31 (2008)

Isabelle Keller-Privat

“In my end is my beginning”1: The paradigm of resurgence in The Revolt of Aphrodite


Publié en 1974, The Revolt of Aphrodite semble très éloigné de The Alexandria Quartet et de The Avignon Quintet, et s’apparenterait plutôt au genre de la science fiction. Cependant Lawrence Durrell se sert de ce récit de résurrection pour réexplorer les questions qui sous-tendent toute son œuvre. Cet article se propose d’analyser comment le roman joue sur les motifs mythologiques, intertextuels et stylistiques pour tisser ensemble les mémoires collective et individuelle, fictive et authentique, remettant ainsi en question les fondements de notre culture occidentale qui reposerait, selon Durrell, sur « les mathématiques, la mesure, le mouvement, la poésie ».

Published in 1974, The Revolt of Aphrodite seems quite estranged from The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quintet and closer to the genre of science-fiction. Yet, this story of resurrection enables Durrell to re-explore the major issues underlying his works. This paper proposes to analyse how the novel plays on mythological, intertextual and stylistic motifs to weave individual and collective memories as well as fictitious and genuine recollections in a pattern that questions the foundations of Western culture, thus defined by Durrell in his postface (285): « mathematics, measure, movement, poetry ».

The Revolt of Aphrodite2, comprising the two novels Tunc and Nunquam, tells the story of a twofold resurrection: that of the goddess Aphrodite, under the garb of Iolanthe, a former prostitute and film star, who is brought back to life through the talent of the inventor Felix Charlock. A truly ethereal figure who was no man’s creature when working in Athens’ brothels and who eluded her admirers’ grasp later on the screen, Io already belongs to the past when the narrative starts. Yet, through the narrative, and through Abel, the computer designed to record and reproduce human memory, she is summoned to reappear amongst the living when Julian, twin manager of the Firm – a multinational which rules the world and directs the characters’ destinies – decides that she must return his heretofore unrequited love. Iolanthe thus becomes a living dummy, ironically questioning the reality of Julian’s love ; in a last attempt to break free from human bondage, she commits suicide from the whispering gallery of St Paul’s cathedral, precipitating Julian in her fall. Thus, this is the story of a resurrection which paradoxically ends in absolute destruction: the dummy crashes to the ground, causing the fall of the Firm; Felix remains the only witness to its sprawling power and ultimately chooses to destroy the archives housing all the contracts that ensured its ensnaring grip over the world. The novels end on the reassuring figure of the modern sci-fi hero who saves the day by freeing society from contractual obligations and offering the possibility of a new culture, based on the power of the word.  

As a science-fiction novel, The Revolt stands apart from the Durrellian canon. Yet, we shall see that Durrell’s use of the narrative ploys of science-fiction, far from leading him astray from his favourite field of enquiry, opens new avenues of research that lead the reader back to the same pregnant questions raised in the Quartet and later re-explored in The Quintet3. Thus, The Revolt goes beyond the mere resurrection of a mythical archetype: it functions as a resurgence, i.e., “the fissure through which a stream re-emerges at the end of an underground part of its course” (OED). The reader peering into the crevice realises that this sci-fi plot channels him to its mythological source, summoning Durrell’s quests into incestuous relationships, truncated generations and aborted love. The resurgence of ancient themes and the reduplication of motifs clearly lead to sterility : as we shall see, repetition, rooted in determinism, always means death. Symbolically, the novel ends with Felix’s outcry for a free, renewed mode of creation. How does Durrell’s writing overcome the deathly drive of resurgent patterns to give the reader an opening for “the moment of choice [which] is always now” (Postface, 285)?   

As has already been shown by Marc Rolland in his paper “Tunc et Nunquam: Romans d’anticipation?”4, The Revolt resorts to the main ploys of sci-fi writing with its all-powerful Firm, and its computers capable of reproducing human memory and participating in the creation of a human replica, its detailed scientific descriptions and its obscure hero who saves the world. In all this, the reader recognises all the ingredients of mainstream sci-fi.

