As over-the-top as it is inventive, Durrell’s breakthrough novel is a series of sordid vignettes drawn from the lives of decadent artists, doomed bohemians, and continental rascals inhabiting a shabby London hotel, narrated in turns by the unforgettable Lawrence Lucifer and Gregory Death. Together, these characters seek to escape the absurdity of a Europe haunted by devastating war, yet beginning to pitch toward another apocalypse. First published in 1938, and influenced by Henry Miller and the sincere pranksterism of the surrealist movement, The Black Book marks the emergence of one of the most revolutionary voices in twentieth-century English literature. This ebook contains a new introduction by DBC Pierre.
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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
The Black Book
By Lawrence Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1959 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
The agon, then. It begins. Today there is a gale blowing up from the Levant. The morning came like a yellow fog along a roll of developing film. From Bivarie, across the foaming channel I can see from the window, the river god has sent us his offering: mud, in a solid tawny line across the bay. The wind has scooped out the very bowels of the potamus across the way, like a mammoth evacuation, and bowled it across at us. The fishermen complain that they cannot see the fish any more to spear them. Well, the rufous sea scorpion and the octopus are safe from their carbide and tridents. Deep-water life utterly shut off, momentously obscure behind the membrane of mud. The winter Ionian has lapsed back into it original secrecy.
The slither of rain along the roof. It bubbles in along the chinks of the windows. It boils among the rock pools. Today, at dawn (for we could not sleep because of the thunder), the girl put on the gramophone in the gloom, and the competition of Bach strings, resinous and cordial as only gut and wood can be, climbed out along the murky panes. While the sea pushed up its shafts and coils under the house, we lay there in bed, dark as any dungeon, and mourned the loss of the Mediterranean. Lost, all lost; the fruiting of green figs, apricots. Lost the grapes, black, yellow, and dusky. Even the ones like pale nipples, delicately freckled and melodious, are forgotten in this morning, where our one reality is the Levantine wind, musty with the smell of Arabia, stirring the bay into a muddy broth. This is the winter of our discontent.
The air is full of the fine dust of the desert tombs—the Arabic idiom of death—and the panic world is quite done for, quite used up and lost. The cypresses are made of coal: their forms stipple the landscape, like heavy black brush strokes on a water colour whose vitality has been rinsed from it. Yes. Winter, winter everywhere in these nude, enervate symbols.
This is the day I have chosen to begin this writing, because today we are dead among the dead; and this is an agon for the dead, a chronicle for the living. There is no other way to put it. There is a correspondence between the present, this numbness, inertia, and that past reality of a death, whose meaning is symbolic, mythical, but real also in its symptom. As if, lying here, in this mimic death at morning, we were re-creating a bit from the past: a crumb of the death we have escaped. Yes, even though the wild ducks fall in a tangle of wings among the marshes of Bivarie, and all the elements are out of gear, out of control; even though the sea flogs the tough black button of rock on which this, our house, is built. The correspondence of deadness with deadness is complete.
I could not have begun this act in the summer, for example, because in the summer we sit along under the wall on our haunches, and listen to the figs bursting. The sun dries up what is fluid of agony in us, laps us in a carapace of heat, so that all we know is nothing, sunblack, Egyptian nothing. The membrane gathers over our eyes as they close, and only the black bubbles of torpor cross and recross the consciousness, as if born from lava. The milk of sentiment curdles in the veins; an astringency withers humanity; hair freezes along the scalp, or withers to soft gold shavings along the thighs. The very nipples turn hard and black on the breasts of women, while the figs roast. Teats like dark plugs of wood for the fisherman's sons.
Well, one cannot help thinking this in such a dawn, when the wind is filling the room with the evocative smells of the dust, and the nascent fust of the tombs: the stale explosions of ancient life breathed coldly on us like leper's breath. You are so pale and done for in the morning. Pale, the face on the pillow, as ancestral as effigies, while the rotten smell of the crusades blows damply in on us.
This is where I saw the girl get up from bed and brave the cold for a moment. Caryatid. A dance step among the sinews of the music. A miming gigue. For a moment the summer almost burst into bloom again: asphodel, with the brave white brush, pavane of the merry peacock. Or wild geese hanging across the moon, and the invisible archer somewhere watching, hand on his empty quiver. Ah! but here we have only the dregs of yellow smeared across the windowpanes, and the unclean sea, and the flesh that quails at the icy contact of bone. Then I knew all at one that we share that correspondence of death with the season, and with all those other seasons which oppress me when I begin to write of them. No mummies, chunks of tissue latched to bone; no pillars of salt, no cadavers, have ever been half so dead as we are today.
