Lawrence Durrell

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Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 4)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4383

Durrell, Lawrence 1912–

Durrell, an Indian-born English novelist, poet, and travel book writer, has lived in France since 1957. His sensuous and poetic fiction, particularly The Alexandria Quartet, has reminded critics of work by De Quincey, Conrad, and Nabokov. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

[Durrell's] style is a mosaic. Each word is set in its precise and luminous place. Touch by touch, Durrell builds his array of sensuous, rare expressions into patterns of imagery and tactile suggestion so subtle and convoluted that the experience of reading becomes one of total sensual apprehension…. No one else writing in English today has quite the same commitment to the light and music of language.

But this does not mean that this jeweled and coruscated style springs full-armed from Durrell's personal gift. He stands in a firm tradition of baroque prose…. Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may strike one as mannered and precious. But the objection arises in part from our impoverished sensibility….

Durrell's style is more than a formal instrument; it carries the heart of his meaning. Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea are founded on the axiom that the ultimate truths of conduct and the world cannot be penetrated by force of reason. Where truth can be apprehended at all, in brief spells of total illumination, the process of insight is one of total sensuous absorption. In a conceit which is the very crux of his argument, Durrell instructs us that the soul enters truth as man enters woman, in a possession at once sexual and spiritual. Again, this is a view which has existed before Durrell. It plays a vital role in oriental and medieval mysticism; it is at work in Dante and in the erotic metaphors of the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets. Moreover, it is crucial in the theories of Gnosticism and the citadel of Gnosticism was Alexandria. And it is here that the example of D. H. Lawrence is relevant. The presence of Lawrence is felt through the four novels and one of the main characters is in personal touch with him. Like Lawrence, Durrell believes in a wisdom of the senses truer and subtler than that of the predatory mind. Both men see in the act of love the crucial affirmation of human identity and the only true bridge for the soul. Durrell's personages pursue each other in an elaborate cross-weaving of sexual encounter, for only thus can the ghostliness of the human spirit be given the substance of life….

The long, glittering arabesques of adjectives with which Durrell surrounds objects are not only exercises in verbal acrobatics. They are successive assaults on the inner mystery of things, attempts, often exasperated and histrionic, to trap reality inside a mesh of precise words. Being equipped with a superb apparatus of sensual receptivity, Durrell is aware of the myriad movements of light, scent, and sound…. Durrell's Alexandria … is one of the true monuments in the architecture of imagination. It compares in manifold coherence with the Paris of Proust and the Dublin of Joyce.

The technique of accumulated nuance, the painter returning constantly to the same scene in the changes of the light, applies not only to the portrayal of the city but also the entire plot….

Durrell must explore the ambiguities and covertness of sensual lust precisely because he believes that it is only in the lambent or desperate contact of the flesh that we can gain access to the truth of life. In his treatment, moreover, there is little of prurience or the snigger of the eroticist. Love in Durrell has an ashen taste…. As in so many dandies able to experience the fullness of sensuous life, there is in Durrell a touch of the Puritan.

But although its range of material and emotion is great, the Alexandria Quartet leaves one, at the last, with a suspicion of triviality. There lies the real problem for the critic. Why should there be at the center of this superbly contrived fable of life an undeniable hollowness? There are, I think, two reasons.

Durrell dramatizes a wide spectrum of sensibility; but his cast of characters is of an exceedingly special kind. All these fascinating and exotic beings share a high degree of nervous intelligence; they articulate their emotions with lyric power and unfailing subtlety; they live life at a constant pitch of awareness, more searching and vulnerable than that of ordinary men. They are cut from the same fragile and luminous stone and so they reflect each other like mirrors disposed in cunning perspectives….

The angle of vision, moreover, is rigorously private. The gusts of social and political life blow across the scene, but they are not accorded much importance…. Now no one would be so absurd as to demand from him a novel of "social consciousness." But by severing his imagined world from the intrusions of political and social fact he makes it even narrower and more fragile than it need be…. The legend of Lady Chatterley is as narrow and private as that of Darley and Melissa; but Lady Chatterley's Lover is a profoundly intelligent study of class relations.

Because of its enclosedness and utter privacy, the Alexandria Quartet is more convincing in its details than in its broad design…. It is not so much the main plot which sticks in one's memory, as it is the digressions and minor episodes…. As in medieval illuminations, the fringe is often brighter than the center.

But there is also a particular failure. Clea marks a drastic falling-off. It is a brittle, self-conscious gloss on the three preceding volumes….

