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.)
[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...
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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 attractive guest. He came with a huge manuscript which had to be read and discussed; he never, or hardly ever, went to bed. He was bossy about cooking, did not like drinking, but every now and then took a swig of milk from his very small hot-water bottle. He was also liable to give his host long and quizzical looks. But Durrell liked all this, and was anxious to learn from the manuscript, since it fitted in with the vague thoughts about life he had entertained since he was a young man. The theme was old age, or rather immortality, since extreme old age and immortality seemed hardly to be distinguished. (pp. 411-12)
To approach immortality one must live in harmony with all nature; and this harmony can be achieved only by the avoidance of waste. At the heart of this belief lies a theory about sex. Men must economise, sexually, and avoid the wanton expenditure of sperm. This imperative is not prudential, it is moral…. The orgasm must no longer be thought of as the point of sexual intercourse. Instead a new closeness, physical and psychological (for the two cannot be separated), must become the central concept.
It may be that this view is most likely to appeal to the middle-aged or the old; it may be more attractive to women than to men, for women's sexuality was not much discussed in Chang's manuscript (and in any case they were permitted to have as many orgasms as they liked). But there is no doubt that it has charm. In particular the moral requirement that sexual partners should actually notice one another, should pay deep attention to each other's minds and bodies, though unlikely immediately to eliminate the vulgarising of sex or its violence, is an ideal none the worse for being romantic. And in the paradise of Tao the very old need feel no shame at the decline of their sexual powers.
So it is a lovely picture. Tottering always on the brink of absurdity, carelessly written, scattered thickly with exclamation marks, Durrell's book is undoubtedly a nice read. He describes things as they are. He is, after all, a proper travel writer. The weather, the sky, the stars, the food, the birds are all present to us. On the whole, then, it is fun to read, and even fun to think about. (pp. 412-13)
Mary Warnock, "Chang's Visit" (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1980; reprinted by permission of Mary Warnock), in The Listener, Vol. 104, No. 2680, September 25, 1980, pp. 411-13.
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 differences between the two women and wives, noting their strengths and inadequacies as characters, and in the process informing the reader a great deal about themselves as husbands and novelists. Durrell claims that each of the novels in the quincunx will be independent of each other, though "roped together like climbers on a rockface," as Blanford, "squinting round the curves of futurity," describes them; they will be dependent upon each other "as echoes might be," not "laid end to end in serial order, like dominoes." But there are more than echoes that connect the first two novels; the first fifty pages of Livia lose, if not much of their intelligibility, then most of their point unless one has read Monsieur. It is one thing to recognize Lord Galen in Livia as an "echo" of Banquo, the wealthy banker of Monsieur; it is quite another to understand how Livia develops from Pia, Sylvie, and Sabine. Similarly, major locales resemble and differ from each other, as do incidents. If each novel enjoys its own integrity, as claimed, then each one also gains something from the other. Thus the whole group when it is finished may provide a means of viewing not only the same experience from different perspectives, but also different experiences that are related, especially the experiences of love (in all its varieties), death, and the nature of evil. At the same time, we may get further evidence of how a writer views his own work, even in the midst of writing it, particularly in the lively and sometimes whimsical style of an original and masterful novelist, which Durrell is. (pp. 231-32)
Jay L. Halio, "Fiction about Fiction" (copyright, 1981, by Jay L. Halio), in The Southern Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, January, 1981, pp. 225-34.∗
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 termed it, an atmosphere of weighty though vague symbolic meaning, and the imprecisions of a diffused synaesthetic excitement, are similarly the stock-in-trade of Durrell's poems, in which he himself finds, with some justice, "a very true and slender voice, rather Gautierish". There is little trace of Gautier's hard outlines [in Collected Poems 1931–1974], but we do find his rhythmical delicacy and firmness, and the linguistic verve which sustains a decorum of statement, of "things being said", yet is never without a whiff of "decadence", or a dandyish luxuriating in the way of saying.
