Lawrence Durrell Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 8)

Start Your Free Trial

Download Lawrence Durrell Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4,423 words.)