Yet even when we make such reservations, there can be little question of the fascination of Durrell's novel. Anyone caring about the energies of English prose and the forms of prose fiction will have to come to grips with this strange, irritating work. We are too near the fact to say what place the Alexandria Quartet will hold in future estimates of twentieth-century English literature. I would guess that it will stand somewhere above the range of Green Mansions, with the less complete but more central performance of Malcolm Lowry. That Durrell will have his place is almost certain.

George Steiner, "Lawrence Durrell and the Baroque Novel" (1960), in his Language and Silence: Essays on Language, Literature and the Inhuman (copyright © 1967 by George Steiner; reprinted by permission of Atheneum Publishers, U.S.A.), Atheneum, 1967, pp. 280-87.

Critics who have ventured to revisit and review Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet in the five years since its completion have been remarkably hesitant, however strongly (or reservedly) they profess their admiration, to make any claims for its longevity or future acceptance. The best of them did go so far once as to risk putting it some-where between Green Mansions and Wuthering Heights, which seems to me hedging one's bet so safely as not to be betting at all; there is a tolerably vast region between. The oddity is that most of them have liked it, have found great wonders to sing of in this four-storied monument to the imagination. They have also found, again almost universally, defects and deficiencies—a certain lack of seriousness, a thinness of "content"—but very few seemed to doom it altogether for these. The French, in fact, who consider Durrell more theirs than ours, were delighted at the escape it offered from their own increasingly, distressingly overcerebral fiction….

The Durrellian Imagination is a creative organ of awesome fertility: its equal for power and inventiveness has rarely been seen since Dickens. It can charge a single word or phrase or image into stunning surreality; it can capture all Alexandria with a play of random notes…. Like the heroes of Dickens novels, the title-characters of the Quartet—even that Zionist sphinx, the near-mythical Justine—tend to pale somewhat, to elude one on rereading. But again like Dickens, the minor characters—Scobie of course, De Capo, Melissa, Memlik Pasha, Pombal, Leila, the Virtuous Samira—Narouz!—are the surest signs of their author's imaginative powers, and destined to at least some kind of immortality….

Dickens, like Durrell, had a multitude of "selves" he felt forced to push forward, a multitude of voices: high-comic, low-comic, ironic, sentimental, suspenseful, reformist. The sentimental-serious self was forever being tripped up by the ironic-intrusive, and he finally gave in in Bleak House and divided himself in two. With a century of narrative experimentation behind him, Durrell can more comfortably split his intentions among a dozen personae—though essentially, perhaps, only three: Darley, the romanticist; Scobie, the comic; and Pursewarden, the serious, cynical critic. Behind them, as with Dickens, there is a confusion of intention that keeps the Quartet from ever cohering into a single, memorable experience; a confusion that allows each reading to be a sequence of varying kinds of experience of undiminished imaginative intensity—but that leaves us with nothing solid to hold onto in between.

David Littlejohn, "The Permanence of Durrell" (1965), in his Interruptions (copyright © 1970 by David Littlejohn; reprinted by permission of Grossman Publishers), Grossman, 1970, pp. 82-90.

[The Ikons] shows no great advance in Durrell's poetic manner or matter, but it is, like his earlier poems, controlled and classically cool, perceptive and alive with imaginative vision. The poems are like ikons, small and exquisite, worthy of meditation for they are numinous and meaningful. Durrell's "The Alexandria Quartet" remains the towering work of the fifties. These poems, like his verse plays "An Irish Faustus" and "Acte," are small but worthy additions to the varied body of work of which that great novel is the center.

Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Summer, 1967), p. cxi.

Durrell is not an inventor of new poetic concepts…. He is content, like an Elizabethan poet, like Shakespeare in his sonnets, with perennial topics, the beauty of the world, its transience, its danger, the triumph of time, the battle of love and art against time. For him, as for the Elizabethans whom he loves, the originality of the poet lies not in the discovery of new topics, new moods, but in ingenuity, in invention, in what the Elizabethans called 'device', in handling the old ones. (p. 55)

