Lawrence Durrell

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Durrell, Lawrence 1912–

Durrell is an English novelist, poet, short story writer, playwright, travel writer, editor, and translator. Though considered a masterful craftsman of several genres, his reputation rests mainly on the monumental Alexandria Quartet. In these four novels, Durrell experiments with an Einsteinian perspective of space and time, rejecting philosophical absolutes and exploring the elusive nature of truth. His style is rich and sensuous, often evoking place and character with the lyricism of poetry. Durrell's fiction has been strongly influenced by James Joyce, his poetry by Robert Browning and Walter Savage Landor. In its contempletiveness and spirituality, his poetry also reflects the influence of Eastern thought. Durrell has written under the pseudonyms of Charles Norden and Gaffer Peeslake. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 4, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

G. S. Fraser

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The one genre of writing in which Durrell … has not achieved either popular or critical success, is the verse play…. Though full of beautiful passages of lyrical and meditative verse, [Sappho, his first play in this genre,] perhaps lacks the tensions and confrontations that are proper to drama; it is more like a versification of one of Landor's Imaginary Conversations. In his next verse play, Acte, Durrell took this lesson to heart, and it is a melodrama in the style of Corneille, about honour and self-sacrifice, in which the language … is noticeably more rhetorical than is usual in Durrell's verse.

The best of Durrell's verse plays seems to me to be An Irish Faustus, a morality play in nine scenes, alternately farcical and frightening. His Faustus is somewhat reminiscent of Prospero, a magician who throws away his wand…. I think that Durrell's verse plays, like those of Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Browning, Tennyson, have suffered from his thinking of the verse play as primarily literature: he has never thought much of the problems of production, of timing, of the control of the audience, that 'great beast'. (p. 10)

In Durrell, fiction is consciously fictive; it is always transforming itself from the transcription of what life is like to an attempt to create the myth, myth rather than allegory, of what life is. Perhaps the home-keeping writer whom Durrell most resembles is Iris Murdoch, who, like Durrell, enjoys playing (almost as in a logical game with truth-tables) with the permutations and combinations of possible sexual relationships, who enjoys both the violent and the improbable, and who likes to show sexual and religious drives improbably and grotesquely fusing. [There] are those who would describe both of them as brilliant frauds. Both, perhaps, as prose-writers, are in the tradition of something that we might call romance or fantasy rather than in the tradition of the 'straight' novel. But this genre has its own distinction and validity. (pp. 13-14)

The poems are still, it seems to me, the part of his writings where Durrell is most his natural self. In the 1930s, a period of much polemical political verse, these poems did not harangue. Compared, also, with the prose of The Black Book … they did not strike me as too highly coloured, congested, over-spiced. Durrell's poems have from their beginnings been beautifully modulated; by the word 'modulation' I mean the way in which a really skilful poet can move gently from the expression of one mood at the beginning of a poem to that of a contrasting, contrary, or more fully inclusive mood at the end of a poem, without any effect like that of a motor-car abruptly and crashingly changing gears. (p. 16)

Durrell's tone in poetry I would call one of quiet amenity, of controlled poignancy…....

(This entire section contains 1574 words.)

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The poetic personality that came across to me when I read those early poems which appeared so fugitively in the 1930s was one gentle, compassionate, temperamentally sad but quirkily humorous, essentially lonely. I thought these early poems also (as I think the later poems) the work of a religiously-minded man. (p. 17)

Durrell has never lost his freshness as a poet, but I do not think one can speak of his development, as one speaks of development in Eliot, Yeats, or Auden. As a writer both in prose and verse, I think Durrell acquired what educational psychologists call a 'set', a framework for perceiving the world, probably in mid-adolescence. All his writing from the age of nineteen or twenty onwards has been a feeding of experience into the 'set' rather than a use of experience fundamentally to change it. Clearly, it was a good or useful 'set', but one has always a sense, as it were, of Durrell durrellizing experience rather than of experience undurrellizing Durrell. I think this makes him a very good minor rather than a major poet. (p. 18)

From his earliest to his latest poems, Durrell has [a] concern with verbal texture, with sound-sense relationships. One way in which he has perhaps technically developed is in making this concern a little less obtrusive than in his earliest work, in achieving an impression of careless ease. Rather similarly, from The Black Book to The Alexandria Quartet, and from The Alexandria Quartet to Tunc and Nunquam, the prose is always rich and ornate, but The Black Book is congested and self-conscious in a way that The Alexandria Quartet is not, and Tunc and Nunquam move with a kind of ease, the style sometimes spoofing itself or 'sending itself up', in a way that is not typical of the great technicolour blocs, the magnificent set pieces, of The Alexandria Quartet. (p. 20)

The Black Book is perhaps less important as a novel than as an extraordinarily vivid, exact, and honest document for somebody who might want to write a latter-day version of William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience. Durrell did in it an extraordinarily cruel (clinically cruel, cruel to be kind) job of auto-analysis; explored Hell, and perhaps just got out of it; but taught himself, in his journey, compassion….