We are usually aware of the shadow of the mythical and historical past falling heavily across Durrell's poetry; and we are always aware of the strong sense of place. But his gift for the echoing phrase is not always an effective substitute for structure. Faced with too much confectionery—such a profusion of the exotic, of the world of sun, sea, rock, olive and cypress, and of a language crammed with strangely generalized detail (the particulars dissolve in the heat-haze of a tremendous truth or in the jourissance of an irresistible conceit as often as they declare themselves in the hard-edged clarity of Aegean light), the appetite begins to cloy; we choke on such nutritious images. Behind the gorgeousness there is, perhaps, too much of a hint of picture-postcard or guide-book reality for unqualified assent…. The ambiguity of adjectives like "mythical" and "insoluble" is typical of Durrell's rather slapdash verbalism, his carelessness in spattering us with "effects", a word-drunkenness which is only intermittently telling or infectious….
Yet elsewhere we come upon such images as "islands … / Struck like soft gongs in the amazing blue"…. In these trouvailles we do see and feel the heart of Durrell's chosen world; as "the lucky in summer / (Tie) up their boats", they offer us a momentary and delicious anchorage in it, tempting us, as the Aegean itself does, "To enter April like swimmer …". Such temptations are everywhere in Durrell's poetry, and it seems pointless to argue that he might be a consistently better poet had he resisted them more often. They should not, anyway, blind us to the vein of strong and pure lyricism that is tapped by sparer rhythms and more astringent structures. When this happens both setting and feeling are more sharply evoked…. Beyond the evidence of Durrell's exquisite ear there is the hardness and brilliance of the landscapes his imagination has "grown into"—what Peter Levi called the "mineral quality" of his words.
There is more, too, than visual impressionism; an attempt to "Match passion and clarity", which Durrell in a late poem calls "that hopeless task" but which his best pieces continue to do into the 1960s and 1970s. The later poems here introduce a darker, elegaic tone into what is, most memorably and insistently, an art of celebration—of places, certainly, but also of people, most importantly women. Durrell wrote in "Logos" (1939) that
Woman Can be a wilderness enough for body To wander in: is a true human Genesis and exodus. A serious fate.
—and his poems chart the course of that "serious fate" with sharpness and poignancy; though to do it they have to get beyond his erotic sentimentality, and a Dali-esque surrealism of sinister, more or less sadistic associations. When Durrell tries to cross this half-hearted surrealism, all ellipses and outrageous juxtapositions, with the Elizabethans' violent metaphors, rapidity, roughness and density of texture, the result, though it yields the occasional bizarre or haunting line, has neither [immediacy nor graceful wit]…. But in lyrics such as "Chanel", "Episode",… or "Notebook", Durrell is with Robert Graves as one of the finest love-poets of this century.
Echoes of Graves, and more insistently of Eliot, Auden, Yeats, do not merely signal Durrell's debts; they have stiffened and strengthened a "slender" voice which started with the fragile spell of late-Romantic incantations and phrases such as "those frail and tenebrous hands", into an art somehow akin to that building of dry-stone walls which Durrell so heartily recommends in [his published correspondence with Richard Aldington, Literary Lifelines]. There may be little "technique" (it is not hard to feel that some poems have a tendency to run on when the impulse behind them is gone) yet the finished thing can seem strangely solid and durable. (p. 1398)
Alan Jenkins, "Anti-Home Thoughts from Abroad," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4104, November 27, 1981, pp. 1397-98.∗
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 nonexistent. In 1959 Durrell complained in an interview that "as for poetry, I haven't much reputation in England and can't even persuade my publishers to risk a Collected Poems." A year later his publishers took the risk; and they took it again in 1968 and now in 1980 [with Collected Poems 1931–1974]. But in terms of Durrell's reputation the difference these collections have made is negligible.
The reason, I think, for this critical neglect lies in the too rigorous application of Durrell's novelistic virtues to his poetry, where they turn into vices. His streak of bittersweet sentimentality, his love for exotica in places and people, his ironic pirouettes, his name-dropping, his portrayal of complex characters over the long haul—all these work in the novels as they do not work in the poetry. On the contrary, they irritate by raising expectations which they only rarely satisfy. So, for example, the "Elegy on the Closing of the French Brothels" (1947) arouses neither elegiac melancholy nor wicked joy—or anything really, other than the sad recollection of how differently a real poet like Villon handled similar situations.
Durrell's poetic is based on lines rather than on poems. He hopes for the "mantic line" in "Poggio" (1946) and "hunts" it in "Style" (1955). This poetic belongs to Dowson and to the early Yeats before the latter got it pounded out of him. This is why much of Durrell's poetry, despite the evident irony and sensuality and despite the frequent echoes of T. S. Eliot, has not yet entered the twentieth century. Too many poems end with punch lines, which is suitable for jokes but not for poetry. Too many poems originate—and end—in wordplays…. ["Song"] is ingenious, but it is ingenious in a way which leads nowhere. Ingenuity turns out to be not enough; it cannot take the place of inspiration.
