Corkscrew Prose

WOLFF, GEOFFREY

WRITERSfc^WRITING Corkscrew Prose By Geoffrey Wolff Lawrence Durrell's first novel since he completed The Alexandria Quartet in 1960 is jammed up with gimmicks. Tunc (E. P. Dutton, 359 pp.,...

...is always changing," Durrell writes...
...The story is related by Felix Charlock, scientist, inventor, "thinking weed," who is caught in the net of the giant industrial complex, Merlin, and eventually marries the founder's daughter...
...the reader makes it up as he goes along, if he goes along with it, that is...
...But what Durrell really loves, and loves to talk about, is Abel...
...The Quartet dispersed its information among narrators whose available knowledge was incomplete...
...can't be bribed...
...The intricacy of reality is a proper subject for fictional inquiry...
...In Tunc it is barren...
...The structure of Tunc is highly complex...
...Charlock's memory is quirky: He commits to it the whole of Paradise Lost on the apparent principle that any arrangement of words or ideas is suitable stuffing for the gorge of the computer-reader whose task it is to make sense of nonsense...
...Unless the ordonnance has cause and cohesion, however, the effect of a "love affair with language" will be barren...
...Word-playing and role-playing are at the heart of great fiction...
...But in what form...
...his love affair with language (the puns, the poetry and precision...
...The first clocks and watches were made in the shape of an egg...
...The "so to speak" is the continuing sign in Tunc that DurreU's connective joints have begun to squeak...
...P. Dutton, 359 pp., $6.95) is a baroque-nonsense parody of the author's fame-delivering manner...
...Yet the novel is nothing except process...
...Sometimes a cliche, lying around for ages, can be rediscovered, and new flesh fit to its bones to "reorder the whole field and make it significant...
...Give Abel a sigh or the birth cry of a baby and he can tell you everything...
...Rilke's last sentence provides an apt motive, if a motive is needed, for the exquisite degeneration of Durrell's characters in the Quartet...
...won't be mastered...
...so does Tunc...
...Durrell breaks chronology, as most novelists do, between chapters, but he is caught by it within paragraphs and sentences...
...Charlock is his mouth, and the mouth is never still...
...this is intentional...
...Or hear Abel explained, as it is without cease: "I call it pogonometry...
...Here, as his witness, is Addie Bun-dren, from As 1 Lay Dying: "I would think how words go straight up in a thin line, quick and harmless, and how terribly doing goes along the earth, clinging to it, so that after awhile the two lines are too far apart for the same person to straddle...
...for it is a question of faith to know to what degree we accept reality and then attempt to express ourselves through it...
...Here and there in the text attentive readers may discern the odd echo from The Alexandria Quartet and even from The Black Book...
...Perhaps a sign or number, but not, surely, in the sequence of a novel distributed across 300 pages of English prose...
...Human attention is fragile and finite...
...Durrell's love of mirrors, his elaborate reality games, his shifting focus were persuasive techniques, no less so for not being particularly new...
...They mask unrealized connections and purposes...
...The problem also dogged Quentin's father in Absalom, Absalom...
...And if Durrell failed to satisfy the second of Alfred Whitehead's two requirements for style ("the fashioning of power, the restraining of power"), he most certainly fulfilled the first...
...Faulkner's words and sentences give a feel of having lain around a very long time before they were summoned, to be shuffled and moved into place...
...Some among us, like Faulkner and Joyce and Nabokov and Barth and Durrell, can bring to diction an uncustomary richness and reach...
...a million pogons make up a millionth part of a phoneme...
...And in this, rendering the mutilated by their own debris...
...There are some things for which three words are three too many, and three thousand words that many words too less...
...It is both a mystery story, which hides motivation and outcome, and a highly self-conscious attempt to duplicate the tactic of Cubist painting, to dissociate and rearrange the planes of objects to show them at once from within and from without...
...Ah, for one moment of that total vision which might reorder the whole field and make it significant...
...Perhaps in the sequel the machine will read the program back out in some sequence we can understand...
...It is deduction based on the pogon (jro-you) a word which does not exist...
...as yet we can only guess at it...
...The novel is fed, or rather stuffed, into the computer, which we are told arranges its "When, Who, Why, Where and If...
...He points out his puns and his explanations...
...We are meant to be interested in Felix for the choices he makes that hedge, and finally erase, his freedom, and in a handful of murders, suicides and nervous breakdowns...
...To feed data indiscriminately into a computer is to answer nothing...
...Reality is what is most conspicuous by its absence...
...without its sequel in hand, though, it would be premature to label it haphazard...
...Tunc calls for answers to questions about architecture, zoology, abnormal psychology, esthetics, free will, beauty, appetite, race and technology...
...Like one of his characters, a Welsh poet-philosopher drunk over a too-rich dinner, bloated with satisfaction, Durrell exudes rivers of opinion, carelessly, endlessly, indulgently...
