Book Review – The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

19 Apr

Lawrence Durrell is famous for two reasons. Firstly he is the author of what many regard as one of the greatest literary achievements of the twentieth century (the subject of this review). Secondly, he is familiar to the many millions who read his brother’s hilarious reminiscences of a boyhood spent on the island of Corfu in My Family and Other Animals, in which he is affectionately portrayed as rather precious and pretentious, at least in the eyes of the young Gerald. If you approach The Alexandria Quartet in the hope of discerning which is the real Lawrence Durrell, you may just end up more confused than ever. I haven’t decided whether The Alexandria Quartet is a brilliant work of art or just a thousand pages of pretentious twaddle. Perhaps it is both. It is a series of books about everything and nothing, but mostly nothing.

To be fair to Durrell, if you don’t dare to pretend to greatness, how will you ever give yourself the chance of achieving it. And to continue with this being fair to Durrell thing, there are parts of these books where the writing is stunning. Unusual and brilliantly imaginative combinations of words describe things, people, events and feelings vividly and with great precision. This a bit hit or miss – at other times he seems just to be expending a great deal of ink (or pixels if you’re reading on Kindle like me) describing something which, arriving exhausted at the end of a paragraph, you realize is nothing at all. Still, It’s a tour de force, but there is no denying that many readers, myself included will need to force themselves to finish it.

The problem is that throughout the books he is basically repeating the same deep thoughts ad nauseam. Having found an intriguing way to express a thought or feeling, he proceeds to do the same, with slight variations throughout the whole bloody quartet, often in the form of over-ripe erudite dialogue that cries out for parody. In the absence of any significant plot, you are left with a bunch of characters to whom you can’t relate wandering around over-analyzing stuff and being deep. That’s really all there is.

The concept of the quartet is interesting. The same series of events are seen from four different perspectives, each adding information and often contradicting the narrative of the preceding ones. At least, that’s how it starts out. In Justine, the narrator, a preposterous aesthete who we later learn is called Darley, moons about the place contemplating his navel and that of his mistress Justine while behaving in a very ungentlemanly manner towards his girlfriend Melissa. That’s about it. Despite the quality of the writing, Justine is probably the most boring of all the books.

In Balthazar, Darley, now on a Greek island, receives a copy of his manuscript from an acquaintance in Alexandria. The manuscript is heavily annotated in ways that show Darley’s imperfect understanding of the events in the first book and especially of Justine’s motivations in having an affair with him. Balthazar is a bit more interesting than Justine because we are intrigued by these contradictions.

Mountolive is the most interesting of the books because the title character evokes rather more sympathy than Darley. The character of the brilliant writer Pursewarden begins to play a prominent role. The other characters constantly remark on how amusing he is. He is not. All kinds of things, people and events remind them of something clever he said in one of his books. God knows why!

In the fourth book, Clea, Darley is back, contemplating his navel. As he describes its contents in excruciating detail, we are not surprised, but nonetheless a little disappointed to find that they are still mostly fluff.

The idea of viewing the same events from different angles is interesting enough to have been imitated, notably by Iain Pears in An Instance of the Fingerpost. In The Alexandria Quartet, however, it’s as if someone painted a room four times and invited you to watch each coat dry. Top quality paint is used throughout and the end-result is quite a pretty color, though not as deep as it said on the can and a bit blotchy in places.

What you will not find painted on the wall is the much vaunted vivid depiction of Alexandria. Critics generally agree that Durrell does a bang up job of bringing the city to life. Strangely, while admiring his descriptions, I never got a feel for the place.

It’s not all boring. In Clea, Darley and Pursewarden’s sister Liza have to decide between their responsibility to posterity and Pursewarden himself in making up their minds whether to destroy his letters to her, which it appears constitute some of the most beautiful writing in the history of literature, but which would reveal a scandal that would destroy his reputation. That’s some pretty powerful stuff. And suddenly in the last book there is an action scene when Darley has to act quickly to save a drowning Clea. This is all the more powerful for being unexpected, popping up in the midst of a particularly eye-rollingly tedious series of ruminations about their feelings for each other. The character of the old sea dog Scobie and his improbable posthumous beatification would, in the hands of a writer with a lighter touch, be an amusing episode. All in all, however, it’s not enough to persuade you that the hours you spent reading the quartet could not have been better spent.

