Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4635
Durrell, Lawrence 1912–
An Indian-born British writer, now living in France, Durrell is a novelist, poet, essayist, and translator. His most famous work is "The Alexandria Quartet." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-10.)
Lawrence Durrell writes prose like a man seeking the maximum sensuous enjoyment from each word. It is a poet's failing—when he writes prose. Some years ago, when Randall Jarrell published a novel, he is supposed to have exclaimed, "I didn't know it was this easy!" It isn't, and even so gifted and intelligent a poet as Mr. Durrell, when he writes novels, never gets near enough to life to know what he has left out….
"Soft concussion" is just the phrase for my experience of Mr. Durrell's novels. There are no sharp edges, no painful passions, no real losses, no hurts. People hop in and out of beds as if sex did nothing but induce gentle reflections on life; ancient Englishmen in the Egyptian police force become transvestites and are beaten to death by English sailors; homosexual dwarfs have hatpins thrust through their brains and are discovered at the end of a ball under a mound of coats on a bed; Leila's other son, Narouz, kills a hostile employee with a bull whip and goes hunting with his brother carrying the victim's head in his hunting bag; the suave and handsome ambassador is beaten and robbed by a crowd of child prostitutes. But everything is reduced to a vaguely diffused sensuousness of word and sensations; even the honest pangs of sex are muffled in the jasmine warmth and flowers of Alexandria, in words that represent the poet's effort to reach that absolute which is inherent in language itself. What is wrong with this in a novel is that it does not carry anything forward; it does not even help to create an atmosphere from which an action can follow. It is writing that exists merely to call attention to Mr. Durrell's exceptional literary sensibility, and that it does—to such a point that reading the novels is as cozy an experience as one can have these days. You know that Mr. Durrell will jog pleasantly along, more in touch with his own delightful imagination than with any of the notorious stinks, festers, sores, and dungheaps of Egypt.
This coziness makes a particular appeal to the kind of literary imagination that wants the exotic brought down to its own size. Mr. Durrell is a classical scholar, a man enraptured with all the ancient and poetic associations of the city, and the appeal his novels make just now is entirely understandable, even if he is writing a travelogue of Alexandria in Technicolor. Above everything else, Mr. Durrell has a way of suggesting that our grip on the external world is now so uncertain that all truth simply becomes relative to the observer. This indeed is the theme of his novels….
Mr. Durrell seems to me fundamentally a writer concerned with pleasing his own imagination, not with making deeper contact with the world through his imagination, as Proust and Joyce did. As Henry Thoreau, the Romantic incarnate, put it, "I went far enough to please my imagination." Mr. Durrell, who like Kipling was born in India, who is saturated in the warmth and freedom of Mediterranean culture, who has written with such beauty of Cyprus as well as of Egypt, seems to me the latest example of that blind adoration of the East that has been the staple of so many disinguished British writers from Kipling and Doughty to T. E. Lawrence…. But I cannot take these novels seriously; the...
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greatest impression they leave on me is what a good time Mr. Durrell had in writing them.
Alfred Kazin, "Lawrence Durrell's Rosy-Finger'd Egypt" (1959), in his Contemporaries (© 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961 by Alfred Kazin; reprinted by permission of Atlantic-Little, Brown & Co.), Atlantic-Little, Brown, 1962, pp. 188-92.
Surely more than any of his younger contemporaries, Lawrence Durrell has returned to the literary conceptions of major novelists like Conrad, Joyce, and Lawrence in England and Gide and Proust in France….
Durrell's aim [in the Quartet] is to achieve a fugue-like simultaneity, so that at each moment of the novel all of Alexandria is in movement, everchanging and developing. In an analogy from music, the first three novels are polyphonically developed themes in a huge symphony in which the fourth novel acts as a lengthy recapitulation. The writer, consequently, can interweave his themes and play off, so to speak, one sound against the other….
Durrell's explicit theme is an examination of modern love in its various aspects, a theme that in itself generates curiosity when it derives from an Englishman. Clearly following D. H. Lawrence in his attempt to "free" the English novel, Durrell suggests that sexual love—almost the only kind that exists for him—is a form of knowledge, literally as well as etymologically…. For Durrell, however, the feeling of love partakes too readily of the sensuality of Alexandria, and therefore without real love the novels lack adequate tension….
