Lawrence Durrell

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Lawrence Durrell Long Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2551

Lawrence Durrell’s first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, is a story of life among the bohemians at Bloomsbury. It was sufficiently dismal to provoke a publisher to advise him to offer Panic Spring under the pseudonym of Charles Norden, so that the latter, a slightly better book, would not be associated with its predecessor. Panic Spring has been described as being influenced by, even imitative of, the works of Aldous Huxley; even as it was published, Durrell was writing an apology to Henry Miller for his “new and facile novel.” In essence, Durrell’s early career was characterized by a search for a paradigm or form for his talent, a search that ended with his discovery of Tropic of Cancer.

The Black Book

The impact of Miller’s novel on the young Durrell was enormous. A comparison of his earlier works with his third novel, The Black Book, reveals a dramatic transformation. His creative impulses have been freed. As he described it in 1959, The Black Book is “a two-fisted attack on literature by a young man in the thirties,” taking its aggressive intent from Miller’s all-out assault on the literary establishment. The narrator, Lawrence Lucifer, recounts his experiences in a seedy London hotel from the perspective of his life on Corfu. In the hotel he finds the diary of Herbert Gregory, which relates experiences that overlap with his own. There are numerous other characters and much obscurity as to the details of time and event. There is a great deal of erotic content, both homosexual and heterosexual, as the characters betray and cuckold one another. The novel’s themes are revealed not through a carefully constructed plot but through a series of scenes, reminiscences, and vignettes.

Durrell later wrote the following in the 1959 introduction to the second edition of The Black Book: With all its imperfections lying heavy on my head, I can’t help being attached to it because in the writing of it I first heard the sound of my own voice, lame and halting, perhaps, but nevertheless my very own.

In this work, the reader finds the first cry of Durrell’s literary voice, his exotic characters, his sensual and sensuous prose, and his experiments withnarrative time. When it was published, T. S. Eliot (among others) was perspicacious enough to recognize the voice of a major new talent. Had Durrell ended his career with The Black Book, it would most likely be forgotten. Burdened with an excessively baroque style, it is of interest chiefly because of its place in his career.

The Dark Labyrinth

Cefalû, Durrell’s next novel (reissued as The Dark Labyrinth after Justine had assured Durrell a place in twentieth century literature), can be viewed in much the same way as The Black Book. In it, Durrell seems to be discovering himself, experimenting, finding the form and style that would achieve maturity in The Alexandria Quartet. One also sees a tugging away from Miller’s influence—only a few years later, Durrell would write a scathing indictment of Miller’s Sexus (1949)—and a reversion to the influence of Aldous Huxley that had been so apparent in Panic Spring. The Dark Labyrinth has extensive allegorical elements, reminiscent of Huxley: The characters are trapped in a labyrinth in Crete, and each finds in the maze that for which he or she has been looking. The book was written quickly—which was not unusual for Durrell—and seems rather derivative in structure, though the writing itself often attains his characteristic brilliance.

The Alexandria Quartet

The four novels that compose The Alexandria Quartet are collectively one of the greatest achievements in the modern novel. Like many modern works, The Alexandria Quartet often seems to be about the creation of fiction. Darley, the narrator of Justine and Balthazar, is a novelist, as are two other characters. Diversity in point of view is regularly exploited through the use of diaries, letters, and recounted experiences. Truth becomes subjective and layered. The characters’ knowledge is limited to what they perceive, and numerous questions are left unanswered.

The Alexandria Quartet is also an examination of love in the modern world as the characters pass through convoluted interrelationships. Sex and love, like art, become ways of glimpsing underlying truths, of developing one’s knowledge of reality. Durrell stated that The Alexandria Quartet consists of four parts because he was attempting to produce a novelistic version of Albert Einstein’s universe. Relativity (or subjectivity) thus appears as a justification for the exploitation of point of view, for the questionable reliability of narrators, and for an exploration of time and memory. Durrell was careful, however, despite the modern and postmodern objectives of The Alexandria Quartet, to hang all the theory on a generous structure of narrative. The works involve a number of stories of betrayal, murder, love, devotion, and tragedy intertwined, and although they are elusive, they make the tetralogy accessible in a way that many “experimental” works are not, without compromising the artistic integrity of the work.

