. The leaves are falling softly and being snatched away across the meadows like smoke. My God, how long must I stay here, when will I get out? And to what end if I do? My life is covered in the heavy ground-mist of an impossible past which I shall never understand. I sleepwalk from day to day now with a hangover fit for a ghost.
As for these scribblings which emerge from my copying machines, the dactyls, these are not part of the book I was talking about, no. Would you like to know my method? It is simple. While I am writing one book, (the first part might be called Pulse Rate 103), I write another about it, then a third about it, and so on. A new logic might emerge from it, who knows? Like those monkeys in the Indian frescoes (so human, so engaging, like some English critics) who can dance only with their index fingers up each other's behinds. This would be my way of doing things. Smell of camphor: I must not get too vivacious when Nash, the doctor, calls. I must remain as he sees me—an eternal reproach to the death-bed, the dirty linen, the urinals clearing their throats. Yet vivacity of mind is no sin, saith the Lord God.
As far as Caradoc is concerned what ails me in gathering up this inconsequential chatter is that there are several different books which one could assemble, including some which couldn't have been foreseen by those who knew him; is everyone built on this pattern?—like a club sandwich, I suppose. But here for example is a vein which would be more suitable to Koepgen—perhaps it is the part of Caradoc which is Koepgen, or vice versa. I mean alchemy, the great night express which jumps the points and hurtles out of the causal field, carrying everything with it. Alchemy with all its paradoxes—I would have logged that as Koepgen's private territory. But no. The vein is there in Caradoc, under the fooling.
I mean, for example: "Pour bien commencer ces études il faut d'abord supprimer touts curiosité"; the sort of paradox which is incomprehensible to those afflicted by the powers of ratiocination. Moreover this, if you please, from a man who claimed that the last words of Socrates were: "Please the Gods, may the laughter keep breaking through." Contrast it with the fine white ribbon which runs through the lucubrations of Aristotle—the multiplication tables of thought to set against this type of pregenital jargon. (In between times I have not been idle: on the little hand lathe I have turned a fine set of skeleton keys in order to be able to explore my surroundings a bit.) Is it imperative that the tragic sense should reside after all somewhere in laughter?
* * *
Yet now that I am officially mad and locked away here in the Paul-haus, it would be hard to imagine anywhere more salubrious (guidebook prose!) to spend a long quiet convalescence—here by this melancholy lake which mirrors mostly nothingness because the sky is so low and as toneless as tired fur. The rich meadows hereabouts are full of languid vipers. At eventide the hills resound to the full-breasted thwanking of cowbells. One can visualise the udders swinging in time along the line of march to the milking sheds where the rubber nipples with electricity degorge and ease the booming creatures. The steam rises in clouds.
Billiard-rooms, a library, chapels for five denominations, a cinema a small theatre, golf course—Nash is not wrong in describing it as a sort of country-club. The surgical wing, like the infirmaries, is separate, built at an angle of inclination, giving its back to us, looking out eastward. Operations one side, convalescence the other. Our illnesses are graded. A subterranean trolley system plus a dozen or so lifts of various sizes ensure swift and easy communication between the two domains. I am not really under restraint. I am joking; but I am under surveillance, or at least I feel I am. So far I have only been advised not to go to the cinema—doubtless there are good clinical reasons. Apart from the fact that I might see a film of Iolanthe's again I do not care: the cinema is the No play of the Yes-Man, as far as I am concerned. I am for sound against vision—it runs counter to the contemporary trend: I know that, but what can I do? Konx Ompax and Om Mane Padme Hum are the two switches which operate my brain box: between the voting sherd and the foetal pose of the sage.
There are many individual chalets, too, dotted about upon the steep hillsides, buried out of sight for the most part in dense groves of pine and fir. They are pretty enough when the snow falls and lies; but when not the eternal condensation of moisture forms a light rain or Scotch mist. The further snows loom indifferently from minatory cloud-scapes. One sleeps well. No, I won't pretend that it is anything in particular, either comminatory or depressing or enervating: except for me, the eye of the beholder. For I am here against my will, badly shaken, and moreover frightened by this display of disinterested kindness. Yet it is simply what it is—the Paulhaus. Subsoil limestone and conglomerate. Up there, on the further edge of the hill among the pines are the chalets allocated to the staff. Our keepers live up there, and the lights blaze all night where the psychoanalysts chain each other to the walls and thrash each other with their braces in a vain attempt to discover the pain- threshold of affect-stress. Their screams are terrible to hear. In other cells the theologians and mystagogues are bent over their dream anthologies, puzzled by the new type of psychic immaturity which our age has produced—one that is literally impermeable to experience. When he is here Nash lodges with Professor Pfeiffer whose dentures are loose and who has a huge dried black penis on his desk—a veritable Prester John of an organ. Swiss taxidermy at its best. But nobody knows whose it is, or rather was. At any rate it isn't mine.
Excerpted from Nunquam by Lawrence Durrell. Copyright © 1970 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.