Lawrence Durrell

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Born in India, Lawrence George Durrell led a wandering life that profoundly influenced all his work. His formal education was adequate but limited; ironically, he could never gain admission to Cambridge, which may have motivated his half-jesting claim that he became a writer “by sheer ineptitude.” In any event, he managed to acquire an astonishing fund of knowledge, becoming competent as a painter, a jazz pianist, a race-car driver, a teacher, and a diplomat. In his turbulent career, he lived and worked in London, Paris, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Athens, Cyprus, Argentina, and Provence. Naturally enough, he also became an accomplished linguist, particularly in Greek. Many of the places mentioned above are familiar to readers as settings of his novels or travel books; they are also prominent in his poems.

Durrell’s personal life was no less an odyssey than his career. Married three times, he went through two divorces and became a widower in 1967. His friendships proved more lasting, in particular his evolving relationship with Henry Miller. Beginning as Miller’s disciple and admirer, Durrell virtually turned the tables. Even so, the two remained close and mutually stimulating friends, as evidenced by Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller: A Private Correspondence (1963).

After many years of working at odd jobs, teaching, and representing his country in various diplomatic posts, Durrell settled in Provence in 1957 and devoted his full time to writing. Always a rapid worker—he completed the monumental The Alexandria Quartet in less than a year of actual writing time—he published many novels, dramas, and collections of poetry from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. By the late 1970’s, his wanderlust seemed cured; he stirred only reluctantly. In his late seclusion, Durrell was perhaps like Prospero, from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611), a favorite character of his—he worked his magic and recalled his life at court. Both his poems and his prose reveal the fruits of an extraordinary life at many Mediterranean “courts.” Durrell died in Sommières, France, in 1990.


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Lawrence George Durrell was born in Julundur, India, on February 27, 1912, to Lawrence Samuel Durrell, an English engineer who built the Tata Iron and Steel Works, and Louise Florence “Dixie” Durrell, of Irish heritage. Both his parents’ families had been in India for some time. When the boy was very young, the Durrells moved to Kurseong, near the Himalayas, so that the elder Durrell could accept a three-year contract on a mountain railway to Darjeeling. The sight of the mountains made a strong impression on the boy, so much so that he once described his childhood in a letter to Henry Miller as “a brief dream of Tibet.” While in Darjeeling, he began his education at the College of St. Joseph and received the first encouragement for his writing from a Belgian priest, Father Joseph De Guylder.

At twelve, Durrell was sent to England with his brother Leslie “to get the hall-mark,” as his father said, of a public school education. He attended St. Olave’s and St. Saviour’s Grammar School, where he developed his lifelong interest in Elizabethan writers, and later entered St. Edmund’s School in Canterbury. Despite several attempts, he was never admitted to Cambridge University and would later write of his life in England, “That mean shabby little islandwrung my guts out of me and tried to destroy anything singular and unique in me.”

The death of his father left Durrell with a small income, which he used to move to Bloomsbury in order to become a writer. During his Bloomsbury years, Durrell held a number of odd jobs, including jazz pianist and composer, race-car driver,...

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and real estate agent. During this period he also met his first wife, Nancy Myers, a student at the Slade School, with whom he ran a photo studio for a time. At nineteen, he met John Gawsworth in a café after fleeing from an upstairs window during a police raid on the Blue Peter nightclub, where Durrell was playing piano. Awed by Gawsworth’s personal knowledge of many famous authors, Durrell became his friend, and though they often disagreed on literary matters—Gawsworth was a very conservative poet who admired the literature of the 1890’s and had little respect for W. H. Auden and Stephen Spender—Gawsworth helped Durrell to get his first poems published.Ten Poems was published in 1932 under the pseudonym “Gaffer Peeslake” by Caduceus Press, founded by Durrell, his wife, and George Wilkinson.