[For] all its patches of the cruel, the horrible, the macabre, for all its maimings and deaths, its transformations and reductions, The Alexandria Quartet is not a tragic novel like Anna Karenina, nor an epical one, like War and Peace; it is lyrical romantic comedy in which the working-through of the life-force, the It, is celebrated in its very absurdity. Durrell has a gross, schoolboyish, but very hearty appetite for life. Life can be very humiliating, it tends to put one in one's place, but only the mortally sick, the broken, or incurable egoists (like Rochefoucauld, in Durrell's poem about him) reject it. Love, like art, like death, like power-games, is a means by which the It or the Life-Force (Shaw's phrase) works itself out; nothing is a final consummation, nothing is an end-stop. But the working out leaves in our mouths not only the taste of grapes or of wine but the taste of iron, a tingling and dangerous sadness. And the wild laughter that echoes through The Alexandria Quartet, Pursewarden's laughter, is, as Darley says, a reversed glove: tenderness turned inside out. (pp. 147-48)

Durrell's gifts as a writer are those of a lyrical and sympathetic comedian, with an occasional taste, but not a dominating one, for the frightening and the grotesque. His gifts as a master of language are for bravura, for rich excess, though he can write when he wants to with a plain elegance, as in many pages of Mountolive. In his deep self, he is a quietist and almost a mystic. Bubbling over though he is with ideas, one does not have to accept the ideas behind The Alexandria Quartet to enjoy the book—to accept them, that is, other than as elements in a composition. His personality is in a sense everything in his books and yet it is a remarkably elusive one, what he himself calls an 'ingenuous mask'. He is a great conjurer…. Durrell is a near-mystic, or a near-mage, who has to 'rejoice that all things are'. He has to see evil as a dark and puzzling aspect of a cosmic unity which ultimately has to be accepted as good, or as beyond good and evil. Nevertheless, in the realm of charity, as of the spirit, for all his dallyings with darkness, he strikes me as a more compassionate man than some of the critics who dismiss him as immoral, amoral, a mere belated aesthetic fantasist. Alas, the terror of life, which he sometimes represents so frighteningly, is no more a fantasy than life's promise, its delight, its painful power of growth and of rebirth. He is a serious, though never a solemn writer. (pp. 162-63)

G. S. Fraser, in his Lawrence Durrell: A Critical Study (copyright © 1968 by G. S. Fraser; reprinted by permission of the publishers, E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.), Dutton, 1968.

The "Einsteinian" concept that every moment contains in itself all time seems to be at the foundation of Durrell's application to literature of the space-time continuum in what he calls his "relativity poem": so Pursewarden [in the Alexandria Quartet] sees the "n-dimensional novel" as "a marriage of past and present with the flying multiplicity of the future racing towards one."… The first three volumes of the Quartet are meant to represent the dimensions of space, while only the fourth is to be associated with time, in "a continuum, forsooth, embodying not a temps retrouvé but a temps délivré" …—a remark assuming differences between Durrell's and Proust's methods and goals much more sweeping than those that really exist. Some of Durrell's other analogical adaptations of the concept of "relativity" qualify even further our acceptance of his stress on the contradictions between his work and Proust's. "Our view of reality," says Pursewarden, "is conditioned by our position in space and time" …; from a notion of truth, then, kindred to that of Remembrance of Things Past—or Absalom, Absalom!—Durrell makes use of kindred narrative forms. Especially in Justine and Balthazar, Darley reconstructs a number of scenes out of his imagination, asking us, in effect, to suspend disbelief; and we do, proceeding with him under the assumption that, as Balthazar puts it, "to imagine is not necessarily to invent."… "At every moment in Time the possibilities are endless in their multiplicity": out of this attitude toward reality arises "the intercalation of fact and fancy" … that is the Alexandria Quartet.

Morris Beja, in his Epiphany in the Modern Novel, University of Washington Press, 1971, pp. 217-18.

The Alexandria Quartet is easily one of the best works of the past decade. The city it evokes is exotic, vibrant, sensual, and fluid. Its characters are diverse, many quite actually "round," most symbolically relevant. Its imagery is directed toward some splendid effects; its multiple and multileveled narrative toward creating memorable (in places notorious) scenes; its sweep is broad; and, above all, it is most ambitious in its attempt to get at one of the great archetypal literary and philosophical problems: namely, the nature of love and art and the erosion of both by time and change. In every way Lawrence Durrell has written the modern, rather than merely contemporary, novel.

