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Lawrence Durrell: Quinx or The Ripper’s Tale

This is Durrell’s summing up and conclusion of his quintet and it shows. At times, it is patchy, all too often Durrell goes off on his pompous discussions and you continually get the feeling that all he really wants to do is tie up loose ends. Of course, this was a criticism of the previous book. In my review of that book, I suggested that Durrell should have stopped at Constance and this book only confirms that view. The main plot line follows on from that book – what happened to Livia? However, the book starts with the surviving characters converging on Avignon and wondering whether they can or should return to Tu Duc, the château of Hilary, Constance and Livia. Lord Galen, who had invested a lot of money into the search for the Templar treasure, believed to be buried beneath the château, has now accepted that his money was wasted and that the treasure was perhaps not buried there at all. Some of the characters are dead and some are fictitious, i.e. part of the novel-within-the-novel, such as Drexel and Sutcliffe, but while the dead ones do not appear, the fictitious ones do.

As with Durrell’s other books, there is one of his standard set-pieces. This one involves a gypsy festival in Saintes-Maries. Saintes-Maries is portrayed as a picturesque little town and, undoubtedly, it was, but on a recent visit, it now seems to me more of a tourist trap than an old Camargue fishing village. Nevertheless, Durrell gives a colourful picture of the event. One of the gypsies turns out to be Sabine, Sutcliffe’s former lover, and they briefly resume their relationship, while she describes her life as gypsy, which has involved travel all over the world. Of course, Durrell has to have his little mockery, showing Felix, now a fully-fledged diplomat, being sent to China. He manages to convince the Chinese that the key to economic success is tourism and that, as Americans seem to be very much interested in Zen Buddhism, they should set up a Zen Buddhism tour, replete with Buddha’s cave (a fictitious one would do perfectly well).

However, Constance is eager to find out what happened to Livia and she finds that two former German officers who might have known about her are both in Avignon awaiting trial. Von Ensslin is now almost completely blind but Smirgel, the former art student, is willing to talk. More importantly, he seems to know much about the hidden Templar treasure. It seems that the Germans became aware that the British had promised not to bomb key monuments so the German decided to hide their weapons under one and, in doing so, they, or rather, their Austrian sappers, found the Templar treasure, which they booby-trapped. However, they were all shot when they refused to blow up Avignon. Smirgel knows what happened to Livia (and her brother Hilary) but will not reveal the Templar secret unless all charges are dropped and he gets a cut. However, the secret of the Templar treasure gradually starts to come out and we get another of Durrell’s set-pieces as preparations are made to enter the tunnels.

This is the final book of the quintet and while it tries to end with a bang – the Templar treasure – the truth is that the book and the quintet pretty much end with a whimper. The sad truth is that this is no Alexandria Quartet and Durrell’s attempt to recreate it in Avignon really does not work. The Egyptian connection, the strange religion and war all come over from the Quartet but the novel-within-the-novel (and the continuation of the fictitious characters as being on a par with their creator), the brother-sisters relationship and, indeed, virtually all of the relationships and even the Avignon setting do not work as well as Durrell undoubtedly hoped. Perhaps it was an older man’s attempt to recreate his former glory but, by the time this book was written, Durrell was into his seventies and he did not write another novel after this. Sadly it does not recreate his former glory. Some critics have tried to defend it, as did his publishers. The blurb on the back of my copy says a beautifully constructed major work, rich in invention, psychological truth and sheer entertainment, which is quite simply hogwash. This is not to say that the earlier volumes do not have something to recommend them which they do, but these last two books are simply dragged out.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Faber & Faber