Significantly, the main scientific invention, described by the first person narrator (who seems to suffer from a curious personality-split, speaking of himself in the third person from the start) concerns language. The recording, analysis and, ultimately, the reproduction of human language (including the tone of voice, idiosyncrasies and natural flow of discourse) by Abel, the computer, Felix, and the Firm, to gain insight into and control over the individual. Felix explains: “[…] people as destinies are by now almost mathematically predictable. […] I call it pogonometry. It is deduction based on the pogon (πόγον) a word which does not exist. It is the smallest conceivable unit of meaning in speech; a million pogons make up the millionth part of a phoneme. Give Abel a sigh or the birthcry of a baby and he can tell you everything.” (Tunc11) The machine transcribes recorded discourse into “dactyls,” a “low feminine voice […] encodes the words and a tiny phonetic alphabet […] begins to purr” (Tunc 15). The device is sensitive “to an individual voice to such a degree that she accepts a code-tone instead of a switch. […] But in my case, “Konx” will set her off, while “Om” will cut her out” (Tunc 15), Felix explains. It is precisely this system he uses as a narrator, occasionally ending his chapters on a final “Om” but omitting the corresponding initial “Konx5, so that the reader is repeatedly taken aback when he belatedly discovers that the first recipient of Felix’s discourse was in fact Abel (curiously referred to as “she”), the extra-lucid computer – “better than crystal ball or divining rod” (Tunc 11) – with the female voice. Hence, the very first lines of Tunc ensure that the reader realise that this linguistic game is the true core of the plot. For without Abel there could be no resurrection of Iolanthe, and there would be no story either. This is a sci-fi tale which primarily revolves around the manufacturing, counterfeiting and appropriation of language, around language as an object of make-believe and as a means of power. Seen from this perspective, the various discourses on resurrection explored throughout the novel – that of worldly power, that of philosophy, that of art – throw light on the very substance of Durrell’s art. Indeed, where are “people as destinies […] almost mathematically predictable”, if not in a work of fiction? Thus Durrell uses the conventions of sci-fi writing to guide the reader towards a new approach to writing. The reader initially experiences bafflement at finding himself on two different tracks: following Felix’s progress into the Brave New World of the Firm, he is also set on a journey into the power of language. Consequently, Felix’s tale acquires a mythical value as the story of the resurrection of Iolanthe appears to function as a metaphor for the magical forces of fiction. As Marc Rolland explains: “En somme, un conte de ce monde, qui n’est pas de ce monde. […] Comme si nous étions dans un monde parallèle, en léger décalage par rapport au nôtre, et que dans ce décalage Durrell inscrive ses trois villes et ses personnages, pris dans une trame mythique.”6 No wonder then the story of Iolanthe’s resurrection, beyond the obvious mythological echoes, functions as a tale upon a tale, throughout which Durrell’s past texts keep resurfacing.

This linguistic game that casts characters who are akin to the ethereal shadows of mythical personae in a fragmented spatial framework (Athens, Istanbul, renamed Stamboul or Polis, and London) is strongly reminiscent of The Quartet. Indeed, Iolanthe the prostitute, slowly fading out of the picture as she foresees Felix’s future involvement with the neurotic Benedicta, recalls Melissa and Justine. Just as the women of The Quartet, those of The Revolt work in pairs and hark back to the figure of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, as if Durrell’s characters, unable to escape the fate decided by the gods, were doomed to fall prey to “a kind of legendary quality – a sick muse embedded in a statue of flesh and bone” (Tunc132). In both cases the object of the narrator’s love is a split personality, always a “sick beauty” who mesmerises him as he stands in awe, “recalling all the minutiae of her behaviour and appearance” (Tunc132). Made up of fragments, like Justine whose various profiles escape the writer’s grasp, Benedicta sets Felix on a demented quest leading him to his own fragmentation, dispersion and loss: he wakes up at the beginning of Nunquam in a semi-comatose state, with no memory of the past months, bearing the wound of an unaccountable operation and having lost his only son, Mark (Nunquam11). Indeed, as Caradoc, the drunken architect, aptly remarks in his speech on the Parthenon – a somewhat iconoclastic pastiche of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:7) – “[…] in an age of fragments, […] without a true cosmological notion of affect and its powers, what can we do but flounder, improvise, hesitate?” (Tunc 69). Felix’s progress from Tunc to Nunquam is clearly that of a hero who  precisely keeps hesitating, improvising, floundering. Thus, he pertains both to the modern vein of the sci-fi hero ready to sacrifice his life to save the world, and to the classical vein of the mythical demi-god, enduring chastisement for his hubris to save the city from the gods’ ire.  

Therefore, Durrell’s use of the sci-fi canon hardly offers the reader an obedient reproduction of the expected code. The Revolt introduces us to a narrator “alone in Athens” (Tunc16), like Darley in The Quartet, estranged on the Cyclades. Likewise, Caradoc, the architect reminds us of Pursewarden and of his sarcastic aphorisms in The Quartet while Io, “a true Athenian” (Tunc 35), sounds like the paronomastic echo of the “true Alexandrian” haunting Darley in The Quartet. Eventually, Felix’s recollection of “data, floating about like motes in a sunbeam” (Tunc 34) foreshadows Blanford’s dispersal of his notes at the end of The Quintet “like a tree shedding its petals […] motes in a vast sunbeam” (Avignon Quintet 1178). Like Abel, the recording and predicting machine, encapsulating the present, the past and the future, The Revolt throws the reader into a backward and forward journey through the thematic, structural and stylistic threads that are intrinsically linked to Durrell’s fictional world and that keep resurfacing in the most unexpected framework. The Revolt strikes the reader both as a break from the Durrellian canon and as a subterranean return to it. Among the many examples illustrating this paradox, one may think of Felix’s dual initiation, as scientist and lover.

