LAWRENCE GEORGE DURRELL was born in 1912 in India, of which there are a few glimpses, as seen from childhood memory. In his first and least successful novel, Pied Piper of Lovers (1935). In his early teens, his family returned to England, settling in Bournemouth, and he went to school in England, began to write poems in his late teens and novels in his early twenties, mingling in the early 1930s with London literary Bohemia and, rather later, in Paris with writers such as Anais Nin and Henry Miller, the latter of whom had a great moral influence on him.
Though Durrell was very young when he began to write, publishing privately his first pamphlet of poems at nineteen, he did not begin to make a significant reputation as a poet till 1943, when he was thirty-one, with the volume A Private Country. In 1935, on his advice, his family (his mother, one sister, two brothers, one of whom, Gerald, was also to become well known as a writer) transferred itself from Bournemouth to Corfu. Pied Piper of Lovers was followed a little later in the 1930s by a more competent but still basically conventional novel, Panic Spring, published under the pseudonym Charles Norden. Durrell's first really original prose work, a semi-autobiographical fantasia called The Black Book, was published in 1938 in Paris: it has since been published in the USA, but not in England where it thus enjoys an underground reputation: it has, however, been republished in America.
Durrell, with his first wife Nancy, was living in Corfu in the years just before the Second World War. He kept a diary and took many notes about the flora, fauna, history, and human characters of the island, which he worked up in 1945 into the first of his three island books, Prospero's Cell. After leaving Corfu, he taught for a while in southern Greece, escaped with his wife in a caique to Alexandria from the Axis invaders, and in Egypt during the war, after a short period of free-lance journalism, served in Cairo and Alexandria in various official posts as Press Officer and Information Officer. In 1945 and 1946, he was Press Officer for the Allied Government in Rhodes, and accumulated material for his second island book, Reflections on a Marine Venus, which did not, however, get published till 1953. The poems and the travel books were earning Durrell a distinguished if not quite a major reputation, but he could not live on his writing.
He had children to support both by his first wife Nancy, who had parted from him in Egypt, and his second wife, Eve, whom he had met there. The period in Rhodes was followed by a spell as a lecturer for the British Council in Argentina, which he disliked, and a period as Press Attache with the British Embassy in Yugoslavia. He was not happy there either; his second marriage began to break up, and in 1952 he went with his small daughter to Cyprus, determined at last to embark on the ambitious novel about Alexandria about which he had brooded for many years.
With his savings, he bought a small Turkish house in a village, and supplemented his income by teaching English in a Cypriot grammar school. With the outbreak of the troubles, however, his official services were again called upon. He felt a bitter conflict between his fondness for the Cypriot and his loyalty to Great Britain, and in the autumn of 1956 came to England where, in a cottage borrowed from a friend in Dorset, he completed Justine and wrote, much more rapidly than he had written his other island books, Bitter Lemons, based on his experiences in Cyprus.
Both books were, for the first time in Durrell's career as a writer, notable popular as well as critical successes. He has had very marked success in his literary career, but he has always had to wait for it. His first volume of poems was published twelve years after his first teenage pamphlet of poems. The great success of Justine came in 1957 twenty-two years after the complete failure, financially and critically, of Pied Piper of Lovers, published in 1935. Durrell was in his early thirties when he attained a real reputation as a poet, in his forty-fourth year when he acquired world-wide fame as a novelist.
The success of Justine enabled Durrell for the first time in his life to devote all his energies to writing. He settled in the south of France with a married woman, Claude, whom he had met in Cyprus, and who obtained a divorce and was able to marry him in 1961; she died in 1965. The two immediate successors to Justine, Balthazar and Mountolive, written rapidly but with verve (Durrell can work fourteen hours a day at the typewriter), were both published in 1958. The coda to The Alexandria Quartet, Clea, was a shorter book, and therefore, on a principle expressed by Pascal in The Provincial Letters, took longer to write. It came out in 1960. In 1962, all four novels, with numerous revisions and a new preface, were published in one volume as The Alexandria Quartet.
They have been translated into most European languages, are also widely read in the United States and in the Far and Farther East, and, next to Graham Greene, Durrell perhaps now enjoys a wider world-fame than any other English novelist. Durrell feels that he can only attempt major works in fiction at considerable intervals. He is a good professional, and must always be writing something, and 1957, the year of Justine and Bitter Lemons, also saw the publication of a John Buchanesque thriller, White Eagles Over Serbia, and a book of Wodehousian farcical short stories about Embassy life in the Balkans, Esprit de Corps; this has had several sequels. Such books might be described as honest and unpatronizing pot-boilers; an omnivorous reader of popular fiction in his boyhood, Durrell puts into such books a still boyish zest. He is, as a person and a writer, an admirable exemplification of the maxim of the great Chinese moral philosopher Mencius, that a mandarin ought always to retain a touch of the boy in himself.
