Although I wasn’t totally enamoured with Laurence Durrell’s novel Justine, I was so entranced by his splendidly fluid prose as to turn to the quincunx beginning with

This gave me a better understanding of the notebook quality of the first of the Alexandria quartet.

In one sense Durrell is using his writer characters to take us through the process of working on a novel – this one. We are shown how jotted ideas develop into a final work; and how the characters take their own control of the narrative. I now understand that this is a piece of metafiction: “a form of fiction that emphasises its own narrative structure in a way that continually reminds the audience that they are reading or viewing a fictional work. Metafiction is self-conscious about language, literary form, and story-telling, and works of metafiction directly or indirectly draw attention to their status as artifacts.[1]Metafiction is frequently used as a form of parody or a tool to undermine literary conventions and explore the relationship between literature and reality, life, and art.[2]” (Wikipedia)

Once again the author sets his work in Mediterranean countries – essentially in Avignon. His themes include their history and the very structure and nature of the lands themselves. Conventional boundaries between sexual relationships are eschewed – triangular relationships including those of homosexual and bisexual nature are consistent undercurrents, reflecting the Gnostic triangle of two men and one woman, in the case of the main protagonists also involving incest. His exploration of the mythical sects, and in particular the downfall of the Knights Templar are engaging. Perhaps it is the writer’s fascination with gnosticism that evoked the theme of suicide or arranged time of death.

We never do quite know for certain which characters are real. The final section is both revealing and enigmatic.

The fluid prose remains sublime. Durrell’s apparently easily constructed elegant sentences, none of which displays corpulence, contain copious descriptive adjectives and adverbs, always enhancing his meaning.

My 1974 first edition bears the bookplate of John Retallack.

I had lined up ‘Doctor Zhivago’ for my next read. Pasternak will have to wait for my next Avignon read.


  1. He’s not a writer that I’m familiar with, I’m afraid, Derrick. I’m not being facetious, but is there any connection with the Gerard Durrell of animal fame ?

    1. I have been wondering about that, John. Your question made me look it up. Lawrence was Gerald’s elder brother. Thanks very much

      1. My husband and I enjoyed TV series called The Durrells in Corfu, where Lawrence “Larry” is beginning his literary career, and Gerald is a child who collects animals.

  2. My mother loved the song from Doctor Zhivago, a nice old song. Your Ozzy Osbourne likes to call himself the prince of darkness. He’s the guy who wrote the Crazy Train song.

  3. Your description of this book makes it intriguing, and such high praise for his prose. I am not familiar with metafiction and now I feel that I must read some somehow, because I am not understanding how it could be used. I appreciated this education and exposure to a new concept. And who wouldn’t want to spend some time in Avignon?

    1. I do hope you like it, Crystal. I hadn’t known the genre. Thanks very much

  4. A true literati book review. Never heard of metafiction before but as a librarian, I was aware of metadata earlier than many. Interesting and erudite.

  5. What a great way to describe this rather indescribable book. Metafiction, huh? Sounds like I would have to work too hard to read it. Dr. Zhivago, though. I think I read it twice. ????

  6. It all sounds totally absorbing, Derrick. I can thoroughly recommend The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. An equally absorbing book. I ate it up; it pleased and entertained in so many respects, it is difficult to sum up. The prose is top drawer and enigmatic. Do read! (https./

  7. I’ve never heard of metafiction, John. We learn something new everyday, whether we know it or not, eh?
    I think you’ll like Zhivago, I recall reading it long ago.

  8. I missed this work of Durrell’s, but I’m intrigued. I was especially interested in this: “The final section is both revealing and enigmatic.” It reminded me of the ending of the Alexandria Quartet, where the last paragraph of the volume titled Clea — indeed, the last sentence — perfectly closes the circle begun in the first pages of Justine.

    1. Thanks very much, Linda. I can see I am going to have another go at Clea, which I first read a long time ago.

  9. I started reading the Alexandria Quartet before I went to college and was introduced to the concept of metafiction. It sounds as though it might be worthwhile for me to revisit Durrell’s work.

  10. Sounds like an interesting book to me. Thank you for sharing it with us and reviewing it.

    I read the book Doctor Zhivago in college. I saw the movie when I was a wee little girl…my older sisters were going to watch it and let me join in. One of them had a crush on Omar Sharif.
    (((HUGS))) 🙂

  11. You’ve made this one sound very tempting, although I didn’t take to him on my first attempt many years ago and something tells me I may be better off re-reading this thoughtful post than embarking on the book.

    1. Thank you so much, Susan. It has helped me understand the next one I have embarked upon.

  12. Sounds like quite a book. Probably not one for me as I like clear, concise writing. 😉 But who knows? Maybe I’ll give it a try. And I didn’t realize that Metafiction went so far back. Somehow, I associate it with more recent modern writing. So you taught me a couple of things today. Always good!

  13. I’ll have to read Durrell, thanks to your review, Derrick.
    As to Doctor Zhivago, I hope you read the Pevear and Volkonsky translation. In Russia, this novel was considered rather below the level of his sublime poetry, but at least this translation will convey the spirit and texture of the original.

    1. Thanks very much, Dolly. Mine is the Collins and Harvill edition of 1958 – translators Max Hayward and Manya Harari. Do you know that one?

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