Felix’s first initiation, as a scientist, is carried out by Sacrapant, the emissary from Jocas, who rules the Eastern branch of the Firm. Sacrapant asks Felix to test his material by recording a secret political meeting. This takes place in “the fantastic honeycomb of ancient cisterns upon which the city appears to have been built […] the Yeri Batan Serai – the Underground Palace built by Justinian under the portico of the Basilica itself. Its entry was an obscure hole – like a shaft dug into a tumulus” (Tunc 128). The characters’ slow progress “into this watery cathedral”, a world of “depth, […] gloom [and] reverberation” (Tunc 128) which they are rowed into by a “Charon-like Turk” (Tunc 130) and where they are shot at, suggests a descent into the Underworld. All the characteristic features of what Marc Rolland calls “futuristic Gothic” are united: the mysterious, echoing abyss makes a truly “awe-inspiring” décor (Tunc 128) while the details of Felix’s unprecedented invention are carefully described. Ironically, the characters who are set to spy and eavesdrop on the meeting are progressively deprived of their senses: their sight is initially tricked by the water, reverberating “wobbling shadows” (Tunc 128), while “the dancing, uncertain light of the little torches” (Tunc 129) prompts them to grope in the dark, reflecting Felix’s initial blindness: “Blind man’s fingers. I had not visualised this sort of exploit when Pehlevi spoke to me about my recorders” (Tunc 129). The emergence of a triumphing technology coincides with the disappearance of men’s perceptive powers. The trek through the labyrinthine Underworld thus appears as a metaphor for Felix’s journey from Athens, the city of “sunlight”, to Polis, the city “which promises no afterlife […] or resurrection” (Tunc 90). Significantly, Felix’s achievement does not enlighten the reader as to the nature of the political meeting, since all his equipment allows him to record in the short span allowed are “measured and sententious sentences without subsidiary clauses, following one another in dactylic progression” (Tunc 130). The parodic rhetorical description due to the innovative and efficient recorder only highlights Felix’s growing powerlessness. The Firm might well be satisfied by the “success of the operation” (Tunc 130), proudly reported by a self-congratulatory Sacrapant, but the reader is well aware that, just as the ultra-modern equipment led to no major discovery, the heroes were anything but heroic as they crouched on the boat to avoid bullets. It is then no wonder that the journey into the Underworld of Stamboul should lead them back into darkness: “we paid off the old man and clambered out into a surprise – for darkness had already fallen upon the city” (Tunc 131). The reader then realises that what was seemingly a journey back to the point of departure was actually a one-way voyage.

Consequently, the passage hinges on a submerged meaning resurfacing to warn the reader of the deeper implications of the tale. The resurgence of a hidden level can be attributed to the narrator’s hindsight as he recollects his past. But this technique is also reminiscent of the fairy tale structure, one Durrell deliberately borrows both in The Quartet and in The Revolt. This is why Felix is cast as an orphan entrusted to his aunts and who falls in love with a princess, Benedicta, for whom he incarnates a new “Galahad” (Tunc 142) and who is pictured as a character from an oriental fairy tale: her coming is heralded by Iolanthe’s “scrutiny of the auspices” (Tunc 133) which singles out her ominous characteristic, the “vestigial toe, known to the medievals as ‘the devil’s teat’” (Tunc 143). Her childhood symbolically matches Felix’s (“full of loneliness like my own” Tunc 144) but also suggests a Westerner’s dream of the East: “spent in the sunken gardens of the Seraglio, in the glittering emptiness of the harem” (Tunc 144).

The reader is led to understand that the text constantly plays a game of hide and seek with the plot, both concealing and unveiling a secret tale, prompting a multi-layered reading. Thus, the Arthurian legend revisited through the story of Felix and Benedicta7 can be read as a possible source of the fiction, or as one of its masks, when connected with Durrell’s recurring use of legends and myths. Our awareness that The Revolt can only be read as part of a web of correspondences prompts us to take part in the resurgence of the text’s underlying strata. The “huge lending library of the mind” (Tunc 15) that emerges from The Revolt comprises Malory, as well as Spengler, Freud or Sade…and Durrell. Indeed not only does Durrell reiterate his favourite themes and narrative structures, but he also leads the reader down memory lane by referring implicitly to previous texts which keep “bursting on the surface of the mind in little bubbles” (Tunc 53).

The resurgence of past themes, structures and figures is supported by the resurgence of stylistic features, as evinced through Felix’s second initiation, as a lover.

