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Lawrence Durrell: Constance or Solitary Practices

The third in Durrell’s quincunx of books takes a somewhat different approach from the previous two. We still have the search for the Templars, the mysteries of Avignon, Livia, Constance and family, Blanford/Sutcliffe, Lord Galen and Quatrefages and Egypt. However, the main difference is simply because of the war. The book opens at the beginning of the war and closes as French troops reenter Avignon. The group that had been at Avignon at the beginning of the war start to scatter, fearing an imminent German invasion. Blanford, who is opposed to war and this war, manages to get a position as secretary to Prince Hassan, the Egyptian prince who had been working with Lord Galen to finds the Templar treasure in Avignon. The pair set off for Egypt. Livia is somewhere in Germany, though we only learn the truth of her departure towards the end of the novel. We later learn that Constance, who is a doctor, goes to work for the Red Cross in Geneva. Her boyfriend, Sam, despite the sneers of Blanford, joins up. Lord Galen becomes Minister of Information in London and does a spectacularly bad job and has to resign. Quatrafages stays on and will later be arrested by the Gestapo and go insane.

Blanford and the prince head off to Egypt, where we learn that the prince is a colonel in the British Military Mission and head of the Red Cross in Egypt. Blanford meets his fellow secretaries – two Egyptians Baladi and Khanna, who will play little further role, and Affad, a Syrian, who will play a larger role. Blanford finds the position most agreeable, as he lives in luxury and has little demanding work to do. The situation improves when Sam turns up. It is Sam who asks Blanford to write to Constance for him as Blanford is the better writer. Sam appears to be enjoying the war. He even sees to enjoy watching the carnage. The prince feel that Sam, who only has a week’s leave, must be shown Egypt, which gives Durrell an excuse for one of his famous set-pieces, in this case a Nile cruise. The cruise ends up at a Coptic monastery and while they are wandering round the desert area, British artillery opens fire. Sam is killed and Blanford badly injured in the spine.

Before we follow Blanford and the prince, we meet von Esslin, an aristocratic, Catholic, German general. While he does not on the whole like the Nazis, he is a good officer and fully accepts the idea of the superiority of the German people and even, at Goebbels’ instigation, uncritically reads the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In another Durrell set-piece, as described by von Esslin, with some glee, we learn of the German swoop first into Poland (though von Esslin is one of the few German to encounter resistance and he himself is slightly injured), then North Africa, where they meet little resistance, and then France and onto Paris. Von Esslin, both in these action and later, will take great pleasure in seeing ordinary people swept out of the way and killed, often arbitrarily. Indeed Durrell makes a great point of showing German brutality throughout the book. However, for his reward and to his disgust, he is appointed commander of Avignon, where he will be shadowed by the horrible Waffen-SS officer Fischer, to whom he takes a strong dislike (the feeling is mutual). One of von Esslin’s main tasks is to find the Templar treasure for Hitler, as there has been a prophecy that it will be found. A mummified head is found which is presented to Hitler as the head of Pompey, which will only speak when the hearer is asleep and will then prophesy the future. It is placed by Hitler’s bed.

Constance, who is a Swiss citizen, manages to get a permit to set up a Red Cross post in Avignon and she returns to Tu Duc, the ancestral home. Much of the later part of the novel concerns their relations with the Germans, including the return of Livia and the reappearance of Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe, as we learned at the end of Monsieur, was the writer invented by Aubrey Blanford, who wrote the book Monsieur. However, despite his fictitious nature, he has a habit of reappearing and seeming to be friend with Blanford, rather than merely a creature of Blanford’s imagination (I am annoyed because my power is not absolute over him – he is after all my creation; but he can sometimes break loose and show traces of free will.) Durrell gives us an excellent description of the progress of the war, seen from the relative remoteness of Avignon, and the gradual withdrawal of the Germans, followed by the Red Cross heading back to Switzerland, to escape the wrath of the retreating Germans. It is in this retreat that Constance gets to know Affad and that we get to know that his first name is Sebastian, which will be the title of the next book in this series.

I found this book more enjoyable than the previous two, as we get far less of Durrell’s occasional pompous erudition and far more concentration on the story, helped by the fact that it follows, more or less, the actual course of the war, leaving less room for diversions. The various German characters – General von Esslin, Fischer, the Waffen-SS officer, and Smirgel, who has an ambiguous role – also make it more interesting, though all pay the price at the end, as Durrell clearly has no love for the Nazis. At the end we are more less back to where we started, though Livia is gone and Blanford still injured, leaving us ready for Sebastian, who we now know is Affad.

Publishing history

First published 1982 by Faber & Faber