the implication of form

Lawrence Durrell, Justine: “I would set my own book free to dream… What follows would be a drama freed from the burden of form.” [p66, Faber edn. My ellipsis.]

Important here would be the strength of the form from which the book had been freed ? The input offered by the form would persist like the remains of a vanished civilisation, suddenly offering structure & then denying it, as you moved across the book’s landscape ?

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10 responses to “the implication of form

  1. Bob

    I’m not sure that there can be any genuine absence of form. I’m certainly having trouble imagining what it would look like. The universe post-Big Bang perhaps: large areas of chaos interspersed with random and hard to explain accretions and clusterings of matter and processes.

  2. If we’re opening a grab bag of metaphors here, I’d suggest that if the technique is tight enough to reside in the muscle memory of the artist then the form which is implicit in the structuring algorithms of the technique will come to the surface. It’s that difference you hear in really good free jazz where the players have become a tool of their technique so deeply that they unwind scattering their origin myth with a willy-nilly grace.

    See also: action painting.

  3. Also: happy new year.

  4. Another question would be whether or not a formless aesthetic inevitably ends up being given form by the particular distribution of affect it gives rise to.

    It’s conceivable many Nineteenth Century realist novelists believed their accretions of sensible detail replicated the ‘formlessness of life’, and some conservative contemporaries railed against the new literature for spreading a socially inappropriate ‘democratic’ principle. 200 years later, the realist aesthetic is itself an ossified, conservative form.

  5. Really interesting query on Arnauti’s ideas of formless “novels” — and uncanny how Bob and Timothy J Jarvis answer right along with Durrell’s (unnamed) narrator in Justine:

    “But of course one cannot escape so easily from the pattern which he regards as imposed but which in fact grows up organically within the work and appropriates it. What is missing in his work – but this is a criticism of all works which do not reach the front rank – is a sense of play.” (Justine 66).

    And perhaps the “play” referenced by the responding narrator is something like iotar’s improvisational “jazz”?

    (Durrell claimed that he sang and played jazz standards at the Blue Peter Club in the 1930s. His Scobie could not have bettered the name.)

    Justine — the character and the novel — may be about the best answer we’ll find.

  6. That’s fascinating – and that link between play and musical improvisation is highly suggestive – brings to mind Boris Vian; a powerfully weird writer who was also a skilled jazz musician.

    But what of those iconoclastic writers, such as Raymond Roussel, who produce estranging fictions from very rigid – if bizarre and idiosyncratic – formal conceits? Roussel’s strategy, of generating narrative content from the manipulation of homonyms, though absurd, would seem to have been constructed in some ways to mitigate against play, to keep out the disorder of the real world he appears to have found so threatening…

  7. Thanks, Timothy.

    On Boris Vian — Do Durrell’s ironic and parodic tendencies parallel Vian’s parodic methods? Much to learn!

    Jazz, pantomime, and music-hall modes all erupt unexpectedly throughout Justine.

    To mimic (LD’s editor at Faber) TSE, “He do the Policeman Scobie in Different Voices, as well as the voices of Cavafy, TSE, Pursewarden, Old Ron the Parrot and (personal favorite!) Sabina the Rubber Woman.

    (The new BL Spoken Word CD has two samples of LD’s jazz compositions; Ulysses Come Back is also worth seeking out.)

  8. “the form would persist like the remains of a vanished civilisation, suddenly offering structure & then denying it, as you moved across the book’s landscape”

    Reading that, I think of Nessim’s dreams.

    What happens in those pages I can’t exactly say. But I first read those words at 15 years old. Still haven’t forgotten this confusing landscape — “unregretted,” indeed.

    “At this time he had already begun to experience that great cycle of historical dreams which now replaced the dreams of his childhood in his mind, and into which the City now threw itself – as if at last it had found a responsive subject through which to express the collective desires, the collective wishes, which informed its culture. He would wake to see the towers and minarets printed on the exhausted, dust-powdered sky, and see as if en montage on them the giant footprints of the historical memory which lies behind the recollections of individual personality, its mentor and guide: indeed its inventor, since man is only an extension of the spirit of place{. . . .}

    “These disturbed him, for they were not at all the dreams of the night-hours. They overlapped reality and interrupted his waking mind as if the membrane of his consciousness had been suddenly torn in place to admit them{. . . .}

    “He saw the Mouseion, for example, with its sulky, heavily-subsidized artists working to a mental fashion-plate of its founders: and later among the solitaries and wise men the philosopher, patiently wishing the world into a special private state useless to anyone but himself – for at each stage of development each man resumes the whole universe and makes it suitable to his own inner nature: while each thinker, each thought, fecundates the whole universe anew.