Finally, Durrell’s extraordinary prose, his poetic, lyrical, and erotic use of language, elevates The Alexandria Quartet above most modern fiction, although this talent was manifest as early as The Black Book, provoking Miller to write of Durrell, “You are the master of the English language.” Some critics have regarded Durrell’s prose as excessive, overdone, a flamboyant collection of purple clichés and Victorian decadence. In each of his major works, however, and especially in The Alexandria Quartet, it is difficult to imagine a prose style without his deliberate rhythms and cadences that would be suitable to his themes and extraordinary settings.

The chief characters of The Alexandria Quartet may be loosely based on people Durrell had known. Darley has a number of characteristics in common with the author: They are both novelists, three women (up to the writing of the novel) have played major parts in both their lives, and they have held similar jobs. Other resemblances between characters and certain “real people” might be noted, but these would only contribute to the thematic question of how reality is transformed by experience, recollection, and novelization. The whole question adds another layer to the multiple levels among which the tetralogy moves.

Justine is one of the most haunting characters in the tetralogy. Born in Alexandria, she is a dark, beautiful Jewess with an intense sexuality and an obscure background. She runs the gamut of sexual pleasure and is seen from a variety of viewpoints, including the romanticized memories of Darley’s love, the cynical stance of the novelist Pursewarden, and the roman à clef of her first husband, Arnauti. Though not really in love with Nessim Hosnani, a Copt, she marries the devoted Egyptian on the condition that he help her find her kidnapped child. Nessim becomes involved in gunrunning into Palestine because of his hatred of the English. Narouz—Nessim’s harelipped, violent, and earthy brother—becomes a force in the second and third volumes of the tetralogy. Balthazar, a physician, gives his name to the second volume, which he also partly narrates, though he is present throughout the books. A mystic homosexual, he seems to know most of the other characters’ secrets, and his illuminations of Darley’s perceptions provide new insights into the situations. Mountolive is a diplomat who has an affair with Leila Hosnani, Nessim’s mother, who later contracts smallpox, loses her beauty, and engages in a lengthy correspondence with Mountolive, who falls in love with Pursewarden’s blind sister, Liza.

Alexandria, with its convoluted intrigues, gradually wears away the English confidence of the diplomat as Nessim and others betray him as he investigates the circumstances of Pursewarden’s suicide. Clea is a superstitious artist, beloved of Narouz, lover of Justine, Dr. Amaril, and, eventually, Darley. With blond hair and blue eyes, Clea’s northern European beauty contrasts with Justine’s Mediterranean beauty.

Even this short summary of the characters reveals the complexity of the story line of The Alexandria Quartet, and there are even more characters who play important roles: Scobie, the transvestite who becomes a saint; Cohen, who plots to liberate Palestine; Dr. Amaril, who loves the noseless Semira; Mnemjian, the dwarf barber; Pombal, involved in espionage; Capodistria of the great sexual prowess; and Toto de Brunel, who is murdered with a hatpin, probably by mistake. A complete list of characters would number more than one hundred.

Alexandria itself has often been discussed as playing a character-like role in the tetralogy. Like James Joyce’s Dublin, Marcel Proust’s Paris, and William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, the landscape exhibits a crucial influence on the characters, determining their behavior. Sometimes characters seem to be mere expressions of some element of the landscape, appearing and disappearing into the textures of Alexandrian life, just as the “reality” of Scobie is absorbed into the legend of “El Scob.” Alexandria is mysterious, full of deception and treachery. There are always murderous undercurrents, such as when Justine suspects Nessim’s plans to kill Darley at the duck shoot and when Toto is murdered at the masked ball, probably in Justine’s place. Even Narouz’s frustration at being unable to satisfy his love for Clea seems to explode out of his harpoon gun after his death, the accident nearly causing her to drown when her hand is staked to a sunken ship.

A brief discussion of The Alexandria Quartet can hardly do justice to the complexity of the work. With no ostensible intention of making a moral statement, Durrell’s foremost intention was the creation of a work of art that reflected the relativistic sensibility of the modern world, yet he carefully maintained an absorbing plot to serve as a skeleton on which to flesh out his musings on love, sex, art, writing, memory, and time. Although Durrell celebrates life in a way many contemporary artists do not, The Alexandria Quartet also reveals ambiguities and darknesses. The tetralogy cannot be reduced to story, theme, or message. Its lush writing becomes a sensory experience of a world with overlapping, often conflicting layers of reality.