Felix’s first moment of intimacy with Benedicta is preceded by a long hunting trip when his future wife and her uncle, Jocas, put Felix’s virility to the test. Just like Felix’s labyrinthine progress in the Yeri Batan Serai, this one is also akin to a descent into the Underworld as Jocas’s pilot steers the boat “among the indistinct shapes and sounds” at a “funeral pace” (Tunc 134). Quite clearly, the falcon deftly brought to the lure by Benedicta epitomises Felix’s fate, entrapped by the Firm who uses his skills to develop its plans, an analogy that becomes explicit in Nunquam as Felix compares himself to a hawk on Benedicta’s hand: “She will feed me on the fragments of field-mice still warm […]. She will teach me to stoop” (Nunquam 14). Once more, the text seems to favour “mathematically predictable” destinies. But this scene set both on water and on land, also recalls the shooting scene on Mareotis prior to Justine’s disappearance. The stylistic echoes are obvious: on Mareotis, just as on the Bosphorus, the narrators’ course from darkness to sunrise is structured as an epiphany – “Premonitions of the dawn are already in the air […] Now the approaches of the empty water are shivered by the faintest etching of islands, sprouts of beard, reeds and sedge”, Darley announces (Alexandria Quartet 172) while Felix prefers the past tense to the present: “[…] and then, in the most dramatic fashion, […] we were in the full light of an early sunrise” (Tunc 134). Darley witnesses dawn from the water’s edge, on his punt, and Felix offshore, from Jocas’s craft; in both cases, the object of vision is hazy: “the faintest etching of islands” on Mareotis, “the coloured boats bobbing” on the Bosphorus. It is as if the boundaries of the new world revealed to the characters were temporary, constantly moving and fluctuating. Moreover, the characters apparently travel through air rather than water or on land: on Mareotis “The water is full of stars” (Alexandria Quartet 172) until “The clouds themselves are moving to reveal enormous cavities of sky. They peel the morning like a fruit” (Alexandria Quartet 173). This verb reappears in The Revolt: “The fog was peeled aside by a scurry of wind” (Tunc 134). The progress from simile to metaphor enhances the material reality of what is precisely immaterial while material borders are subtly erased. Thus, we find an ellipsis on Felix’s landing which we can only infer when reading “We were met by a little group of horsemen” (Tunc 135), as if the limits between land and water were immaterial. The characters themselves seem to dissolve as if they merged with the landscape: on Mareotis everyone seems “weighed down by the weight of the darkness” (Alexandria Quartet 172). In The Revolt, the pervading presence of the landscape is not suggested by the polyptoton but by the conflation of two words, thus erasing grammatical boundaries: “Everything was still sticky with fogdamp” (Tunc 135). And just as contours become hazy, air and water mix, noun and adjective blend, individuals and objects are absorbed into their surroundings, the syntax itself seems to be contaminated:

We drank our black coffee in tin mugs and watched the chromatic scale of yellow Byzantine light loop up the eastern end of the sky – until it ran over and raced everywhere, spilling among the shady blue valleys, and touching in the vague outlines of the foothills. Sunrise. Carob, sweet chestnut, oak – and plaintive small owls calling.   

The characters become motionless witnesses to the moving light – a light which is not only the colour of dawn, but the colour of the deus loci since the “Byzantine light” refers the reader to the architecture of the Byzantine Empire, to its massive domes and round arches, spires, minarets and colourful mosaics. The dash (quite unnecessary here) marks the break between the motionless protagonists and the ever-changing landscape. The adjective “Byzantine” not only adds a final oriental touch, but also suggests that the reader is given to contemplate an embedded tableau: that of the frozen characters watching a scene which progressively sets in as the gamut goes from conjugated verbs to temporally neutral present participles. As “the chromatic scale of yellow” embraces the whole picture, it enhances colours (“blue valleys”) and borders – both highlighted and subdued (“shady”, “vague outlines”). Thus, the writing seems to hover between movement and immobility, revelation and concealment. This hesitation may be partly explained by the ambiguous description, both visual and musical, for “the chromatic scale of yellow” conjures up a painter’s vision and appeals to the reader’s ear:

the chromatic scale of yellow Byzantine light loop up the eastern end of the sky

– until it ran over and raced everywhere,

spilling among the shady blue valleys,

and touching in the vague outlines of the foothills.


Carob, sweet chestnut, oak –

and plaintive small owls calling.   

This musical pattern playing on assonance (/ai/, /ei/, /i/), alliteration (/l/, /r/) and echoing verbal forms (“spilling”, “touching”, “calling”) goes diminuendo until the final present participle. Subsequently, the last nominal sentences strike the reader both as a stylistic break and as harmonious closure, an ambiguity also reflected typographically by the two dashes that both create a rift and materialise the painting’s unity. Significantly, what started as a visual description terminates in auditory notations that are beyond the picture, separated by the dash, and yet, round it off perfectly, echoing “the chromatic scale” that opened the scene.

Therefore, it is as if the writing of The Revolt consciously re-enacted the initial resurgence which is at the core of the plot, for not only do the characters keep resurfacing, but the text itself keeps prompting the reader to retrace his steps. The very progression of the text becomes problematic for how can a narrative develop when the thematic, symbolic and stylistic threads all lead us backwards in time and space?

