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Lawrence Durrell: Monsieur or The Prince of Darkness

The first book in Durrell’s Avignon Quintet opens, not surprisingly in Avignon. Bruce Drexel is a doctor working for the British diplomatic service. He has recently been serving in India but has returned to England. He has just learned that his brother-in-law, Piers de Nogaret, has apparently committed suicide. Piers and his sister, Sylvie, Bruce’s wife, own a chateau, Verfeuille near Avignon. Bruce had befriended Piers and later married Sylvie, though it seems that the marriage was something of a sham, with Bruce’s real attraction being for Piers. The two both became diplomats and often managed to have nearby postings with their respective diplomatic services, so kept very much in touch. Bruce was coming to the close of his career and he was hoping to spend the rest of his life at Verfeuille with Piers and Sylvie, engaged in intellectual pursuits. The three had spent virtually every summer at Verfeuille, sometimes with others, particularly, Pia, Bruce’s sister, her husband Rob Sutcliffe, a famous writer, who had written about them in one of his novels and Rob’s historian friend, Toby. Rob’s reputation as a writer continues to grow after his death.

When Bruce arrives, Sylvie, who has a delicate disposition, is in a local asylum under sedation. She had been there for a while with a nervous condition. It is not clear if Piers did, in fact, commit suicide or if Sylvie accidentally gave him too large a sleeping draft. To avoid scandal, Bruce manages, after a quick word with the Prefect to make it seem as though it was an accident. The book is divided into four parts and the first part deals with these events. The main revelation is that Bruce learns that Piers’ body is missing its head (though a cast of the head has been made) and it is not immediately clear why. We also learn a bit more about the other characters. Toby, who turns up in a short while, is a giant of a man. He has been writing the definitive history of the Templars, helped by having unique access to documents that the de Nogarets have. (They are descended from Guillaume de Nogaret, the man responsible for the arrest of many of the Templars in 1307.)

It is the second part of the book that I find most fascinating. It is set in Macabru. Macabru is a desert city/oasis outside Alexandria, that seems to exist outside the real world. Four of them – Bruce and Piers serving in their respective embassies in Cairo, Sylvie and Toby – have been invited to Macabru which seems an enchanting place, with a very active desert city life. They meet Akkad who has some sort of gnostic sect to which they are introduced. Piers, in particular, seems taken with it. We learn a lot about the sect in this section and, in particular, that they though they are opposed to individual suicide, they do favour individuals agreeing to being executed at time and place known to them but by a method that they will not learn till the event. We learn, for example, that they believe that, after the crucifixion, Jesus spent another eleven years with the disciples. We also learn about the Prince of Darkness, the sub-title of this book.

We move onto Rob Sutcliffe, another larger than life man, who is a successful novelist but not as successful as another writer whom he nicknames Bloshford. Indeed, Sutcliffe seems as much concerned as putting Bloshford down as with his own writing. It is only later that we learn who Bloshford is – Aubrey Blanford, a successful writer, married to Livia, heroine of the next book in the series and probably far more real than Sutcliffe. In other words, it seems that what we have been reading may well be a novel within a novel. As might be expected with Durrell, the set-pieces, particularly the section in Macabru, are superb, there is much learned discussion, particularly about the Templars and gnosticism and, as we have seen, Durrell’s usual clever tricks. The book was well received in Britain when first released but has fared less favourably since then. However, I must say that I did enjoy it – if you like Durrell’s style.

Publishing history

First published 1974 by Faber & Faber