About Monsieur

monsieurI try to keep my books in good condition, but my copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Monsieur is looking worn now. I’ve had it a long time. I’ve had other books as long or longer, but Monsieur is battered, foxed, faded, broken – more decrepit than the chateau (depicted by David Gentleman) on the cover. I think that’s how it should be. It is a book about ruined lives, as so many fine novels are. It is also about the mystery of things. The world is not clean and bright. There are dark passages we must go down. There are doors we have never noticed until they open. Monsieur is set in the dust and shadows of somewhere we come across unexpectedly.

Recently I came across a picturesque chateau. On our way to a famous ruin we saw a chateau not too far from Avignon. It was in the wine country, so the house was surrounded by vineyards. It wasn’t in a state of decay. But it was remote and unexpected and striking. I said at once it reminded me of Monsieur. Durrell lived close by. He may have known it. He must have known it. This was surely somewhere in his mind as he was writing the book. It didn’t resemble the cover illustration, however, which has more of a look of Avignon itself, the medieval walls and the papal palace perhaps as inspirations.

It was the setting of the chateau that was interesting. We find these places from time to time, often with ambivalent feelings. This was a sunlit July morning. The chateau, now converted into a hotel, had a benign look. There was neither mist nor moonlight. It was the remoteness that reminded me of Durrell’s book.

The complete title is Monsieur or the Prince of Darkness. I have heard it suggested that Monsieur is an old name for the devil. (“The prince of darkness is a gentleman.”) Did I wish to read a book with such a title? Yes. I thought it intriguing but safe, for this was Durrell, a serious and respected writer. I bought the paperback in Foyle’s, then walked down to the National Portrait Gallery. There was an exhibition of writers. An oldish man quite small in stature was signing the visitors’ book in front of me. I signed my own name beneath his. You can guess who he was, making a rare visit to Britain, appearing out of nowhere ahead of me. His book was in my hand. It felt like destiny.

Or perhaps it was temptation? I was not tempted by anything satanic. What intrigued was the culture of ancient Provence. I had heard the music of the troubadours. I knew something of the history of the region. Everyone knows of Moorish Spain, but the Moors had trading stations all along the coast of Southern France and beyond. The Moorish influence generated many things exotic to European eyes, including mystical cults at some distance from orthodoxy. Tolerance of  faith and practice, embracing Islam and Judaism, ascetic orders and courtly love, made Provence a blend of cultures that produced a poetry and a music, as well as a way of life, that persist even in this century. Every St John’s Day (23 June) they dance the spiral dance, derived from the ancient Sufic rite, throughout Provence. We share bread and follow the Flame of Life through the city streets (after listening to boring speeches from civic dignitaries).

What has this to do with the book in question? Everything. The book moves from Provence to a voyage on the Nile to Venice. In Provence the mystery begins. In Egypt, far from the tourist haunts of Cairo and Alexandria, the English expatriates who people the novel are attracted to a Gnostic cult. In Venice, Sutcliffe wanders, as in Venice we do wander. He is not young, for this is a novel of maturity with faded lives leading towards death.

What first and indelibly impressed me when I read the Venetian section was Sutcliffe’s admiration for a young woman. I was her age then, not Sutcliffe’s. I appreciated the way desire was described. It was the way of a man experienced in these things. He was assured in a way impossible for the very young. I thought of Cyril Connolly’s similar encounter with a woman in Charing Cross Road. He recounts the true incident in The Unquiet Grave. He hadn’t the courage to speak to her, a stranger. Nor had I. But Sutcliffe, and Durrell himself it seemed, knew how to approach what they admired.

In Venice strange atmospheres are routine. Life becomes a masquerade, alluring and dangerous. It is not a city to take lightly. Nor is the Nile merely a river. It is a god commanding respect. Sailing the Nile, in the right frame of mind, is itself an initiation. The attraction of Gnostic mysteries, so prevalent in the New Age culture of our times, is a rebellion against the West’s materialism. The reality of here and now is but one reality among many. That is the feeling behind Monsieur. In life there is a darkness to be encountered. We cannot ignore it any more than we can ignore the immanence of death. We are encompassed by death. We are, as living beings, defined by our ephemeral nature. Monsieur begins with a death and the arrangements for a requiem.

Or, rather, it begins with a journey towards a requiem. The narrator takes the southbound train from Paris, a journey he had made “from time immemorial”. It was that phrase in the first sentence that made me want to read on. Sometimes it may seem that we have made such a journey, following in the path of previous family members, say. And there are the journeys we have made for ourselves over the years. But to speak of time immemorial is to place the event outside the course of ordinary living and into a metaphysical realm beyond time and space as we (imperfectly) understand them.

Were we to understand fully what this means then we would have a sense of Gnosis, of knowledge of the unknowable. This is what they seek in Monsieur, a means of comprehending unfathomable realities, like love and death.

Gnostic cults (of which there were many in medieval Provence) proved to be a dead end for me. They were not people asking questions of life, but, rather, they were offering all too easy answers in formulae that did not surrender to reasoned examination. I think one is supposed to surrender to the experience. That is a dangerous conceit, opening up oneself to all manner of manipulations. In reading we do not surrender: we engage our minds and our senses in ways that can enlarge our imaginative sympathies.

