Lawrence Durrell

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Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 8)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4423

Durrell, Lawrence 1912–

Durrell is an Indian-born English novelist, poet, translator, travel writer, playwright, and critic. His works reflect his love for the Mediterranean: the Cyclades, Egypt, and Cyprus are among the settings used in his verse. He is known as a poet of "place"; his sensuous imagery is some of the finest in modern poetry. Durrell has written under the pseudonyms Charles Norden and Gaffer Peeslake. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Once upon a time the first words of a story used to be "Once upon a time." But these are the last words, or almost the last words, of Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet," which suggests that we may have come to the end of a literary cycle, or rather to the beginning of a new loop in the spiral of literary history. You remember the passage which closes "Clea," the last volume of the "Quartet":

Yes, one day I found myself writing down with trembling fingers the four words (four letters! four faces!) with which every storyteller since the world began has staked his slender claim to the attention of his fellow men. Words which presage simply the old story of an artist coming of age. I wrote: "Once upon a time…."

And I felt as if the whole universe had given me a nudge!

In reading the passage we feel very strongly a kind of duality which pervades Durrell's work: we are pulled in the direction of the primitive by those four magical words and by the description of the artist as a mere story-teller, but we are also made aware of the modernity of the work; we are pulled in the direction of the sophisticated by the preoccupation of the passage with the art of story-telling. Like so many modern works, this is a portrait of the artist, a Künstler Roman, about a character in a book who is writing a book in which he is a character. And the shades of Proust and Gide, among others, hover between our eyes and the page. What is new in Durrell, however, is neither the primitive nor the sophisticated but his peculiar combination of the two. (p. 411)

[The "Alexandria Quartet"] is wild, exotic, romantic. Yet its main interest is not life, but art. It is really a little essay in esthetics, presented in the form of a dramatic scene. It reminds us of the moments in "Don Quixote" when there is a pause in the adventures of the Knight of the Mournful Countenance to allow for a literary discussion involving the Bachelor and the Curate or some passing stranger. And the resemblance is not a chance one. Cervantes' work was written as an anti-romance, and became, via Fielding and Smollett in English tradition, a major ancestor of a new literary form—the novel. Durrell's work, as the passage quoted above indicates, is an anti-novel in the same sense as Cervantes' work was an anti-romance. Both men were faced with a constricting literary tradition and revolted against it. (p. 412)

Durrell's revolt is not an isolated and magnificent gesture of defiance to an entrenched and flourishing literary tradition. The tradition he finds thin and constricting is the very one started by Cervantes—the tradition which begins as anti-romance and gradually insists on more and more scientific treatment of life: the empirical tradition which in its theoretical formulations calls itself first realism and finally naturalism…. Lawrence Durrell is the heir of Proust. For it is Proust who explodes the empirical notions of characterization so essential to realistic and naturalistic fiction, by demonstrating the artificiality of the real and the reality of the artificial. (p. 413)

The "Alexandria Quartet" is alive with mirrors. The prismatic facets of character glitter, unreconciled, in our imaginations. Appearance and reality are continually confused, and the line between life and art is continually blurred…. What we took for fact in one volume is exposed as false in another, and the exposé itself is proved incorrect in the third…. [For] Durrell fiction is a whirling prism reflected in a liquifying mirror…. [In "Justine"] Durrell attempts on the one hand to establish in the reader's mind his version of the new, Proustian esthetic, and on the other to blur the line between the real and the artificial in order to make it harder for the reader to begin applying his disbelief, even if he refuses to suspend it. Durrell seeks to confuse and bewilder the reader, to separate him from his habitual reliance on probability and verisimilitude, so as to offer him something better. Behold, he as much as tells you, you thought you could not walk without that crutch of realism. I tell you you can fly! And he nearly convinces us that we can. Using the modern esthetic of Proust, and a narrative technique which, with its multiple narrators and dislocations of time, seems also typically modern, Durrell takes us on a journey—a magic carpet ride not only through space but through time as well—a return to Alexandria. (pp. 415-16)