As Felix remarks when trying to consider his past, following the thread of the story is all the trickier since some characters are “always going away, always coming back” (Tunc 173). What is said here about Benedicta who repeatedly appears and disappears from city to city, into and out of the Paulhaus, the Firm’s mental asylum, is true of other characters. Thus, Iolanthe vanishes from the Nube only to appear on the screens before dying and reappearing as a living dummy. Likewise, Caradoc is now alive, now dead, being constantly resurrected by the unexpected publication of his Mnemon – the odd announcements published in The Times which keep appearing at regular intervals, testifying to their author’s flickering presence. Once reported dead after a plane crash, he re-emerges when Felix and Pulley discover his lines in print. The character’s existence is then explicitly linked to the disappearance and reappearance of words: “The name swam out of the text” (Tunc 204), Felix comments after reading the report of the crash before exclaiming “The word [alive] rushed about the room like a startled pigeon. Caradoc!” (Tunc 243). The narrator’s mode of appearance in Tunc and in Nunquam is equally symptomatic. He first directly addresses the reader mockingly: “Your Humble, Charlock, the thinking weed: on the run again. Felix Charlock, at your service. Your humble, Ma’am.” (Tunc 11). He introduces himself first by his patronymic, before specifying his Christian name and reverting to his social function with a servility that recalls Dickens’s Uriah Heep. At this point he is the conventional homodiegetic and intradiegetic narrator (“I had been trying to explain the workings of Abel”) until the puzzling split a few lines later: “Emboldened Charlock continued […]” followed by a return to the first-person narrative: “Vibart dropped his fork on the floor, I my napkin.” (Tunc 11) The reader cannot help but feel intrigued by this hovering narrative voice which can at times scarcely be differentiated from a computerised reproduction of the character’s voice by Abel, as Felix himself suggests: “A sable history! Well I’ve brought it up to this point. Abel must be carrying it on. Just pull the lever on the sign manual and traverse across the fascia marked ‘contingent data’.” (Tunc 15).  

As Tunc unfolds, the reader is never quite sure whether he is listening to Felix secretly taking him into his confidence – “Come closer, I will tell you” (Tunc 15) – or to Abel, the machine, “designed for those who talk endlessly to themselves […]. Also for a lazy man, such a one as myself who has abhorrence for ink and paper. You speak and she records: more than that, she transcribes” (Tunc 15). The text becomes ambiguous: are we hearing an oral confession, are we reading what Felix describes as “autobiographical notes” (Tunc 16) or are we given access to the machine’s transcript and hearing its “low feminine voice” (Tunc 15)? This ambiguity reminds one of Justine and Balthazar, the first two volumes of the Quartet. Indeed, when Balthazar comments upon Justine in the second volume, he appears to be criticising a manuscript which has eluded the reader who has obviously had access to the novel, not to “the huge bundle of paper” (Alexandria Quartet 211) which the doctor has been annotating. Likewise, “the great interlinear to Justine […] cross-hatched, crabbed, starred with questions and answers in different coloured inks, in typescript” (Alexandria Quartet 215), which is Balthazar’s version of the story developed by Darley in Justine, escapes our grasp as we are left with Darley’s version of Balthazar’s correction. However, The Revolt goes further than blurring the narrator’s voice for, if Abel is truly “carrying on” the story, it implies that Felix has actually vanished from the scenes. Thus, the novel acts as the posthumous memoranda of a dead narrator, not unlike Gregory Death’s diary in The Black Book. Except that now, the story is not told by another narrator, such as Lawrence Lucifer, but by a machine which has recorded Felix’s narrative before he disappeared and faithfully delivers his message in his mocking tone: “I, Felix Charlock, being sound in mind and body ha ha do hereby etc etc.” (Tunc 15). The reader is then given a science-fiction narrative, directed by a computer and enacting the prophecy of The Black Book: “We are like patches of tissue, kept warm in sealed flasks, washed and commanded to multiply under the watchful supervision of a scientist. […] Dactyl, dactyl, the ducks are going to market” (Black Book 22-23). Therefore, there is apparently no human reality in The Revolt, only a material, scientific one, which explains why Felix is so struck by “the survival value of objects” compared to “people [who] turn up again and again, but for a limited time”: likewise, the reader is struck by the survival value of “the pre-recorded and digested stuff […] fed into Abel […] the huge lending library of the mind […] passed through these little dactyls” (Tunc 14-15) that go on purring when everybody else may well disappear.

