[ilds] Palimpsest versus Cento

James Gifford odos.fanourios at gmail.com
Tue Jun 12 14:01:12 PDT 2007

I like this topic of palimpsest vs. pastiche vs. cento.  Bill, I think
you're on to something with that third one...

Bruce notes:

> Durrell likes layers of time and history; he sees
> the world in those terms, much like Cavafy. ...
> He looks at a landscape as though it were a
> palimpsest, where ruins are the partial erasures
> of time.

I've argued something similar in a piece about his short story "Oil for the
Saint," in which the 'palimpsest' of Corfu Town receives some cheeky
treatment (in a nutshell, I think Durrell refers quite carefully to the
complex political history of the island while presenting a narrative that
superficially caters to the reader who is unaware of this history).  The
Cavafy connection is also particularly important, in my opinion, since a
large part of the connection exists through allusion and citation -- those
are traits that dominate the aesthetic of Durrell's modernist forebears, but
which I think differ slightly through his interest and ties to the Greek

For instance, Eliot's reference to Smyrna in "The Waste Land" is certainly
not political in the same way that Cavafy's reference to ancient military
defeat is political in "Those Who Fought for the Achaean League" (1922).
Likewise, Joyce's invocation of Odysseus is not politicized in the same way
that Seferis' references to Homer are.

I'd argue Durrell plays that game as well, and 'allusion' isn't quite a
strong enough word to discuss the style.  Pastiche is the typically
politicized term from the three Bill offers, and Durrell certainly does
stitch things together.  Yet, I don't find it satisfying nor would I like to
lump Durrell together with other pastiche writers, even though he may have
influenced some of them.

"Cento" seems to capture the flavour of what I believe Carol was after in
that article.  (By the way, I regard this as a 'classic' piece of Durrell
scholarship).  I think Carol used "palimpsest" for specific reasons, and I
still see them as valid (not the least of which being Durrell's composition
methods, the fact that he uses the word, and that it captures the flavour of
writing overtop with an original still visible beneath).  That said, here's
what I glean from the OED for Cento, followed by why I like this term better
(no need to read it all if you're skimming):

> 2. ŒA composition formed by joining scraps from other
> authors¹ (J.). 1605 CAMDEN Rem. (1614) 14 Quilted..out of
> shreds of diuers Poets, such as Schollers do call a Cento.
> 1646 JER. TAYLOR Apol. Liturgy Pref. §16 A very Cento
> composed out of the Massbook, Pontifical, Breviaries,
> Manuals, and Portuises of the Roman Church. 1730 A.
> GORDON Maffei's Amphith. 95 They affected a kind of
> Medley or Cento. 1882 FARRAR Early Chr. I. 554 A cento of
> Scripture phrases.
> Hence {sm}centoism (also {sm}centonism); cen{sm}tonical a.,
> of the nature of a cento; {sm}centoize v., to make into a
> cento. c1618 E. BOLTON Hypercr. in Haslewood Anc. Crit.
> Ess. (1811) II. 237 The vast vulgar Tomes procured for the
> most part by the husbandry of Printers..in their
> tumultuary and centonical writings, do seem to resemble
> some huge disproportionable Temple. 1838-9 HALLAM Hist.
> Lit. I. I. iii. §80 Not too ambitiously chosen, nor in the
> manner called centonism. Ibid. viii. §2 Tassoni has
> ridiculed its centonism, or studious incorporation of
> lines from Petrarch. 1842 MRS. BROWNING Grk. Chr. Poets
> 24 The tragedy is..a specimen of centoism, which is the
> adaptation of the phraseology of one work to the
> construction of another. Ibid. 54 Eudocia..thought good
> to extend her sceptre..over Homer's poems, and cento-ize
> them into an epic on the Saviour's life. 1859 Sat. Rev.
> VIII. 257/1 Warton seems to have imagined the text of
> Comus, Lycidas, etc., to have been little more than a
> centonism of borrowed thoughts.

What I like here is the awareness that previous text pre-date the one being
read.  The borrowings or allusions are more or less meant to be found even
though they form a cohesive whole with Durrell's stylistic stamp on them.
Is that stamp partially his ability to find a turn of phrase he liked and
jot it down in his notebooks?  Many (most?) authors work this way, but
Durrell likes to take scenarios with that turn of phrase and find a way to
stitch them in.

