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|Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990)|
Anglo-Irish novelist, playwright, best known for the tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60). Many once believed it would secure 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 Darjeeling, India, the son of
Lawrence Samuel Durrell, a British civil engineer, 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 later described his family's Indian
roots. At the age of twelve Durrell was taken to England. Durrell 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, and worked for some time as a jazz pianist in a London
nightclub. In the 1930s he went to Paris, where he started his career
as a writer and associated with such authors as Henry
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 to Crete in 1941. The
letters were in a luggage, which was possibly captured by the Germans.
In 1935 Durrell moved with his mother to the island of Corfu –
several of his works were later connected to Mediterranean countries.
His brother Gerald Durrell described life there in his book My
Family and Other Animals (1956). Between the years 1934 and 1940
he 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, heavily influenced by Miller, was published in Paris by Obelisk Press in 1938. 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 WW II Durrell served as a press attaché to the British embassies in Cairo and Alexandria from 1941 to 1944. Durrell 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. After the war he 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. Durrell's observation of the diplomatic life at the British legation in Belgrade, where he 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." 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)
After leaving Cyprus Durrell wrote Bitter Lemons (1957), which was according to the author "not a political, but simply a somewhat impressionistic study of the moods and atmospheres of Cyprus over the troubled years 1953-6". However, by dehellenizing the island's past, presenting Greek-Cypriots as merely Cypriots, and arguing that the island "was more Eastern than its landscape would suggest" he defended 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.
Set in Alexandria during the period just before World War 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 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). Although 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, in 1935 with Nancy Meyers (divorced in 1947), and then with Yvette Cohen. His third marriage, in 1961 to a Frenchwoman, Claude, ended with her death in 1967. In 1973 he married Ghislaine de Boysson (divorced in 1979). He had two daughters by each of his first two marriages. His second daughter, Sappho, committed suicide in 1985, leaving behind writings that pointed accusingly at her father – probably without basis. Durrell died of a stroke at his home in Sommières, on November 7, 1990, following a lengthy struggle with emphysema. He was nominated as a candidate 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." Durrell also produced several travel books describing the places he had visited. Other publications include humorous short stories, plays in verse, and poems. Durrell's brother Gerald Durrell (see below), zoologist and traveller, gained popularity with his animal stories.
For further reading: 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)