The reader faced by the ambitious size of Durrell's project is foolish to quibble over the discrepancies, irrelevancies, and melodramatic statements found throughout the Quartet. All the excesses and faults—most of which concern his inadequate development of character—are, finally, secondary matters once one accepts what Durrell is doing. In a work that attempts as much as the Quartet does, one should ask only big questions: where does the work fit as literature? does the form suggest new terms which will affect the novel in the future? does Durrell, as he indicates, set up a "crisis in the form"? Finally, is all the experimenting worth the substance that results? The questions themselves establish as significant the work under scrutiny. English novels of the last thirty years, often exciting, often surprising, often major, have rarely afforded this kind of query, not, in fact, since Ulysses or some of Conrad's and Lawrence's work. In brief, one asks if Durrell has created a major work for his generation, or merely a pretentious melodrama riddled with pompous techniques….
[The] Alexandria Quartet shows that the novel as a quasi-experimental form does not have to be in decline or even weak. The verbal exuberance that accompanies the intricacies of form demonstrates that language, like the material it conveys, can be protean and many-colored…. If one reads Durrell on the level of total accomplishment, the Alexandria Quartet will return him to the days when the novel was large, experimental, and daring enough to break outside a relatively small world. Durrell conveys to us the adventure of the novel, gives us the expectancy we should feel when we pick up a work of fiction. He transports us to a world he has created, and without making us feel guilty, innocent, edified, or even virtuous, he fills in his stylized world with people who experience various shades of emotion, who suffer pain and anguish and joy; and this he does without snobbish anti-intellectualism, although, ultimately, his point is that "attention" not reason will save. The novel is indeed healthy when there remains such an answer to realism. Even if character is often sacrificed to romance, one is grateful for fiction that comes in the grand style.
Frederick R. Karl, "Lawrence Durrell: Physical and Metaphysical Love," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.: © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 40-61.
Lawrence Durrell is a man of infinite variety. But he's a man of marble constancy as well. The forms in which he has worked embrace the whole range of literary possibility. Yet the themes he has dealt with—even the images which carry those themes—display a simple kind of shining directness, mark out a clear path for his developing but remarkably consistent point of view. He is consequently one of our most protean writers and at the same time one of our most predictable ones. (p. 3)
His variety is, in fact, so spectacular that one suspects that, consciously or unconsciously, somewhere along the line Durrell must have toyed with the idea of being literature's Leonardo—the master of each literary form. So far as I know he has not as yet written the libretto of an opera—but give him time.
Give him time enough—and space—and you will have set up the space-time continuum that, from very early in his career until the present moment, operates for Durrell as a kind of subterranean metaphor—a metaphor for a literary structure that does not significantly change from work to work and on which he has draped all of the superficial variety of poems, novels, essays, plays. (pp. 4-5)
The writing of [The Black Book] was in an odd way both a consequence of spiritual agony and a labor of love. For Durrell had no expectation that any publisher would risk bringing out a book so savage in spirit and so uncompromising in language. It was, in this sense at least, the purest work Durrell was ever to do; it was a demonstration, principally for Lawrence Durrell's private benefit, that he had the potential of becoming a major writer. (p. 12)
Durrell's image of reality as it is presented in his Key [to Modern British Poetry] can be reduced, it seems to me, to two not altogether dissimilar landscapes—both of them founded on relativity principles—and to an implicit pattern behind both of them that may be a good deal more like an absolute.
The first of the two landscapes is, of course, the external one developed by Einstein and popularized by men like Eddington and Whitehead, a landscape oddly like Baudelaire's symbolist forest, where people watch trees watching people…. The new physics, Durrell points out, "is founded upon the theory that we cannot observe the course of nature without disturbing it." Perhaps the most significant consequence of this theory is that it altogether changes the nature of knowledge. For when we can never observe without to some extent corrupting the thing observed, we soon find we have to discard the notion of verifiable truth. Truth, if it is to be ascertained at all, becomes available only through a kind of intuition: we imagine what things might be like if we weren't around observing; we do our best to get rid of the observer's perspective!… The literary consequence of this notion, Durrell realizes, is momentous; for the relativity theory involves a reorientation for the modern writer not only toward the materials of his art but also toward himself, his audience, his world. It shows up, Durrell contends, both in the places in which it might be expected to appear—the plots, say, of Joyce and Virginia Woolf, the characterization of Gide, the poetic structure of Eliot's "Gerontion"—and also in the places we are least likely to look for it: in symbol, in metaphor, in incidental imagery, even in sentence structure.