Tunc and Nunquam

Tunc and Nunquam, the pair of novels that followed The Alexandria Quartet, have much in common with the tetralogy, despite the great difference in subject matter. Felix Charlock invents a computer, named Abel, which can recall or predict virtually anything. Charlock soon finds himself under contract to a huge conglomerate headed by Julian Merlin, a mysterious character who seems to control, through business connections, most of the people in the world. To join Merlin is to be assured of comfort but also to give up individual freedom. Tunc and Nunquam contain Durrell’s usually rich selection of characters, including the neurotic Benedicta, Julian’s sister; Iolanthe, a prostitute-become-film-star; and Caradoc, a wordplaying architect.

In style, Tunc and Nunquam are similar to The Alexandria Quartet, despite the science-fiction mise-en-scène. When Merlin creates a robotic duplicate of Iolanthe, which can hallucinate eating and other bodily functions even though it does not do these things, Charlock comes to identify with the robot’s quest for freedom, seeing in it his own struggle to remain an individual despite his absorption into Merlin’s world. This thematic concern with individual freedom in the contemporary world does not play a large part in The Alexandria Quartet, but Tunc and Nunquam exhibit the tetralogy’s themes of time, space, art, love, and sex, as well as a masterful use of language.

The Avignon Quintet

With the five novels that constitute The Avignon Quintet (Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastian, and Quinx), Durrell recapitulates the themes of a lifetime with self-conscious exuberance, like a magician putting on his show for the last time. Shifts of viewpoint are kaleidoscopic in effect: bright, dazzling, patterned, but ambiguous as to meaning. He presents two novelists, Aubrey Blanford and Robin Sutcliffe, who explore the theme of novel writing to a fare-thee-well. Durrell creates two different fates for each of these characters, as if his world suddenly split in two and his personae lived out opposing potentialities. Duality is rife in The Avignon Quintet, as one can see from the double titles of all the novels.

One underlying idea, however, permeates everything: entropy, the tendency for orderly systems to dissolve in anarchy and death. Taking the period from 1938 to 1945, with the whole of World War II occurring in Constance, Durrell shows entropy at work in Europe under the impact of Nazism, entropy in the failure of Western rationalism to stem the “deathdrift” of society or individuals, and entropy in the breakdown of personality in the forms of insanity and suicide. Against entropy, Durrell poses the forces of love and art. Even these, however, succumb to chaos and death.

As an author, Durrell is like the “Lord of Misrule,” the comic king of festival, in The Avignon Quintet. His world is one in which social disorder reigns amid drinking and feasting. In fact, The Avignon Quintet describes celebrations and banquets frequently, often at the ends of the novels, and often with something sinister at their cores. Durrell’s comic tone and exuberance just barely conceal a deeply pessimistic outlook, like gallows humor.

The Provence town of Avignon is the geographic and spiritual center of the quintet. With its dual legacy, very much present in these novels, of having been the center of Catholicism and of the heretical Knights Templar in the Middle Ages, Avignon represents the opposing pulls of reason and mysticism, West and East, and life and death on the characters. Egypt stands for the East, for Gnostic mysticism (linked with the Templar heresy), and for death throughout The Avignon Quintet. Geneva is the site of safety and reason during World War II, an outpost of civilized Western values in an era turned savage and suicidal. Each locale—Avignon, Egypt, and GenevA&Mdash;has its own distinct flavor and ambiguity, and each is fully realized artistically. Durrell’s unique descriptive prose and his use of vignette and narrative event are matchless in creating the feel of place.

Most of the main characters are on quests of some kind: some for love (Blanford, a novelist; Constance, a psychoanalyst; Chatto, a consul), some for sexual adventure (Livia, Prince Hassad), some for wealth (Lord Galen, Smirgel), some for revenge (Quatrefages, Mnemidis), and some for a sacrificial death at the hands of a Gnostic cult (Piers de Nogaret, Sebastian Affad). Several of these private quests are subsumed under one last, collective quest: the search for the lost Templar treasure, hidden centuries ago in a labyrinth of caves near the Roman aqueduct at Avignon, caves mined with explosives by Austrian sappers in the closing days of World War II. On a Friday the thirteenth, Blanford and Constance enter the caves, following a group of intoxicated revelers from a banquet at which Death has just appeared. The inconclusive end of this quest for treasure hints strongly that some poor fool set off the dynamite, sending The Avignon Quintet into the silence of extinction.

In the end, three aspects of life matter to Durrell: love as the means to truth, art as the mirror of truth, and a joyful acceptance of both life and art as the final consummation of truth. By facing down entropy, his own and his world’s, Durrell achieved a rare and disturbing kind of wisdom.

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