Durrell can, in fact, and even in The Black Book sometimes does, write plain, direct, unornate prose. For all its spiciness and high colouring, The Alexandria Quartet, moves with a much bolder and more rapid rhythm, is nearer the speaking voice. Tunc and Nunquam are full of purple passages, but of purple passages that deliberately and jokily send themselves up; and the prose of these novels is still bolder, and still more rapid, than The Alexandria Quartet. (p. 31)

The current English case against Durrell's prose is that it is mannerist, too richly and consciously atmospheric and connotational. I am not sure that Durrell is as much a mannerist writer as, say, Hemingway or Gertrude Stein, writers who base their verbal art on a kind of de-connexion, a scrubbing out of traditional connotations, a decreation…. Compared to such writers, who, of course, were experimenting in this way thirty or forty years before him, Durrell is in a sense very old-fashioned. He never sets himself a schema or a project that will exclude spontaneity. He wants to tell a story that will attract a popular as well as a highbrow audience. He is not working in a word laboratory. We should perhaps not be excessively puritan in censuring a writer's under-the-sheet relationships with his main Muse, his crushingly rich maternal and paternal language.

If The Black Book has a special interest both as a kind of spiritual autobiography and as a young man's first finding of his real voice, it is on the four volumes of The Alexandria Quartet, Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960) that Durrell's world-fame mainly rests. (pp. 32-3)

I find, in spite of the elements of Arabian night fantasy …, that I can believe both in the people and in what is happening to them in The Alexandria Quartet…. [In] one crude sense The Alexandria Quartet with its sudden revelations of hitherto unsuspected motivations and purposes at just the right moment to stir and surprise the reader is as neatly constructed as a novel by Simenon or Agatha Christie.

The structural mastery and the basic human plausibility are worth insisting on because The Alexandria Quartet has been a little too much regarded, at least in England, as a triumph mainly of atmospheric bravura writing. For me, and I think for anybody who lived and served in Egypt during the war years, it has the flavour of truth about it: truth is not always drab and consistent and dun-coloured, but sometimes flaring and glaring, astonishing, incongruous. It may be true, nevertheless, that what we remember in the end is less the characters individually than the characters as functions of a landscape or townscape, characters as a function of the whole history of Alexandria, with its traditions of richness and sensuality … and of mysticism, magic, quarrelling theologies…. (pp. 37-8)

Durrell, [in Aut Tunc Aut Nunquam] as elsewhere always highly professional, knows exactly what he is doing, though what he is doing may disconcert many of his earlier admirers. Incidents and descriptions are deliberately garish and shocking, there is a lot of use of what one might describe as poster-colour: Durrell, in an age which is growingly non-literary, is deliberately competing for attention with, say, pop art and horror comics. If the passages one remembers most in The Alexandria Quartet are, so to say, erotic and lyrical, the typical note of Aut Tunc Aut Nunquam is macabre and grotesque…. (pp. 41-2)

The archetypal figures in [both] Tunc and Nunquam, like archetypal figures in dreams, both break many taboos and make us aware of primeval taboos we had forgotten. The double-decker story is much less visual than any previous work of fiction of Durrell's and makes more use—in its prose technique and, in a sense, even in its plot—of the auditory imagination, puns, ambiguous allusions, emblematic names, the idea of auditory hallucination. (pp. 42-3)

There is plenty of comedy in both works but the comedy in Aut Tunc Aut Nunquam is much nearer farce, or barrack-room bawdry, and has also an agreeable quality of self-parody…. If the deeper meaning of The Alexandria Quartet is a mystical or transcendental meaning, the deeper meaning of Aut Tunc Aut Nunquam is a social-philosophical one…. Durrell, I think, has never written more freshly and entertainingly than in these two books. (p. 43)

G. S. Fraser, in his Lawrence Durrell (© G. S. Fraser 1970; Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council), British Council, 1970.

Robert Martin Adams

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When Darley settles down with Clea to live happily ever after, the reader is more likely to sigh in disappointment than in satisfaction: we had thought there was more to [the Alexandria Quartet] than that, and indeed there was. The last volumes escape all too successfully from the baffling relativity which was the chief interest of the first two.

