Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 4)
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...
(The entire section is 4,383 words.)