Lawrence Durrell Durrell, Lawrence (George) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lawrence (George) Durrell 1912–

(Also wrote under the pseudonyms Charles Norden and Gaffer Peeslake) British novelist, poet, playwright, short story writer, travel writer, translator, editor, and critic.

Durrell is one of the most acclaimed novelists of the twentieth century. Continuing in the tradition of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, he has experimented with the structure of the novel while also probing the human psyche. His work is infused with observations on the nature of reality and sexuality, based in part on the ideas of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. Durrell's rich, sensual style of writing is highly praised, especially for his vivid description of landscape, which evokes the spirit of a place and reflects it in the characters. In his novel Justine, for example, the exotic qualities of Alexandria, Egypt, are seen in the title character.

Born in India to Anglo-Irish parents, Durrell was sent away from the Himalayan region of his childhood at age eleven for schooling in England. He never felt comfortable there and eventually abandoned England for the Greek island of Corfu. He has lived and worked in various other areas within the Mediterranean world and now lives in southern France.

Durrell's early novels, of which The Black Book (1938) is deemed the most accomplished, rebelled against the sterility of English society, which he termed "the English death." Although his early novels met with little success, he developed through them the techniques which won him acclaim and recognition with The Alexandria Quartet (1957–1960). Composed of Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, the tetralogy offers several perspectives on events which involve essentially the same characters. The protagonist Darley, a novelist like many of Durrell's protagonists, attempts through art to rework reality in order to find patterns of significance and meaning. The Alexandria Quartet ranks among the major novelistic achievements of the twentieth century.

Durrell had originally planned to be a poet, but his voluminous output of verse has met with mixed critical reaction. His poetry blends the sensuousness of the Mediterranean world with the traditional form found in much British poetry in an attempt, in his words, to "match passion and clarity." Durrell's Collected Poems 1931–1974 (1980) has prompted further study of his poetry.

Recent work by Durrell includes the three published novels of his proposed "quincunx": Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness (1975), Livia, or Buried Alive (1978), and Constance, or Solitary Practices (1983). Set in southern France following the outbreak of World War II and echoing the successful strategy of The Alexandria Quartet, the novels and characters of The Avignon Quintet will be interrelated.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 8, 13; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15.)

Mary Warnock

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[A Smile in the Mind's Eye] must have been fun to write. Can it also be said to be fun to read? It is supposed to be for the smile of the title is partly the sign of an amused and detached attitude to life, while the 'mind's eye' suggests not only the images of memory, but the unity of mind and body, without which there can be no pleasure or enjoyment. It is a very short book, like the essence of a diary, kept with acute observation, and covering three weekends. It describes the swift flowering of two friendships, one with a Chinese Taoist, the other, chronologically earlier, with a French-woman, interested in Nietzsche. The link is a series of related recollections, themselves part of a lifelong but sporadic reflection on Tao.

Lawrence Durrell was born in India and was fascinated early by various forms of Buddhism. But he is not a religious man so much as an old-fashioned Thinker. Of course to write about a form of thought whose point is to be ineffable makes for difficulties. Like Kierkegaard, and indeed like Nietzsche himself, he hates theories, systems and the pretensions of science; and what emerges from these pages is more feeling than exact thought. This is why the quasi-diary form is so appropriate. Diaries are veridical, not systematic. They deal in physical details, not theories; and above all they distil atmosphere.

Jolan Chang, to whom most of the book is devoted, is a Chinese scholar who had corresponded with Durrell and who invited himself to stay in Provence. His weekend visit is so described that we can experience the heightened awareness, the concentration on the moment, the acute noticing and enjoying that seem to be the essence of Tao. Chang does not emerge as a very...

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Jay L. Halio

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Livia: Or Buried Alive is the second in a "quincunx" of novels that [Durrell] began with Monsieur several years ago and that promises to become a tour de force rivaling The Alexandria Quartet. Concerned about fiction, particularly the novel, in a post-Einsteinian, post-Freudian age, Durrell makes a novelist a major character in his novels, someone writing about other characters who know what he is doing and who reflect, as the novelist does, upon what he has written. At times all this becomes a bit confusing, but the device provides several more or less simultaneous angles of vision, or rather different dimensions, in both time and space, for the action or events of the novels.

The novels may also provide different angles of vision, or dimensions of experience, for each other. Like Monsieur, Livia opens with the death of a close friend but proceeds almost at once to a conversation between Blanford, the novelist and narrator in this book, and Robin Sutcliffe, the novelist in Monsieur, which both men claim to have written and have given different titles (Sutcliffe's is The Prince of Darkness). Their talk quickly gets around to discussion of two principal female characters: Pia, Sutcliffe's wife in Monsieur, whom Blanford has taken, in part, as a model for Livia, his wife in this novel, after making certain changes in her character and representation. They argue considerably about these...

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Alan Jenkins

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Durrell's "ideas" are in some ways the most dubious thing about him. They are seldom original or persuasive; they suggest, rather, a combination of half-digested gobbets of wisdom heavily seasoned with personal idiosyncrasy, or just plain whimsy. The same recipe provides most of the fare in A Smile in the Mind's Eye, a short account of Durrell's re-education in the disciplines of the Tao through the effect of two close personal relationships. One of these was with a Chinese scholar resident in the West who brought the manuscript of his work on the Taoist philosophy of love and sex for Durrell to read and criticize before publication; the other was a love-affair with the girl Durrell names as Vega. The book is full of memorable anecdotes—such as that of the two men spending Socratic evenings, after sharing the cooking and eating of a meal combining French and vegetarian Chinese cuisines ("the two greatest in the world"), discussing the prolonging of life through refinement and control of the male orgasm (fewer ejaculations, more years of life, runs the argument in crude form). There are some amazing records of personal achievement, both in the sexual takes and in the consumption of wine (which Durrell, under Chang's guidance, brings down to a manageable-sounding level). But for all this, the seductiveness of Durrell's evocation of the ravishing, mysterious Vega and the spruce, lively-minded and admirably self-disciplined Chang is not finally enough to persuade us of anything. Occasionally there is the excitement of a man wrestling with an overwhelming question or attaining some personal revelation, but the overall impression is of ideas being toyed with imaginatively, and being enjoyed for their suggestiveness and potency, rather than of an argument fully teased out.