The temptation, however, to read it in a certain way—as a technical and pyrotechnical tour de force—is still around even after ten years, and suggests something of its limitations. For the Quartet is not, despite a plethora of characters, a novel of character; it is not, despite a show of polymathic learning, a novel of ideas; it is not, for all the shadow play of narrative devices, a novel of complex plot or action…. Actually, the Quartet offers scant illumination on anything not part of its insulated hermetic world. Somewhere within the peripheries of its diffuse narratives and its lush atmosphere is, one suspects, a hub of meaning from which all else radiates. Yet again and again the center eludes us, and the sequence seems too specifically, too purely one of form, of art: a law unto itself, and a law still uncodified….

The game of the realist is that of turning "selected fictions" into realities, and of a writer like Durrell, of heightening such selected fictions as already exist.

It is this last that the Quartet sets out to do. Life, never art but eventually transformed into art, operates in a continuum of change. The question is really how (and if) both can be kept fluid, moving, kinetic during the process of transformation, without distorting either. For life, though it may be viewed from differing perspectives, cannot be reordered except through art. Retrospectively, the events of life are sequential, static, historic (Pursewarden's "causality") the interpretations of events (the motives involved with them, if one prefers) are alone open to reconstruction ("indeterminacy"). On such terms it seems as justifiable to write the same novel four different ways as to write four novels one way, i.e., to persist in "drowsily cutting along a dotted line." Art, therefore, not life, becomes the principal focus of the artist's changing vision.

To put it another way, Durrell is writing his own "pure novel," and in form (not necessarily spirit) the Quartet is closer to Gide's Counterfeiters, say, or Nabokov's Ada, than to either Remembrance of Things Past or Ulysses, both of which are rigidly structured….

The collective desires and the collective wishes of those who live in Alexandria and those who move through it are fused by Durrell in a symphonic-scientific metastasis of memory. Each section of the Quartet provides additional insight and material for turning disparate memories into a coherent pattern, for making the city "real."…

Alexandria is, at one extreme, the solid base of the novel, and, at the other, the most palpable symbol of change. Like Proust's Paris or Combray or Balbec, Alexandria is dormant, amorphous until quickened and shaped by imagination and memory, both differing functions of a single process that for Durrell is pretty much reserved for the artist. The reality of the city—what one might think of as its "life"—remains constant; the changes it undergoes are related to a widening artistic perception and the growth of the artist who is not only changing from day to day, but is part of a changing history and changing ethos. Alexandria mirrors the changes of those who live within its unravelling mystery, but with that reversal peculiar to all mirrors….

What Durrell is about here is at once the fusion and disintegration of space-time: rendering the continuing quality of life (its routine, regularity, boredom) just as one might imprison an image in a mirror, and at the same time projecting the subtle or wild fluctuations of events beyond those narrative and historic methods—the conventional modes of fiction—that demand a finite ending or cyclical return. Hence, concern with "relativity" (what has drawn much too much hullabaloo over the sequence) is more nominal than actual. Actually, the Quartet defines change by moving off fixed points on a space-time continuum to become (substantiating for the moment the distinction of Darley's) "a work of memory rather than imagination." Durrell does not (like Joyce or Proust) mythicize an event, but the memory of it in the mind of one artist or another. Change (interpreted by memory as well as mythicized and refined by it) can no longer be thought of as the only permanent thing, but as a shifting thing in itself. And these along with time and space, normally treated as novelistic motifs, supportive props for capturing life and art, are directed to capturing the movement of life and art….

[The] Quartet is not an artist's novel so much as the artists' novel. Those who have a hand in creating it—namely, Arnauti, Pursewarden, Darley, and Durrell himself—are to a greater or lesser degree concerned with this very interplay of memory and imagination as it relates to time…. The Quartet does not establish any hierarchy of artists; more precisely, one understands an ordering by way of continuity, for the act of creation is continuously and differently renewing itself. Thus of the many continuums in the sequence the principal one is this continuum of writers—a continuum that transforms a novel of passion, love, sadism, espionage, and good old grand guignol into a formal, logical, classically ordered work of wholeness. The square within the circle is the image for the Quartet….

To a large extent the Quartet is Darley: composed, collated, reshuffled, and woven by him. It is his "intercalating of realities," as he moves from Arnauti's subjective vision to Pursewarden's objective one, rejecting both but spinning out strands and threads along the way. But even the weaver may find himself woven. In Mountolive Darley is shuttled through the warp and woof of action over which he has little effect and no control. Mountolive is more or less a piece of straight nineteenth-century naturalism, but it is a tour de force in so far as the sequence is concerned. Durrell, now the "omniscient narrator" is calling the shot. He gains his own purchase on reality by showing how subject (Darley) can turn object; how the gothic patina, the baroque sensibilities, the esoterica, perversion, decadence, the permeating mythicness and mirrorness of Alexandria become (through a simple and relative shift of the artist's vision) mere bas reliefs on the greater frieze of history….