The one genre of writing in which Durrell, not pot-boiling, but taking himself very seriously indeed, has not achieved either popular or critical success, is the verse play. His first verse play, Sappho, was published in 1950, but not, though there was a Third Programme broadcast of it, publicly performed in Great Britain till the Edinburgh Festival of 1961. This performance coincided with the renaissance of English prose drama associated with the names of John Osborne, of Samuel Beckett, of Harold Pinter, and with the vogue for Brecht in translation. Though full of beautiful passages of lyrical and meditative verse, it perhaps lacks the tensions and confrontations that are proper to drama; it is more like a versification of one of Landor's Imaginary Conversations. In his next verse play, Acte, Durrell took this lesson to heart, and it is a melodrama in the style of Comeille, about honour and self-sacrifice, in which the language (the play was first produced in Germany, and in his published version Durrell has respected the German producer's cuts) is noticeably more rhetorical than is usual in Durrell's verse.
The best of Durrell's verse plays seems to me to be An Irish Faustus, a morality play in nine scenes, alternately farcical and frightening. His Faustus is somewhat reminiscent of Prospero, a magician who throws away his wand. In translation this play has proved a considerable success in the German theatre. Most great playwrights from Shakespeare to Ibsen have been actively involved in what Yeats called 'theatre business, management of men'. I think that Durrell's verse plays, like those of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, have suffered from his thinking of the verse play as primarily literature: he has never thought much of the problems of production, of timing, of the control of the audience, that 'great beast'. I cannot imagine any of Durrell's plays having a success in the contemporary English theatre. They might have a better chance in Ireland, for example at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin or at the annual Yeats Festival in Sligo, in a culture which accepts lyricism, dance, on the stage, and does not demand naturalism or topicality at any cost. I respect the integrity and unworldliness of Durrell's dramatic efforts more, I think, than most critics have done. If he had started writing verse plays five years earlier, he might have had a similar sort of success, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, to that of T. S. Eliot, Christopher Fry, and Ronald Duncan. Yet even in that period his lack of intimate knowledge of stage technique might have proved a handicap; so might his self-imposed exile from the ever-changing idioms, pitches, informalities, of spoken English.
In 1968, Durrell published the first part of a two-decker novel Aut Tunc Aut Nunquam (These four words [either then or never] represent a quotation from Petronius which inspired the titles of the two separate volumes: these have been published separately as Tunc and Nunquam.), which puzzled and distressed most English critics, though a fine fellow-professional, Angus Wilson, noted Durrell's skill in contriving plot and controlling the pace of narrative. The characters, as Durrell himself noticed, were more 'puppets' than those in The Alexandria Quartet, the scenic backgrounds more perfunctory. Most reviewers (including myself) could not make out exactly what he meant by saying that whereas The Alexandria Quartet was mainly about 'religion', Tunc, and its sequel Nunquam (published in 1970) were mainly about 'culture': in a letter to a friend at the end of Nunquam Durrell makes it clear that he had in mind Spengler's distinction between organically complete cultures, going through the natural stages of spring, summer, autumn, winter, and the long winter between the death of an old culture and the birth of a new, what Spengler distinguished from 'culture' as 'civilisation'. There are analogies to these ideas in, for instance, Arnold Toynbee's A Study of History and Yeats's A Vision. I shall deal with these two ambitious and entertaining books of Durrell's at the end of this pamphlet.
Durrell's reputation in Europe, Asia, and America rests mainly on The Alexandria Quartet; his reputation in England rests rather more, I think, on his poetry and his travel-books, though there are many critics who feel that The Alexandria Quartet is a most impressive but in some ways flawed or imperfect work, extraordinarily vivid, but too rich, too gaudy.
I have taken the shorter works in passing; in the rest of this pamphlet, I shall deal in turn with the poems, with Durrell's first really original prose-work, The Black Book, with The Alexandria Quartet, and with the Tunc-Nunquam double-decker. It was his poems which, when I first came across them in a little magazine, Nicholas Moore's Seven, in 1938, first attracted me to Durrell. I still feel that he is perhaps most naturally himself in his poems, and in his books about islands, though clearly more vigorous and ambitious in his attempts at major prose fiction.
Something should be said, at the end of the introductory section of this pamphlet, about the marked contrast between Durrell's European, American and Asian reputation and his present reputation at home. It might be said that he has the virtues and vices of a tuppence-coloured writer during a British post-war period, at first of great austerity, and later of quiet but fundamental social change, a period in which much of the best British writing has been penny-plain. In a period of good 'drab' writing, in C. S. Lewis's sense, he has attempted the 'golden' style. As a young man he would have liked to go to Cambridge (or so I have been told, though he has not personally confirmed this to me), and one wonders what would have happened to him if he had read English for three years at Downing College under Dr Leavis.
Durrell has a special admiration for Kipling, Thackeray, and Surtees, three fine writers who fall very much outside Dr Leavis's 'great tradition'. His earliest really original prose work, The Black Book, is full of affectionate parodies of great English writers in what George Saintsbury called the 'ornate' style: Pater, Landor, De Quincey. His art, in prose, is never or rarely—for he can, from time to time, write a very plain narrative prose, as in his early 'situation' novel, Cefalu (1945), or in some of the more straightforward sections of Mountolive—an art that conceals art. He likes impasto, bravura effects, firework set-pieces. He has a certain taste for the gaudy and for the richly improbable.