    “The inscriptions on the marbles of the Museum murmured to him, as he passed, like moving lips. Balthazar and Justine were there waiting for him{. . . .} They were sitting on a marble sarcophagus-lid while somewhere in the remorseless darkness of the outer court someone was walking up and down on the springy turf lazily whistling a phrase from an aria of Donizetti. The gold cigales at Justine’s ears transformed her at once into a projection from one of his dreams and indeed he saw them both dressed vaguely in robes carved heavily of moonlight.”

  9. Mike responds to Durrell’s Arnauti, imagining a form that would draw us in by “suddenly offering structure & then denying it.”

    I have been thinking about this quite bit.

    By “form,” I take it that Durrell means (!) something like “poise” or “manner” or “attitude” — a highly ironic, dubious form that continually undermines structure, character, and meaning — like that strange hallucinatory sensation we get when we stop walking in the surf, stand there looking back at the beach, and realize that the sweep of sand beneath our feet is creating the sensation that we are somehow sliding sideways down the waterfront, alarmingly leaving us not where we thought we were four or five minutes ago. . . .

    Like that sliding floor of sand, Durrell’s poise in Justine and in the Quartet is unapologetically ironic and dubious and contingent, withdrawing as many dreams as it offers. (That would make it more dream-like, after all.)

    A series of oases or mirages seen trembling out on the horizon might be another image. (Cf. Pursewarden’s memory of approaching the City by sea: “We saw, inverted in the sky, a full-scale mirage of the city, luminous and trembling, as if painted on dusty silk. . . .”)

    Example? Well, the passage from Justine that Mike quoted above would be an example prime — how are we supposed to take “Durrell’s” words here?

    An unnamed narrator reads and quotes those words from Arnauti’s novel — Moeurs — a book to which we do not have direct access. (In short, the ” “s should remind us that there are problems with the evidence in this dossier.) Then the narrator proceeds to criticize Arnauti’s book for its strengths and shortsightedness — its lack of “play” (!) — speaking as if from some supposedly objective point of view. Given an array of contingencies and a heightened awareness of relativity/subjectivity, the reader might or might not place trust in the words of Arnauti or the narrator. That trust would necessarily be modified again once the reader starts reading Balthazar and learns that the narrator — “Darley” now — has not understood very much about what he has read or experienced. That none of what Darley thought in Justine is “untrue” — quite to the contrary, from an Epicurean point of view it is “Experience,” and often quite pleasurable and intriguing — adds an outer layer of irony — the “poise” or form.

    “The three volumes in which Justine kept her diary” would be another example of what I mean by ironic poise. Darley receives those volumes directly from Justine’s husband, Nessim, who tells him that “they should help you to support the idea of Justine without flinching.” Well, very fine — after all of these years, the three volumes give us much of what we still remember as striking about Justine and her book, the camel submitting to slaughter like a palm to the axe, “looking ever more pained, more aristocratic, more puzzled as its legs are hacked off,” &c. Via Darley, much of our early notion of Justine’s childhood and — because perhaps we place faith in “Psychology” — her character is built upon that foundation. But in Balthazar all of this case-study slides away like a sandy floor when we learn that these volumes are not “diaries” at all — they are “selected fictions,” produced by Arnauti and Justine during their time together, and then “fed” to Darley by Nessim, the friend who it now becomes clear is more betrayer than betrayed.

    The “rape,” the “lost child,” Da Capo’s “death,” Pursewarden’s suicide, &c. &c. — this book teaches humility.

  10. alec battles

    there’s a part of me that feels as if i should read durrell. i lived in egypt too, and i can recognize a lot of the sights and sounds from his book so clearly that they are actually not imagined images, but fleeting half-memories of things that might have been.