The ambiguity of the narrative source is only partially solved at the beginning of the second volume after the destruction of Abel causing the death of Mark, Felix and Benedicta’s son. The narration can then be ascribed to Felix, now totally schizophrenic, having forgotten entire sections of his past, and questioning his very existence in the third person: “Well, where am I, then? In what city, what country? […] The radio is of unknown provenance; it plays light music so characterless that it might be coming from anywhere at all. But where? He cannot tell for the life of him – note the expression: for the life of him!” (Nunquam 11). Felix Charlock has become “Felix Ch.”, “the other one’s name” (Nunquam 11) in which the last syllable, the bit of “lock/luck” has been cut off. He fails to recognise his own diary and is lost both in time and space: “Vanished months, vanished days […] A man with no shadow, a clock with no face. Something about Greece and Turkey?” (Nunquam 11-12). The reader finds himself propelled once more into a puzzling universe except that this time it is not characterised by futuristic devices but by the total erasure of spatio-temporal bearings: the future generation has been destroyed, the past has been burned to ashes, the passing of time is annihilated: “April to October, but where were those vanished weeks […]? […] It doesn’t look like spring at all events; from the window the snow meadows tilt away towards tall white-capped mountains […]” (Nunquam 12). And the narrator identifies with the destroyed computer: “I am for sound against vision […] Konx Ompax and Om Mane Padme Hum are the two switches which operate my brain box” (Nunquam 18). It is then almost impossible to decide whether Felix has acquired the scientific capacities of the machine he created or whether he has been replaced by a computerised version of his old self, after the extraction of “chips of skull” (Nunquam 19), leaving us with an experimental device, “a head like a giant onion” (Nunquam 19) that lives sequestered in the white anonymity of the Paulhaus, secluded from life by the layers of “surgical dressing” (Nunquam 19), just as the asylum is cut off from the rest of the world by “the further snows [that] loom indifferently from minatory cloud-scapes” (Nunquam 19)8. Ironically, Felix’s technology is used against him, so that he becomes his own guinea-pig, controlled by microphones (Nunquam 20). One recollects the characters of The Black Book enclosed in their “little cubicle” in “the unearthly light of the snow” betraying “the spiritual disease of this world” (Black Book 22-23). As in The Black Book, the reader is presented with a set of characters that metamorphose into objects of experimental study, giving the reader a key to decipher the mysterious code9. Thus, the intermittent appearance of the Tibetan mantra, pronounced by a narrating character who has already lost vision and hearing, both shows the way to creation, and signals the very hopelessness of Felix’s quest and his faulty perception10. As Felix’s tale unfolds, he appears to lose track of his own work, confusing thoughts and acts, oral and written production, the original and the copy:

And then, from time to time among my own ruminations float fragments which might almost seem part of another book – my own book […] But so much other stuff has to be cleared first: the shadows of so many other minds which darken these muddled texts with their medieval reflections. Abel would have been able to give them shape and position and relevance; human memory is not yet whole enough to do so. […]

As for these scribblings that emerge from my copying machines, the dactyls, these are not part of the book I was talking about, no. Would you like to know my method? It is simple. While I am writing one book, (the first part might be called Pulse Rate 103), I write another about it, then a third about it, and so on. (Nunquam 16)

The authority that might give order and coherence, the computer, is gone. The reader is left with an author lost in the refracted puzzle of his texts, one who is both narrator and reader of a production with hazy origins. The reader can only assume that “the shadows of so many other minds” and “their medieval reflections” are Felix’s confused recollections of his past narrative of Tunc. Like “Thule, ultima Thule. […] a stepping-off place […] a springboard in the side of the mountain” (Black Book 230), the tantalising yet unreachable starting-point of creation, Nunquam sends us back to the unknown country of past writing which flickers in and out of the narrator’s consciousness11. But Felix’s maimed memory, instead of remembering the past, only enhances the growing dismemberment of the narrative and of the subject, while the reader is left with a text-world in which he is the only, haphazard joiner. Scraps from the past crop up, as old figures and themes emerge again and Felix sinks into schizophrenia: the heavy use of modalisation, the confused time scale, the recurrent contrastive structures and the repeated negations in the second paragraph of the last excerpt suggest Felix’s disquieting sense of estrangement from himself.

This is further enhanced by the peculiar structure of the novel. Indeed, although The Revolt is described by its author as “a two-part novel of an oldfashioned sort” (Postface, 285), Nunquam is clearly no sequel to Tunc. Nay, a refraction, a repetition with variations, a regeneration of the old plot giving all the characters a new lease of life so that they seem to “hang above the time-track”12, a “sibling”13 which does “not proceed along a straight line, but in a circular manner, coiling and uncoiling […] embedded in the stagnant flux and reflux of a medium which is always changing yet always the same”14. Thus, the pagination of Nunquam starts over on page 11, just as in Tunc. The Dostoïevski quote that opens Tunc announces and exposes this process of duplication as a dead end: “deux fois deux quatre, c’est un mur”. So that when the reader discovers the second volume, he senses he is going backward, as if the new text were only there as a mind-numbing echo to the first one. The quotation from Petronius introducing Nunquam reflects the epigraph to Tunc, it repeats the two subtitles to The Revolt and it is duplicated by the English translation: “Aut Tunc, aut Nunquam, ‘It was then or never…’”. The linguistic, structural, and thematic resurgence is redoubled through the literary one. For the Satyricon is also a fragmented text (entire sections have been lost, some fragments have been preserved through other writers’ quotes and comments) which has often been duplicated since the Middle Ages. It is also a social satire, expressed by Ganymede debunking the materialism and spiritual blindness of his Roman fellows, prophesying the doom of the city15. These resurgences serve a paradoxical purpose: the exposure of the death drive ruling the present world and the exaltation of the spontaneous flow of creation – “the instant of choice is always now” warns L. Durrell in his Postface. Typically, Nunquam starts in “the moment of choice”: “Asleep or awake […] Ay, there’s the rub” – an alternative between consciousness and unconsciousness, life and death, past and present, through the intertextual echoes to Keats16 and Shakespeare17. But this is an alternative the narrator initially ignores, asking “what difference?” (Nunquam 11). Refusing the possibility of choice, renouncing to live and act in the present, he loses grip on reality and himself, which leads him to hesitate between a first and a third person narrative: “in waking up thus he navigates a long moment of confusion during which he tries to establish himself in the so-called reality which depends, like a poor relation, on memory” (Nunquam 11). He chooses to disappear temporarily to himself and inhabit a kind of limbo in which he is totally powerless to act. This is how Felix’s previous declaration in Tunc (15) – “I, Felix Charlock, being sound in mind and body” – gives way to its parodic rewriting at the end of Nunquam (282): “I, Felix Charlock, bound in mind and body!”; and it is precisely as he realises his own powerlessness that he accomplishes the very act through which he redeems himself and regains his hold on the present. The destruction of the Firm and of all its contracts annihilating the previous social and professional bonds suddenly lends material reality to the emergence of the creative principle announced in the last lines of The Black Book: “the durable, the forever, the enormous Now” (Black Book 243). The final resurgence of the title and epigraph thus coincides with the promise of an end heralding a new beginning: “So it will be either/or once again; it will be now or never” (Nunquam 283).