Durrell knows, perhaps, comparatively little about con-temporary England, though he is a very shrewd observer of the rich eccentric burgeonings of the English character, transferred to a hot climate. To know what has been happening in the changing social structure of England over the past forty years one would not turn to Durrell (except perhaps to the very early Durrell of The Black Book) but, say, to Anthony Powell for in-group comedy, Angus Wilson for a broad Dickensian handling of social hypocrisies and pretences (and a similarly Dickensian warmth towards humble decencies), and C. P. Snow for a study of government by committee. In a broad sense, all these are 'realistic': or perhaps Wilson, an admirer of Zola, and a great piler-up of sometimes superfluous 'documentary' detail, might be called a 'naturalistic' writer.
In Durrell, fiction is consciously fictive; it is always transforming itself from the transcription of what life is like to an attempt to create the myth, myth rather than allegory, of what life is. Perhaps the home-keeping writer whom Durrell most resembles is Iris Murdoch, who, like Durrell, enjoys playing (almost as in a logical game with truth-tables) with the permutations and combinations of possible sexual relationships, who enjoys both the violent and the improbable, and who likes to show sexual and religious drives improbably and grotesquely fusing. Like Durrell, Miss Murdoch writes what might be called philosophical fables, and like Durrell she does not disdain the tall story or the purple patch. Like Durrell, she has, in England, a very wobbly critical reputation; there are those who would describe both of them as brilliant frauds. Both, perhaps, as prose-writers, are in the tradition of something that we might call romance or fantasy rather than in the tradition of the 'straight' novel But this genre has its own distinction and validity.
An acute reviewer of Nunquam, Christopher Holmes, noticed that this most recent major effort of Durrell's cannot, unlike The Alexandria Quartet, be sensibly compared, say, with Proust. The relevant models or analogues are philosophic romances of the romantic period like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or William Godwin's Caleb Williams. In Tunc and Nunquam, Durrell for the first time takes the risk of appealing simultaneously to what might be called his pop audience, the audience for the Antrobus stories, the 'situation' novel Cefalu (later retitled The Dark Labyrinth), White Eagles over Serbia, and the sophisticated audience which welcomed the island books and the poems and, if less certain about The Alexandria Quartet, saw this at least as a nobly ambitious effort in a great tradition, perhaps (to use the phrase of an old acquaintance of Durrell's to me) 'a flawed masterpiece, but not fatally flawed'.
I attended a press conference given by Durrell before the publication of Nunquam, at which he made a number of critically interesting remarks. Over the last ten years or so, he has had a growing interest in the macabre and the shocking. He feels that literature must now compete for attention with the instant thrills and horrors of contemporary history, newspaper headlines, posters, television programmes, and therefore must make an almost brutally direct impact on the reader. He mentioned Edgar Allan Poe who combines a taste for the grotesque and macabre with a taste for cosmological philosophising. Durrell said, in a striking phrase, that he aimed in Tunc and Nunquam, at being 'horrid' without being 'nasty'. (What one finds nasty, of course, is a subjective matter; it depends on one's high or low threshold of squeamishness.)
In one sense, Tunc and Nunquam might be thought to belong to the same family as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984. But there is a deep difference. Durrell's temperament is a buoyant and sanguine, in a sense an optimistic temperament. Durrell believes profoundly, in a Kierkegaardian sense, in man's freedom, his ability at any and every moment to take Kierkegaard's leap in the dark, away from the unauthentic or conformist life. We are living, he feels, in a technocratic period of ruthless organization, crushing and channelling of individual lives. But it is no good for the individual to seek freedom merely for himself None of us is free (and, though Durrell's political instincts are profoundly conservative, this is an oddly Marxist observation) unless all of us are free; unless the organisations that control us become themselves imbued with the spirit of freedom.
Durrell discussed these ideas in a film presented on the BBC's Number Two television programme in relation to a Provencal tramp called Blanco, a house-painter, who at the age of 35 suddenly flung down his brush, and began wandering about the roads of Provence, throwing his hat ahead of himself in the early morning and following, across fields, through woods, in whatever direction it led (a kind of modem equivalent, except that Blanco was no scholar, of Arnold's Scholar Gypsy). Durrell spoke in this programme of how he felt himself tied down by possessions, two houses in Provence, one with a swimming pool: how in a sense he envied Blanco.
The pretty young Frenchwoman who acted as Durrell's interlocutor, stooge, or 'straight man', pointed out to Durrell that sleeping alone like a tramp is very sad. Though cheap wine is easily available in the South of France, even for tramps, one cannot go to bed with a bottle. Durrell agreed with her. But the film expressed something very deep in Durrell, the wish not to be tied down, the recurrent need for a fresh start, the impulse of the wanderer. It also conveyed, as I think his writing conveys, something which literary criticism can hardly deal with: Durrell's extra-ordinary openness as a person, his vulnerability (though he is not a touchy or a hard person), his freshness. Any striking thing that anybody said to Durrell at any time might be like the directional throwing forward of the tramp Blanco's bashed old hat.
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