‘Why?’: The Question of Writing

  • Richard Pine


‘Why?’ At three critical points Durrell posed this unanswerable and, it seems, unaskable question, the most poignant occasion being the incomprehension of Blaise the carter at the suicide of Livia: ‘“Mais pourquoi?”’ — but for what? — the more poignant for the fact that Blaise, unlike Constance, the analytical sister, has only simple questions for these most complex of answers (Quintet 821). Previously the question had led, like a leitmotif, towards an interrogation of behaviour rather than of value. (When Drexel is prevented from seeing the headless corpse of Piers de Nogaret he asks ‘“But why? … what on earth could such a charade mean?”’ — Quintet 74; the innocence of the question underlines its stupidity, its superfluity. Similarly, on another occasion robbed of its dignity by its ordinariness, Blanford’s one-night stand quite fortuitously kills herself next morning: ‘“But why on earth?”’ he exclaims ‘in an outburst of chagrin’ — Quintet 637). It is the chagrin, the bewilderment, the lack of an obvious explanation, that goads the conscience and interrupts the real storyline. Durrell saves his ‘why?’ for the crossroads where madness meets poetry, island meets city. In this chapter I shall take further the idea of the reader‘s responsibility for making sense of something which is beyond the capacity of the characters.


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Notes and References

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    In conversation with the author Durrell was somewhat ambivalent about the relative merits of the Quintet, the Quartet and the The Revolt: but while he acknowledged that the Quartet remained his most popular work, and The Revolt his least understood and least critically accepted, he maintained that The Revolt was his best work to date (1988) in terms of its intellectual thrust, and that the Quintet represented his magnum opus in terms of his commitment as writer to its evolution. He continued to nurture the (albeit tired) ambition to complete his work with a truly irresponsible book, ‘something with no afterthoughts’, which he had only partly suggested with the ‘Satyrikori’-type sections of Caesars Vast Ghost and Quinx.Google Scholar
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    It is a moot point whether Durrell had read Pynchon’s V (London: Cape, 1963); Carol Peirce (Pynchon Notes, 1987) was unable to establish this in interview with Durrell, but there are several other striking parallels between the preoccupations of the two writers, including the notion of inescapable fragmentation and the dislocation of personality as a consequence and corollary of the loss of an ‘integrating principle’.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Richard Pine 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Richard Pine
    • 1
  1. 1.The Long HouseEmlaghmoreIreland

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