Durrell began his first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, while he and Nancy lived for a year in a Sussex cottage with George and Pam Wilkinson. After the Wilkinsons emigrated to Corfu, Greece, Durrell lived with his mother, sister, and two brothers in Bournemouth, where they received glowing letters from the Wilkinsons. Excited by the idea of the warm climate, Durrell left his novel under consideration at Cassell’s and departed for Corfu. When the rest of his family followed a few weeks later, they bore the news that the book had been accepted, confirming Durrell in his notion to take up writing as a profession, though very few copies of the book would sell. The residence in Corfu had two important results for him. First, it began his long association with Greece, its poetry, and language; and second, it led to his discovery of Tropic of Cancer (1934) by Henry Miller.

The latter was probably the most significant development in the young Durrell’s career. He wrote a letter of praise to Miller, who responded warmly, saying that the letter was the most intelligent he had yet received from a Briton about his book. By 1936, Durrell was clearly under the influence of Miller, apologizing for his second novel and engrossed in writing The Black Book. The next year, Durrell announced that he was the “first writer to be fertilized by H. M.” and sent The Black Book to Miller, who paused in the writing of Tropic of Capricorn (1939) to type out (with Anaïs Nin) three copies to be sent to Herbert Read, T. S. Eliot, and Jack Kahane. Kahane published it in Paris, and Eliot endorsed it as “the first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction.” Durrell visited Paris, and Miller later visited Corfu, solidifying a friendship that would last until the latter’s death, despite Durrell’s forthright, often scathing, reviews of Miller’s later works.

World War II interrupted Durrell’s idyllic life in Corfu. He moved to Athens in 1940, where he worked for the British embassy, and then was posted to the Institute of English Studies in Kalamata. While in Athens, he met George Katsimbalis and George Seferis, both of whose works he would later translate. In 1941, he was forced to escape the Nazi invasion with Nancy and their daughter Penelope Berengaria in an old caïque bound for Crete. From Crete, they went on to Egypt, where Durrell served as a foreign press service officer for the British Information Service. Nancy and Penelope spent the war in Palestine, and the marriage deteriorated, resulting in a divorce in 1947. Durrell soon married Eve Cohen, a dark-eyed Alexandrian woman who may have partly inspired the character of Justine.

Happy to escape from Egypt, Durrell lived for a time on Rhodes, then in Argentina and Yugoslavia, disliking both places. In the early 1950’s, he left Yugoslavia for Cyprus, where he bought a home, taught school, and, during the developing civil war, became public relations officer for the British government. His second marriage deteriorated early in his stay on Cyprus, but by 1956, he had completed Justine, the first novel of The Alexandria Quartet. Late that year, he moved on to Dorset with Claude-Marie Vincenden (who would later become his third wife), where he worked on Bitter Lemons, a book drawing on his experiences in Cyprus.

Financially exhausted but unable to live away from the Mediterranean area for very long, Durrell and Claude began to look for a home in the Midi. Virtually overnight, Durrell became a world-renowned author when Justine, Bitter Lemons, White Eagles over Serbia, and Esprit de Corps: Sketches from Diplomatic Life were published in 1957. His works were translated into numerous foreign languages and he was able to devote his entire time to writing. With his favored mode of work being intense days of some fourteen hours of writing, he allegedly produced Justine in four months, Balthazar in six weeks, Mountolive in twelve weeks, and Clea in eight.

For thirty years or so, Durrell lived a settled life in Provence, with occasional travel. On March 27, 1961, he and Claude were married, and in 1966, they moved into a larger house in Sommières to accommodate their guests, Claude’s children by a previous marriage, Penelope, and their daughter Sappho-Jane. After a period of declining health, Claude died on New Year’s Day, 1967. In 1973, Durrell married Ghislaine de Boysson, but by 1986 his fourth marriage was finished. The five novels of The Avignon Quintet appeared between 1974 and 1985 to mixed reviews, but there is no question that this thirteen-hundred-page sequence is a tour de force of the first order.

Lawrence Durrell died on November 7, 1990, at the age of seventy-eight in his home in Provence. His literary reputation, which rests chiefly on The Alexandria Quartet, is higher on the Continent and in the United States than in Great Britain.