Moving in space freed from time must always appear to the critical and analytical intelligence more exciting than moving in time without space. For the artist, art cannot but appear more intimate and meaningful than life itself, even when art supposedly is life itself. For Darley, the artist who comes of age in the Quartet, and for Durrell, who implies that this is the way such genesis comes about, the supreme artistic vision is that fine recreation and balancing of all three things comprising time—history, imagination, memory; the supreme artist is one who can turn the common stuff of realities into triumphs of art; and the supreme art is that which all the while seeks to gain the "purchase on reality," to become ever stable while it is ever changing.

Robert K. Morris, "Lawrence Durrell—The 'Alexandria Quartet': Art and the Changing Vision," in his Continuance and Change: The Contemporary British Novel Sequence (copyright © 1972 by Southern Illinois University Press; reprinted by permission of Southern Illinois University Press), Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972, pp. 51-70.

Durrell's 'savage charcoal sketch of spiritual and sexual etiolation', as he calls [The Black Book] bears all the scars of having been written under great pressure. Everything in the writing has been geared up to such stylistic pitch that talent runs away with itself in the search to restore a lost quality of life. The Black Book seeks to infect the world with its despair, to insult with verbal blows 'The old Babylonian whore that is England, burnt out, gutted, with the disease melting her eyes in their sockets.' For all its mannerisms, black-plush decadence and aureate vocabulary, the book has power, a vivid oddness and extremity of perception, tilting at times towards the gross Gothic, or a social realism of despair….

The Black Book courts Modernism with the fidelity of a young writer of the 'thirties anxious not only to be in the swim, but from a pressure to slough off native restraints and reach his real writing self. In this last respect, the book is an exemplum.

Henry Miller praised Durrell's treatment of the theme in this way: The Black Book, he said, 'expanded the womb feeling until it includes the whole universe'. In the contemporary climate of accuracy and plainspeaking, Durrell's theme is likely to be thought hysterical. My own view is unsteady. Durrell's psychology might be as much part of his dandified despair as his style. Both the theme and the brilliantly inventive phrase-making have been taken too far, and seem a colossal, dithyrambic exaggeration, an over-compensation for the English Death, just as the way out—a ticket to the Med—is a personal solution, hardly a general truth. But whatever flaws it has, The Black Book is enthralling testimony, violently galvanized by fierce talent. Linguistically, it may be the most 'poetic' novel in the language, an ornate addition to the long line of works by melancholy, aggressive malcontents whose disease was England. It is certainly an important book, a missing link from the literature of the 'thirties—most of which Lawrence Lucifer despises—now belatedly restored to the canon.

Douglas Dunn, in London Magazine, June/July, 1973, p. 152.

The pleasure I derive from Lawrence Durrell's verse comes, I think, from my regarding it as a well-stocked arsenal of memorable phrases rather than as so many faultless poems. One can always rely on Mr Durrell for a phrase, but the perfectly rounded-out and cut-away poem is a rather different matter. Having said which, I should like to add that there are at least half a dozen pieces by him which I would count among the most accomplished poetry of the century. The present volume Vega and Other Poems does not add to this number; but is nevertheless not without its surprising and original compositions.

It is one of the charms of Mr Durrell that he can come up with a virtuoso piece which, at the same time, wears the air of improvisation….

Mr Durrell's damnable facility is no doubt his chief enemy. He can give to … slick impermanent thought so comely or modish a dress that to restrain him might seem to be the work of a literary spoilsport.

Derek Stanford, "Virtuoso Verse," in Books and Bookmen, July, 1973, p. 96.

During the 'sixties [Durrell's] poems grew plummier. Rich syllables oozed (an oystershell was a 'valve of nacre'). Sumptuous decay thickened the Mediterranean air. In Vega things have dried out. Death's print is on the sky—'a whitewashed moon with/Frost in the bulb'. Corpses are respected, envied almost, for their 'corpsely wise' look and their 'marvellous/Property of withoutness'…. The quivers of memory or regret that still disturb his quiet are finely subdued into images of submersion or burial…. Among the pleasures of the collection, and emblematic of it, are the lines on a dead cicada's husk, fleshless as mica.

John Carey, in London Magazine, August/September, 1973, p. 126.

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Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 13)


Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 6)