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Lawrence Durrell: Tunc

Durrell wrote this as, he called it, as a double-decker novel, with the second part being called Nunquam. The two books together have been called The Revolt of Aphrodite but that was the name given to them by the US publisher, not by Durrell. Durrell said the attentive reader may discern the odd echo from The Alexandria Quartet and The Dark Labyrinth and, indeed, he certainly may. Durrell considered it a superior work to The Alexandria Quartet, though critics have not generally greed with this assessment. It is darker, more gothic and the sex is definitely more Sixties than Fifties, with strong hints of sadism, necrophilia, rent boys and the like. It is also even more erudite and abstruse than The Alexandria Quartet, which certainly put off contemporary readers and is quite likely to put off current readers. It also flirts with science fiction, something quite unusual for Durrell.

Felix Charlock is a brilliant inventor who is working on some sort of recording device (it seems to be what we would now call a bug, though it is also used for more or less legitimate purposes as well). However, the recorded text is put into a computer (called Abel) and subject to some sort of text analysis. At the start of the novel, Charlock is leaving London for foreign parts. He says that he is off to Tahiti but it is going to take his time getting there. In fact he heads off to Athens, where he has a girlfriend, Iolanthe, who is a professional prostitute and has to head off to work to Piraeus, whenever the US fleet comes in. This does not seem to bother Charlock. In Athens he associates with the usual group of Durrellian expatriate oddities, till one of them, Sipple, has to be whisked away as being possibly implicated in a death. Sipple had left his wife and England when he realised that he was gay (it was still illegal in the UK at the time) and is now happy with rent boys. Once whisked away, Charlock learns that Sipple may be associated with Merlin, a mysterious company.

Merlin was founded by an Englishman who jumped ship and set up a company which now seems to be involved in a wide range of businesses. Merlin himself has apparently died, though some doubt is cast upon this later on. When the company got bigger, he took on two brothers to help him, Julius and Jocas Pehlevi, though it turns out that they may not be really brothers. Jocas works in Istanbul/Athens while Julius is based in London. Merlin’s heir is a widow called Benedicta, who seems to have little direct role in the company but considerable influence. They seem to be very good at enticing useful people to work for them. For example, Charlock’s friend, Koepgen, has good connections in Soviet Russia which would be useful to Merlin’s. Koepgen does not want to work with them but is very keen on obtaining a particular icon, which Merlin’s is able to get for him, so he agrees reluctantly to work for them. Charlock also has his doubts, despite the very large contract they are offering but when he meets Benedicta, he changes his mind. Benedicta is an enigmatic woman, very rich, often disappearing for a period, allegedly to see doctors and reappearing at strange times. Charlock inevitably falls in love with her and they get married.

Charlock is soon disillusioned, however, both at Benedicta’s enigmatic behaviour and her regular disappearances. He also finds Julius something of a mystery. Though he has considerable dealings with Julius, he somehow does not manage to meet him, with all communication by phone, mail or messenger. Every effort he makes to actually meet him is somehow thwarted. However, he is continuing with the development of his mysterious device, though he is annoyed when he finds some of the technology being used for another, military device, even though he will benefit from the royalties. We learn more and more about Merlin’s many activities, which give Felix and others cause for concern. Felix, despite the opulent lifestyle he now leads in London, is increasingly unhappy with both his marriage and job and when he tries to donate an invention he makes to the world, he is discouraged from doing so. Meanwhile, his computer, Abel, seems to be a repository for everything he knows about Merlin and its activities.

It is an interesting, though very Durrellesque novel but it comes across as somewhat dated and perhaps too erudite for the modern reader. We can see that Durrell is trying to recommend the sensual life over the technical and professional life as he does in his other books but that theme can see somewhat outmoded, for example, with a very different writer trying a more earthy approach to the idea, D H Lawrence. Most readers, I think, will be happier with the more approachable The Alexandria Quartet though this novel should not be entirely forgotten.

Publishing history

First published 1968 by Faber and Faber