That is why I have not replaced my battered copy of Monsieur. It has a character, if not a spirit, that belongs to the book I found and took home and have not been parted from. The age-old Provencal culture, which retains its presence and its vitality, is something I owe to reading Lawrence Durrell. The book was the first of a series, but it remains the only one of the Avignon Quintet I have read. I don’t know if I ever shall read the others. There seems so much in the first. Re-reading it, I am drawn back emotionally and physically to a culture whose appeal is in its alternative to trivial materialism.

Durrell’s portrait of Avignon as shabby and backward I do not recognize. Perhaps in an earlier time it was as he says. But today it is a city of clean, light stone, of church squares with cafes and restaurants not always readily known to consumer tourists. Our favourite hotel is in a narrow street where no traffic goes. There are certainly no tour buses. Nobody wanders there. You have to know where to go to eat and sleep to fully experience Avignon. Other Provencal places have their own characters, which again are hidden away. Perhaps that is what is meant by surrendering to the experience.

Durrell’s exquisite prose, the English of someone whose soul rests elsewhere than lands where English is spoken, contains its mysteries. It is the prose of a poet invoking the elements of the scene. It invites enchantment.

The Three Horsemen: Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Sir Salman Rushdie at 92Y, New York

Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan at 92Y
Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan in conversation at 92 Street Y cultural centre in Manhattan. Photo courtesy of Nancy Crampton.

On Monday evening the heart of literary London was transplanted to New York. At 92nd Street Y  – a cultural and community centre on the Upper East Side – Salman Rushdie played compere to Martin Amis and Ian McEwan, who read passages from their latest novels, Lionel Asbo (2012) and Sweet Tooth (2012), and took questions from the audience. For Amis: “Has moving to Brooklyn altered your writing?For McEwan: “How has your approach to romance changed since, on your first night at university, you introduced yourself to a girl by asking if she’d f**k you?” Their answers to come.

Sir Salman (top half dressed for dinner, bottom half for basketball) began the show self-mockingly, introducing this “rare occasion” on which “the triumvirate…the heads of the families” who were once charged with “dominating and distorting British fiction” were again to share a microphone.

The three men are emblems of 1970s and ’80s literary London, an epoch in miniature full of leonine upstarts taking shots at the ‘oldsters’. But like an exploding star they have dispersed and now – perhaps more coolly – light elsewhere. Rushdie moved to Manhattan in 2000 and Amis to Brooklyn in 2011, both prompting wounded prattle in the British press. “Since Martin and I have established our beachheads in New York,” said Rushdie, “Ian has to look after England on his own” – joking that the author had bought up most of Gloucestershire in order to do so.

A tribute to Christopher Hitchens (“an empty chair”) led to an explanation of a game Amis and Hitchens played in which ‘love’ in the titles of books, films or songs is swapped for ‘hysterical sex’. Thus, Hysterical Sex in the Time of Cholera. My contribution: Hysterical Sex Will Tear Us Apart. If only a novel had been written called Unrequited Love.

Introducing Amis, Rushdie compared him to P.G. Wodehouse (on whom, he added, no one would ever challenge the authority of The Hitch). For Rushdie, both Amis and Wodehouse created voices, each of which epitomise an instantly recognisable Englishness yet are never heard in the mouths of Englishmen. They are mimicries, rather, heightened into new vocabularies.

And so enter Martin Amis to rattling applause. He raised a palm: “Stop! In the Name of Hysterical Sex.

He began by marking a difference between his native and adopted lands. “If your favourite writer – who also happened to be your long-lost brother – was reading in the next house along,” he rasped, “it would never even occur to you to go and stick your head around the door.” Americans, in contrast, “come and listen to things”.

And he quickly had the listeners laughing. The section he read from Lionel Asbo involved a dinner between Lionel and his five brothers – a racial salad of lowlifes named John, Paul, George, Ringo and Stephen. It could be useful for the population to be organised under Beatleine classifications, Amis suggested: “It might help with legal matters. For instance: ‘No, this is far too complicated a crime for a Ringo.’ He tilted his head. “My wife says I’m a Paul trying to be a John. What she doesn’t know is I’m secretly a George.”

Amis’s novel makes a circus of fatuous success, persistent sorrow and cigarette-stubbed tinned lager-grime. He argued that misery makes up the tradition, as “few writers write in white. It doesn’t show up on the page. The energy of Dickens is all in the villains and the bad stuff. The good characters are faceless”. The passage he chose described a child named Toilet, exploding silicone breasts and the consumption of forty-eight G&Ts. It is full of features.

However much of a treat it was to witness Amis read his own prose, it brought the true pleasure of live literary events into focus. I sat in row X, and watched the undefined shape of a man whose judgments have so often articulated a vague instinct of mine, and in whose writing life I have so often searched for dim parallels to my own. The tingle of disbelief on seeing the person with whom one has spent so much time in silent conversation, with whose voice one is so familiar that to encounter it in a vessel other than a book registers as a faint surprise: there is the real thrill.