This is a confusing, paradoxical book. The emperor, one has to conclude, has no clothes. But aren’t they beautiful!

Some of them.

Note: I mentioned that Durrell is a tempting target for parody. Here’s an example.

Russian Fiction – And I don’t mean Tolstoy

11 Apr

In 1976 I found myself in East Berlin. I had crossed over for the day from the West to explore the historic center of the city and to feel that frisson of weird menace you sensed when walking about in a communist country. At the crossing point I made the compulsory exchange of 6.50 Deutschmarks for the same amount in bouncy plastic Ostmarks, which I would not be allowed to bring back out. No problem, I thought – how difficult can it be to spend 6.50 marks?

berlin 1976

A young Augustus Gump in 1976 Berlin. Under communism all images of future literary giants were blurred

The answer was, as it turned out, surprisingly difficult. There was nothing to buy in East Berlin. After walking along Unter den Linden, where thirty years after the end of the war there were still a few holes in the ground where buildings had once stood (probably just as well, as they would otherwise no doubt have been filled in by monstrous communist architecture), I eventually found a restaurant. I sat down at the opposite side of the large dining room from the two other diners and, after about fifteen minutes, was presented with the biggest menu I had ever seen. There were literally hundreds of items. So much for all that capitalist propaganda about the drab austerity of the east! I eventually settled on a dish and, when the waiter returned about half an hour later, I attempted to order it. He shook his head. They didn’t have that. I chose something else. Again the shake of the head. How about this? No. Well what do you have? He pointed at a single item, a meatbally thing, if I recall correctly and departed, I presumed to fetch it. Forty-five minutes later, with no meatball in sight, I left, suffering from a rumbling tummy and a surfeit of metaphors for the communist system.

Back on the street, I realized that I had hours to go before I had to leave and no idea how to fill them, when my eyes were drawn to the jarring sight, some way down the avenue, of a goose-stepping soldier. Drawing nearer, I realized that he was Russian and that the building before which he was slapping his jackboots on the pavement – irony was in short supply in East Berlin, not just meatballs – was a museum celebrating the “Great Patriotic War.”

Inside I found an exhibition of photographs, maps and objects depicting the Red Army’s single-handed triumph over the Nazis. To an unbrainwashed observer, the most striking thing was that in all the many rooms, on all the many maps and in all the many detailed descriptions of the course of the war, there was not a single mention of the western front or Russia’s allies. Not a mention of D-Day, North Africa, the Italian campaign or even the thousands of British sailors who lost their lives on the ships of the arctic convoys carrying the supplies that saved the Soviet Union. It was as if none of this ever happened, a big blank space in history like the big blank space in the shape of West Berlin that appeared on East German maps.

There were other blank spaces, of course – Stalin’s alliance with Hitler, the carving up of Poland, the massacre of Polish officers and intellectuals, the invasion of Finland, the deliberate delay in capturing Warsaw to allow the Nazis to suppress the uprising there, the subjugation and oppression of eastern Europe after the war, the mass deportations of whole nations of supposed collaborators.

Fast forward to 2015, and how little has changed, as is shown by this snippet from the BBC. A gallery in Yekaterinburg has mysteriously closed for repairs, just as an exhibition of the work of British and American war photographers was about to open. The official fiction of the Soviet Union’s isolated stand against tyranny continues, as does the more damaging fiction of the country’s unblemished heroism during those dark years. Unlike the Germans, the Russians, as victors in the conflict, have never been made to confront the horrific deeds they committed. This seems to leave them with the belief, despite all evidence to the contrary, that they are the good guys in any situation. If you can swallow the fiction of the Great Patriotic War, now being celebrated so enthusiastically in Russia, how difficult can it be to swallow the fiction of the oppression of Russian speakers in Ukraine and unleash your heroic military might on your neighbours?

I finally spent some of that 6.50 Marks on a currywurst and a beer, both of which later emerged little changed by the digestive process. I accidentally smuggled the remaining money back to the west where I lost it when it fell out of my pocket as I was buying a proper currywurst and bounced two feet in the air and into some bushes.

