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Lawrence Durrell: Livia or Buried Alive

The second book in Durrell’s Avignon Quintet (or Quincunx, as he called it) follows on from the first one. At the end of Monsieur, we had discovered that the story was entirely fictitious (not just fictitious in that it was invented by Durrell but it was invented by a writer, invented by Durrell.) The writer is Aubrey Blanford, whom the fictitious writer, Rob Sutcliffe, who tells the story of the fictitious characters who feature in Monsieur in a separate work that we do not see, calls Bloshford. However, just to make things more complicated, it is Blanford who invented Sutcliffe. If you are lost, don’t worry, it sort of becomes clear if you read it. In this book, Blanford is one of the main characters but, despite this, early on in the book and, indeed, at other points in the book, he will have long discussions with Rob Sutcliffe who, you will recall, he invented. Indeed, he even discusses how and why he invented him. When he was at school, he would write a sort of diary. This was found by his fellow pupils who read out his diary and mocked him. To prevent this happening again, he invented a character called S and pretended his diary was written by S, whom he later called Sutcliffe, named after the legendary Yorkshire cricketer.

The story revolves Blanford’s activities before World War II and, in particular, the people he knew in Avignon at that time, who will become the basis of the fictional characters he writes about in Monsieur. The eponymous Livia, for example, becomes Pia in Monsieur, while her brother Hilary becomes Piers. The book opens with the death of Constance, another sister, who, of course, will feature in the next book in the series. She and Blanford had had a long affair, after Livia had disappeared. Though Blanford had married Livia, his view on women was summed up by Sutcliffe (who was, of course, Blanford’s alter ego) who said Women to him were simply a commodity. He was no fool about them; O no! He knew them inside out, or so he thought. That is to say he was worse than a fool. But we then go back to Blanford’s move to Avignon, where he meets the sisters Constance and Livia and their brother, Hilary, who had just inherited the rundown castle of Tu Duc (Blanford called Constance Tu). Blanford was at Oxford with Hilary and it was he who invited Blanford to Avignon. However, while telling his own story, Blanford mixes in Sutcliffe’s story. Sutcliffe was broke and had to resort to teaching at a girl’s school (wittily named Hymendale) where he was nearly thrown out for teaching Mallarmé but was thrown out when looking for the room of a nun, with whom he had a sexual assignment, and inadvertently went into the Mother Superior’s room.

Blanford gets to know some of the other people in Avignon. There is Lord Galen, who, with his assistant, Quatrefages, is looking for the Templars’ hidden treasure (the Templars had featured quite strongly in Monsieur) and they seem to come quite close to finding it. Galen will later go off to do business with Germany (in the 1930s) despite warnings not to do so (he is Jewish). He insists that there is no problem with Germany and Hitler had personally assured him that there was no anti-Semitism in Germany and that Germany was even planning on helping to create a Jewish state. Galen’s nephew is Felix Chatto. Felix’s father had died and Galen had helped Felix’s mother and then become her lover. Felix is now leading a fairly miserable existence as the British acting consul in Avignon, which gives him very little work but very small reward. Durrell takes advantage of this to mock British Civil Service procedures.

Blanford and Felix are both in love with Livia but it is Blanford who proposes to her and is accepted. He has doubts. More worryingly, her brother has doubts – about her, not him. But he gets an early warning about what will happen to Livia when she says Soon I shall be going back to Germany…Such wonderful things are going to happen there. It’s bursting with hope, the whole country. A new philosophy is being built which will give the new Germany the creative leadership of Europe once more. Soon Livia will disappear into Germany and will be spotted on film (by her sister) at a Nazi rally. One other key character comes into the book and to Avignon. This is Prince of Hassad of Egypt. Durrell’s fascination with Egypt can never disappear for long and, of course, he gets the good lines – I learned both languages [French and German] young. There is nothing else to do in the royal harem but study. However, in one of Durrell’s famous set-pieces, set in a brothel after a long party, we see that Prince Hassad knows very well what to do in these circumstances.

This does not have quite the flare of the previous one. You almost feel that Durrell is mainly trying to fill in the gaps that he missed out (deliberately) in the earlier book. Blanford does not come across as very interesting, in the way that, for example, Piers did, and Livia, nominally the heroine of the book, soon disappears, even though we have had glimpses of her charms through Felix (a dark girl with her haughty face and bare feet; her thin body was erect as a wand, and she seemed to feel absolutely no fear in the darkest corners of the town.) None of the subsidiary characters, though they have their interest, have the same fascination as, say, Akkad and Sylvie in the previous book. The plot is thin – a bit about the Templars’ treasure, which sort of peters away and the rest about the rise of the Nazis and Livia’s and Galen’s involvement which is treated in a fairly perfunctory way. Blanford’s mundane life is not really enough to sustain us. But, as always, Durrell’s set-pieces and his ruminations prevent us from being totally bored.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Faber & Faber