The "Ethiopica," richest and most elaborate of the Greek romances, stands very much in the same relation to the Homeric epics as Durrell's "Quartet" does to such great realistic novels of the nineteenth century as "Anna Karenina" and "Middlemarch." Both the epics and the great realistic novels present events as ordered by an omniscient narrator whose controlling mind not only shapes the events but colors them and comments on them. But in Heliodorus much of the narrative is conveyed to us directly by characters in the story. Furthermore, Heliodorus is not content simply to imitate the "Odyssey" and have one man narrate much of his own tale. In the "Ethiopica" we have as many narrators as in the "Alexandria Quartet." Indeed, one of the first stories we are told, a brief résumé of her life by the heroine, turns out to be a tissue of falsehoods designed to deceive her captors (and also the reader, who only afterwards learns the truth). In the hands of Heliodorus the romance is characterized by a multiplicity of narrators and tales within tales like a sequence of Chinese boxes; by a consequent dislocation of the time scheme, as the narrative moves backwards and forwards from its beginning …; and by a fondness for elaborate set pieces of a spectacular nature, involving such things as battles, rituals, necromancy, and celebrations.

The general resemblance of the "Alexandria Quartet" to the "Ethiopica" should be obvious. Some of the action of the ancient story even takes place on the shores of Durrell's beloved Lake Mareotis. But the point is not that the resemblance indicates any direct indebtedness; rather, it is that the two works are so similar in spirit. Durrell is not so much a descendant of Heliodorus as a reincarnation of him in the twentieth century. When Durrell speaks of his characters in an interview as "puppets," he reminds us not only of Thackeray's insistence on the artificiality of literature but also of the way in which Heliodorus manipulates his characters in a virtuoso display of sustained and integrated form. And form, for Durrell, is nearly everything…. [There] can be little doubt that the spirit which presides over the "Alexandria Quartet" is Proust's. And in turning to Proust Durrell brought himself into contact with a tradition of sustained form which was fundamentally opposed to the "slice of life" technique characteristic of empirically oriented mimetic fiction. The tradition of elaborate form in fiction leads back through the romances of the seventeenth century to the European rediscovery of Heliodorus himself in the sixteenth, whose influence on the subsequent development of prose fiction can hardly be exaggerated.

Of course, the purely melodramatic side of the Greek romance has been greatly modified in its modern reincarnation. In the old romances the characters were mainly highly stylized extremes of virtue and vice, and the plot was always subservient to the decorum of poetic justice. In the "Alexandria Quartet" the characters and the prevailing ethos are as elaborate and complicated as the plot and the setting. The thinness of characterization which, for the modern reader, relegates the "Ethiopica" to that secondary level of works whose influence surpasses their interest would be inexcusable in a modern work of serious intent. But even richness of characterization, which we think of as a peculiarly modern attribute of fiction, has its roots in Alexandria. The Alexandrians and their followers, especially Ovid and the Greek romancers, introduced the arts of rhetoric into narrative literature. The combination of psychology and rhetoric, which characterizes the crucial monologue of Medea in the Third Book of the "Argonautica," works through Dido and the Ovidian lovers into the mainstream of narrative literature…. The novel may indeed be dying, but we need not fear for the future. Durrell and others are leading us in a renaissance of romance. (pp. 418-20)

Robert Scholes, "Return to Alexandria: Lawrence Durrell and Western Narrative Tradition," in Virginia Quarterly Review (copyright, 1964, by the Virginia Quarterly Review, The University of Virginia), Vol. 40, No. 3 (Summer 1964), pp. 411-20.

The general appreciation of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet has been blurred by discussions about the validity of the author's preface to Balthazar, the second volume of the quartet:

Modern literature offers us no Unities, so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition….

So much attention has been focused upon Durrell's handling of the concepts of relativity and indeterminacy, upon his belief in the impossibility of communication, that his work has come to be regarded as solipsist. Yet in The Alexandria Quartet, key concepts such as the mutability of truth, the endless intercalation of realities, the disintegration of "the old stable ego of character", are counterbalanced by a search for transcendental values, by a belief in some basic (universal) harmony [, as he says in Justine]:

Somewhere in the heart of experience there is an order and a coherence which we might surprise if we were attentive enough, loving enough, or patient enough.