Durrell works through a good deal of modern literature to document his point. But for us the most obvious demonstration is in Durrell himself, who rather tentatively in The Black Book, and then with great assurance in The Alexandria Quartet, creates a dense arrangement of constantly discovering, constantly qualifying observers, each of whom distorts the scene he observes and is in turn distorted by it. There is really no single "true" view of any of the events offered. Only with total knowledge, Durrell darkly suggests, could we approach such a view…. There are therefore always in Durrell's fiction viewpoints casually mentioned but left tantalizingly unexplored, undigested "data" which, Durrell makes clear, could significantly change the "reality" of what we though we had finally grasped were we fully to assimilate that data. (pp. 18-20)
Durrell's characters are perpetually setting off for adventures in mountains (White Eagles), in caves (The Labyrinth), and, most frequently of all, in mirrors (everywhere in Durrell, but most conspicuously in The Alexandria Quartet).
Seeking reality in the relativity of the external and the internal worlds, many of these adventures come to physical or spiritual grief. Once in a while, however, by a never very carefully explained mystical leap, Durrell's characters find themselves suddenly swept beyond the limits of internal and external landscapes. Suddenly they confront a cosmology, the "heraldic universe," utterly unlike anything in the egodominated universe of modern physics or modern psychology; for this strange territory is trustworthy, not "relative," intangible, unalterable, perpetually valid…. This theme of the quest, as Eve Zarin has brilliantly demonstrated, is at the core of most of Durrell's serious work. (pp. 28-30)
If tenderness—an "utterly merciless" tenderness rescued from sentimentality by the distancing power of irony—is the primary lesson in the "emotional education" the questing central characters experience, they learn their lesson most frequently from painters and from writers, also wounded—and some of them healed—in their efforts to transmit a vision of the elemental processes, those processes that constitute the very design of life. (pp. 41-2)
Sometimes the machinery of Durrell's huge novel creaks…. Yet in spite of occasional gasps and grunts, the machinery does finally present us a landscape essentially believable, a believable landscape on which believable characters, mired in time, struggle—not only with each other but as well with themselves—toward a tender acceptance of things as they are. (pp. 45-6)
John Unterecker, in his Lawrence Durrell ("Columbia Essays on Modern Writers," No. 6), Columbia University Press, 1964.
[For] Durrell life exists only in order to be transformed into art and has significance only when the transformation has been wrought. The ostensible subject of the Alexandria Quartet is love: the true subject is art, and one particular theory of art at that, the Symbolist. It is here that the real resemblance to Joyce and Proust occurs.
It is the penalty of Durrell's ambition that these names must be invoked when his work is discussed; it is his misfortune that he cannot stand comparison with them. There are minor faults which are often, one feels, the consequence of too rapid writing and of inadequate revision, lapses into an essay, florid romanticism, the exotic in Technicolor…. But the fundamental weakness seems to be intimately connected with its main source of strength, which is its loving evocation of Alexandria. This is superb: we are brought face to face with the living mystery of a specific place; and the characters are steeped through and through with the atmosphere and being of the fabulous city of many races and religions, with all its attributes of beauty, antiquity, decadence and perversity.
The effect of this, however, is very severely to limit the characters. They possess only Alexandrian attributes; they are inhabitants of a fairyland that seems, the more one examines it, the less related to life as commonly experienced anywhere in the world, irrespective of geography, religion or race…. For the most part, the characters exist on the surface only. They suffer from the lack of depth that comes from a lack of ascertainable roots.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen, published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 286-87.
Durrellian subjectivity … is not stream-of-consciousness. It is set down in the autobiographical mode of Proust. Where Proust used only the memory of a single narrator, telling his story out of a personal past, Durrell offers a composite of memories of a whole group of characters. His novel imitates the method of biography as of autobiography.
All this presents no serious problem to a discussion of the formal aspects of his work. Durrell himself, however, has complicated discussion by using pseudoscientific terms. He speaks of his novel's "relativity" and of its being a "time-space soup-mix"; the recipe of his novel is, he says, "three sides of space and one of time…. In a word, the "soup-mix" of "three and one" falls into one kind of arrangement for the space-time formula, and another for the subjective-objective formula…. Durrell's subjective-objective method is intrinsic to the work; his time-space theorizing is extrinsic….
What Durrell achieves that is different from his predecessors is to make us aware of the presence of mirrors all around us, those actually on walls in rooms and barbershops, and those which we carry in our registering consciousness…. It is Durrell's achievement that with all his bravura and his love for grand scenes and honeyed phrases, he has made us feel a time and a place and a group: and in the mid-century he has consolidated within his novels the subjective modes of the earlier decades. Where the nouveau roman has carried fragmentation still further, Durrell has kept his mirrors whole—and along the way devised many ingenious mirror-tricks.
Leon Edel, in his The Modern Psychological Novel, Grosset & Dunlap—Universal Library, 1964 (© 1964 by Leon Edel; reprinted by permission of William Morris Agency, Inc.), pp. 185-91.
