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Lawrence Durrell: Sebastian or Ruling Passions

This book starts where Constance left off, namely the end of the war. The Prince and Affad (whom we learned, late in Constance, is surprisingly called Sebastian) head back to Egypt The Prince is annoyed about Sebastian Affad’s affair with Constance, though it seems that at least part of his annoyance is that he was in love with her himself. However, Affad is very contrite at what he accepts is a dereliction of his duty towards the Gnostic sect they belong to and fully expects to be punished.

Meanwhile, at the asylum, Schwarz, her boss, and Constance seem to be focussing on two patients. Mnemidis seems to be a violent and psychotic patient. He later describes himself: I am the incarnation of Primal Man. I am perfected in my sainthood because I know not the meaning of Fear. Schwarz wants to turn him over to the civil authorities, where he would be locked up for life. Constance maintains that he is the most interesting patient they have ever had and that they should keep him and, at least, try to see if anything can be done. They have Pierre, the guard, who is a giant of man and can easily take care of Mnemidis. Schwarz reluctantly agrees to keep him a bit longer. Constance’s other key patient is Affad’s son whose mother is in Egypt with mental problems. Affad will, in fact, visit her when he returns and finds her in poor condition. Affad’s son is looked after by his grandmother and is autistic. Constance treats him and makes some progress, to Schwarz’s surprise.

Affad has to face an anonymous triumvirate of his sect at midnight in the temple – another of Durrell’s famous set-pieces – and, inevitably, somewhat over the top. They tell him that he has already been sent a letter outlining his forthcoming death. (We had learned in an earlier book that the way the sect functions is that certain individuals are chosen for sacrifice – this is considered a reward – whereby they receive a letter, telling them that they will die within a month. They do not know how and by whom they will die, only that it will happen. They have a month to put their affairs in order.) However, he had not received the letter, which must have arrived after his departure. He begs to be allowed to pursue this death, instead of any other punishment they might consider. They agree to consider the matter. He tries to find out what happened to the letter, suspecting that it is in the hands of Constance. However, he is told by Schwarz that Constance is away and cannot be contacted. This is not true and, when she hears of Affad’s call, tries to get the letter. She had put it in her bible. She now learns that Mnemidis has borrowed the bible but the letter cannot be found in the bible, in his cell or anywhere else. We later learn that Mnemidis had read it and taken it to refer to him. Affad returns to find the letter and settle his affairs but, inevitably, falls into bed with Constance. Meanwhile, Mnemidis has managed to escape with only one thought on his mind – revenge. And, just to complicate things, the doubly fictitious Rob Sutcliffe, whom we met in the first book and who is the creation of Aubrey Blanford, pops up to comfort Aubrey. Aubrey is still lying in bed, suffering from the wound he received in Egypt, though he has the consolation of an OBE, arranged by the also reappearing Lord Galen. Galen is now Coordinator General of the Central Office of Coordination, Durrell’s mild mocking of bureaucracy. Meanwhile Aubrey and Rob talk about writing a book together.

This book is shorter than the others and, frankly, much less interesting. It is almost as if Durrell is tying up a few loose ends and does not really know where to go. The two main plot-lines – Affad’s fate at the hands of the sect and Mnemidis’s behaviour and escape – are just dragged out for the sake of it, while the rest is decidedly bitty. Maybe Durrell should have stopped at Constance.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Faber & Faber