The fact that the first three volumes of the quartet depict the gradual dissolution of everything stable might easily lead to the assumption that this dissolution is the very subject of the novels. Some critics have therefore been baffled by the unexpected change of emphasis in Clea, a novel that is purely affirmative in tone, and in which, by a curious shift of the plot, the tensions created in Justine, Balthazar and Mountolive, are resolved. This development, however, is not only justified, but almost imperative: the negatives through which the first three novels move constitute a preparatory stage necessary to the final discovery of a new, transcendental set of values, of "the order and coherence in the heart of experience". "The Negative Path" towards enlightenment, insight, and knowledge, is exemplified throughout the quartet. (pp. 134-35)

From one point of view The Alexandria Quartet is a Bildungsroman. Darley, the narrator in Justine, Balthazar and Clea, wants to become a writer. At the end of Clea his artistic faculties find full expression, and the tetralogy is, amongst other things, a record of this development. Art is one of the main themes in the quartet, and since, according to Durrell, "The theme of art is the theme of life itself", Darley's artistic development and his psychological growth are indissolubly linked…. Darley's record of the past is an attempt at establishing his own identity…. [We] should bear in mind that Durrell, who has made a thorough study of psychoanalytical theories, distinguishes between the "ego" and the "self". The former denotes the conscious part of man's personality, whereas the term "self" refers to the totality of the psyche and embraces both conscious and unconscious. Darley's search for his "proper self" is therefore an attempt at integrating his personality…. As the unconscious contents of the psyche can never be drawn up to the conscious level, Darley must needs confine himself to his "ego": he must understand all that consciousness yields in order to grasp the impact of the unknowable behind it.

The ego is the articulate part of the psyche, the field that has been domesticated by language; hence, in the last resort, it is a classifying entity, a "catalogue raisonné" which tends to impose a rationally conceived pattern upon life. As Darley penetrates further into his experiences in Alexandria, he is tormented by a sense of insufficiency, by a growing awareness of the relativity of the "reality" consciousness perceives. Even so-called absolutes are ambivalent; all motives, emotions, thoughts, judgments are relative and open to question. What troubles Darley most of all is the fact that human personality turns out to be basically unstable, volatile and merely potential, a "huge, disorganized and shapeless society of lusts and impulses"…. This leads him to deny the possibility of attaining some unequivocal "truth": all our observations, interpretations, conclusions, are distorted by the limitations of our vision. There is no stable, tangible "reality" to be deduced from our observations, from "the classifications of the ego," for everything is perpetually moving, changing, and forever unattainable…. Darley's self-realization will not be complete until the end of Clea, and the atmosphere of utter uncertainty and ambiguity which permeates Justine and Balthazar, is essential to his further development. In this respect there is a very appropriate and illuminating phrase in Durrell's poem "Alexandria":

          As for me I now move
          Through many negatives to what I am.
                                  (pp. 135-37)

It is interesting to note that, in Clea, Darley has become a "Knowbody" in the sense that he has reached a high degree of self-knowledge (though, in accordance with the pun, he has also become a "No-body" through the utter disorientation described in Justine and Balthazar). If we assume that "poetic illumination" now changes him into a "Sunbody", the phenomena depicted in [Jung's] The Integration of the Personality and [in] Clea appear to be strikingly alike. (pp. 138-39)

It should be noted that Darley reaches "poetic illumination" partly through his love for Clea. In The Alexandria Quartet, the sexual act is of the utmost significance, because the awakening of man to the mysterious substance behind ordinary experience, his growing awareness of the ubiquity and wholeness of life itself, is kindled by "the coupling which unites the male and female ends of knowledge merely—a cloud of unknowing". This is another paradox: heightened consciousness—always in the sense of awareness of the mystery—can be attained only through the partly, or even mainly "unconscious" knowledge disclosed by the sexual experience…. If we keep in mind that Durrell, in accordance with psychoanalytical theory, has tried to restore "the double-sexed Eros of Plato", it should be clear why love plays an essential part in Darley's search for his "proper self". (p. 140)

Obviously there is no place for [logic] in The Alexandria Quartet, where the intercalation of realities, the multiplicity of aspects and truths, are constantly emphasized and focused upon…. Since there is no single, "objective" kind of reality, the true meaning of life will always elude our most painstaking observations, mocking every effort to domesticate it in a system. For this reason, any kind of inquiry which aims at explaining, at classifying instead of understanding is rejected in the quartet. This also explains why the Cabal, and hermetic science in general, are held in high esteem throughout the four novels. (p. 141)

The experience of the "poetic illumination" is not recorded at once: if the artist (or the mystic) wants to recapture it in words, he must re-work it, and words are seldom adequate to the task. As, in The Alexandria Quartet, the "poetic illumination" becomes a sine qua non of art, it is not surprising that the novels abound in passages where language is said to be inadequate, incomplete and distorting. Moreover, in trying to reveal in language what remains forever "beyond capture", Durrell becomes the prey of his own words. Darley is in the same predicament…. (p. 142)