Thus, the reader of The Revolt is constantly torn between two extremes. For, although it has been convincingly argued that Nunquam closes on a double ending – that of the last words (THE END) and that of the Postface18 –, the last lines of Nunquam also point to a new beginning: “There is some fine black jazz playing and we have been dancing, dancing in complete happiness and accord. And we will keep on this way, dancing and dancing, even though Rome burn.” (Nunquam 283). The repeated present participles and the binary syntactic structure playing on symmetrical constructions and coordination (and we have // and we will; happiness and accord // dancing and dancing) both create movement and stasis, just as Felix’s final act is an act of destruction and regeneration, propelling the reader back and forth to Lawrence Lucifer’s prophecy: “Not words but a vocabulary which goes through us both like the sea, devouring. A nameless, paralysed singing in the backbone. […] A dancing of fibres along the skin, a new action, a theme as fresh as seed, an agony, a revenge, a universe!” (Black Book 241). Thus the act of creation is poised on the brink of self-annihilation: both “paralysed” and “dancing”, it is devoured by the resurgence of past times while deriving its strength and momentum from the echoes of past texts. For creation does not mean repetition, or evolution from one stage to the next; this is why the recreation of Iolanthe ends in a faulty programme signifying madness and death: it cannot rebel; its free will is an illusion and testifies to the creator’s failure. The subject alone embodies revolt: Felix, “the thinking weed” (Tunc 11) severs the thread of artificial life19. Felix’s gesture is typically an act of resurgence, running parallel and counter to Darley’s gesture as he severs Clea’s hand under water at the end of The Quartet. While Clea is reborn as an artist, Iolanthe returns to nothingness, to the materiality of its detached cogs and springs. She exemplifies the antithesis of Durrell’s continuum. However, Felix, like Darley, commits an act of free will, redeeming himself both as artist and as human being by destroying his invention. In that respect, he embodies the concept of becoming as expounded by Deleuze: “Becoming is always of a different order than filiation. It concerns alliance. […] it is in the domain of symbioses that bring into play beings of totally different scales and kingdoms, with no possible filiation. […] Becoming is certainly not imitating, or identifying with something; neither is it regressing-progressing”, (A Thousand Plateaus 238-9). Mark, Felix’s only son, can protect neither his father nor his invention and disappears with it. It is the encounter of man and machine, of a thinking subject and a dummy, that liberates Felix from the stronghold of the Firm through an act which is neither “regressing-progressing”, one of destruction and faith that leaves room for a frighteningly instant vacuum: “now or never”.

Therefore, resurgence is synonymous with creation: at the crossroads between simile and metaphor, between imitating and becoming, it draws the reader into a permanently open field of inquiry: “Either everything […] or else nothing” (Nunquam 283). Just as the characters of The Revolt, the reader is left with a blank space – “which is where every reader ultimately belongs” (Alexandria Quartet 307).     


Works cited

ALEXANDRE-GARNER Corinne, « Durrell : la clôture impossible ? », Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines, n°10, 1996, 83-97.

──────────  “L’écriture de la neige dans les premiers texts de Lawrence Durrell: essai de généalogie d’une écriture”, Bulletin de la Société de Stylistique Anglaise, n°26, Paris X-Nanterre, 2005, 173-191.

DELEUZE Gilles, F. GUATTARI, A Thousand Plateaus, translated by Brian Massumi, London: Continuum, 1992.

DURRELL Lawrence, [1938] The Black Book, London: Faber & Faber, 1977.

──────────  [1962] The Alexandria Quartet, London : Faber & Faber, 1974.

──────────  [1974] The Revolt of Aphrodite, London: Faber & Faber, 1990.

──────────  The Avignon Quintet, London: Faber & Faber, 1992.

──────────  Key to Modern British Poetry, London: Peter Nevill, 1952.

ELIOT T.S., Four Quartets, London: Faber, 1950.

KEATS John, The Works of John Keats, London: Wordsworth editions, 1994.  