...Its scaffold, a gloss on the esthetic implications and methods of the new technology, buckles under an oppressive weight of deception, insinuation and in-completion...
...It is to work this magic, to make of chaos an intricate but soluble labyrinth, that Durrell manipulates the computer, the memory bank...
...the motive judges its own effect...
...Sometimes a pun can do this for an instant...
...The language of The Alexandria Quartet, its unrestrained excess, its ungovemed foison, was its end and its strategy...
...They had lain unused so long because no proper need for them had been demonstrated earlier...
...We can, then, exclude the wrong meanings from our words, and that is the first step toward a language of sensation...
...Tunc is "about" the computer Abel, whose first letter apparently stands for some first principle: Alpha, Adam, Amor...
...For all their pretensions (e.g., Durrell's attempt to capture in prose fiction the theory of relativity), they sounded good...
...In a memory bank the solution is everything, the process of solving irrelevant...
...When we think of Durrell's language, we think of his vocabulary, the surprising juxtaposition of the familiar and the eccentric, the puns if not the precisions...
...If the pleasure a book gives is a test, however fallible, of its quality, then Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and, to a lesser degree, Clea were works of character and accomplishment...
...He achieves what Charlock calls "corkscrew prose...
...It is the axis, so to speak, of my own beginning...
...When Pursewarden said of reality that we take "two paces West and the whole picture is changed," he was saying what Rilke said when he saw Klee's paintings after World War I: "I have often had exactly the same feeling that reality was disappearing...
...Durrell resembles another whose reputation was built by the gift of his tongueŚWilliam Faulkner...
...Charlock makes a persuasive plea for his method: "Gentlemen of the jury, we should tackle reality in a slightly joky way, otherwise we miss its point...
...And this process is dismembered by its variety...
...The machine gives out "partial fragments of truth" about what happens to characters, why, in what order, and what might have happened had circumstances been different...
...By intention this is the first deck of a double-decker novel...
...To read Durrell was to indulge a taste for nostalgia, to find a living artist in that wax museum populated by figures from the baroque age...
...Whatever else one may think of Durrell, there has in the past been general agreement that he writes his books, that he exhibits rich literacy, that he can teach us something of the possibilities of our language...
...But Faulkner, unlike Durrell, understood the limitations of language...
...How does one deal with time, an artificial order which confounds synthetic truth...
...The sandwich men know their man and his audience exceedingly well: "And here are all the familiar feasts of Durrell's imagination...
...The book is a sum of confusions even though Durrell has dished up some dust-jacket copy to reassure the Yahoos among us: "Tunc is roughly about what it's about...
...When we think of Faulkner it is to recollect accumulations, rhythms, syncopation, modifications...
...Who can gainsay the ambition, for a temporary stay against confusion, to put the key in the lock of mystery and just once find it turns...
...Tunc, Latin for "next in succession," does double service as title for novel number one and advance publicity for novel number two...
...Faulkner's syntax imitates a process of exploration and recovery...
...Broken and mutilated creatures are best rendered by their own debris...
...Hypothetically, in Abel all knowledge, recollection and prophecy can be rendered in an instant...
...It is the smallest conceivable unit of speech...
...His voice was recognizable for all its variety...
...Its exoticism and appetite, its unembarrassed sensuality, owed more to the romantic rhetoric of Conrad than to the precision of Joyce...
...Charlock is a wastebasket of information: "The clock decided my fate...
...Or better, his words reflect what Faulkner observed in Amy Lowell: She "tried a polyphonic prose which, in spite of the fact that she had created some delightful statuettes of perfectly blown glass, is merely a literary flatulency...
...Durrell, on the other hand, panders for his words...
...It was fun to discover all those esoteric, pretty, hyperbolic words strung together...
...The dust jacket, again, distills and assembles the kinds of things we recall about The Alexandria Quartet in order to advertise Tunc in the service of Durrell's reputation...
...his immense joi de vivre (the bawdy humor, the stunning sensuality, the gigantic appetites), the fascinating commixtures of present and past...
...and it has left her, reed in hand, staring in naive surprise at the air whence her bubbles have burst...
...It isn't solemn at all, it's playingV Yet the words and explanations, the bloated overripeness of Tunc, the constant threat that it will squirt pulp and pips across the page, are not a function of playing but of playing around...
...The inattentive reader, or the reader unwilling to dust off earlier volumes to explain the matter at hand, will have to wait, Durrell seems to say, for the next installment...

Vol. 51 • May 1968 • No. 10


 
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