Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 1)
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 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….
(The entire section is 4,635 words.)