Amis’s gravelly drawl has a reverberating weight which tends to induce admiring silences. It is a hard voice to follow. It was over to Ian.

“Though the Atlantic ocean now lies between us, the hysterical sex between us is undying.” Any fears departed.

McEwan snappily recited a skilful passage from Sweet Tooth. Rushdie had described McEwan as a great writer of first chapters (citing 1997’s Enduring Love) – a result, he suggested, of his early mastery of the short story. This passage demonstrated the same virtuosity. Serena Frome, an MI5 officer, reads a file containing a short story published by a possible recruit, McEwan’s challenge being to let the reader read over Serena’s shoulder. A tale of stalking and adultery, its performance was annotated by the audience’s startled whelps – none so excited as at the sudden mention of “mutant genitalia”.

During the questions McEwan confirmed that he’s no longer in the business of mild sexual harassment; the reply he received on that first night at university was: “Would you kindly f**k off?”. Amis, meanwhile, conjectured that it takes three years for a new way of life to “trickle down the spine” and present itself for fiction. “So maybe in a year,” he added, “I’ll have something to say about America.”

And would they change anything about their books? For Amis, “rewriting early novels is the depth of frivolity”; he will leave “the mess of the first four novels alone”. As for McEwan, “the commas in First Love, Last Rites… I thought it was jolly cunning to have commas instead of full stops”. Now, however, “it doesn’t look cunning at all”.

By the end, it was an unmistakable sense of fraternity that marked the evening. Their comradely wistfulness and celebration seemed to pile around them invisible memorabilia from the glory days of ’70s and ’80s London: plates at greasy spoons, literary magazines, precocious awards. The famous 1983 Granta photograph might have been strung up on the back wall. They became at times an evocation of the fairytale that, with phoney nostalgia, we trust they lived. That prime was almost about youth, about taking on the oldsters, and has become in the discussion of British fiction compartmentalised and even solidified into a period. Monday’s event, among the Upper East Side’s limousines and surely plastic primroses, raised its spectre. This is not to say that it was like some ‘legends’ exhibition football match or a Rolling Stones concert. Only that to see three of that period’s horsemen – the fourth saddle kept warm for Julian Barnes – was a peculiarly pensive retrospection, as if its tan still hung on their skin.

Courttia Newland: Playwright, Writer, Lyricist & Music Producer


Litro Q&A: Courttia Newland

Litro’s latest interview is with acclaimed writer, Courttia Newland. Courttia is a novelist, playwright, short fiction writer, lyricist and music producer, and the important role that both literature and music has played throughout his life is illustrated in this Q&A.

What is your earliest childhood memory?

My earliest childhood memories are quite scattered… Standing by the kitchen door on a winter evening, watching my mum doing some job or another. Her startled, thinking she’s put me to bed in my cot… She says I was really young, maybe two… Seeing my premature brother in an incubator, must have been three around them… Him coming home from hospital, all wrapped up like a Christmas present. Talking with my Grandmother in New York, the only time we ever spoke…

What makes you happy?

My family, hearing my wife making my son laugh. Writing. Hearing good music, and seeing great art of any kind. Being alive is pretty good.

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I decided to be a writer around 19, 20, though I thought I was just deciding to write a book. Being a writer was just too weird for me. It was an entirely alien species.

What are you reading at the moment?

Just finished Forster’s Aspects of the novel and started Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. She’s a great writer who passed away a few years ago and is sorely missed.

What advice will give to a first time writer?

Write and read. Immerse yourself in art. Not much else really, it’s all just an extension of those three things.

What is your guiltiest pleasure?

I could tell you, but I’m not sure you’d want to hear it…

How do you relax?

I used to relax by watching films and reading, and although that does still do it for me a lot of times it can be work. Now I’ve allowed myself to play computer games, and listening to music helps too. If I can afford it I like to go away somewhere quiet where I can hear the sea. If not I try to take time out where I’m not thinking about much at all.

What is the most important thing life has taught you?

Too much! Writing lots of shorts, a play, gearing up for a new novel as part of a creative writing PhD… I have a new short story collection published next year, A Book of Blues, so I’m just in the process of proofing that… Good clean fun! I’m sure life is teaching me a great deal, I’m just not sure I’m learning! If I had to chose one thing, it would be that I know nothing. I’m constantly amazed by that and still feel like a child.

What are you up to at the moment?

You can catch Courttia reading from his latest collection of short stories at Word Migrants Present The Book Club at Cottons, Thursday 9 December, Cottons Restaurant, 70 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QP£6/£10 (with dinner).
A night of wonderous wordplay and scintillating storytelling featuring: Leila Segal, Agnes Meadows, Marcus Begg, Rachel Rose Reid, Gemma Weekes, Courttia Newland and hosted by Dzifa Benson and Naomi Woddis.

‘Look to the Sky’ was shortlisted for the Alfred Fagon Award 2010.
‘A Book of Blues’, a collection of stories, was published by Flambard Press 30th March 2011.