Monsieur fascinates, is full of many interesting possibilities, yet does not quite succeed. Durrell, sadly, does not develop more fully the many curious, inter-linked themes that he interjects along the tortuous way of this novel within a novel. In fact, one often gets the feeling that Durrell himself—like most of his characters—was never quite sure what shape this novel would take and literally improvised as he went along.
Durrell’s central concerns remain the same and Monsieur is very much in continuation of Nunquam. Once again he explores the worlds of erotic experience, of reality and illusion with the implied conclusion that there is no demarcation between the two: ‘By a singular paradox the passages that he knew would be regarded as unreal (‘people don’t behave like that’) would be the truth, and the rest which rang somehow true, the purest fabrication.’ Yet Durrell is merely repeating a well-known cliche though his vehicle for doing so is intriguing.
The ruling idea of the novel is gnosticism as expressed by Akkad—a suave banker who is the spiritual head of a mysterious Egyptian (naturally) gnostic sect during his spare time. The sect believes that, inhabiting as we do ‘this munching world of death and dissolution … , this malefic world of destruction’, the Good God has to be dead and his place has been usurped by The Prince of Darkness. The only weapon against him is ‘the gnostic suicide by attrition, by a steady denial of the world as it is’. This suicide is not at your own hands but the timing and the executioner (who is invariably another initiate) are decided by Akkad. Till that time, Akkad recommends a return to nature in the area of sexual relationships, as man’s ‘central trauma’ arose when he ‘had set astray the natural periodicity of sexuality and so forfeited his partnership with the animal kingdom’.
Durrell uses this theme of gnosticism as the ruling motive for all his characters. Most of the action centres around Piers de Nogaret—the rather down-at-heel scion of a famous family amongst whose ancestors was a Knight Templar—inhabiting his medieval mansion, Verfeuille. Piers is in love with his sister Sylvie. Bruce, a British doctor, is in love with Piers but marries Sylvie who is suspected to be pregnant (but isn’t). Sylvie goes gently mad early in the proceedings, finding it impossible to sustain rationally ‘the division of objectives (i.e., between Piers and Bruce) in loving’. Bruce’s sister, Pia, marries Rob Sutcliffe—a not very successful novelist—but then deserts him to roam the world with a coloured American lesbian named Trash to whom, if the truth be told, Sutcliffe is rather attracted. Also present in this complex tale is Toby—a dissolute Oxford don researching the history of the Templars through Piers’s family papers. Not very unexpectedly, he comes to the conclusion that the reason why the Templars were suddenly dethroned from their position of supereminence in the year 1307 was because they were tainted with the heresy of gnosticism which they ‘contracted’ while fighting in the Middle East.
This troupe of players is not quite complete without Blanford whom we suddenly encounter at the end of the book as the author of the preceding 280 pages. Similarly, the lives of Piers, Bruce and Sylvie are the subject of Sutcliffe’s magnum opus. But, then, Durrell is the author of Blanford’s novel, and of Blanford’s novel of Sutcliffe’s novel; and the opening paragraph of Durrell’s novel is the opening paragraph of Sutcliffe’s novel. To complete the box-within-the-box metaphor, we find that Blanford’s wife has also deserted him for a lesbian and that, in all probability, he was in love with his confidante’s, the Duchess of Tu’s, late husband. And so we are left with the enigmatic question: Is Blanford Durrell or Durrell Sutcliffe, or Sutcliffe Blanford or are all three the same?
The novel (which one?) begins with the suicide of Piers under strange circumstances. Bruce returns to Verfeuille and leads us backwards in time to the meeting with Akkad and the whole revolutionizing Egyptian experience. Bruce acts as the somewhat unimaginative narrator for the better part of the book discovering and recollecting half-forgotten facts in an effort to reconstruct the present. Eventually, Bruce arrives at the obvious conclusion that Piers’ was a gnostic suicide and the instrument was, in all probability, his neighbour at Verfeuille—the half-gypsy Sabine, untamed daughter of yet another strange banker, who is one of Akkad’s favourite disciples.
The narrative is very thin and the central idea stretched too far. One could, in fact, be forgiven for saying ‘people don’t behave like that’, though not without a nagging suspicion that they might if nature was allowed to rule supreme. I suppose this lack of belief arises from the fact that these unrestrained characters are all crowded into one novel. It remains to be said that Durrell’s writing has not lost its sparkle and some of the descriptions are sheer poetry, some of the insights sheer genius.
Tejeshwar Singh is Managing Editor, Macmillan India.