Thursday, 14 April 2016

The Black Book - Lawrence Durrell

Published in 1938 in Paris (it wouldn't have been possible to publish it in England) The Black Book seems to have been written in reaction to the hypocrisy and sentiment of earlier eras but goes a little too far the other way. Like Kay in The Snow Queen with a bit of distorting mirror in his eye, unable to even see anything but ugliness. 

And nothing in this book is uglier than sex and friendship seem to be. (When I was early on in the book I made a note that Durrell drags in sex everywhere in this one, but that's not true, he drags in sexual organs everywhere, and menstrual blood, and the womb, and various other bodily fluids, none of it very prettily described). Human relationships are portrayed as a kind of bitter imperative or a power struggle with the desired object, and there is an awful lot of pleasure taken from the failings of others, as if all the characters are playing snakes and ladders, and as one goes down the others get closer to winning. The fact they are clearly not competing for anything in particular just makes it all that much more depressing. 

Durrell himself claimed (in the foreword to my 1959 edition, published in Montreuil this time) not to have written The Black Book with any thought of publication but as an attempt to find his own 'voice', and there is a certain amount of groping around for the right words - some of his metaphors are discordant, and some are heaped on top of other metaphors to the point where you can't work out which is the metaphor and which is the actual narrative thread - which make this very believable.

However, it is, I think an honest book - not a childish attempt to shock (which the reader might very easily think at first, mostly because of all the taboo words he uses). I’ve been more shocked by Victorian books that were supposedly moral and actually disturbing, and in a way I think it is better to have the ugliness on the outside, on the page, than festering underneath. It is better not to fetishise virginity, and force women to kill themselves in despair when they fall.  So there’s a catharsis to these kind of books written in the 20s and 30s and to this book in particular.

But.. but does it really need to be quite such a bloody business? And although I don’t think he’s writing in a difficult way just for the sake of making himself look clever, it does get incredibly involved and meta at points. There are at least three men trying to write in the book, and they may all actually be aspects of Durrell himself, and after a bit it becomes obvious that this obsession with the womb is because of the birth of his book and his own self as a writer. The reader is almost cast in the role of midwife.

So – and I think this is the biggest question – are the birth agonies interesting enough to hang an actual book on?

I’d have to say no, not really. Durrell has written better books, funnier books, more thought-provoking books, and I would recommend any one of those first. Then, perhaps, if curious, come back and read this to get a flavour of the style in utero

Bring forceps.

The 1938 Club

This book was reviewed for the 1938 Club. Thanks to Simon and Karen for hosting. 

1 comment:

  1. Gosh, this wasn't quite what I was expecting a book by Durrell to be about - wow! Well, forewarned is forearmed. Thanks for reviewing this one :)