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by Bamber Gascoigne

Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990)


Anglo-Irish novelist, playwright, best known for  the tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60). Many once believed it would secure Lawrence Durrell the Nobel Prize for Literature. The experimental novel of mystery, love, and espionage explored memory and knowledge, contrasting in its story the love affair of a young writer with the recollections of the other people. Durrell spent most of his life outside England – in India, Corfu, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Rhodes, Cyprus, and the south of France.

"Hellenic worlds are replaced here by something different, something subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body – for it has outstripped the body. I remember Nessim once saying – I think he was quoting – that Alexandria was the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets – I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex." (from Justine, volume one of the Alexandria Quartet)

Lawrence Durrell was born in Jullundur, India, the son of Lawrence Samuel Durrell, a British civil engineer and founder of the construction firm Durrell and Company, and Louisa (Dixie) Durrell, who was of pure Protestant Irish descent. Both his parents had been born and brought up in the India of the Raj. "God-fearing, lusty, chapel-going Mutiny stock," Durrell described his family roots. (A Smile in His Mind's Eye: A Study of the Early Works of Lawrence Durrell by Ray Morrison, 2005, p. 68)

At the age of twelve Durrell was taken to England. He had little feeling for England and the English – when his mother had applied for a British passport, she declared: "I am a citizen of India." He attended numerous schools from 1923 to 1928 without much success. After the death of his father in 1928, Durrell joined the bohemian circles of Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury. For some time he worked as a jazz pianist in a London nightclub. Durrell's first collections of poetry were privately printed.

In 1932 Durrell met Nancy Mayers, a young art student; they married in 1935. While in Paris, he associated with such authors as Henry Miller, who became his mentor. The two kept up an exchange of letters over 45 years. Several of Miller's letters were lost, when Durrell and his family was evacuated to Egypt after the outbreak of WWII. The letters were in a luggage, which was possibly captured by the Germans.

In 1935 Durrell moved with his mother and wife to the island of Corfu. His brother Gerald Durrell described life there in his book My Family and Other Animals (1956). Between the years 1934 and 1940 Durrell edited a little magazine called Booster (later Delta). His first two prose works, Pied Piper of Lovers  (1935) and Panic Spring: A Romance (1937), were overlooked by both critics and readers.

The first novel of interest, The Black Book: An Agon (1938), heavily influenced by Miller, was published in Paris by Obelisk Press. The publishing house, founded by Jack Kahane, had also brought out Miller's Black Spring (1936). Durrell's mildly pornographic fantasia did not appear in Britain until 1973. In the story Lawrence Lucifer struggles to escape the spiritual sterility of dying England, and finds Greece's warmth and fertility.

During the war years, Durrell served as a press attaché to the British embassies in Cairo and Alexandria, He disliked Alexandria and he left the city for good in May 1945, taking with him his a "quarry" book, in which he wrote his first notes for an Alexandria novel. Durrell held various diplomatic and teaching jobs. He worked in Rhodos, Belgrad, finally settling in Cyprus in 1953. From 1947 to 1948 he was a director of the British Council Institute in Argentina.

Observations of the diplomatic life at the British legation in Belgrade, where Durrell was from 1949 to 1952, gave him material for White Eagles Over Serbia (1957), which gained considerable success. In the story Colonel Methuen of Special Operations Q Branch is called to the office of his commanding officer and asked: "How far would it be if one walked from Belgrade to Salonika? Methuen starts his perilous mission which takes him deep into the mountains of Yugoslavia. Durrell's description of the highlands of the country forms an intrinsic part of the novel.

