Lawrence Durrell Long Fiction Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 2551 words.)