* * *
It is today at breakfast, while the yachts hound across the water, tearstained and anxious, towards port, that I am dying again the little death which broods forever in the Regina Hotel: along the mouldering corridors, the geological strata of potted ferns, the mouse-chawed wainscoting which the deathwatch ticks. Do not ask me how. Do not ask me why, at this time, on a remote Greek headland in a storm, I should choose, for my first real book, a theatre which is not Mediterranean. It is part of us here, in the four damp walls of a damp house, under an enormous wind, under the sabres of rain. From this nervous music rise those others, no less spectres, who are my mimes. I mean Tarquin, walking along the iced suburban streets, his scarf drawn across his face, the disease growing in his womb; I mean Lobo, clambering his suburban girls like a powder monkey; I mean Perez, Chamberlain, Gregory, Grace, Peters, Hilda. Above all I mean this logic of personalities which this paper should exhibit, in all its beautiful mutilations.
Tarquin, for example, six-foot, frost-bound, jack-knifed, yellow with jaundice; Tarquin pinned to a slab of rufous cork, etherized, like a diseased butterfly; Tarquin in the bloodless dream of this Ionian morning, among the foam and uproar, extending his lax hand in greeting. Here we are, sitting in the hallowed fug of the lounge, wrapped in rugs, among the declining plants and statues. He is as ancient and exclusive as leprosy. I am afraid to shake hands with him, for fear that the skin will slip the bony structure of the hand and come away. It would take so little to produce the skeleton from this debile bundle of meat.
When I am in the Regina I am dead again. Not with the complete mystery and passivity of the dead organism, but dead in the sense of the little death. With me I carry this little toy ark, with its little toy animals, Lobo, Miss Venable, etc. We are lit up in the signs of a new chaos. We are like patches of tissue, kept warm in sealed flasks, fed, washed, and commanded to multiply under the watchful supervision of a scientist. Our world is a world of strict boundaries, outside which we dare not wander, not even in our imagination; whose seasons come and go without any sense of change. It is medieval in its blindness, this existence. Only in winter, when the snow falls, there is a strange dark light thrown on the walls of our hired rooms. The shadows in corners melt, flow, dissolve, and dwindle to black. This is the season we all hate so much. This carol of snow, when the red robin sits importantly on the rose bushes which line the deserted gardens, and the letter rack is crammed with tradesmen's Xmas cards. A very merry Yuletide to you and yours! (Sweep on, ye fat and greasy citizens.)
* * *
The gardens have many mirrors, shining up on the drawn blinds, in a chaotic, withering flare of imbecility. In his little cubicle Lobo lies in bed, curled up like a foetus, and rings for his breakfast. The unearthly light of the snow sprawls on the green canvas blind. It is still snowing. It will doubtless continue snowing forever. One begins to disregard these things, such is the spiritual disease of this world. The ambience in which we pin decorations up, inflate balloons, or blacken the snow with our best friend's funeral.
Winter morning. An elegy in swan's-down, ferroconcrete, postmen, Lobo, foetus, halfpenny stamps. Four flights up, Tarquin is brooding on the immaculate conception, while the kettle snores on the hob. In the musical armchair, I smoke and watch Lobo's vague movements in the gloom. It is pleasant to lie like this, somnolent, not daring to touch the cold parts of the bed with his toes. The mirror is arranged so that, by lifting himself on one elbow, he can take a good look at his own swart face, and decide whether the night's sleep has refreshed his majesty, or whether the debauchery is gaining on him. There is also the question of his penis. He is catapulting it meditatively against his belly as he studies his features. We do not speak, for this is a solemn moment. He is checking up on his appearance. His face is a sort of diary on which every triviality of the daily life is written. He is convinced of this. "Every line here or there, dear boy, the nose or the mouth, has to mean something; when you do something there is a line; a woman taught me the lines but I don't remember much now, except the virgin line: so." It is impossible to do this without a phonetic system, his argot is so queer. The gloom is swelling with cigarette smoke. Next door Miss Venable is powdering her harelip. The gas fire is playing its mute jazz. The snow is falling. The elegiac morning is opening on the frozen rivers, ponds, eyeballs, wells, fingers, teeth. Not one of us is Canute enough to put his head out of the window and order it to stop. Dactyl, dactyl, the ducks are going to market. The vermilion postman fights his way through drifts of snow to bring me a letter from the white lady, yclept Pat. Lobo is catapulting, catapulting, with a kind of heavy Peruvian rhythm, and thinking over his conquests. The furnaces are being loaded. Chamberlain is letting out the dogs for their yellow morning piddle in the snow. The gorilla is grinning at himself in the mirror, putting on a gaudy tie. There is a seven-inch icicle in his urethra, put there by Jack Frost or Santa Claus. Someone will be made to suffer among the trampled bunting, the gin, the cigar smoke, and the petrified greeting cards on the mantelpiece. Winter morning, with the bacon thawing slowly, as Tarquin's face on the pillow congeals back into sleeping fat. It is a profound moment, set aside for thinking over yesterday's sins and preparing today's. Lobo is cogitating heavily the eternal subject of woman. Particularly the tweed Englishwomen who wear padlocks between their legs. With a groan he is out of bed groping for his can of tepid water outside the door. From the chair one deduces the little ritual toilet he makes: his hairbrushing, tooth scouring, tie pulling. He is very fastidious, very dapper in his Continental-cut clothes. His dressing table is a mass of implements of various kinds, stocked up against the leather-framed exiles, his family. From time to time, when he can drag himself away from his face in the mirror, he pauses massively over the picture of his mother. Ah! that vague Latin sentiment. His mother! But he says nothing. When he is dressed he tidies up and gives a final glance round. The wireless is dusted. His red dressing gown hangs at the door. His tiny shoes lie along the rack in a sentimental Latin ballet. His trousers are pressed in the little wooden rack. Everything is neat and orderly. One glance outside the blind shows him the state of affairs in the outer world. So he turns to the wireless and switches it on.