Durrell's best verses are those which least conform to his own stated poetic, verses which do not pretend to be mantic and are content to be merely funny. His ballads of "Psychoanalysis" (1955), of "Kretschmer's Types" and of the "Oedipus Complex" (both 1960) cannot be termed serious poems; but then they are not bad poems either. They are, in fact, quite good light verse. W. H. Auden once observed that it is easier to be a good poet than to be a good novelist. The case of Lawrence Durrell does not seem to confirm this hypothesis. But then Auden was one of those poets who had never tried to write a novel.
Peter Firchow, in a review of "Collected Poems: 1931–1974," in World Literature Today (copyright 1982 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 56, No. 1, Winter, 1982, p. 117.
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 later poems—occasional, listless—attempt their rueful celebrations…. (p. 170)
"I want my total poetic work," he wrote in 1943, "to add up as a kind of tapestry of people, some real, some imaginary." In fact, it adds up as more [as shown in Collected Poems 1931–1974]. He has a novelist's avidity for characteristics: features …, pretensions, and remoteness. His imaginary speaking-masks ("Conon in Exile," "Eight Aspects of Melissa"), the subjects of his epistles ("Letter to Seferis the Greek"), and his portraits ("Eternal Contemporaries") are among his most subtle and convincing poems. But he has other, telling gifts. One is for the shaping pressure of narrative: "Cities, Plains and People" and "The Anecdotes" are especially fine examples of Durrell's ability to steer a true course through a swirl of details. At times, of course, he simply surrenders to local color—which he applies with a miniaturist's skill. But when he transcends the world's self-sufficiency, up toward the idea of places—a height rarely congenial to him—his poetry too rises to a pitch of sublimity. (p. 171)
This third edition of Durrell's Collected Poems, superseding those of 1960 and 1968, has been edited by … Canadian scholar James Brigham, who has added new poems (both early and late), appended to every poem dates of its various publications, and restored epigrams dropped from previous editions. Pronouncing himself pleased in a Preface, Durrell calls it "definitive and comprehensive." True, but I wish the same could be said of the poetry. Only the middle pages of this book speak memorably. Nearly all of Durrell's best poems were written in the 1940's. And even they have begun, alas, to curl around the edges. What is good in them is often a pastiche. One hears Eliot and Auden here, Graves and Cavafy there. That is no fault, but in the end one prefers the originals. Still, for that part of the world he has staked out, his poetry has always been, and will likely remain, a vibrant Guide Vert. (p. 172)
J. D. McClatchy, "All Told," in Poetry (© 1982 by The Modern Poetry Association; reprinted by permission of the Editor of Poetry), Vol. CXI, No. 3, June, 1982, pp. 170-77.∗
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 for which the Germans should have a word—something like "city-hunger," or "city-angst," a human tropism which makes us huddle or press together in the hope of intensifying our lives and crushing our loneliness. City-hunger is something like Freud's death instinct, an impatience to get to hell or purgatory, beyond the childish gratifications of the pleasure principle.
People are always saying—inaccurately—that something or another is like a dream, but Durrell's Alexandria is actually like the landscape of a dream. A hot, dry city, surrounded by desert, raked by winds and by contradictions. A relentless yet voluptuous city, beautiful and squalid, overcivilized and primitive. There comes a time in the life of a great city when the place and its people exist in a kind of collusion or symbiosis, when they are unimaginable without each other, and Durrell's Alexandria had reached that condition….
As I read … "Justine," it seemed to me that no city would ever again allow us to look at it in such an intimate way, with so much complicity. "Justine" leaves you feeling that from now on we might have to live without this haunting sense of the city as a moral landscape. And this would be, if it happened, rather like living without a conception of guilt and innocence.
And how very advanced Durrell was, in his treatment of love. While almost every modern writer behaves as if we'd come to understand love only with his particular generation, some of Durrell's sentences sound as if they were written yesterday….
