[ilds] AvignonQ at OMGXVINO

Kennedy Gammage gammage.kennedy at gmail.com
Wed Jun 21 14:41:04 PDT 2017


My controversial sf-not-pomo interpretation of AQ2 is of course correct -
but comments are welcome. Thanks very much – Ken

_The Significance of “Real” and “Imaginary” Characters in The Avignon
Quintet_

I first ran into Monsieur or the Prince of Darkness in 1984. I had just
been to Avignon, and by picking up Monsieur, through the magic of reading,
I was instantly back there and immersed in this most intricate and
surprising series of novels, with their "real" and "imaginary" characters.

The Quintet was a work in progress when I happened upon it. Durrell was
still alive and creating in the 1980s, and when I received my hardcover
Faber & Faber first edition of Quinx upon publication in 1985 it felt as if
Durrell had mailed it to me.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Quintet is the interaction
between the so-called real characters (including Blanford, Constance, Sam,
Livia and Hilary – the original 5 young people who spent a magical summer
at Tu Duc just before the war) and the supposedly imaginary characters:
Sutcliffe, Toby, Pia, Trash, Sabine, Bruce and the Ogres: Sylvie and Piers.
(Actually there is another set of Ogres who are supposed to be more real,
but are probably not.)

They interact in mirrored milieus such as Tu Duc and Verfeuille, paired
with their virtual counterparts (Blanford / Sutcliffe, Pia / Sylvie, Trash
/ Thrush, Galen / Banquo, Akkad and Affad)...some remain fixed on their
reality tracks and storylines while others cross over.

What does this mean, real and imaginary characters, in the context of a
novel? They’re all products of Durrell’s imagination, but are some more
imaginary than others, or more real? In the Quintet, Aubrey Blanford gains
putative advantage because he feels he is the creator of Sutcliffe – but
since they are both creations of Durrell, Sutcliffe rightly feels entitled
to push back – transcending his offstage death in the river to walk among
living characters for the remainder of the Quintet.

There is of course literary precedent for the alter ego or fictionalization
of the author, which might be thought to earn pride of place as a
character. Stephen Dedalus is the alter ego of the young Joyce – “the
artist as a young man,” who will in some sense grow into the real Joyce.

Does this mean that Blanford has earned pride of place as an alter ego of
the young Durrell? By no means! He is just another character. In fact,
Sutcliffe is much closer to representing Larry’s carousing Bohemian side –
but of course we never really view Rob as a young man, and he acts more the
tragic clown than an alter ego. He appears to amuse the author.

The Quintet begins with Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness – a beautiful,
evocative novel. Monsieur gives Durrell’s readers great pleasure by
returning us to the much beloved setting of his Quartet for Monsieur’s
justifiably renowned scenes: the idyll on the Nile and the visit to Macabru.

Though Durrell’s name is on the cover, Monsieur can be read as a novel
written by Blanford about “imaginary” characters, who are based on “real”
characters, his personal friends, taking place in familiar scenes from his
earlier life. Bruce Drexel M.D., Blanford’s narrator, has enjoyed an
idyllic ménage with the Ogres in a Provençal setting, based on Blanford’s
nostalgia for his pre-war idyll with his friends at Tu Duc.

Monsieur is a straightforward narrative until we get to Sutcliffe, the
“imaginary” novelist, who has created his own satirical character,
“Bloshford” the effete doubly-imaginary novelist.

We meet “Bloshford” on page 178...but since we’ve made Aubrey Blanford the
putative author of Monsieur (or even the whole series), it’s good to be
reminded that we don’t even meet him in the first book until the last
chapter, nearly 100 pages later. Before that, Bruce and the Ogres are the
story, followed by Sutcliffe and Toby, Pia and Trash.

After all this, BLANFORD THE NOVELIST (as he is announced in all caps)
steps confidently onto the page – and he certainly makes a big impression.
We buy-in to his primacy: he’s been called into town to write the biography
of the dead Sutcliffe, and there are really only two drawbacks to that
scheme: Sutcliffe is not really dead, and Blanford is crazy as a bedbug.
Which is OK.

Blanford (like Sutcliffe) is in Venice, where the phantom Duchess of Tu now
resides for some reason. Reality shifts, and the book’s last chapter is
capped by a psychotic break: Blanford dining with the ghost of his friend
Constance – who seems to buy-into the Rob/Sam equation, which is
self-evidently wrong!

The imaginary characters are supposedly composites of the real characters,
which is insulting both to them and the reader. Sutcliffe = Sam + Blanford,
“Pia a composite of Constance and Livia.” Nonsense. We would do well to be
skeptical of Blanford at every opportunity. There is a real character named
Constance in these books, and this phantom Duchess at the end of Monsieur
is not her.