KELLER Isabelle, “‘pro-CREATION re-CREATION’ (Nunquam 91): The Doomed Kingdom in Lawrence Durrell’s Revolt of Aphrodite,Culture and the State, vol.4, Alternative Interventions, James Gifford & G. Zezulka-Mailloux eds., Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2003, 225-240.

PÉTRONE, Le Satiricon, Paris: Flammarion, 1981.

PINE Richard, “The ‘Aquarians’”, Confluences XV, Lawrence Durrell, Paris-X Nanterre, 1998, 61-69.

ROLLAND Marc,Tunc et Nunquam: Romans d’anticipation?”, Confluences XV, Lawrence Durrell, Paris-X Nanterre, 1998, 179-193.

SHAKESPEARE William, Hamlet, Oxford: O.U.P., 1994.

Documents annexes

Il y a 1 document annexé à cet article.

Notes de base de page numériques:

1  T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, “East Coker,” London: Faber, 1950.
2  For brevity’s sake we shall later on refer to the novel by mentionning either one of its parts, Tunc or Nunquam, or the whole as The Revolt.
3  As Richard Pine remarks: “[…] rather than regarding Tunc-Nunquam as somehow outside the Durrell canon […], it is an integral and systemic part of his conception of his life work”, “The ‘Aquarians’”, Confluences XV, Lawrence Durrell, Paris-X Nanterre, 1998, 65.
4  Confluences XV, 179-193.
5  “Konx” appears for the first time at the beginning of Part IV, (Tunc 173), after Felix’s marriage with Benedicta. Significantly, it introduces the narrator’s discourse just as the latter starts denying his authorship: “It is not I who speak, Lord: it is my culture speaking through me.”
6  Confluences XV, 190-1.
7  See Isabelle Keller, ‘“pro-CREATION re-CREATION” (Nunquam 91): The Doomed Kingdom in Lawrence Durrell’s Revolt of Aphrodite’, Culture and the State, vol.4, Alternative Interventions, James Gifford & G. Zezulka-Mailloux eds., Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2003, 225-240.
8  Felix’s estrangement in the snow-covered landscape of Switzerland is reminiscent of The Black Book’s characters; as Corinne Alexandre-Garner aptly remarks about The Black Book: “L’enfermement et l’isolement sont omniprésents”, in “L’écriture de la neige dans les premiers texts de Lawrence Durrell: essai de généalogie d’une écriture”, Bulletin de la Société de Stylistique Anglaise, n°26, Paris X-Nanterre: 2005, 176.
9  Indeed, as Corinne Alexandre-Garner has brilliantly explained, The Black Book is an experimental work that attempts to guide its reader: “[…] ce texte experimental cherche à établir les limites du language et tente d’indiquer au lecteur un code de déchiffrage […]”, ibid., 176.
10  “That blow on the head had occluded his vision: the darkness turned violet sometimes and was apt to dance about in his skull” (Nunquam 12); “I heard, or thought I heard, the quite unmistakable tone of Julian” (Nunquam 24).
11  Once again, we refer the reader to C. Alexandre-Garner’s illuminating essay: “Le Tibet n’est plus seulement le lieu d’origine de l’écriture, il est comme Thulé; le lieu de neige le plus inconnu, le plus éloigné, le plus difficile à atteindre, dernier bastion qu’il faut gagner”, ibid., 184.
12  Lawrence Durrell, Key to Modern Poetry, London: Peter Nevill, 1952, 31.
13  Alexandria Quartet, “Preface”.
14  L. Durrell, 1952, 31.
15  “Nemo enim caelum caelum putat, nemo ieiunium seruat, nemo louem pili facit, sed omnes opertis oculis bona computant. Antea stolatae ibant nudis pedibus in cliium, passis capillis, mentibus puris, et Iouem aquam exorabant. Itaque statim urceatim plouebat: aut tunc aut nunquam, et omnes ridebant udi tanquam mures. Itaque dii pedes lanatos habent, quia nos religiosi non sumus. Agri iacent…”, Satiricon, XLIV.
16  “Fled is that music: –Do I wake or sleep?”, “Ode to a Nightingale”, The Works of John Keats, 233.
17  “To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub;”, Hamlet, III: i.
18  Corinne Alexandre-Garner, « Durrell : la clôture impossible ? », Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines, n°10, 1996, 86-7.
19  “I crawled into the magic circle she was tracing with that lovely body of hers, and plunged my knife into her throat. I knew just where, in order to stop the whole works” (Nunquam 282).

Pour citer cet article :

Isabelle Keller-Privat. «“In my end is my beginning”1: The paradigm of resurgence in The Revolt of Aphrodite». Bulletin de la Société de Stylistique Anglaise , 31 (2008), p. 45-62.

URL: http://stylistique-anglaise.org/document.php?id=659
(Consulté le 21 avril 2014)

© Isabelle Keller-Privat. Propriété intellectuelle de l'auteur. Tous droits réservés.

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Université de Toulouse II – Le Mirail
EA 370 CREA Centres de Recherches Anglophones
(Université Paris Ouest - Nanterre La Défense)

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