The other element implicit in both the cento and Durrell is that the
borrowed materials function as an allusion.  While it's true that some
allusions exist for their own sake, they typically infuse a new context or
potential reading on the work, one that derives from the previous text.  As
with the Cavafy vs. Eliot example I gave above, Eliot refers to Smyrna, but
we know the allusion is likely for the sake of cleverness.  But, for Cavafy,
the allusion to ancient materials and the fall of independent Greece is
meant to make us aware that he's writing in 1922 after the catastrophe in
Asia Minor (Smyrna).  Because of that original text to which he alludes, we
revise our vision of his poem.  Even in Eliot's opening allusion to Chaucer
in "The Waste land," this is not the case -- knowing that Chaucer is
celebrating Spring conflicts with Eliot's "dead earth," but we do know
suddenly infuse "The Waste Land" with joyful spiritual pilgrimages.

Durrell's use of other materials strikes me as more like Cavafy's, or at
least akin (and likely why Cavafy is the city poet rather than Eliot was in
Liddell's novel of Alexandria, Unreal City, which should strike a chord for
our earlier discussion of the epigraphs to Justine).  The Cento does this as
well, as defined in the OED.

> Tassoni [is that you Bruce?] has ridiculed its centonism,
> or studious incorporation of lines from Petrarch.

That sounds Durrellian...  But, when we find the references to Xenophon and
Aristophanes, do they not infuse a different view on the text?  Much like
the OED's discussion of centos from the Massbook, which would presumably
carry the religious context forward into a new narrative.

I should probably also give a note on why I would read it in accord with
Bill's suggestion.  As I'm always so fond of mentioning, I started with the
Quintet and came to the Quartet only after reading several other Durrell
books.  The Quintet makes this style quite overt, both internally and for
the book in my own hands.  That shaped my first approach to the Quartet.
While I didn't trace out the references in the way we're doing right now, I
was very much aware it was going on.

So, that takes me back to Bruce's objection:

> I'm not too keen on the other terms either, pastiche or
> palimpsest.  Why?  Primarily because I'm not aware of the
> other writers when reading Durrell.  His voice and style
> predominate, which may only mean he's very good at
> absorbing other influences and making them his own.  His
> unique poetry and vision is what holds everything together
> and gives it a Durrellian color.

This makes sense, insofar as Durrell is very good at putting his own
stylistic stamp on the borrowed materials (or finding materials that are
highly akin to this idiolect).  Yet, we can't reject them simply because
they do not stand out.  If I wanted to read religious scripture (I'm
thinking about the OED's examples of centos), I might not spot just how
close Christian materials are to the cult of Mithras or Zoroastrianism, or
other religions prevalent at that time (or even in a more acceptable sense,
modern Christians needn't see the ties to Judaism) -- that doesn't erase the
fact that the texts involved could be read as centos of other texts.

So, are these elements of the palimpsest (metaphorically), pastiche,
allusion, and cento all a part of the Durrellian style?  I'd say so.  I'd
even suggest they are an infectious element from the composition methods
through to the final text.  I don't think that's what happening in _Caesar's
Vast Ghost_, and Isabelle Keller will need to get involved to tell us about
that, but for the other texts I'd argue it is very much a part of the style.

Bill asks:

> But is Balthazar a palimpsest? Only metaphorically, I
> suggest. Justine is not really erased by Balthazar. The
> novels sit side by side chatting with each other on my
> shelf. Justine says one thing, and Baltazar says, "Yes,
> but." They are distinct and competing pictures.

Yes, but...  In the narrative world, they are one book scrawled atop the
other, hence the interlinear, plus Darley's additions and subtractions.  I
think the notion of the palimpsest works to describe the situation inside
the narrative quite well, and hence Durrell used it.  _Justine_ isn't
literally scraped away, but if falls away under the pen in _Balthazar_
becoming both a false construction and a submerged layer of textual
discovery.  It is only in our non-fictional world that the two books sit
side by side on the shelf or side by side inside the omnibus...

But, now back to my own books.


More information about the ILDS mailing list