Of course Durrell sometimes goes too far. Everyone in Alexandria is "exhausted," the canal is always "rotting." He keeps sniffing at death as if it were a bouquet and one suspects that he sees more colors and smells more odors than there actually are. But like Justine's sobs, his excesses have "a melodious density."…
A couple of years ago a critic named William Pritchard said of the characters in Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier" that they are storybook people, impossibly pure as types. The same charge might be brought against Durrell's characters in "The Alexandria Quartet"—that they are impossibly pure in their stylized corruption. But I think that's the kind of frustrated remark that a critic sometimes falls back on when an author has made him uneasy with characters who challenge his boundaries. In his own wordy, romantic way, Durrell too challenged our boundaries.
Anatole Broyard, "Alexandria Revisited," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 10, 1982, p. 39.
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 mistaken for self-parody. When the narrative begins, Constance, her sister Livia, her lover Sam, her brother Hilary and a friend Aubrey, author of Monsieur (it will be apparent that Durrell is up to the old experimental-novel game of shuffling together separate packs of 'real' and 'imaginary' characters), are staying together in Constance's manor-house near Avignon. The detonation of the war blows them in separate directions. Hilary and Sam join up and Sam eventually finds himself in Egypt. Aubrey, a conscientious objector, also finds himself there, as part of the entourage of one of those immensely rich, immensely powerful, immensely cultivated Egyptians who appear in Durrell's novels but whom I myself was mysteriously and tantalisingly unable to locate when living in Alexandria. Constance, a Freudian analyst, goes to work in a clinic in Switzerland. Livia, a character who bears some resemblance to Unity Mitford, assumes German nationality. At least three of these moves—those of Aubrey, Constance and Livia—would strain credulity in a realistic novel.
This whole section shows Durrell once again pampering his characters like some over-indulgent mother convinced that only the best is good enough for her children. When a woman goes mad, she is treated by Freud, no less. The Prince airily tells Aubrey before their departure for Egypt, 'You'll need some shark-skin dinner-jackets,' in the manner of a host telling a prospective guest, 'You'll need some shirts.' Subsequently, when Aubrey has arrived at his new home, 'palatial dispositions' enable him to occupy 'a veritable apartment with several separate but interconnecting bedrooms' and 'marvellous hieratic servants' present him with food 'on matchless plate.'… The yearning romanticism both of this imagined high life and of the style in which it is evoked reminded me of some novelist of the past, though I could not at first think whom. Then it came to me—Ouida!
Mr Durrell uses style in the manner of an aging woman using make-up. When he is discreet, the effect is enhancing; when he slaps it on, the effect is grotesque. Critics are always describing him as 'stylish' and whether they are using the epithet in its new sense of distinguished and elegant or in its old one of showy and pretentious, they have found the mot juste. When Durrell writes of 'soft, pornic clocks' (clearly a matter for Mrs Whitehouse to investigate) or of a 'ventripotent' banker, or when he compares a character to someone 'coming out of an epileptic "aura'" (the aura precedes an epileptic fit, it does not follow it), one can only squirm; but there are other passages of writing—for example one about Egyptian mummies in their sarcophagoi, worthy of Richard Burton—which make one want to cheer. (pp. 22-3)
Constance sets off, as a Red Cross official, from Switzerland to France, in the company of the Egyptian Prince. It is highly improbably that, even in this capacity, an Englishwoman would at that time have been admitted to the country, much less have been allowed to live in her former home; and it is even more improbable that she would have found her sister in the same town, nursing for the Germans. But once the god-like author has picked up these pieces from the chessboard and set them down where he wants them, there follow [many pages] of fiction of the highest quality. The sad humiliation of the defeated French and the brutal degradation of the conquering Germans are conveyed simply, strongly and compassionately. Typical of the French is the beautiful young woman who gives herself to the gestapo chief in return for favours for her dying husband, food for her children and the occasional reprieve of some member of the marquis. Typical of the Germans is the scholarly double-agent, in love with Livia, whom Hitler has despatched to locate the legendary treasure of the Knights Templar.
After the superb restraint of this section, the book once again descends into lurid vulgarity, like a train jumping points, running off the rails and crashing into a poster-paint factory. Constance, back in Geneva, starts a love-affair with a married Egyptian, who alternately penetrates her in a number of positions and produces statements like 'The poor little vagina must be likened to a little animal always eager for its nourishment', 'Sperm with no spiritual axis cannot feed the woman's ideas or her feelings' and 'The psyche is seriously ankylosed by the rigour of our moeurs.' That she does not jump out of bed and run, screaming, from the room is, presumably, intended as an indication of his prowess as a lover.