Poet at Work

23 Mar

When business is slow, I know what to do
Get up from my desk and go to the loo
And when I am half way through doing my thing
It’s a hundred to one the darned phone will ring

Can’t you hang on before bending my ear?
On-time delivery’s happening here
Yes, customer service with me’s number one
Even when number two’s being done

Having noticed that there is not enough poetry written about work these days, I have determined to remedy that. Please feel free to add verses.

A Written Warning to Hall and Oates

6 Mar

It’s a written warning to anodyne seventies and eighties pop duo Hall and Oates for their legal action against Brooklyn based breakfast food producer Early Bird Foods & Co, claiming that their granola blend “Haulin’ Oats” infringes their brand name.
Come on chaps, don’t get all steamed up and melt your hair gel. What could be more suitable as a tribute to you and your music than granola? Just call the folks over at Early Bird and ask them to make sure that their product is not only nut-free, but bland, stale and hard to stomach.

Suis moi jusq’au bout de la nuit

14 Feb

If I ever write the most beautiful and moving song of my generation, and the smart money is betting that it’s only a matter of time, I will deliver it to the rapt audience with great simplicity. My hands will be in my pockets and I won’t move at all. When you have something as good as my song is going to be, histrionic gestures, or indeed any gestures, serve only to get in the way of the emotional impact.

If someone in the vast arena accidentally drops a pin during my song, hundreds of faces will turn to him, fingers raised to their lips. Nobody will want to miss a word, a note or a heartbeat.

In the light of the foregoing, it should be no surprise that on Saint Valentine’s Day I find myself strangely drawn to this old video of Serge Gainsbourg and Franco-Danish songbird Anna Karina singing Gainsbourg’s “Ne Dis Rien.”

Couldn’t be simpler, or cornier, or sexier. Of course, it helps that I can identify with Gainsbourg, We are both ugly chaps with big noses who seem to have somehow scored with a beautiful girl from a foreign land with long dark hair and a way of smiling with her eyes. That’s all you need. No fancy camera work, just two people dancing, apparently in a bar, barely moving. You’re a lucky man, Serge, and so am I.

Ce jour de Saint Valentin, me suivrais tu  jusqu’au bout de la nuit comme à Bruxelles en 1992?

It’s Official – All Country Music is the Same

3 Feb

Well, an awful lot of it is anyway, as brilliantly illustrated by today’s recipient of a platinum performance bonus, Sir Mashalot. But before we get to him and his remarkable video, let’s take a trip in a battered pick-up truck down memory lane.

The year is 1990, or it might have been 1991, and the place is the Sandy Ridge Bar & Grill in Hickory, North Carolina. I used to hang out there quite often in those days, although I always seemed to miss the nights folks got shot. There was a jukebox in the corner and the song that me and my friends listened to most is You Never Even Called Me by My Name by David Allen Coe. Towards the end of the song, Mr. Coe takes a break from singing to tell a little story of how the writer of the song, Steve Goodman, told him that he reckoned that he had written the perfect country and western song. Coe wrote back to him that no, it wasn’t the perfect country and western song because it didn’t say anything at all about momma, or trains or trucks or prison or getting drunk. Goodman replied with the last verse to the song, which you can find at minute 3:05 in the video.

In case you can’t be bothered to listen that far, here’s the verse:

Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pick-up truck
She got run over by a damned old train

A while later I learned that David Allen Coe was coming to play in Hickory. This was pretty big news, because nobody ever came to play in Hickory. So I snapped up a ticket and turned up at Yesterday’s night club for the evening’s entertainment. It started late and turned out to be more of a brawl than a concert. Coe appeared to be drunk or stoned and had a hard time making it to the end of a song. This being my first time at an event of this type, I thought perhaps this was how country and western concerts were supposed to be. The rest of the audience seemed to share my patience for the most part, perhaps hoping that he might sober up before the end of the evening. However, at last one guy had had enough – or maybe he had an appointment or had just got a call that his wife was about to give birth. Whatever the reason, he rose to leave, leading the incensed balladeer to leap from the stage, displaying surprising agility for one so obese, intoxicated and heavily medallioned, and proceed to administer his own unique brand of response to customer feedback. Or at least he would have, were it not for the intervention of the security guards. This brought the evening’s proceedings to a close.