Ratiocination is replaced by "the act of dreaming". In The Alexandria Quartet, however, this rather vague and misleading term merges into the more specific "imagination", which is an active, creative kind of dreaming. Unlike logic, the imagination does not rely upon … verifiability or objectivity, but upon subjective significance. As it is not confined within the boundaries of a formal, objectified system, the imagination is "free" in that it is able to play upon itself, upon the mind, upon the dictates of reason and objectivity. In fact, Durrell has been more rational than he wants us to believe, for he has carried the importance of the imagination in the context of the quartet to its logical extreme: if everything is perpetually moving, changing, and indeterminate, "To see is to imagine". The next step leads him to assert that to imagine is to make reality. Life remains a disconnected tangle of potentialities until man's creative imagination shapes it into coherence and significance [, as expressed in Justine]:

Life, the raw material, is only lived in potentia until the artist deploys it in his work.

Since an artist is usually endowed with a highly developed imagination, he comes to be regarded as the centre from which life and reality radiate, as the "creator" of life in the most literal sense of the term. Already in The Black Book the protagonist had spoken about "the people and their makers—the artists", and in The Alexandria Quartet, Purse-warden is never tired of proclaiming that "it is only the artist who can make things really happen".

All art is a product of the imagination. If we want to grasp its full significance in the quartet, we must consider "poetic illumination", art and imagination, within the same transcendental (non-logical) field of experience. They are equally important, they have the same roots, they are interdependent, yet it is possible to describe their mutual relations in the following way:

  1. Only by a perfecting of the imagination (which yields a non-assertive kind of knowledge), can "poetic illumination" be attained.
  2. The illumination itself is an apprehension which can neither be analysed nor recorded; it takes place on an intermediate level between conscious and unconscious, being and not-being, hence it is "religious" in the purest sense of the term.
  3. Art, or—to be more specific—poetry, is an attempt at translating the reality disclosed by this experience into language, yet the stress is never on the latter, but again on the impalpable reality "beyond", at which the words only try to hint….

[The artist's] proper field of information is the field of mysticism and religion. His object is to reach a region where he is in contact with the Inarticulate. Durrell has labelled this region "The Heraldic Universe", the transcendental, archetypal or mythical substratum behind reality. He calls it the "plus-side" of reality…. In The Alexandria Quartet, Pursewarden is at first the only one who seems to have some knowledge of the Heraldic world of poetry (Darley will succeed him only at the end of Clea)…. Pursewarden's saying [in Justine] that "God's real and subtle nature must be clear of distinctions: a glass of spring-water, tasteless, odourless, merely refreshing", comes very near to the account of a genuine "mystical" experience quoted by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience…. God is thus regarded as the original vital force in man—the unconscious if you like—which is neither living nor inanimate, neither time-bound nor eternal, but beyond everything. And this is yet another reason why self-exploration, self-knowledge are so essential in the quartet…. Writing—or any other kind of art—is a "technique of self-pursuit", hence it is never an end in itself. Once the stage of self-realisation has been reached, art ceases to be important, or, to put it more accurately, art is carried into another field of operation: it becomes an inherent attribute of living instead of a separate category…. The struggle for artistic achievement coincides with a struggle for wholeness as a human being. Every man is therefore potentially an artist, and many passages in The Alexandria Quartet emphasize this idea. (pp. 143-46)

Real life, as we have seen, lies on the other side of "the poetic illumination". The world beyond, or Durrell's "Heraldic Universe", is an archetypal world. I have chosen the word archetypal because it seems to me a fairly accurate indication of the ambiguous state half-way between time and eternity. An archetype, being a collective unconscious substratum, is not eternal in that it does not stretch from infinite past to infinite future, but it is timeless because, as an a priori content of the human mind, it stands above time. It is therefore "static" (cf. Durrell's description of the Heraldic Universe, where the adjective static is also used). If we keep in mind that myth is one of the actualizations of the archetype in the collective consciousness, it will be clear why Lawrence Durrell has seized upon the significance of myth. Throughout the four novels, individual characters are represented as if they were "exemplars" rather than "identities"…. Alexandria is viewed as a mythical city, and the characters in the novels are part of its mythology; they are "exemplars", hence symbols….