"The woods were carpeted with flowers, sweet-smelling salvia, cranesbill, and a variety of ferns. Here and there, too, bright dots of scarlet showed him where the wild strawberries grew, and in these verdant woods the pines and beeches increased in size until he calculated that he was walking among glades of trees nearly a hundred feet in height. He could not help contrasting all this place and beauty with the grim errand upon which he was bent, and which might lead to him to sudden death." (from White Eagles over Serbia)

To rest from the diplomatic work in Yugoslavia and to write in peace, Durrell returned to Cyprus, when edited the Cyprus Review and served from 1955 to 1956 as the head of the Press and Information Office. Before accepting the job, his friend Maurice Cardiff said: "Do what you want, but you will lose all your Greek  friends." (Alexandria, Real and Imagined, edited by Anthony Hirst and Michael Silk, 2004, p. 329) Durrell opposed enosis (political union with Greece).  As it turned out, for a period this appointment cooled his relationship with the poet George Seferis, who was irritated by claims of Durrell's office that Greek Cypriots were not of Greek origin but of Phoenician origin. In his diaries Seferis criticized his friend for acting as a mouthpiece for British propaganda and recalled the pacifist Durrell he knew once in Cairo. "I just don't understand what Durrell was doing on Cyprus," he said to his English translator, Edmund Keeley. (Lawrence Durrell and the Greek World, edited by Anna Lillios, 2004, p. 26)

The bulk of Durrell's fiction was connected to Mediterranean countries. After leaving Cyprus, Durrell wrote Bitter Lemons (1957), an impressionistic study of the moods and atmospheres of Cyprus over the troubled years 1953-56. Although Durrell himself denied that the novel has political connotations, it was criticized for dehellenizing the island's past, presenting Greek-Cypriots as merely Cypriots, and arguing that the island "was more Eastern than its landscape would suggest" – in fact defending the British anti-enosis position.  ('Lawrence Durrell in Cyprus: A Philhellene agains Enosis' by José Ruiz Mas, in Epos, XIX, 2003, pdgs. 229-243) 

Durrell never went back to Cyprus, but finally settled in Provence, France, where he lived for the rest of his life. Among his later works are Justine (1957), in which Justine's emotional and sexual wildness fuels a highly-charged atmosphere, Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1959) and Clea (1960), forming together the Alexandria Quartet, entitled 'The Book of the Dead.' All four parts in the work climax in death. The metropolis serves as the basis in the exploration of human existence. Durrell also produced several travel books describing the places he had visited. Other publications include humorous short stories, plays in verse, and poems.

Set in Alexandria during the period just before WWW II, the first three novels cover roughly the same period of time and the events, while Clea advances the action in time. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Alexandria was known as a "Little Paris." Principal characters include the narrator L.G. Darley, his Greek mistress Melissa, the British ambassador Mountolive, the British intelligence agent Pursewarden, Durrell's spokesman for artistic vision, although his ambiguous death occurs already in Justine, the artist Clea, and Justine and her wealthy Coptic husband Nessim. All are bound together in a web of political and sexual intrigue: each novel reveals different aspect of the truth. Darley's point of view from Justine is contradicted by others in Balthazar; Mountolive gives the facts, and Clea tells of the writer's journey of self discovery. Conventional distinctions – major/minor characters, main plots/subplots – are denied. Numerous characters disappear, then re-emerge in altered form.

It has been said that in The Alexandria Quartet Durrell reinvented the modern novel. The ancient city itself is the fifth character – city of knowledge, books, and stories, at the same time real and half-imagined. (Other writers who have depicted Alexandria: Constantine Cavafy, Naguib Mahfouz, Edward el-Kharrat, E.M. Forster)

In general, the Quartet gained critical acclaim. Although the Egyptian author Mahmoud Manzaloui acknowledged Durrell's power in "setpieces, landscapes, and townscapes," he gave a lenghty list of Durrell's errors about Egyptian culture and the Arabic languege. The movie based upon the story was a flop. Durrell sought to replicate his success with The Avignon Quintet: Monsieur: or, The Prince of Darkness (1974),  Livia: or, Buried Alive (1978), Constance, or, Solitary Practices (1982); Sebastian, or, Ruling Passions (1983).