It is worth noting here that Coe’s other hit was a little number entitled If That Ain’t Country, I’ll Kiss Your Ass, so perhaps the offending spectator had conveyed, whether through body language or maybe an ironically arched eyebrow, that in his opinion, Mr. Coe was not country and the latter was merely attempting to deliver on his promise. If so, I would have to strongly disagree. I have seldom witnessed anything before or since as country as Mr. Coe.

Yesterday’s and the Sandy Ridge Bar are long gone, the latter forced to close by one too many shootings, but the fond memories remain.

But back to Sir Mashalot. Remember him, he’s the one getting the performance bonus for his proof that, unlike in the good old days of David Allen Coe and the Sandy Ridge Bar and Grill, all country songs these days are so formulaicly interchangeable as to actually be the same song, right down to the guitar solos. I’m going to let this amazing Youtube video do the talking.

If that is country, I’ll kiss your ass.

 

Talking through his hat – if he had one

22 Jan

Every year two events take place, which on the surface bear a passing resemblance to each other.

State of the UnionIn a country that prides itself on it’s no nonsense, get-it-done ethos and professes little time for ritual trappings, pomp and ceremony, a man stands up to deliver a speech outlining his lofty ideals and proposals for the coming legislative year. His soaring rhetoric is broadcast live and analyzed for days or even weeks by various pundits and talking heads. None of the proposals contained in the speech will ever happen.

A few months later, in a country with a whole tourist industry built on the desire of people from the first country to see men in bright red coats and silly furry hats remain totally motionless for hours, an old lady in a silly shiny hat, from whom the first country fought a war to free itself, sits virtually motionless for an hour in a very big chair and reads out a legislative program as if it were a shopping list. Nobody pays it much attention. Virtually all of it will happen in the coming year.

For people in the first country, if they ever become frustrated by how pointless the splendid occasion they are witnessing really is, the answer is simple. To render it less ridiculous, and take a step towards a functioning democracy, make the guy wear a silly hat. After all, the last time their democracy worked, they were all wearing wigs.

Apologies for not providing a photograph of the Queen’s speech to Parliament. I couldn’t find one that was royalty-free.

The Broadway Hotel Approach to Bad Reviews

21 Nov

It’s a well deserved performance bonus to the management of the Broadway Hotel in Blackpool for their outside the box thinking on dealing with bad reviews on Trip Advisor.

According to the BBC, the small print in their booking form contains the following innovative wording:
“Despite the fact that repeat customers and couples love our hotel, your friends and family may not.
“For every bad review left on any website, the group organiser will be charged a maximum £100 per review.”

A glance at the hotel’s page at Trip Advisor affords a glimpse of how the hotel is viewed by travelers. ““Fawlty Towers it’s not – at least that looked clean” is one of the less derogatory comments. The words “filthy,” “disgusting” and “hotel inspector” pop out from the page.

Two of these travelers were Tony and Jan Jenkinson, whose forthright description of the hotel began by calling it a “filthy, dirty rotten stinking hovel run by muppets” and concluded with the observation, “If you are offered this place to stay for a fortnight for 10p, you are being robbed!!” Tony and Jan were rewarded for their diligence in warning fellow travelers with an unexpected charge of £100 on their credit card bill, on top of the £36 that their one night stay cost (I think most stays are one night).

Oh, Tony and Jan – why didn’t you read the small print?

Outside the box thinking

When asked about this unusual policy, a tongue-in-cheek John Greenbank, North Trading Standards Area Manager, said it was a “novel” way to prevent bad reviews. But I think Mr. Greenbank has got it all wrong. At £100 per bad review, why on earth would the Broadway Hotel’s owners wish to prevent them? Under this ingenious business plan, the more bad reviews they get, the more their profits soar. This is exactly the kind of outside the box thinking that British business so often lacks. As I write this there are 146 “Terrible” reviews on Trip Advisor. That’s £14,600. That’s not to mention the 24 “Poor” reviews for which, I think we can agree, management would be entirely justified in charging at least eighty quid each.