A mechanical but genuine source of power in the early books was multiple points of view. Quite apart from tacit transitions from one narrative eye to another, events were watched and recorded by three professional authors—Arnauti, Darley, and Pursewarden—in addition to diarists, letter-writers, and commentators, all of whose work was conveniently made available to the scribe…. In addition, we saw Darley at a variety of different stages in his career, and information was filtered into the novels from a number of different and competing intelligence agencies. All this made for an ingeniously interwoven fabric of times, places, and points of view, across which the reader's studious eye wandered in search of patterns and ever-deeper patterns. One part of the book called another into question; the various novelists circled around the problems of complex personalities in complex situations, throwing off ideas for novels which might or might not apply to the present one. All this uncertainty was more potent fictional stuff than any conceivable resolutions of it could be: especially since Durrell, though his characters are all erotically obsessed, and he himself proposes eros as an ultimate form of cognition, skimps actual erotic scenes and any definition of the knowledge gained from them as primly as any Victorian novelist…. (pp. 162-63)

Most of the romantic illusions in which the first text abounds are [in the second novel, Balthazar,] shattered by a more dispassionate and deeper-sighted observer—above all the romantic egotism with which Darley has experienced his affair with Justine. (In terms of prudential motivation, the question of why Justine, who's already involved in one massive intrigue, should jeopardize it by indulging in two others, with Darley and Pursewarden, never gets answered; but the novel's balance of forces is all the better for being precarious.) Balthazar, as invert, mystagogue, and medicine-man, is admirably suited to bring about these ironic counterpoints. Although this resource is not largely exploited, we sometimes see verbal tags familiar from one context given new resonance by being heard in another. (p. 163)

Alexandria usurps heavily on the Alexandrians; and Durrell, with a vivid pen for colors, smells, and popular oddities, can render a bazaar, a cheap cabaret, or a hunch-backed barber briefly and brilliantly. With profundities of thought or feeling he's less successful: the Cabala and the doctrines of the Gnostics remain bits of lifeless window-dressing, and the grand passions don't get much beyond the stage of cliché. Of course, that is one of the points of the tetralogy. With its gift for factoring people down to their common irreducible elements, it forms Nessim and Melissa, Darley and Justine into a crystalline quartet of compulsions and frustrations before which the explanations of time and history (whether personal or public) are relatively helpless. Racially and religiously the quartet is as balanced and unstable as the city itself, and its conflicts are quite as insoluble. But then solutions are not really in order; certainly the Joycean vision would not have encouraged Durrell to think that in Mountolive he could effectively lay out a political background along with an explanation of Pursewarden (so much better as an enigma than as a case history!) and in Clea score up a pseudo-Proustian ending-return. One senses that even though he carried it off, the romantic ending with Clea did not sit well on his artistic conscience, and in the desperate amputation of Clea's hand, he tried to set it off with a bit of strong stuff. But the redemption is very partial; and it's my own impression, having tried it both ways, that the tetralogy reads much more effectively backwards than forwards, which makes it wind up instead of winding down.

Among other things, the success of the first two novels is due to some consciously mosaic prose. Durrell is fond of writing what amount to epiphanies of Alexandria, though he never labels them as such. They are hard, brilliant, descriptive sketches, done with all the senses and nerves alight—really the finest pieces of writing in the sequence. It's an oddity that the man who writes so well can also fall into the weary, loose clichés of the romantic novelist…. Unfortunately, as the opportunity narrowed for the first sort of prose (Alexandria having already been presented to us in all its sharp immediacy), the second sort came more and more to predominate. And there are still other veins that the author has tapped, in this eclectic sequence of actions—Scobie, for example, who flows forth like a Pickwickian eccentric given his head, indefatigably and to some extent irrelevantly. One can sympathize with Durrell in feeling that he is too good to waste, yet among the major themes of the novel he hardly fits at all, and apart from his own rich self-display serves no purpose except to demonstrate Clea's charity and the city's polymorphic religiosity…. (pp. 164-65)

[There's] a lot of uneven work in the Quartet—a splash of metaphysical prestidigitation mixed with a swatch of exotic Oriental sex, some menace after the manner of E. Phillips Oppenheim, with homely Malaprop humor at the Sarah Gamp level. The books are written to impress, to dazzle, to titillate, to enthrall; there are sustained passages where they do these various things, but there are also areas where the flats betray crude painting, the machinery creaks, and the characters stand about contriving stage-business to conceal the fact that they really don't know what to do with themselves. Durrell is a superior entertainer, who has found various elements of Joycean composition useful in putting together his kaleidescope. But he's a long way from the cold and distant perspective of Joyce even toward his own creation; one doesn't get any equivalent feel for the architecture of a fiction. Durrell in the Alexandria Quartet was evidently in a delayed Stephen-Dedalus stage of development—his books are built more in the loose form of theme-and-variations than after the strict mode of a quartet. (pp. 165-66)

Robert Martin Adams, in his AfterJoyce: Studies in Fiction After "Ulysses" (copyright © 1977 by Robert Martin Adams; used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.), Oxford University Press, New York, 1977.