Despite the works had much in common, The Avignon Quintet did not commercially outdo its predecessor. Again the theme is an invard journey, but now West and East come together in a spiritual alliance. "We must learn from such doctor-mystics as Groddeck to treat the whole of reality as a symptom!... the two metaphysics, Eastern and Western, are moving steadily together and given time will meet in many essential fields." (Durrell, in Margaret McCall, The Lonely Roads: Notes for an Unwritten Book, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Autumn, 1987)

Durrell was married four times. After Nancy Mayers, he married Eve (Yvette) Cohen, an Alexanrian-born Jew, with whom he had a child, Sappho. Eve inspired the character of Justine in The Alexandria Quartet. The third marriage, in 1961 to a Frenchwoman, Claude, ended in 1967 with her death. In 1973 Durrell married Ghislaine de Boysson (divorced in 1979). He had two daughters by each of his first two marriages. Sappho committed suicide in 1985, leaving behind writings that pointed accusingly at her father – probably without basis.

In 1962 Durrell was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but in 1961, when Ivo Andric received the honor, the jury passed his name, because of his "monomanical preoccupation with erotic complications." The award went that year to John Steinbeck, who said he did not deserve the Nobel. Lawrence Durrell died of a stroke at his home in Sommières, on November 7, 1990, following a lengthy struggle with emphysema. He was buried at La Chapelle Saint Julien, Sommières. Durrell's brother Gerald Durrell ( see below), zoologist and traveller, gained popularity with his animal stories.

For further reading: Lawrence Durrell's Woven Web of Guesses (Durrell studies 2) by Richard Pine (2021); Letters to Lawrence Durrell, 1937-1977 by Anais Nin, edited by Paul Herron and Richard Pine (2020); A Psychoanalytic Study of Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet: Exile and Return by Rony Alfandary (2019); Lawrence Durrell's Poetry: A Rift in the Fabric of the World by Isabelle Keller-Privat (2019); Dining with the Durrells: Recipes from the Indian & Corfiot Cookery Archive of Mrs Louisa Durrell by David Shimwell; foreword by Lee Durrell; afterword by Jacquie Durrell (2019); Durrell Re-read: Crossing the Liminal in Lawrence Durrell's Major Novels by James M. Clawson (2016); Durrell and the City: Collected Essays on Place, edited by Donald P. Kaczvinsky (2011); Lawrence Durrell: A Biography by Ian S. MacNiven (1998); Lawrence Durrell: Coversations, ed. by Earl G. Ingersoll (1998); Through the Dark Labyrinth by Gordon Bowker (1997); Lawrence Durrell's Major Novels by Donald P. Kaczvisnky (1997); Lawrence Durrel: Comprehending the Whole, by Julius Rowan Raper et al (1995); Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape by Richard Pine (1994); On Miracle Ground, ed. by Michael H. Begnal (1990); Lawrence Durrell by John A. Weigel (1989); Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell, ed. by A.W. Friedman (1986); Joyce Cary and Lawrence Durrell by S. Vander Closter (1985); Lawrence Durrell and the Alexandria Quartet by A.W. Friedman (1970); The Muse of Science and the Alexandria Quartet (1978); Lawrence Durrell by G.S. Fraser (1970); Lawrence Durrell: A Study by G.S. Fraser (1968, rev. ed. 1973); The World of Lawrence Durrell by H.T. Moore (1962); My Friend Lawrence Durrell by A. Perles (1961). Gerald Durrell  (1925-1995):  British zoologist, traveller, writer, and broadcaster, brother of the author Lawrence Durrell. Gerald Durrell was born in Jamshedpur, India, the fourth surviving child of Louisa Florence Durrell and Lawrence Samuel Durrell. When he was ten, his widowed mother took her family to live on the Greek island of Corfu, where Durrell was educated by private tutors. From 1945 to 46 he worked at Whipsnade Zoo and then went on several animal collecting expeditions to Cameroon, Guyana, and other countries. In the 1950s Durrell published his first animal stories, which became very popular and were translated into many languages. My Family and Other Animals (1956) told tales about his unconventional family and the islanders on Corfu. In The Drunken Forest (1978) and Three Tickets to Adventure (1954) Durrell described animal-collecting expeditions. With his second wife Lee, a conservationist, Durrell bred rare species for eventual return to the wild. In 1958 Durrell founded the Jersey Zoological Park. He was also founder chairman of Wildlife Preservation Trust International in 1972. Durrell died on January 30, 1995. Selected books: The Overloaded Ark (1953, Arkillinen eläimiä),  Three Singles to Adventure (1954), The Bafut Beagles (1954), The New Noah (1955), My Family and Other Animals (1956,  Eläimet ja muu kotiväkeni), The Drunken Forest (1956, Vyötiäisten maassa), Encounters with Animals (1958),  A Zoo on My Luggage (1960), Island Zoo (1961), Look at Zoos (1961), The Whispering Land (1961), Menagerie Manor (1964), Two in the Bush (1966), Rosy is My Relative (1968), The Donkey Rustlers (1968), Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (1969, Eläimellistä menoa Korfussa), Fillets of Plaice (1971), Catch me a Colobus (1972), Beats in My Belfry (1973), The Talking Parcel (1974), The Stationary Ark (1976), The Garden of the Gods (1978), The Picknick and Suchlike Pandemonium (1979), The Mockery Bird (1981), A Practical Guide for the Amateur Naturalist (1982), Ark on the Move (1982), How to Shoot an Amateur Naturalist (1984), Durrell in Russia (1986, with Lee Durrell), The Fantastic Flying Journey (1987); The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure (1989), Keeper (1990), The Ark's Anniversary (1990), Marrying off Mother (1991), Toby the Tortoise (1991), He Aye-Aye and I (1992), Puppy Tales (1993). Suomeksi Durrellilta on käännetty myös Takahe (1971), Kaikki kuninkaan eläimet (1975), Löytöretki luontoon (1983), Ihmeellinen lentoretki (1989).  Selected television works: The Amateur Naturalist (1983), Ourselves and Other Animals (1987)