What’s good for the Broadway, however, is not so good for others. It is a feature of Trip Advisor that, when you select a particular hotel, a new window opens with the title “Similar hotels.” My heart goes out to the Kings Hotel, the By the Beach Hotel and the intriguingly named Sinatra’s Hotel, all of which popped up in this window of shame. Given their generally positive reviews, they do not deserve such ignominy.

My New Review Policy

All of this gives me an idea. Taking a leaf out of the Broadway Hotel’s check-in register, I intend to implement a similar policy to squash unwelcome and unflattering reviews of my books. The following policy will be displayed prominently on this website and printed in the books.

“Despite the fact that my wife quite liked my book and my mother said she supposed it was alright, if you liked that kind of thing, you and other tasteless bozos like you may not like it. For every bad review left on any website the reviewer will be charged a maximum of £100 or $156 per review.”

It is a source of great regret that I can’t think of a way to apply the policy retrospectively to people like “Emily” who started her Amazon review of The Rise and Fall of T. John Dick with disarming frankness by stating, “I hated this book,” and proceeded to give it one star, despite adding that the author was “a strong writer” and it was in fact the main character that she didn’t like. Those are pretty words, Ms. Henlein, but you still gave it one star. That will be $156 please. No, just a minute – you also posted the review to Goodreads and Library Thing. That will be $468 altogether. A check will be fine, thanks. Contact me for my mailing address.

A year or so ago, I told readers about Haziq, the fourteen year old boy in Malaysia who awarded one star to The Management Secrets of T. John Dick at Goodreads. The experience of reading my book appears to have soured him on the whole reading thing, so that one year on, this is still the only book he has ever read. Time to stump up, Haziq, and yes we accept Malaysian ringgits.

Of course, it won’t be as easy to implement this policy as it was for the Broadway. Except for those who purchase from this website, I don’t actually have access to credit card data. However, I am working on an email to Amazon right now. I’m sure they will be interested in this new revenue stream, from which they will demand a hefty cut.

And you can rest assured that, in order to make the most of this exciting new income opportunity, I will be careful to ensure that any books I write in the future will be even worse than those I have produced to date. Are you ready, Emily?

 

A note to anyone completely lacking a sense of humor. First, what a nice surprise to see you here! Second, I am not serious, I will not really charge you for a bad review. I feel it is important to make this clear to you as you belong to the group of readers most likely to leave such a review.

Keeping Romance Alive in California

20 Oct

If you are a college student in California, a new “Yes Means Yes” law requires that you obtain “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement” from a prospective sexual partner.  Implied consent, the absence of a “no” or the fact that she is making bedroom eyes at you will no longer be sufficient, and reliance on such outmoded  indications that she is in the mood for love could land you in big trouble.

While the intention of the new legislation is admirable, it seems likely to have a chilling effect on campus frolics and deprive many amorous young ladies of romance, as potential suitors, fearful of the prospect of having to provide definitive proof of consent, are scared to come within ten yards of them. Those who are bold enough to overcome that fear may well stumble over how exactly to obtain consent that will stand up in any disciplinary proceedings if things turn sour.

That’s where I come in, Anxious to keep romance alive, I am providing to the college gals of California, free of charge, this handy Coital Consent Form. No need for awkward or embarrassing conversations with this little beauty in your purse. Just place it on the bar as you leave to powder your nose. By the time you come back, he should just about have it completed.

 

State of California Coital Consent Form

Thank you for your interest in having coitus with me. So that I may properly process your application, please answer the following questions accurately and completely.

1. Name:
please provide two forms of ID. Acceptable documents include passport, government issued driver’s license; cellphone junk shots are not considered acceptable.

2. Address:

3. Age:
Must be over 18 and below 26 years old (but see 5 below)

4. Race:
I am an equal opportunity sexual partner.

5. Income:
(a) Tips from part-time job at off-campus pizza joint
(b) Less than $10,000 p.a.
(c) $10,000 to $50,000
(d) $50,000 to $100,000
(e) Over $100,000
(f) Don’t know. I just get these regular checks from my trust fund
Note: if you answered (e) or (f), please disregard question 3. Actually, you can disregard all the other questions too.