Half of this book is worthy of the Booker Prize, for which it has been listed. The other half is the sort of tosh that would give the Romantic Novelists Association a bad name. (p. 23)
Francis King, 'Stylishness," in The Spectator (© 1982 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 249, No. 8049, October 16, 1982, pp. 22-3.
[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 Constance reverts to this image of historical stasis. 'For the historian everything becomes history, there are no surprises, for it repeats itself eternally, of that he is sure.' As the German troops retire from Avignon in the closing stages of the Second World War, a stick of bombs falls upon the nearby asylum of Montfavet and liberates the insane—'The Crusaders of a new reality'. Filing out of the asylum into the festive town, they bear the names of the condemned Knights Templar of seven centuries before.
Several other indications point to Durrell's serious and intensive study, not only of the recent period in which the action of the novel is set, but also of the reverberating mythic structures which cast their patterns backwards and forwards upon the course of history…. Durrell utilises his filigree network of people and places (Avignon, Geneva, Egypt) for a kind of counter-strategy of offence against the paranoid potentate: he pits the Resistance against the Nazis, Cathars against Catholics, Templars against Monarchs and, above all, the ample, life-giving matrix of the Mediterranean against the sterile and destructive frenzy of invaders from the North.
Whether this very general gloss on Constance is plausible will be decided by the final appearance of the full 'quincunx' of which this is the third part. Three novels have now been published, and one assumes that there will be two more. But the primary sense of 'quincunx' is not, of course, the number five: it is the arrangement of points, or objects, in the same pattern as the black or white squares of a chessboard, or the 'five' of a pack of cards. Logically, this might imply that Constance, as the third element, has a central part to play, being the focal point through which all the remainder intercommunicate. However this may be, there can be no doubt that the reading of this superbly accomplished text offers the effect of an intricate and many-layered structure, whose overall laws of organisation can perhaps already be glimpsed through the imagination. The relations between male and female, between psychoanalysis and mystery cults, between fictional characters and their no less fictional authors—all have their special roles in structuring the symbolic space of Durrell's world. It is not the Treasure of the Templars (eagerly sought by some of the characters) which will be the promised reward of our reading. It is the no less imaginary 'quincunx' of trees which marks the site of the treasure: in other words, the structure of freely circulating symbols which both creates the fictional lure and negates its reality. (p. 23)
Stephen Bann, "Plots" (appears here by permission of the London Review of Books and the author), in London Review of Books, November 4 to November 17, 1982, pp. 22-3.∗
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 tricked, and readers are not a forgiving lot.
What we accepted in the first volume, Monsieur, was revealed toward its conclusion to be deception—not the interesting kind of deception practiced by true-to-life characters but the self-conscious, cerebral deception practiced by a writer pulling strings. It was as if, having created a successful illusion, Durrell could not resist showing how he'd done it. "Ha! Had you fooled, didn't I?" he says.
Livia, the second book, abandoned all pretense of verisimilitude and played throughout with questions of art versus reality. Were we intrigued by references to Pia in Monsieur? Well, there is no Pia. "It was cunning of you to make Pia a composite of Constance and Livia," a writer named Sutcliffe says in Livia. Sutcliffe is speaking to another writer, Blanford, who wrote a book called Monsieur. Blanford, by the way, has embarked upon a cluster of novels he refers to as a quincunx. This is something like those Quaker Oats boxes where the Quaker holds up an oats box that pictures a Quaker holding up an oats box, and so on into infinity.
After the intricate confusions of Livia—an annoying, tedious, and insulting book—it's a relief to find that Constance returns to a more accepted form of storytelling. Its story is that of Avignon at war—beginning with the last idyllic summer before the Nazi Occupation, ending with the ringing of the bells to signal the return of peace.
Writers still have a disconcerting way of turning up as characters here, meeting other writers whom they have invented and who are therefore characters once removed—the characters' characters, so to speak. The reader, like a slapped child, has trouble resuming his trustfulness and believing in what he's told. But it's a straightforward story, nonetheless. Constance, a loyal and kindhearted young woman, loses her new husband to a freak military accident, stays on in Avignon with the Red Cross during the Occupation, and combines her voice with a few others to deliver a sort of tone poem on the atmosphere in France during World War II. These voices give us a sense of the helplessness and despair experienced by the French in the presence of the Germans. They also bear chilling witness to the French complicity in the rounding up of Jews. (pp. 36-7)
There are flaws in Constance. One is the occasional lapse of ear. Words or sounds are repeated, as if the author had not thought of aural effect….
