Sunday, September 18, 2011

Phantoms of a lost paradise

Once again, I've finished rereading the excellent book on Provence by Lawrence Durrell, Caesar's Vast Ghost, published in 1990 just before the author's death.

And, once again, I'm trying to analyze the contents of this remarkable book—probably Durrell's most profound work, to my way of thinking—in order to set the various themes in their right perspective, and to determine why he decided to blend together several quite different styles of writing, ranging from travel and tourism through to history and philosophy, with twenty original poems and two or three hefty blobs of pure fantasy.

Back at the time that Durrell brought out The Alexandria Quartet, readers were warned amply that the novelist had in fact invented the people and the places that he wrote about. In other words, a visitor to the Mediterranean city of Alexandria would not encounter anything, today, that might be associated with the exotic context of Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea. Even in the case of Durrell's so-called travel books inspired by such places as Corfu, Rhodes and Cyprus, readers should not imagine that they are being offered tourist guidebooks. Durrell's tales are hinged around the author's special relationships, not only with exceptional places, but with various colorful individuals. And a typical site, deprived of the author and his contacts, can become rather sterile. I'm reminded of the idea of considering the Bible as a guidebook to the modern land of Israel. Unfortunately, all the biblical personages disappeared long ago. And today, the places and people you encounter as a tourist in the Holy Land are not necessarily particularly "biblical" (whatever that might mean).

In the case of Caesar's Vast Ghost, on the other hand, I believe that we can truly take advantage, in a pragmatic sense, of Durrell's profound awareness and vision of Provence.

Durrell's book has little in common—at the level of both its form and its content—with a conventional guidebook such as, say, the excellent Michelin guide to Provence. They're not at all in the same writing category. But, although Caesar's Vast Ghost does not appear to be a tourist guidebook, I look upon it as a wonderful guiding book for visitors who would like to acquire a set of basic notions concerning the historical and cultural foundations of Provence, and the essence of this fascinating region. Without these notions, a newcomer to Provence runs the risk of being waylaid, sadly and superficially, by caricatural images of Provence. I see this happening constantly in the case of visitors who imagine naively, for example, that Provence is primarily a romantically pretty land for photographers. (See, for example, the olive tree and field of lavender on the cover of the Green Guide.) While it's a fact that sunny Provence can indeed be an ideal subject for photographers, it would be silly to imagine this fascinating region as little more than a giant set of colorful postcard images, whose inhabitants are generally beautiful, glamorous, quaint, rich, famous…

From the very first paragraph of Durrell's book, I was struck by the familiar tone of his description of his arrival in Provence, which evokes my personal memories of the '60s. Here are Durrell's opening words:

"My own version of Provence is necessarily partial and personal, for, like everyone else, I came here to fall in and out of love long ago, entering old Provence by the winding roads, the only ones, the old Routes Nationales, down the interminable corridors of cool planes in leaf, at the turn of the harvest moon…"

The most famous road, for visitors driving down from Paris, was the Nationale 7.

Generally, it led us through rural settings, and countless villages. But often, it forced us to drive through the main streets of busy towns.

Durrell arrived in Provence around 1957 with his future wife Claude, and they lived for a while in a house in Sommières, the Villa Louis.

A year later, they moved to the stone house north of Nîmes called the Mazet Michel, mentioned in my recent blog post entitled First encounter with Durrell [display]. And it wasn't until 1966 that Durrell and Claude moved into the big house in Sommières… where Claude died in 1967, and where Lawrence Durrell finished Caesar's Vast Ghost in 1990. This is the place at 15 Route Saussine mentioned in an earlier blog post entitled Old house in Sommières [display].

Durrell suggests that "the best way to strike up an acquaintance with […] Provençal towns is to arrive around daybreak, preferably on a market day when the place is full of sleepy vendors unloading their vans and trucks of everything you can imagine from pigeons and hams to olives and plums".

Early in his book, Durrell introduces us to two of his mates, Aldo and Jérôme, who are talking about the idea of writing a book on Provence. Aldo is said to be the owner of a dilapidated castle and vineyard near Beaucaire, and Jérôme is a beatnik of the kind that moved away from cities and roamed around in the south of France in the '60s. Frankly, though, I have the impression that these two personages are largely make-believe, made necessary by the author's desire to present the back woods of Provence as a decadent and decrepit place, on a par with Durrell's mythical Alexandria. Durrell attempts to make his readers believe, for example, that Aldo had once studied medicine, and that his passion for embalming led him to gold-plate dead human foetuses, which he would sell to a gypsy whom he had met at the famous fête at Saintes Maries de la Mer. One of Aldo's friends was "an old and somewhat impoverished Roman Papal Count", Reynaldo de Saturnin, who had asked Aldo to embalm the body of his daughter, so that he could keep her in a glass case.

