So let us look now at the novels, on which Durrell's world reputation mainly rests. In an early letter to Henry Miller, some time in the later 1930s, Durrell wrote that his first and simplest literary ambition had been to be a best-selling novelist (an ambition which he has achieved, as we mostly achieve ambitions which we are passionate and single-minded enough about in extreme youth). Durrell's first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, submitted by him for a first novel competition which it did not win, and his second novel, Panic Spring, published under a pseudonym, Charles Norden, because of the critical and commercial failure of his first novel, both novels written by a young man in his early to middle twenties, are interesting only because Durrell wrote them. The first has some good passages based on Durrell's childhood in India; the second, a much more competent piece of writing, was about the sensitive English puritan exposed to the Mediterranean world, in the tradition of Aldous Huxley's These Barren Leaves and, more remotely, of Norman Douglas's South Wind. It is a weakness of young writers with an excessive passion for literature to try to do again what has already been more or less finally done. Smoothly and elegantly written, Panic Spring lacked inner springiness.
The publishers of Panic Spring, Faber and Faber, seeing perhaps in Durrell a reliable if not exciting upper-middle-brow talent, gave him a contract for two or three more novels. But his third work of fiction (it is more an autobiographical fantasia than a novel proper), The Black Book, astonished them. It was inspired both in its freedom of form and its erotic frankness by Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer. T. S. Eliot admired it very much, and Faber were willing to publish it, but in a severely expurgated form. Durrell hesitated, but, stiffened by Henry Miller, decided to publish the text (already cut down from a much longer original draft) in full in Paris. In a preface to the American edition (The Black Book is not yet freely published in England) Durrell sees The Black Book, for all its crudities, as still very dear to him, because it was the first prose book in which he found his own personal voice.
The outer shape of The Black Book is a broadly simple one, that of an inner autobiography enclosed within an outer autobiography. The outer narrator, Lawrence Lucifer, is, like L. G. Darley in The Alexandria Quartet, a version of Durrell himself He moves in a world which is like an extended prose variation, stretching often topographically well beyond inner London, of The Waste Land: shabby hotels, grotesque crammer's colleges, excursions into the country, but always a grey half-world of failed artists and defective lovers. The inner narrator, who has disappeared from the immediate scene before Lawrence Lucifer's meditations commence, Death Gregory, has left a diary, which Lucifer reads, recounting the agonies of his life. Of gentle or genteel background, Death Gregory has a minor literary talent, of a sub-Paterian sort. Mother-fixated, he has been horribly initiated into sex by a hideous prostitute, but has made a pretty and sick young girl (one thinks of Murger's Mimi) his mistress and ultimately his wife; he feels for her a tenderness which he is ashamed or unable to express, and also, once he has married her, a social snobbery (for which he is bitterly remorseful) about having married beneath him. Masochistic, he tries to tempt her into having an affair with a sexy gigolo.
When his wife dies, Death Gregory uses his journal to lacerate himself. Lawrence Lucifer, a true artist as Gregory and all the other characters are failed artists, is himself tormented by a love-hate relationship with the English past (too many corpses) and with a young woman who symbolizes for him English pastoral poetry. Lucifer, like Gregory, has had relations with a whore, Hilda, elderly, battered, grotesque, but welcoming and warm-hearted rather than hideous or horrible: a kind of Marie Lloyd figure.
Lucifer's feelings for Hilda are deeply compassionate, though the compassion is expressed in wildly humorous hyperbole and metaphor. Hilda, the whore, is a kind of mother-figure for him; like Gregory, Lucifer perhaps suffers in a subtler way from mother-fixation. He is also fixated on a Madonna figure at his crammer's college, a Frenchwoman, Madame About, dying of cancer of the womb. He gets into murderous rages with his pastoral girl because she is young, fresh, and normal. But the Ur-Mother on whom Lucifer is most fixated is England herself, with her over-powering richness in architecture, landscape, literature, a richness now over-ripe. He feels that the English past stifles him.
Other characters, or perhaps in a Jonsonian sense 'humours', in this narrative include Chamberlain, a hearty Lawrentian life-worshipper, who, however, cannot satisfy his wife: Lucifer sullenly commits adultery with the wife, but feels that he is vicariously committing sodomy with Chamberlain. The wife becomes pregnant, Chamberlain is delighted and gives up his literary ambitions for a safe job in commerce, but Lucifer is sure the child will be still-born. Sadder and stranger variations of sex abound, notably Tancred, a musical composer of some real talent, but a sublimated or repressed homosexual. Tancred takes to a prolonged death-bed after having in late middle age at last sampled both heterosexual and homosexual love-making, and having been equally disgusted with both. Another memorable character is a negro girl to whom Lucifer teaches Chaucer in the crammer's establishment where he earns his meagre pittance, remorsefully feeling that he is pumping ink rather than blood into her good black veins.