Even more of a problem is the point of one is first grateful for the luxurious variety, then baffled, finally discouraged. "Here in this peaceful decor had walked Goethe and Eckermann of whom [Fischer] had never heard," we are told. If we are solely with Fischer at this moment (and we are), looking through his eyes alone, how do we ourselves know there was a Goethe or an Eckermann?…
Is this to say that the novel fails? No, not completely; for it's hard to imagine any work of Durrell's that is not ringingly evocative, full of character and possibility. There is always a sense of richness in his writing. Textures, smells, and sights tumble forth; he is a master at setting the scene. Constance carries enough conviction so that when, toward the end of the war, a woman proposes a trip around the world and a man asks, "What world?" we nod in agreement. We can bear witness to the desolation, the waste and hopelessness we've so palpably experienced during the course of the story.
This is a troublesome and often exasperating book, but it is above all else a book with a wealth of atmosphere, and in spite of its pretensions that atmosphere comes through with resounding clarity. (p. 37)
Anne Tyler, "Avignon at War," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 187, No. 22, December 6, 1982, pp. 36-7.
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 compares him unfavourably to Joyce Cary and Anthony Powell, complains about the superficiality of Durrell's characters, denounces the lack of sympathy between them and the reader, and finally credits Durrell only with "energy" that Phelps sees as "almost entirely cerebral." He says nothing of Durrell's poetic vision, nothing about Durrell's intention to create a picture of emotions ("not snapshots of people"), nothing about Durrell's concern with a clear vision of time, eternity, sexual longing, and the artist's despair in his effort to portray all this. "It is not the meaning that we need," reads one of his poems written in the 1970s, "but sight." With The Alexandria Quartet Durrell achieved part of this purpose; with Monsieur, Livia, and now Constance his achievement becomes even more evident. More than Powell (because Durrell is a better man with words), more than Cary (because his scope is wider), Lawrence Durrell has set out to observe our recent past and capture its mood, its essence. (p. 11)
Durrell knows that a writer does not change the present; he changes the past. He educates our recollections, bullies the ghosts of things that were into giving accounts of themselves, organizes dates and events and places in what Durrell calls "the filing cabinet of his memory." Durrell the writer signposts the dusky regions gone by for us to revisit if not in safety, at least in a kind of order that the brain will grasp and the heart will bear.
Durrell's country is the world at war in the 1930s and '40s: Alexandria, Paris, Geneva, and especially Avignon, the city of Rabelais, whose two towers are called "He-who-speaks" and "He-who-grumbles." Through these ghostly cities—ghostly because Durrell describes them as they once were, in days gone by—move the passions and desires of men and women. Writers, Nazi politicians, women in love, spies whose knowledge of the Secret Service comes from the bad style (not the plot) of Sherlock Holmes stories, characters created by characters, are invoked to say their piece. The plot is complex, too intricate to summarize, and ultimately not essential.
The art of the novel and the erotic sciences are two related subjects with which almost all of these people are obsessed. There are wild theories about [women, Hitler, and sex. Constance] … mainly conveys a feeling of loneliness…. Solitary Practices (the subtitle) refers not only to the masturbatory (that is, fruitless, egotistic) pleasures; it describes men and women in their lonely quest, above whom hovers Freud, the god custodian, "Old Fraud" as one of the characters calls him.
But, as in The Alexandria Quartet, the convoluted, tortured characters are superseded by the writing, which acts as a distancing, wise hand between the reader and the novel. It has the abstract quality of music…. The language, however, can also be clean-cut and explicit…. Even the epigrams are so astounding they barely need a character to speak them….
Henry Miller, who was Durrell's close friend, wrote his books out of his own immediate past, setting himself as an excuse for others to understand his age. Durrell chose to make up the characters that illustrate his subject. But the past they deal with is finally the same. What makes Durrell's exploration richer and more dangerous than Miller's is not the subject: it is the wonderful, neglected ability to put things into words, to spin webs of glass out of the language, to be that endangered species—a novelist of genius. (pp. 11-12)
Alberto Manguel, "The Novelist As Poet" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Books in Canada, Vol. 12, No. 3, March, 1983, pp. 11-12.