Selected works:

  • Quaint Fragment: Poems Written Between the Ages of Sixteen and Nineteen, 1931
  • Ten Poems, 1932
  • Ballade of Slow Decay, 1932
  • Bromo Bombastes: A Fragment from a Laconic Drama by Gaffer Peaslake, 1933 (as Gaffer Peeslake)
  • Transition, 1934
  • Mass for the Old Year, 1935
  • Pied Piper of Lovers, 1935
  • Panic Spring: A Romance, 1937 (as Charles Norden)
  • The Black Book, 1938
    - Musta kirja (suom. Viljo Laitinen, 1963)
  • Poems, 1938
  • A Private Country, 1943
  • Prospero's Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corcyra, 1945
  • Cities, Plains and People, 1946
  • Zero, and Asylum in the Snow: Two Excursions into Reality, 1946
  • Six Poems From the Greek of Sikelianós and Seféris, 1946 (translator)
  • The Parthenon, 1946
  • Cefalû: A Novel, 1947 (republished as The Dark Labyrinth)
    - Pimeä sokkelo (suom. T. A. Engström, 1981)
  • On Seeming to Presume: Poems, 1948
  • Georg Groddeck (Studies in Genius IV), 1948 (in Horizon)
  • The King of Asine and Other Poems / George Seferis, 1948 (translator, with others)
  • A Landmark Gone, 1949
  • Deus Loci, 1950
  • Sappho: A Play in Verse, 1950 (produced 1959)
  • A Key to Modern British Poetry, 1952
  • The Tree of Idleness, and Other Poems, 1953
  • Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes, 1953
  • The Curious History of Pope Joan / Emmanuel Roídes, 1954 (translator)
  • Private Drafts, 1955
  • The Tree of Idleness and Other Poems, 1955
  • Selected Poems, 1956
  • Esprit de Corps: Sketches from Diplomatic Life, 1957 (illustrated by V.H. Drummond)
  • Bitter Lemons, 1957
    - Katkerat sitruunat (suom. T.A. Engström, 1970)
  • White Eagles Over Serbia, 1957
    - Serbian valkoiset kotkat (suom. T. A. Engström, 1964)
  • Justine, 1957 (Alexandria Quartet)
    - Justine: romaani kiehtovasta Aleksandrian kaupungista ja rakkauden ongelmista (suom. T. A. Engström, 1959)
  • Stiff Upper Lip, 1958 (drawings by Nicolas Bentley)
  • Balthazar, 1958 (Alexandria Quartet)
    - Balthazar: romaani kiehtovasta Aleksandrian kaupungista ja rakkauden ongelmista (suom. T. A. Engström, 1960)
  • Mountolive, 1959 (Alexandria Quartet)
    - Mountolive: romaani kiehtovasta Aleksandrian kaupungista ja rakkauden ongelmista (suom. T. A. Engström, 1962)
  • Clea, 1960 (Alexandria Quartet)
    - Clea: romaani kiehtovasta Aleksandrian kaupungista ja rakkauden ongelmista (suom. T.A. Engström, 1963)
  • The Henry Miller Reader, 1959 (editor)
  • The Best of Henry Miller, 1960 (editor)
  • Collected Poems, 1960
  • Art and Outrage; a Correspondence about Henry Miller between Lawrence Durrell and Alfred Perlès, 1961
    - Kirjeitä = Art and outrage (suomennos: T. A. Engström, Pentti Saarikoski & Seppo Ilmari, 1968)