(Just as an aside: has Constance died of old age? Monsieur was published in
1974, when she couldn’t have been much older than 70.) What of Sutcliffe in
his Venetian Documents, talking about “the old Duchess of Tu” who again
seems to be a totally different person from Constance. Bruce and ‘Young
Tobias’ are obviously on a different reality track from this old Duchess.

What is the relationship between Blanford and Sutcliffe – the prime pair of
twinned characters, real and imaginary? Occasional deference by Sutcliffe,
but more often a raucous and profane apparent friendship of, if not peers,
then certainly near-equals. We never see Blanford bully Rob – though
Sutcliffe complains that Blanford has killed him off: his exact words are
“Refuse to be rushed off the planet in this clumsy and ignominious
fashion.” Rob Sutcliffe’s long decline is laughable – living in the squalid
digs of an angel maker with a bunch of starving children, spending his
nights drinking himself to a stupor with the old crone – an absurd
characterization by Blanford which didn’t stick.

I had forgotten that Rob Sutcliffe had written “a famous novel” about his
brother-in-law Bruce’s relationship with the Ogres. Has Blanford anywhere
in the Quintet published anything? We know from the very first lines of
Quinx that Blanford had tried to write a book about the same characters,
but “Alas, it had not come off.” Which is puzzling and contradictory.

What does it mean when Sutcliffe restates the opening lines of Monsieur,
the “super glow worm” supposedly written by Blanford?  Is Rob reading
Aubrey’s mind, as Blanford reads his? If so there is no real difference
between their status, and Rob just has an inferiority complex! In Quinx,
when Rob asks Sabine to sleep with him, she gives him a long strange look
before replying: “But I don’t know which one of you is more real – for
Aubrey has already asked me that.”

Rob is Blanford, and THEY are Durrell! It reminds me of my favorite Lindsay
Anderson film, O Lucky Man! where the same famous actors portray multiple
characters. What does it all mean? In Constance, Blanford tells Sutcliffe:
“It is as if we were versions of one another set upon differing time
tracks.”

Of course they both married Lesbians, if that’s at all germane. What effect
does Durrell intend to create with these overlapping casts of characters?

Here’s one, Blanford speaking:  “He wondered if in the next book about
these people he could not cut down a layer or two to reveal the invisible
larval forms, the root forms which had given him these projections.”

Here’s another: in Quinx, Sabine shares an unspoken thought about herself
and Sutcliffe: “Why were they not free to forge their own futures? What
damnable luck to be simply figments of the capricious human mind!” That
line struck me. It is spoken by a so-called imaginary character – but it
speaks to me as a reader. Every one of us in this room is theoretically
free to forge our own future – but we are also constrained by the realities
of the present!  As Felix Chatto muses to himself: “…so many petty
humiliations!”

Re-reading this line recently, I felt I understood the significance of the
imaginary characters. They are like us – pawns on a chessboard. As
Sutcliffe replied to Constance when she says: “So after all you are real,”
he laughs and says “Everyone is real.”

What clues about his intentions did Durrell leave us in ENVOI, "the begats"
on the last page of Monsieur?

It appears from the punctuation that Durrell is implying Blanford not only
created Sutcliffe and the other imaginary characters – he also created the
real characters! Or not…

If Aubrey is capable of psychotic breaks like his phantom dinner with Tu,
then perhaps the entire Quintet is a fever dream in his mind. To which I
say: twaddle! Durrell’s name is on the books – and taking even a few
minutes to scan Aubrey’s internal stream of consciousness at the conclusion
of Constance will disabuse anyone of the idea that he would be capable of
creating the Quintet and its most moving scenes, such as the tragic end of
Nancy Quiminal. ENVOI is a red-herring, Durrell having fun. Blanford
rhetorically asks: “And what of me, he thought. Am I possibly an invention
of someone like old D – the devil at large?”

Who is the Préfet at the end of Quinx and what is the source of his insight?

There is much talk about “time tracks” in the Quintet, and readers have
noted its shaky timeline. (Durrell himself disclaims this “slight
divergence” in the Appendix to Livia.) Apparently the first book is the
latest, the closest to the present day, where the last book, Quinx, takes
place decades earlier, sometime after the conclusion of the Second World
War.

However, Monsieur truly is first, introducing us to this five book world
centered around Avignon, and Quinx is really last, concluding the series on
an optimistic note. This is where we meet the Préfet. Of all the
characters, his vantage is the most omniscient. He sees all the characters,
real and imaginary. For me, the Préfet is Durrell, inserting himself like
Alfred Hitchcock in this cameo appearance, “...noting with interest that
some of them came from other time-fields or other contingent realities –
like Toby and Drexel, who were there with his two charming and juvenile
ogres who seemed rather like impersonations of Piers and Sylvie of the
past.”