Madame About is dying; Hilda is dying; Tancred wants to die; the negro girl's fine, native, instinctive vitality is being vitiated. Among so many images of death and decay, Lawrence Lucifer can have no creed, no philosophy, only a blind lust for life at any cost. His rage against what he calls 'the English disease' is a rage against something which once, say in the Elizabethan period, bred life abundantly and now seems to breed only frustration and death. The Black Book should be read alongside Auden's The Orator: 'What shall we say about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?' The 'English disease' is Freud's death-wish. Overtly, and also in the plushy richness of the prose, there is an image of England as a stiflingly cosy womb from which Lawrence Lucifer, like the infant Pantagruel, must somehow, however bloodily and violently, escape.
A book which has odd affinities with The Black Book is Carlyle's Sartor Resartus: the Yea-Saying to life in that spiritual autobiography (which is marked not only by in-wardness and poignancy but by a grotesque humour not unlike Durrell's) is all the more impressive because gloom, fear, melancholy, a sense of dereliction fit in so much more naturally with Carlyle's rhetoric, and because the final Yea-saying is such a bold leap in the dark. Durrell resembles Carlyle in his grim humour, and his sympathy with the lost; like Carlyle, he writes never as a satirist but as a dark and compassionate humorist.
The only character in The Black Book whom Lawrence Lucifer wants at one time to hit is Tancred. He reflects, however, that Tancred should not be thought of as a person, as somebody free and therefore responsible for his choices (and therefore worth hitting, because a blow can be a kind of argument) but rather as an obsessional monomaniac, as a Jonsonian 'humour'. One might similarly compare Carlyle's funny and compassionate handling of the utterly repulsive but infinitely pitiable Egalite Orleans in The French Revolution. The Black Book is perhaps less important as a novel than as an extraordinarily vivid, exact, and honest document for somebody who might want to write a latter-day version of William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience. Durrell did in it an extraordinarily cruel (clinically cruel, cruel to be kind) job of auto-analysis; explored Hell, and perhaps just got out of it; but taught himself, in his Journey, compassion.
I am rather alone in the central importance in Durrell's development that I give to The Black Book. One of the young lions of the New Statesman, Francis Hope, thinks that I 'grossly over-estimate' it. D. J. Enright, a critic and poet very unlike Durrell, but oddly sympathetic to some aspects of his work, thinks that the conscious manipulation of diction and rhythm is a special kind of bad writing. (Just in the same way, Aldous Huxley thought that the prose of George Santayana, so consciously well-written, was immediately recognisable as a special kind of bad writing; yet, after all, Santayana had a much profounder mind than Huxley.)
Durrell can, in fact, and even in The Black Book sometimes does, write plain, direct, unornate prose. For all its spiciness and high colouring, The Alexandria Quartet, moves with a much bolder and more rapid rhythm, is nearer the speaking voice. Tuna and Nunquam are full of purple passages, but of purple passages that deliberately and jokily send themselves up; and the prose of these novels is still bolder, and still more rapid, than The Alexandria Quartet. Durrell's great early friend and mentor, Henry Miller, after being bowled over felt that The Black Book was too verbally glutinous, rich sticky. There is certainly something self-stimulating, self-caressing_about the way that Durrell there fingers his cadences and his climaxes.
Yet if we reject The Black Book for such reasons we reject also, I think, automatically, Sir Thomas Browne, Sterne, Lamb, De Quincey, Landor, Pater, a whole English tradition of ornate prose in which the prose writer is (like a poet) as much concerned with pace, pause, rhythm, speech tunes, an odd and surprising fixing of contrasts of words, phrases, idioms, as with what we call 'content' or 'matter'. Matthew Arnold at a dinner party, as reported by G. W. E. Russell, said:
'Know what you want to say and say it as clearly as possible! That is the sole secret of style.'
It quite clearly is not the sole secret of style, though it may be a good working precept for the Times leader-writer or the university lecturer. But it is through an obsession with words, their colour, flavour, history, that many writers grope towards a sense of what they 'want to say'. In what one can broadly call writers of ornate or coloured prose, an obsessive concern (and all true artists are in some sense obsessional) with verbal and rhythmical patterning enriches or indeed transforms the 'content' or 'matter', enables, as the stricter rhythms and the more exigent choices about diction of verse do, the writer to achieve a finer, more exact, more flexible and inclusive communication.
Perhaps all art does not aspire, in Pater's sense, to the condition of music; but neither does it aspire to the clear sophistries and flat amenities of a good Times leading article or a good New Statesman review. It does not aspire towards what Matthew Arnold called the Corinthian style.
The current English case against Durrell's prose is that it is mannerist, too richly and consciously atmospheric and connotational. I am not sure that Durrell is as much a mannerist writer as, say, Hemingway or Gertrude Stein, writers who base their verbal art on a kind of de-connexion, a scrubbing out of traditional connotations, a decreation, and in Gertrude Stein's case, in a work like Tender Buttons, on an attempt to desemanticize language, to use individual words like blobs or shapes of colour in an abstract painting. Compared to such writers, who, of course, were experimenting in this way thirty or forty years before him, Durrell is in a sense very old-fashioned. He never sets himself a schema or a project that will exclude spontaneity. He wants to tell a story that will attract a popular as well as a highbrow audience. He is not working in a word laboratory. We should perhaps not be excessively puritan in censuring a writer's under-the-sheet relationships with his main Muse, his crushingly rich maternal and paternal language.