6. Star Sign.
If you are a Sagittarius, I’m sorry, but you are ineligible to have sexual relations with me.

7. Please attach two references from recent sexual partners.

8. If unable to provide references, please state reason. (Check one box only)
(a) My previous sexual partners think I am a creep and want nothing to do with me.
(b) This is kind of embarrassing, but, well, you’ll be my first.
Note: answering (b) does not result in automatic disqualification. I might find it sweet.
(c) I can’t remember the names of my previous sexual partners.
(d) My previous sexual partners are members of congress and revealing their names could be very dangerous for me. Haven’t you see House of Cards?

9. I have checked my schedule for tomorrow and have no urgent appointments or commitments that will necessitate me sneaking out before you are awake.

10. Check any of the following statements which you like to apply to me in furtherance of your application:
(a) I think you are pretty and would really like to know you better.
(b) I’m not staring at your boobs. I’m staring at your heart.
(c) Didn’t we take a class together? I could have sworn we had chemistry.
(d) If you were a booger I’d pick you first.
(e) I’m not trying to impress you or anything, but… I’m Batman!

11. Are you now or have you ever been someone who farts in bed.

12. In not more than 200 words, describe why you think you would be a suitable sexual partner for someone as wonderful as me.
Write quickly – you only have until I get back from the restroom.

Vote for Augustus Gump for the FIFA Executive Committee

26 Sep

A performance bonus to UEFA president Michel Platini, who is refusing to return the $25,000 watch he received from the Brazilian Football Association at this year’s World Cup. To be fair, Mr. Platini was not the only one to receive the lavish gift in a goodie bag left for him in his hotel room. Other recipients included 32 heads of football associations, 28 members of FIFA’s executive committee and 5 other members of South American associations. But what has earned Mr. Platini his performance bonus is this quote.

“We receive many watches, just like journalists – you receive many watches. Just like the associations receive watches. Yes, yes, you receive watches occasionally. Every now and again, you do receive watches.”

Some might claim to detect behind the eloquence of this statement a suggestion of just how detached the bloated plutocrats running football are from the realities of the game and indeed the world, but I would contend that Michel has hit on a universal truth. Every now and again you do receive watches, I myself received one only last year for my birthday, and I am jolly glad that it didn’t come with an envelope containing $24,975, which would have left me open to allegations that my family was trying to buy influence with me.

Before that, I received a watch from my grandmother in or around 1983. I don’t know how much it was worth, but it had great sentimental value until I lost it in 1984. Since then, I have been terrified of wearing anything of value on my wrist. The current $25 beauty, which replaced a $5 model bought at a market in France that actually stopped working while I was still at the stall, is easily the most expensive I have had in thirty years.

Free Pies

Which leads me nicely to the point I am trying to make. In the interests of economy, I think that I should be appointed to the FIFA Executive Committee. Think of the savings on watches. According to the BBC, the budget for watches to give to delegates to the FIFA Congress in Sao Paolo in June was $140,000. If elected, I promise to trim that budget by 90% for the next congress. I have already picked out quite a nice model at Walmart. The savings could be passed on to fans in the form of free Bovril and pies.

If my proposal is rejected, I have an alternative suggestion. Great economies of scale could be achieved by standardizing on an official FIFA watch to be given to all delegates. It would include several FIFA-specific  features, such as an alarm to notify you when it is time to meet a man about a bribe, a built-in fan to keep you cool during the two minute walk from your limousine to your air-conditioned VIP box at the Qatar World Cup and a voice-activated dictionary containing useful phrases such as “in a plain brown envelope would be best, Ivan.”

Vote for Gump

So I am making a plea for your support. I know it’s a long shot. As someone who has actually played football (badly), knows a little about it  and has a deep love of the game, I am hardly FIFA Executive material, but please don’t let that stop you. Use the comment section below to indicate your support. If I can get even a couple of actual football fans behind me, I will already be more popular amongst those who care about the game than Sepp Blatter.

And that watch from my Granny that I lost in 1994 – it went missing at Old Trafford during this Manchester United vs Dundee United match in the European Cup Winners Cup. How many current FIFA Executive Committee members can say they lost one of their hundreds of watches in such honourable circumstances.

 

Now about that performance bonus for Michel Platini. What can we give him? How about a nice watch?

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