  • Acté, or the Prisoner of Time, 1961 (produced 1961)
  • The Poetry of Lawrence Durrell, 1962
  • Lawrence Durrell [and] Henry Miller: A Private Correspondence, 1963 (edited by George Wickes)
  • An Irish Faustus: A Morality in Nine Scenes, 1963 (produced 1966)
  • A Persian Lady, 1963
  • Beccafico Le Becfigue, 1963 (English, with French translation by F.-J. Temple)
  • Selected Poems, 1964
  • La Descente du Styx, 1964 (English, with French translation by F.-J. Temple)
  • The Ikons, and Other Poems, 1966
  • Sauve Qui Peut, 1966 (drawings by Nicolas Bentley)
  • Tunc: A Novel, 1968 (The Revolt of Aphrodite, book 1)
  • Nunquam: A Novel, 1970 ((The Revolt of Aphrodite, book 2)
  • Red Limbo Lingo: A Poetry Notebook, 1971
  • The Suchness of the Old Boy, 1972 (drawings by Sappho Durrell)
  • Vega and Other Poems, 1973
  • The Plant-Magic Man, 1973
  • The Big Supposer: A Dialogue with Marc Alyn, 1973 translated by Francine Barker, illustrated with paintings by Lawrence Durrell)
  • Lifelines: Four Poems, 1974
  • Collected Poems, 1974
  • The Best of Antrobus, 1975
  • Monsieur: or, The Prince of Darkness, 1975 (The Avignon Quintet)
    - Monsieur (suom. Jussi Nousiainen, 1982)
  • Blue Thirst, 1975
  • Sicilian Carousel, 1977
  • Selected Poems of Lawrence Durrell, 1977 (selected by Alan Ross)
  • Livia, or Buried Alive, 1978 (The Avignon Quintet)
    - Livia (suom. Jussi Nousiainen, 1985)
  • The Greek Islands, 1978
  • Collected Poems 1931-1974, 1980 (rev. ed., edited by James A. Brigham)
  • A Smile in the Mind's Eye, 1980
  • Literary Lifelines: The Richard Aldington-Lawrence Durrell Correspondence, 1981 (edited by Ian S. MacNiven and Harry T. Moore)
  • Constance: or, Solitary Practices, 1982 (The Avignon Quintet)
  • Sebastian: or, Ruling Passions, 1983 (The Avignon Quintet)
  • Quinx: or, The Ripper's Tale, 1983 (The Avignon Quintet)
  • Antrobus Complete, 1985 (drawings by Marc)
  • The Durrell-Miller Letters 1935-1980, 1988 (edited by Ian S. MacNiven)
  • Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings, 1988 (edited by Alan G. Thomas)
  • Letters to Jean Fanchette 1958-63, 1988
  • Caesar's Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence, 1990 (photographs by Harry Peccinotti)
  • Henri Michaux: The Poet of Supreme Solipsism, 1990
  • Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel, 1998 (edited by Alan G. Thomas)
  • Lawrence Durrell: Conversations, 1998 (edited by Earl G. Ingersol)
  • Selected Poems of Lawrence Durrell, 2006 (edited by Peter Porter)
  • Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel, 2011
  • From the Elephant's Back: Collected Essays & Travel Writings, 2015 (edited and with an introduction by James Gifford)

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