Friday, May 19, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness

Lawrence Durrell
Monsieur or Prince of Darkness
Book 1 of  "The Avignon Quintet"  (aka The Quincunx)

Please do not expect an organized, coherent, illuminating post on this work; instead, you will find some random, chaotic ramblings about a work I am fascinated by.  It is probably this fascination that keeps me from stepping back and objectively looking at Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness.

I have now finished Lawrence Durrell's Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness, the first book in his "Avignon Quintet."  This is a reread, but it's been some time since I last read it, and therefore I remember little aside from the general overall structure of the Quintet.

The title can be misleading.  Monsieur is ambiguous for it could refer to any man, but the subtitle clarifies it.  There are those who believe that to say the devil's name out loud will act as a summons and the devil will appear.  Therefore, to prevent this, certain agreed upon circumlocutions are used, and  "Monsieur" is one of them.  However, the rest of the title, The Prince of Darkness, makes it very clear who is meant because that is one of the devil's titles, along with The Prince of Lies and The Lord of Flies. 

My overall reaction was that of meeting an old and familiar friend, one very comfortable to be with.  This, of course, is strange because I remember little of the book so far.  I think that familiar,  comfortable feeling comes from just having recently finished his "Alexandria Quartet.   As I turned the pages of Monsieur, certain similarities came to mind between it and Justine,  the first book in the "Alexandria Quartet."

To begin with, the first novels of the two sets, Monsieur and  Justine, are first person narratives, and, therefore, we will see all from that limited viewpoint.  Of course, one significant difference is that we don't learn the name of the narrator until the second book in the Quartet, while we learn the narrator's name on the first page of the first book in the Quintet.

Both works include considerable flashbacks, works involving memories as they intrude upon and influence the present.  Characters in both are mentioned with little or no introductory information as to who they are and why they are important.  That will be revealed later, sometimes much later.  In both, within the first three pages, the reader learns that someone has died, and that is all that the reader is told.  That this person must be important in some way is suggested by being mentioned so early in the work.

In Monsieur, several of the characters are members of the diplomatic corp of France and England, or are attached in some way to French and English embassies.  This is also true of characters in Justine.

Again, in each work, a novelist is mentioned and quoted frequently.  But, again, it is later that the reader is given more information about the writer and his relationship with the narrator.  And in both novels, that writer is dead at this point in the novel.

Alexandria, the City, is a significant character in the Quartet, so important that the human inhabitants seem to be only puppets controlled by the city.

                         " 'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
                           Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
                                Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
                            And one by one back in the Closet lays."
                                           -- The Rubaiyat:  Quatrain XLIX  
In this case, read Alexandria for "Destiny."  I am only guessing about Avignon at this point, but the treatment of the city suggests that it too will be an important character throughout the work.

Because of the above, I wasn't too surprised to find myself, along with many of the characters, in Alexandria at the beginning of the second part of Monsieur.  


However, there exists a complication which I haven't mentioned yet.  The structure of this, the first book, is a novel-within-a-novel.  And, this we don't find out until the last chapters, when we suddenly emerge out of the internal novel into the external novel, or the frame.  Actually, it isn't much of a frame as the frame only appears at the very end of this book.  The internal novel is also called Monsieur, which illustrates the link between the "two" novels. 

In the last few chapters, we meet Aubrey Blanford, who claims to have written  the internal Monsieur.  Future volumes will then tell the story of Blanford's life and his relationships with his wife, his friends, and relatives.  In those volumes we will see how Blanford changed and modified what he knows about the people and events of  his life into the characters of the internal novel.

After finishing the first volume, it appears as though this is a novel about writing a novel.  And no, it isn't dismal at all.  I dislike those sorts of novels, but Durrell does it so well that I really don't notice it.  Perhaps my dislike for this meta-fictional cliche is the result of finding that it is so often poorly done, and that may be my argument with it.

One more note:  sometimes "The Avignon Quintet" is called "The Quincunx."   A quincunx is a landscaping feature of five trees.  Four of the trees are placed at the corners of a square, while the fifth tree is placed exactly at the center.  The first book of the quintet, Monsieur, is placed at the center with the other four at the corners, a suggestion of the relationship among the five novels. 

I now regret only waiting so long to revisit "The Avignon Quintet."


  1. Thanks, Fred, for sharing your insights and reading experiences. I might not ever get around to reading Durrell, but now I have a landscaping plan for the big open empty area behind my house.

    1. Tim,

      I'm glad to hear that you got some benefit from my post. Happy landscaping!

  2. This sounds really interesting... Do play chess Fred? The two series give the impression of working on multiple levels simitaneously..., with more obscure levels receding in a long, withdrawing roar, like in"Dover Beach"... The intellectuality might be scary to. Some readers,of which I would number myself. still, given some miraculous restoration of mental faculties, I might give it a try someday... Tx for the very clear analysis...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Yes, both work on several levels, but the best part is that Durrell tells well-written stories with interesting, entertaining, and intriguing characters that grab me on the overt level.

      First and foremost, these are stories, not intellectual exercises. The levels, as you point out, are there, but I consider them the frosting on the cake, which I realize is heretical in some circles and condemns me forever to some lower circle in the lit/crit Hades.

      Stories Rule!