The universe to which [Lawrence] Durrell belongs is a heraldic one, not a rational or logical one. His vision is an artist's, yet he is a professional writer, one who gives his readers value for their money; and he has often called attention to the fact that he writes for a living. He defies categories. (p. 18)
Durrell takes his poetry seriously, and it may well be his critical experiment in posterity's final evaluation of his work. Some of his poems are almost obscure. Many are lightly touched with humor or satire, but they are always tightly wound. The rhyme, if any, is approximate, obvious or conventional. The rhythmic and stanza patterns vary, play on expectation, exploit the familiar, or parody the trite. (p. 33)
The Alexandria Quartet is an experiment in truth telling in which truth is always a function of many voices and of many points of view. It is a lavish and eloquent bearing-witness by many, many witnesses to the many truths in curved, multi-dimensional spacetime…. Ask a working oracle questions and it answers in enigmas. Ask The Alexandria Quartet for its essence and its equivocates, but perhaps the answers it gives are dusty only to those too hot after certainty. The Quartet is about the city, about love, about death, and about truth. It is a trick done with words—and mirrors. It is as esoteric and complex as a Tarot deck. If you like, it is work to divine by. (pp. 96-7)
If Durrell-as-novelist is an ironist, then the statements about the difficulty of conveying truth must be taken as part of the conveying. They are additional devices—and since the wrong approach to the Beatitudes may be to take them seriously, the wrong approach to Durrell's novel may be to believe the comments on the work in the work except as they call attention to the paradox that what they say cannot be done is being done precisely as they say it cannot be done. The saying of the undoableness furthers the doing of it, making the work an honest deception, an admitted lie, in which all narrators are unreliable—including the novelist himself. All is paradox. (p. 109)
In The Alexandria Quartet the reader has been exalted, mortified, and educated by turns. After a certain time, varying for each reader, he no longer responds at the highest intensity levels. He has been worn down. There is no reason for assuming that such an effect was not planned by the novelist, for it all adds up. The total work may emerge as a kind of joke on the joke, in which the reader, trained to expect irony, is fooled by the intermittent and erratic seriousness and solemnity (of the last volume, for example) into accepting the work literally. The usual reaction has been to call the non-ironic parts inferior. The effect may, however, be predlctable and artful. After so many devices, the only new device that will move the reader is a decrease in devices—or something as simple as old-fashioned melodrama. (p. 111)
Certainly Durrell's claim that he based his four-decker novel on the relativity proposition in order to give it the unities that modern literature has lacked is no mere empty boast. Evidence within the work shows definite responses to the relativity proposition as understood in descriptive and metaphorical terms. These responses are seen mainly in increases in techniques that make for various points of view rather than for the invention of new techniques per se. The manipulating of time sequences and the references to time—and related imagery—are also increased significantly with the result that patterns within the work are complicated, truth is elusive, perhaps always ironically and paradoxically stated. Linearity of all kinds—except the basic linearity of word after word, page after page typical of all literature—is thrown in doubt. Multiplicity rules. Characters tend to be seen as events which occur at the focus of forces rather than as stable personalities. There is an abundance of overlapping and interweaving. Durrell's claim that his work is not "Proustian or Joycean [in] method" seems justified. The increase in confusion and uncertainty, so that the truth, for example, about Justine is never to be really known, is Durrell's experiment. It is the recognition of the fact, today's fact, that facts are relations, not fixed items. Indeterminacy and relativity have urged the novel toward a kind of self-conscious decadence in its awareness of the impossibility of doing what it is doing. (pp. 111-12)
As a critic, Durrell is both perceptive and honest; but his few critical pieces interpret what he is interested in and what he is doing rather than reveal new truths. His concept of "heraldic reality" is a personal insight, and as such it illuminates his own work more than the writings of others. As a writer of travel articles and books, he has improved the medium but not transcended it. As a humorist, he has been called "pure Wodehouse." As a dramatist, he is confessedly provisional—and even his admirers sometimes see him "merely as a poet" who loves the theater. (p. 145)
Durrell's early novels can be variously placed as something-like-Henry Miller, something-like-Aldous Huxley, something-like-Norman Douglas…. But The Alexandria Quartet is pleasantly recalcitrant. If the Durrell of the Quartet is placed as primarily a traditonal poet writing perfervid prose rather than as a serious, contemporary, experimental novelist, then the Quartet tends to become an exotic epic, with touches of magical lyricism at the best, and eczematic patches of purple writing at the worst. Furthermore, one must remember that Durrell is often an ironist. As his Petronius in Acte says: "There is only ironic truth, no other variety." Extreme caution is necessary lest a contemporary Satyricon be misplaced as a romantic historical novel or as a pretentious experiment. (pp. 145-46)
Durrell's own claims for his work have been modest enough to disarm most hostility, and the main point at issue concerns the extent to which the Quartet is truly experimental…. Certainly Durrell has not seriously tried to top either Joyce's or Proust's deep research into the springs of memory. Nor has he probably seen himself as the only or ultimate geographer of space-time. Durrell's prose or poetry, even when the two are confounded (delightfully confounded, some think), always makes sense. Syntactically—from word to word—it is traditional writing. It exploits the reader's curiosity but does not betray the reader's expectations. Durrell does his share of tricks with words, but they are the honest ones of the trade. Durrell is a professional writer. (p. 148)
John A. Weigel, in his Lawrence Durrell, Twayne, 1965.
