Thursday, December 8, 2016

Mountolive by Lawrence Durrell

For my commentary on Justine and Balthazaar, books one and two of The Alexandria Quartet, follow the respective links.
"For the artist, I think, as for the public, no such thing as art exist: it only exists for the critics and those who live in the forebrain. Artist and public simply register, like a seismograph, an electromagnetic charge which can't be rationalized. One only knows that a transmission of sorts goes on, true or false, successful or unsuccessful, according to chance. But to try to break down the elements and nose them over--one gets nowhere. (I suspect this approach to art is common to all those who cannot surrender themselves to it!) Paradox. Anyway." pg 115
So it's a bit unfair to include the above as it was spoken by the narrator of Justine but I've come to feel that is the true voice of the author (Darly or Pursewarden; I'm not sure yet). Perhaps even a defense of The Alexandria Quartet.
"Somehow his friendship for them had prevented him from thinking of them as people who might, like himself, be living on several different levels at once. As conspirators, as lovers--what was the key to the enigma? He could not guess." Page 192
And suddenly, everything is illuminated... Unlike it's predecessors Mountolive is simple in it's presentation, flows, and makes sense. It feel like a traditional novel and in that regard it left me wanting a bit of the lavish presentation of the previous two books and also made me sigh with relief. The Alexandria Quartet being my only frame of reference with the author, reading something straight-forward from Durrell is a bit unsettling. I kept expecting to be literarily attacked--ambushed--in some new clever way but Mountolive resolutely marches forward in linear fashion following the lives of it's characters and exposing the plot we been over for what is now the third time through yet another lens. And let me come out and say that that last magic trick--telling the same story through different eyes--truly is magic, because it really shouldn't work. The title character may have been mentioned once or twice in Balthazaar and seeing how such a primary, intregal-to-everyone character, could have been all but left out until now is stunning. We see him spend a year with Nessim and Narouz in Egypt as an English exchange student in his late teen-aged years. We see him and Leila fall all-the-way in love. We see him leave and become a successful diplomat. We also see A LOT of the other characters and gain some serious understanding of their persons. For instance: "Underneath her lightness he recognized something strong, resistant and durable--the very character of an experience he lacked. She was a gallant creature, and it is only the gallant who can remain light-hearted in adversity." pg 47. That is about Lelia, Nessim and Narouz's mother, not Justine... "Darley is so sentimental and so loyal to me that he constitutes no danger at all. Even if he came into the possession of information which might harm us he would not use it, he would bury it." pg 210 As spoken by Justine and which completely explains the narrative point of view of the quartet's first novel, fixation on sentiment, and near oblivious eye turned to the obvious thought of every reader, "Something else is going on..." As for Mountolive, his early relationship with an older woman mars him for life: he seeks out married women in his later liasons, he ages and matures a bit too quickly, and the hold Leila has over him is extraordinary. Poor Clea is everyone's crutch: she reads to Samira (a brilliant parallel micro-story within the story of it's own), she puts up with Darley, she indulges Narouz, and even buys into Nessim's bullshit. Of Pursewarden, well, this book is as much Pursewarden's as it is Mountolive's... While the book is about and focused on Mountolive, it is Pursewarden who drives the plot. Pursewarden sleeps with the wrong people--and here I'm not talking about his sister, rather Melissa--and learns some very interesting knowledge about Nessim. While reading Balthazaar I had a thought that Nessim was running guns to someone and Balthazaar was a spy. Whom the guns were run to and who the spy really is I was wrong about. Through an event no more subtle than suicide we see Pursewarden give the world the finger and all of his closest acquaintances as well. He forces everyone to act when they would rather be stay where they are. Once the knowledge is out there, it can't be taken back. The end of the book is a bit of a race to see who will mess up first and on what scale. It takes getting to book three for the true plot of this story to clearly present itself. And even then, once we concretely know what is going on, its still the characters that keep one reading. (I am priding myself by keeping to my original promise of not making comparisons to other works of fiction as I stated in Justine.) As to Durrell being Durrell, his language finally managed to get on my nerves in a sex scene with Pursewarden and Melissa; who, by the way, has slept with everyone but isn't really a ho since 'ho' is kinda her stated profession. He relied too much on analogy and allegory and for far too long and considering the narrative voice in the rest of the novel it almost came across as pulp fiction, base or vulgar. Even though it was just regular old trashy sex. I almost forgave all the intimacy with Pursewarden as it plays on the relationship with his sister: they were lovers, it happened, it could never happen again, and he always sought, and failed to recreate what he once held as an ideal. Hmm... I ain't said much about the book because as I've said about the first two: there's not a whole lot of 'plot' driving this story. Fans of page-turning thrillers and spy novels beware; this one moves at a leisurely heart rate. That said, the story given is extraordinary.

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