Durrell calls "The Heraldic Universe" "that territory of experience in which the symbol exists". His distinction between symbols on the one hand, and emblems and badges on the other, is partly based on the fact that the symbol does not try to describe, partly also on the peculiar "neither-nor" character of the symbol. (p. 146)

The act of creation is … essentially "joy"; the discovery of a timeless and pure substance behind reality is an affirmation of life as it is, in its wholeness. In The Alexandria Quartet, art becomes a purifying medium; by hinting at the unalterable, "the still, tranquil, motionless, odourless, tasteless plenum" which underlies the apparent formlessness of life, it makes the formlessness of life itself meaningful and worth-while. (p. 147)

Roland Decancq, "What Lies Beyond?" in Revue des Langues Vivantes, Vol. 36, No. 2, 1968, pp. 135-50.

In "Sicilian Carousel" [Durrell] gives us a picture of most of the historic sites of Sicily, an account of Sicilian history, some knowledge of what it's like to take a group tour of the island—it's rushed—and some inspiring passages about writers—Aeschylus, Pirandello, Sekilianos—whom the island brings to his mind.

While Durrell tours Sicily he often thinks back to Greece, where he lived for some 10 years. Sites on Sicily remind him of ideas he has about Greek history; a thought about an ancient Sicilian writer takes him back to a reverie about a modern Greek writer he has known. Durrell seems like a man preoccupied with his past. Though he is on Sicily, he seems distant from it, and his most vivid passages are those about his own memories and dreams. He writes as though he were going through the motions of the kind of travel writing he has done better before.

Durrell's other travel writing—his many articles, his poetry, his three island books and his "Alexandria Quartet" all are marked by a mystical passion for union with place and by a belief that landscape, as powerful as a god or a parent, shapes character: "We are the children of our landscape," he writes in the "Quartet." "I can think of no better identification."

In "Prospero's Cell," his book about Corfu, where he lived for four years, Durrell wrote a shimmering, ecstatic prose poem to an island he felt led him to discover himself…. In "Reflections on a Marine Venus," about Rhodes, where he lived for two years after the war, he drew a compassionate portrait of an island whose "spirit" taught him how "to outlive the savage noise of wars and change." "Bitter Lemons," his book about Cyprus, where he lived for two years, traced the drama of Cypriot nationalism, as it came to dominate his otherwise idyllic island life.

In these books, as in his many poems about place, there is a sense of being possessed, of identification—the image of a man seeking to surrender to landscapes he finds nourishing to his psyche and his art. "Writers each seem to have a personal landscape of the heart," Durrell writes, "which beckons them."

But in "Sicilian Carousel" this "landscape of the heart" is missing, perhaps because Durrell's mission is not one of identifying or of being nourished, but rather of touring. His companions are not other island residents—as in his other books—but tourists, who, after two weeks, will scatter and go home.

So Sicily never comes alive for the reader, unlike Corfu, Rhodes, Cyprus, Egypt and Greece. And Durrell's characters, in quest of some kind of spiritual realization, here are stereotyped tourists, mainly out for a good time. (pp. 7, 18)

One of the sadder aspects of looking back at the past work of Lawrence Durrell, which spans some 40 years, is that in the 16 years since he completed the "Quartet," he has written nothing that evokes the importance of its themes or the originality of its art. (In fact, much of his work after the "Quartet" seems to be more strained and obscure than anything he wrote before it.) The "Quartet" concluded with the triumph of a writer taking possession of his power to create and to love; that is, coming into his full maturity. Ironically Durrell's work has not yielded the triumph promised by the "Quartet." Perhaps the reason has to do with Durrell's celebrity; for, after the "Quartet," in his novels, "Tunc" and "Nunquam" he often seemed to be writing almost in imitation of himself. Or the reason may have to do with the fact that Durrell is now 65. There is about his most recent work a sense of weariness, of melancholy, as if he had not yet found the expression for the experiences of oncoming old age….

[At the end of "Sicilian Carousel," Durrell] takes off for a short trip on his own which, as if he were unknowingly revealing the advantages of a travel writer going off on his own, evokes some of his most intriguing passages. Though he realizes that Sicily's "variegated history and variety of landscapes simply overwhelms the traveller who has not set aside at least three months to deal with it," this realization makes him feel only "rather irresponsible and lighthearted." He leaves Sicily to write a book about it. From a writer who has given us profound explorations of love and creativity, as well as intensely poetic evocations of place, it should have been better. (p. 18)

Joan Rodman Goulianos, "Guided Tour," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 4, 1977, pp. 7, 18.

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Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 6)