Durrell's best writing, especially the Quartet and the Key, reveal that he is conscious heir of both Ford-Conrad Impressionism and Proust-Joyce stream of consciousness, and perhaps the most significant contemporary practitioner of experimentalism in the novel. Each of the books of the Quartet, like the sections of The Sound and the Fury, is an impressionistic rendering of an over-lapping complex of events…. Durrell's narrative focus, from Justine to Clea, embodies a design of subtle complexity: first, Darley's totally involved view; second, Balthazar's somewhat removed reaction to the first; third, a totally detached "objective" account; and, fourth, a reconsideration several years removed from the fact. If Durrell truly intended to reveal what in actuality happened, he has gone about it in a peculiar way; the interpretations are increasingly disinterested and certain of facts, yet, simultaneously and consequently, decreasingly able to speak significantly of the events and to animate them.
Alan Warren Friedman, "A 'Key' to Lawrence Durrell," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1967 (© 1967 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 31-42.
Durrell calls the [Alexandria Quartet] a 'four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition', and such a description, to which references to 'space-time continuums' have been added, is both frightening and misleading. Durrell is evidently interested in creating a new kind of fiction, and, like Huxley in Point Counter Point, he finds it necessary to include a novelist among his characters, so that we shall be reminded occasionally what kind of novel is being written…. Each novel is meaningless on its own, we seem to be told, as length or breadth or height or time (which needs space to measure) is meaningless outside of a mathematics book. Justine explains Balthazar on one level, while Clea explains it on another, deeper, level; Mountolive merely keeps time moving. It does not seem to me that there is anything really original in this technique; in an ordinary novel—dignified by none of Durrell's theorizing—we make similar discoveries about people and events, the final discovery coming at the end….
It is a prose-poetry whose rhythms tend to flaccidity and which sometimes melts into a romantic wash a little too close to the old lending-library sadistic-sentimental exotic escapism beloved of the dreaming shop-girl. For all that, there are passages which are powerful and masterly—sharply and exactly observant. But the final impression is of something shimmering in a rather old-fashioned fin de siècle way, suggesting languor and satiety after elaborate self-indulgence. The decadence smells of stale incense.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 96-7.
Lawrence Durrell's Tunc lacks some of the bravura and glamor of the Alexandria Quartet; but there is a parallel virtuosity in structure and language, a similar grotesque humor, a like feeling for atmosphere (especially that of Athens and of Istanbul), the same practiced focus on the quirks of personality, and the same flair for the memorable scene. Tunc has less sustained artifice, less conscious manipulation of time and point of view, and fewer monolithic characters than its predecessors. For better or worse, it is less intense and meretricious than the earlier books, but it is their worthy successor. Like them, it is more notable for its development of a central situation and idea than for philosophical originality as such. Tunc asks this question: given a certain set of facts, what can we then draw from them?
Frederick P. W. McDowell, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 11, No. 3, 1970 (© 1970 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), pp. 414-15.
One of Durrell's favorite subjects is creative imagination. He illustrates it, not by the lunatic, the lover, and the poet, but by the Magus, the lover, and the artist. These categories are by no means mutually exclusive, and the Magus may be magician or scientist. The Quartet has four volumes, "four letters, four faces" that spell out love. Except for Mountolive and Justine, almost all of the major characters in the Quartet are both artists and lovers. Indeed, for Durrell the only valid modes of knowing are art and love. But since magic and science also participate in creation, alchemy, though usually neglected by Durrell's critics, is at least metaphorically vital.
Ann Gossman, "Love's Alchemy in the Alexandria Quartet," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIII, No. 2, 1971, pp. 83-96.