Volatile Rune

For Life and Literature in a Volatile World

March Roundup

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Photo by Xuan Nguyen on Unsplash

Despite a lack of recent posts I have not been idle. Oh no, not I.  I have been to Amsterdam to look at the Vermeers, which is better than going to London to look at the Queen these days.   Since I stood in front of Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, I have discovered there is an ekphrastic poem based on this very painting by Tomas Tranströmer(1931-2015), the Swedish Nobel Laureate.

And then straight through the wall – from there – straight into the airy studio

in the seconds that have got permission to live for centuries.

Paintings that choose the name: “The Music Lesson”

or “A Woman in Blue Reading a Letter.”

She is eight months pregnant, two hearts beating inside her.


I have also been reading quite a lot, but not finishing quite a lot.

The Avignon Quintet is a five volume series of works by Lawrence Durrell,  published between 1974 and 1985.  The books are entitled Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastian and Quinx.  I’ve read the first and second books, started the third.  Got confused, ran out of patience.  In Avignon characters born to rule, lounge elegantly around a villa in southern France between the wars, while the last of the servants are vacuumed up by the war engine of WW2 and the realisation dawns that the settled ways of the old, aristocratic life are gone forever.

The first volume, Monsieur (the name relates to some sort of demonic emanation raised at a gnostic ceremony in the desert which a number of the characters take part)  centres around the lives of three friends; the narrator, his wife Sylvie, and Sylvie’s brother Piers.  Events take place in Verfeuille, a crumbling chateaux in Avignon. Several narrators are used in these stories, but events fall out differently depending who is doing the telling.  What at first appears a straightforward narrative becomes is not.   Fictional happenings are represented as fictional within the text – for example when one of the characters claims to have invented another as part of a book he is writing.    There is a word for this according to wiki,   metafiction – when the style of writing constantly draws attention to its own artificiality.


Of Avignon Durrell writes:  “I saw something like a quincunx of novels set out in good classical order … only dependent upon one another as echoes might be …”

The plots are far too complex to summarise and many characters drift in and out of their memories.  Livia and Constance are two aristocratic sisters – Livia has her own book although exactly why is unclear since she barely makes an appearance in it except as an object of devotion for various men and – unflatteringly in a photograph giving the salute in a photograph taken of a nazi rally.  Possibly based on the Mitford Sisters?   Livia is a sort of will o’ the wisp – constantly flickering just out of sight.  Livia’s sister Constance owns the third book and there are two more as yet uninvestigated.

The Alexandria Quartet

Durrell’s work that preceded Avignon was the Alexandria Quartet.  I have read the first in the series – Justine – which Durrell claimed was about ‘modern love’.  What was modern about love then isn’t necessarily modern any more.  But what remains unchanged are the vagaries of human relationships, the wondering who and what will be, the how to fit in.      I’m not sure what the fourth and fifth books are about as I haven’t got that far and will require a long holiday in order to have the time and patience to finish both these massive tomes.

The great and recently deceased travel writer Jan Morris writes in her introduction to The Alexandria Quartet:  “…for myself I think the legendary fascination of the Quartet is essentially existential.  The work itself is greater than its themes, and casts a spell that is neither precisely emotional nor specifically topographic.”

With her usual perspicacity Morris writes that while Durrell’s writing is sometimes almost comically overblown and overwrought.  If you come across the following text in the Guardian Review online, as I did, it is lifted straight out of Jan Morris’s introduction to the Faber edition (1962) without acknowledgement or attribution.

“The high ambition of its schema can make its narratives and characters inexplicably confusing, and its virtuoso use of vocabulary can be trying (“pudicity”? “noetic”? “fatidic”? “scry”?). But if there are parts of the work that few readers, I suspect, will navigate without skipping, there are many passages of such grand inspiration that reaching them feels like emerging from choppy seas into marvellously clear blue Mediterranean waters.”

The Alexandria Quartet and the Avignon Quintet were a commercial success – indeed, they are still in print half a century after the work’s completion.  Yet critics of the time were not unanimous in their praise of the aspiring ‘experimentalism’ of Durrell’s work.

Doubtless the author cried all the way to the bank.


Up Soon:  Another book I have finished recently is Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead. An ambitious and extraordinary novel which ranges from continent to continent and follows the life of Marian Graves, a woman born in the first years of the twentieth century who is determined to become a pilot.


On my TBR list for the Dewithon 23 (the read Wales challenge hosted by Paula at Book Jotter)

Birdsplaining: A Natural History by Jasmine Donahaye.  This new book from the author of Losing Israel is a series of essays on the natural world   published by New Welsh Rarebyte and a winner of the New Welsh Writing Awards 2021.

Of Donahaye’s book a reviewer writes in Caught by the River

“Largely concerned with the author’s home landscape of Wales, Jasmine Donahaye’s Birdsplaining: A Natural History is the result of decades of paying attention to the birds and mammals the author encounters around her home landscape and further afield. The book’s opening gambit, ‘Birds explain nothing to me,’ refers back to the title, which is derived from the term ‘mansplaining,’ where an explainer (usually male) assumes they know more than an explainee (usually female), assumed to know far less. In contrast, Donahaye’s processes remind me of a turnstone working the shoreline, its need to find the sustenance revealed by each new wave perpetuated because, well; its life depends upon it.”

2 responses to “March Roundup”

  1. I lost patience with Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, seemed to be quite an egotistical writer to me, showing off, but I probably missed something!


The Volatile Muse

Poetry, literature, film and all things in between

Runes are ancient scripts, magical signs for secret or hidden laws.   I chose a name which I felt brought to mind the infinitely variable nature of the written word.


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