Another of Aldo's strange former companions was a painter named Zoravis. When a bistro in Montparnasse claimed to be able to supply any beverage whatsoever that their clients might request, Zoravis asked for a glass of bull's blood. As soon as it was finally delivered (by a servant on a motor-cycle), the painter confirmed his virility by gulping down a glass of warm blood in front of his admirers. To my mind, those are the kinds of tall stories that Lawrence Durrell liked to spin in order to persuade his readers that he led a most exotic existence, surrounded by weird folk. Let's forgive him for this urge to invent unlikely characters. After all, Durrell was a story-teller.

Durrell analyzes brilliantly the ancient role of several forms of bull-worship in the culture of Provence, which emanated probably, in Greek and Roman times, from the religion of Mithra.

Since then, bull-worship has evolved into bull-fighting of one kind or another. In the arenas of Provence, there are both Spanish-style combats in which the bull is actually killed by a matador, and French-style events in which young fellows taunt the bulls while trying to flee without getting hurt.

In the midst of splendid places such as Marseille, Aix, Nîmes, Avignon, Orange, Vaison la Romaine, Saint-Rémy, Carpentras and Cavaillon, Durrell seems to consider that the heart of Provence is "dusty, sunburnt Arles at the end of its cobweb of motorways". And I agree with him totally. He draws attention to "the beauty of the Arles girls: each looks as if she had been freshly wished and love-minted to order".

Towards the end of Caesar's Vast Ghost, Durrell devotes an entire chapter to an amazing historical subject that is little-known in the English-speaking world: the evolution of the medieval art of courtship, as practiced by troubadours in the so-called "courts of love" in places such as Baux de Provence. This phenomenon was described in a celebrated book by the Swiss intellectual Denis de Rougemont, who was one of Durrell's close friends.

Durrell writes about so many fascinating themes in his book that I cannot hope to mention them all here in this short blog post. The most profound theme of all is the fact that most of the man-made marvels of Provence, creations of Caesar and Augustus, have lost their pristine splendor. Today, we witness no more than the remnants: a pale ghost of the Roman paradise.

As for the concluding chapter of Caesar's Vast Ghost—with a French title, Le cercle refermé—I've worked through Durrell's surrealist pages several times, trying to grasp what he was trying to say. I remain dumbly confused, however, by the author's weird descriptions of his romantic idyll in the company of the doll Cunégonde. It's worse than attempting to grasp the kind of relationship that might have existed fleetingly between a celebrated international economist and a humble hotel maid. The jumble of crazy words brings to mind a fuzzy derogatory expression that I remember hearing long ago, when I was a student: literary masturbation. The writer rambles on in an orgy of images, trying vainly to arouse his senses by the mounting fever of his choice of words. In the middle of this curious chapter, there are even smatterings of colloquial French, suggesting that Durrell has forgotten momentarily that he was writing an English-language book about Provence. There is much stoical despair in these 19 pages, as if the author were conscious of the fact that he was penning a testimony. But I can't help wondering whether Durrell would have retained this effusion of sad sexuality if he had been offered the luxury of calmly reworking his typescript in the company of competent editors and critics.

A trivial anomaly in chapter IX (Woman in Provence) of Caesar's Vast Ghost, concerning Durrell's friend and lover "Marie M-D", suggests that no such final editing ever took place. Durrell wrote:

… I knew the measure of her love because once she woke me long after midnight with a phone call, arriving almost at once in a taxi with a bottle of champagne and flowers to tell me: 'Darling, Anaïs is dead. I didn't want you to hear the news from anyone but me.'

There's a problem here. Marie Millington-Drake died in 1973, whereas Anaïs Nin didn't die until 1977. So, the messenger who arrived at Sommières in the middle of the night in 1977 was either Marie's ghost or another of Larry's girlfriends. Or maybe Cunégonde.

1 comment:

  1. David Hackbridge JohnsonAugust 18, 2012 at 4:13 PM

    Hello! I have just finished this amazing, beautiful and sometimes baffling book as well. Thanks for your review of it which encapsulates some of the themes really well. I have been scratching my head over the final fantasy chapter. Perhaps Durrell is trying to provide a contrast between the Courts of Love and the Latex quality of modern love (whatever that might mean). Is he perhaps inviting us to consider what has been lost from the past? At the same time perhaps he is hurling words at the page in a last attempt to harness his poetic voice before his own death. I love the phrase near the end; 'A good poet is always in training for the next life but three. That is why he has that pale, posthumous look.' Quite moving I think - as if he feels quite out of place where ever he is. Hence the aching nostalgia for the past, both his and Caesar's. By the way - I found your blog as I was trying to search in vain for factual traces of Reynaldo de Saturnin and Zovaris! I can stop searching thanks to you! Although Saturnin's story would make a macabre opera don't you think? Best wishes, David Hackbridge Johnson