A hybrid of SF & fantasy – like Tunc and Nunquam less than a decade earlier.

Can the Quintet be considered science fiction, in the same sense that The
Revolt of Aphrodite was?"

I don’t think Durrellians are shocked by the words science fiction, yet
there is a stigma about “sci-fi” as serious literature, and probably some
measure of disbelief from those fans who have perhaps only read the Quartet
and the Island books, that Durrell was (or could be) a science fiction
writer – though he explicitly employs the term in his Note of introduction
to Balthazar (in reference to the 4th-dimensional scheme of the Quartet).

There’s been some informed discussion on the topic of Durrell and science
fiction recently on the ILDS e-mail list – focused mainly on the Revolt of
Aphrodite  (the Quintet has so far escaped)…and I won’t speak on this
subject for more than one more moment - but, as an SF fan for 40 years:
There is little “science” in the Quintet – but, as so-called speculative
fiction, these overlapping time tracks and hierarchies among characters
based on gradations of their fictitious reality...these are definitely
fantastic or fantasy elements by their very nature. Durrell handles them
deftly, with a light and affectionate touch, and not every reader noticed
that these books could be considered science fiction or fantasy.

Who is the nexus of the real and imaginary characters in the Quintet?
Freud! Constance is a disciple – but Pia, Bruce’s sister and Sutcliffe’s
wife, is his patient, and Pia and Rob are the ones who save Freud’s couch
in Livia and ship it to Provence! Across reality tracks to Tu Duc, not to
its mirror image of Verfeuille from their own ‘imaginary’ world. (Actually
it’s Blanford who redirects the couch to Constance, “as he carried more
weight in everything to do with real reality.”) Yet, in the same book when
he meets Sylvie at Montfavet, Blanford doesn’t recognize her, nor the name
of her brother Piers – even though he supposedly ‘created’ them.

Durrell is playing with us! He is showing a deft hand at tweaking reality
in interesting ways.  Constance is a beautiful and frightening book about
World War II, and is the Quincunx of this series as many have noted,
central to the other four books. It is a serious and harrowing novel about
life in the Vichy - but it also manifests these fantasy elements.

Not all of the characters are aware of the real/imaginary dichotomy but
some are – particularly Constance. When she admits to the old doctor
Jourdain at the asylum that she is having an (unethical) affair of the
heart with Sylvie, a patient and one of the imaginary “ogres”, it appears
that these two characters from different time tracks are interacting on the
same level. But when the old witch reveals to Sylvie that her partner
“would soon leave her – indeed, that she was not any longer loved,” that is
when different levels of reality manifest themselves and Sylvie “saw
herself diminishing, becoming a parody of a person…” She was reverting from
real to imaginary, changing states. This is science fiction at its highest
and most literary level!

Constance says to Blanford: “By the way, I thought for a long time your
Sutcliffe was imaginary.”

She thinks: “It must be strange to exist only in somebody’s diary, like
Socrates...”

How could Constance accept Sutcliffe deferring to Blanford as his maker? A
doctor and disciple of Freud – and she takes at face value that one friend
created another? I don’t believe it! Sutcliffe is as real as Blanford –
arguably realer, with his more complex life experience, his sorrow over
Pia’s “inversion.” The reader is not fooled, nor are the characters.
Everyone is playing parts…As Blanford considers at the end of Quinx:
“...perhaps they could also be the various actors which, in their sum, made
up one whole single personality?”

It’s complicated. Did some readers experience a disconnect with the
Quintet? Perhaps it was the sex scenes…Let me ask this question one last
time:

“What does this mean, real and imaginary characters, in the context of the
novel?” I think one way of looking at it is, these groups of characters are
from different time fields. When we meet the cast of Monsieur, these are
definitely the ‘imaginary’ characters, all embarked together on their own
time track.

“Squinting around the curves of futurity” – this is Blanford’s key speech
to Sutcliffe early in Livia: “…I saw something like a quincunx of novels
set out in a good classical order. Five Q novels written in a highly
elliptical quincunxial style invented for the occasion….they would not be
laid end to end in serial order, like dominoes – but simply belong to the
same blood group, five panels...” Here’s another:

“To celebrate the mystical marriage of four dimensions with five skandas so
to speak.”  The five books of the Quintet are the five Skandas, proceeding
from the four dimensions of the Alexandria Quartet. Onward and upward –
this was Durrell’s ambitious plan for the Quintet: an extended metaphor
about the creative process: characters creating other characters. I think
he pulled it off rather well.

I am pretty much a lifelong Durrell fan, always aware of those four
paperbacks of The Alexandria Quartet in my parents' hall bookshelf: the
lovely Giant Cardinal editions. Thank you very much.

@kgammage
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