This is of a piece with much of Durrell's work in prose, which confers an air of extraordinary significance on the mythical or imaginary ramifications of a place, a moment in history, a personage; yet we never feel that we come to understand in any depth what that significance is. This picking up and nourishing of potent connotations is Durrell's substitute (any really interesting writer must have one) for "method", yet it is constantly threatening to become a mere vice of style, one which allows his heady confections to take on an air of profundity, of serious purpose behind the surface dazzle. But just as Durrell could be accused of trivializing the material—Alchemy to Zen, sexual mysticism or Eleusinan mysteries—he picks up from ancient poetic traditions and religious disciplines, his "poetic" effects are often easily won, his fictions sustained by symbols, as he himself puts it with beguiling insight, "somewhat crudely objectivized". We may or may not be able to come to terms with the symbols … but Durrell is wrong when he says that these "have to be so"—meaning crudely done—since novels are "written to be read."

A "receptiveness to ideas", as a previous reviewer...

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Peter Firchow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Some great novelists have also been great or at least very good poets. Scott, Hardy, Meredith, D. H. Lawrence spring immediately to mind. Other novelists, like Dickens or E. M. Forster, scarcely attempted to write poetry at all—that is, if we discount the often intensely purple passages in their prose. Finally, a few novelists have tried to write poetry but have succeeded only incompletely or intermittently. It is to this last category that Lawrence Durrell must be assigned.

Durrell's reputation as a novelist, based chiefly on the Alexandria Quartet, remains firm, though it is beginning to weaken a little at the edges. Durrell's reputation as a poet, on the other hand, is virtually...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I have sometimes thought that Durrell is the last of the Georgian poets, that it may be a short step from Shropshire to Rhodes or Vaumort. His is no "weekend ruralism," but has always been a kind of delicate passion for the "natural." Most readers think of him as either a satirist or a love poet. He is actually to one side of either category. The droll imperatives of sex and conscience animate his poems—England at the end of its tether, tried to the Mediterranean pleasure principle. Durrell has wanted to write a poetry of the earth, and of the earthy. He is most at home in the Plaka, on the docks, at a brothel, his eye cocked for the bas-fonds d'une vile, by turns typical and grotesque and mythic. Even his...

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Anatole Broyard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Is "The Alexandria Quartet" as good as we all thought it was when we first read it more than 20 years ago? I wondered about this when I saw that Lawrence Durrell has a new novel, "Constance," coming out. Since nothing he published after the "Quartet" seemed to be in the same class, it occurred to me that we may have overestimated the books for which he is famous.

So I went back to the "Quartet"—like novelists, we have to keep revising ourselves—and read "Justine," the first volume. I want to say immediately that it struck me as even better this time. It is, among other things, one of the great city novels, reminding us of Dickens's London, Balzac's Paris, Joyce's Dublin. Such books have a quality...

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Francis King

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Laurence Durrell has used the word 'quincunx' to describe his plan of five novels, of which [Constance] is the third. 'Quincunx' means the arrangement of five objects in such a way that four of them are at the corners of a square or rectangle and one is in the centre; but whether Constance, one of its two predecessors (Monsieur and Livia) or one of its projected successors is to be regarded as the central work, is not clear. At all events, a prior reading of the first two volumes is not likely to be of much help in making sense of the plot of Constance or vice versa.

The first 156 pages of the 389 pages of this novel are, frankly, so dreadful that they might be...

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Stephen Bann

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Among the English novelists who] have continually raised the stakes of a purely artistic ambition, Lawrence Durrell holds a secure and honourable place. The dedication of Constance, or Solitary Practices to 'Anais' and 'Henry' (and indeed to 'Joey') indicates the cosmopolitan range of his affiliations. Its last chapter, 'The City's Fall', evokes a dialogue with historiography which has become ever more explicit. The great French historian, Fernand Braudel, cited Durrell in the provocative conclusion to his study of the Mediterranean world, illustrating his concept of the longue durée with Durrell's claim that the Greek fisherman of today enables us to understand Odysseus. The last chapter of...

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Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Lawrence Durrell refers to his current project of five interconnected novels—of which Constance is the third and latest—as a "quincunx." He might more aptly call it the Avignon Quintet. The fact that he has avoided doing so, and thereby forestalled associations with the Alexandria Quartet, seems significant.

The Alexandria Quartet is arguably his finest work, and certainly his most popular. With its labyrinthine twists of plot, its unexpected facets catching light from constantly changing angles, it has remained fresh and original for over twenty years. Who wouldn't long to repeat such a feat? The Avignon books, however, rely for their surprises upon trickery. It's the reader who is...

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Alberto Manguel

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Constance or Solitary Practices is a treasury of observations, the third in a planned series of five novels, set one inside the other like a set of Russian dolls. Each can be read independently, but the faithful reader who has followed the game step by step is rewarded by new-born images reflected in the other mirror-novels, each vaster in scope than the previous one, each acting on the others like a dream within a dream. Constance is the log-book of a poet.

Our times have not been kind to poets who venture into prose. Writing about Durrell in an essay precariously called "The Novel Today" (in The Pelican Guide to English Literature), Gilbert Phelps notes his dislike of him. He...

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