"Last night she didn't come again."
"What to do, dear boy? What to do?"
He lifts the flap of his coat pocket and lets his hand lie firmly along the rim, fingers hidden. He bends his right leg, and places his toe outside his left foot. This is a sort of symbolic pose with which he is waiting for Christmas, and the rewards of a whole season's erotic manoeuvring. He begins to describe the vigil on the damp common last night. He has caught a cold, he thinks. And all because of that little strumpet. "Think of me, dear boy, with my heart full of lorve, waitin' and waitin'." It is impossible not to. The winter night falling downstairs among a million busted pillows, and Lobo sitting on a tombstone, frozen stiff, but drawn back like a trigger with lorve, starting at every sound on the frosty roads. Lobo, sitting there with his heart full of lorve, and his pockets full of French letters. It is something to be put on a greeting card for a Peruvian Christmas, under a gothic script and a bloody robin. Tarquin must be told. (But I am not paying attention.)
"Think of me, dear boy," and so on.
Whenever possible he likes to put a big tinge of pity into his conversation because it gives his beautiful black eyes a chance to look their best: soft, molten, wobbling in tears, betrayed. Originally this must have been one of his seduction motives, this expressive sentimentality; but his repertoire of expressions is so vast, and changes so continually, that one finds a few castoff leftovers among his ordinary mannerisms. This soft, invocative pity is one of them, left over from erotic exploits long since forgotten, except for the lines of his face, of course. That serious chart which he examines so earnestly every day, to reassure himself that his lefthalf profile is really his best side. With Englishwomen, of course, one needs a touch of healthy manliness, in order to get their pity. This he has discovered. So he wears his hat a bit more rakishly for the nonce, and tries to walk with a flat-footed rugger stride. Later, when his protective colouring is better—then his knockout exploits will begin in earnest.
His breakfast arrives in the arms of the newest chambermaid, who looks healthy, raw, and adequate. He presents his half profile to her until she leaves. One of these mornings she will be spread-eagled on his bed while the coffee gets cold. This, one recognizes fatally, is one of the conditions of life. The wireless will be on the whole time. Fiat voluntas, with the family looking owlish and the little shoes in their static ballet.
He takes the tray on his knee and begins to eat fastidiously, like a cat, pushing the spoon between his broad ripe lips.
"I think", he says at last, "I will go into a monastery. Will you come with me? Eh? We forget all these bitches, dear boy, and be holy holy holy. In black."
(Draw back the blind and let the soft translucent light into the room. She is lying there in bed among the apple trees and the frozen lakes, long and cool as a dormitory. The immense gothic monastery between her legs, etc.)
Snow like a great chain from pole to pole. The enumeration of our sins, the forgiving of our sins, the postmen, the buses, the letter with the halfpenny stamp in the rack. The gutters are clotted with filth. The buses scatter. Monologue of the white road stretching down past the Catholic church, the Municipal School, the Lock Hospital, the exchange, the postbox. Tarquin lying like Gulliver in Lilliput while the buses roam up and down him, over his hips and thighs. Tarquin like the island of England in its winter chains, and the hills like many blanched nipples.
"I am a Catholic," says Lobo cleverly, with the air of having done a trick.
His watch strikes the hour in his waistcoat pocket, and he springs to attention. He will miss the lecture on ferroconcrete, and that would be evil, in the moral sense. His dear father is paying his fees. Moral: honour thy father and thy mother in their frames, and learn to build more Catholic churches in ferroconcrete.
He gathers up his manuscript, his instruments, his textbooks, and switches off the wireless. "Well," he says with finality, locking the door carefully behind him.
Excerpted from The Black Book by Lawrence Durrell. Copyright © 1959 Lawrence Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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