Jane Lagoudis Pinchin

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[In The Alexandria Quartet Durrell paints a] fevered city, a dying city, a prodigal, stranger-loving, leaf-veined city. A city of deep resignation, of spiritual lassitude and self-indulgence, of jealousy and retribution….

How do all these divergent images add up? They are dramatic, erotic, anything but peaceful; they cannot be easily summarized, for Alexandria is like the recurring palms that appear in the mirrored walls of the ballroom at the Cecil, fractured and prismatic. She is to be discovered. (p. 163)

Alexandria is home of the medieval quest—a quest that, as John Unterecker suggests—lies at the core of most of Durrell's important work. The hero must take a ritual journey across water entering a sick land. There he seeks balms to cure his own wounds and those of his city: there he does battle with all the forces that would destroy.

But, ironically, the city that he would save, that he does save, is the dangerous power he must fight…. [For Durrell Alexandria is] dark femininity. We are not now dealing with Forsterian visions of a subtle mind, a unifying principle. The image moves closer to the chasm than the bridge. No, Durrell's city is like his women, passive and yet dangerously malevolent. She courts the Lord of Misrule and the many faces of Mephistopheles. She is reality, a force to be feared. (pp. 166-67)

Reading Durrell's translation of Cavafy's sad tribute "The City" brings to mind Durrell's letters and his own poems about Alexandria, about the loneliness and pain of men caught and held by war in that hybrid city of exiles. "The City" haunts Justine, where it sets the stage for Durrell's tales of Alexandria. (p. 168)

The poem becomes an emblem of despair. In the Quartet this is an early, temporary despair the hero-artist must go through before he can conquer the female, life, Alexandria, the city, before he can stand tall, take his glasses off, write, and reign. For Durrell's heroes the poem is a kind of lesson, not primarily that acceptance of failure is a part of living—an accent stronger in Cavafy than in Durrell—but that the battle must be fought now…. (pp. 168-69)

Durrell does not give us a chronological look at Alexandria and its surroundings down through the ages … but [he] does give us a complete picture. Because for Durrell the novel is a tale of quest, the hero must fight against all the dangers that are life, all its adventures extended through time and space. (pp. 169-70)

Durrell plays with history. In doing so he borrows from the best history and guidebook around. Justine's Gnosticism, Nessim's attraction to Plotinus, references to Petesouchos and the ankh—all find their origins in [Forster's] Alexandria. But it is Pharos and Pharillon from which Durrell the writer of historical fiction has really learned…. We hear echoes of "The Return from Siwa"—a note Durrell will pick up again in a march across the desert in Monsieur—and then, in a moment, the Cavafian irony of "Envoys from Alexandria." (pp. 170-71)

[All] of Durrell's women are Cleopatras, all of his men Antonys…. Durrell is interested in Cleopatra's story for the same reason he feels compelled to write about sexuality—"the root-knowledge" …—for it allows the artist to remove the codpiece, to discover himself. Homosexuality, infidelity, voyeurism, infant sexuality, prostitution, all help the lover to strip bare. But doubles and incestuous pairs hold a special fascination for Durrell; they throw mirrors back on the self, in a novel of mirrors, of splintered glass. (pp. 173-74)

Cleopatra was, for Durrell, the blackness that consumes, the earth, Alexandria, Justine—the feminine principle with which the artist must contend—and reality, the alternately passive and treacherous queen each Antony must love and fight to the death. The vision is of enemy and Adam's rib. Forster saw her as a rare flower opening before a simple Roman soldier; Cavafy focused on those around her, sons and lovers. How intriguing that only Durrell, the high priest of heterosexual love, finds her a terrifying creature whom man must ultimately conquer.

Like Forster's, Durrell's ancient Alexandria is a city of God as well as a city of love. Here too Durrell's quest requires that he cover the whole canvas, that he seek the healing balms wherever they may be found. (pp. 174-75)

[For] Durrell, extremes exemplify Alexandria, and life, his primary religious interests are with Gnosticism and the Cabal—"indulge but refine" …—and with figures like the sixteenth-century German Paracelsus who preach a magical and maniacal sympathy between the universe and the individual soul, who avoid the "tramlines of empirical fact."… The frequent images of incest in Durrell's work link intensity of love with danger, and with evil…. In the Quartet Gnosticism engages readers and protagonists alike, as does the unrefined intensity of creatures who seem to have emerged from the desert in Thais, who may hold the answer to the question that is the quest, to the meaning of Alexandria. (pp. 175-76)

[In] his portrait of Memlik one can again see that Durrell, like Cavafy, could not leave history alone. (p. 178)

In the figure of Memlik we see an important way in which Durrell's attitude toward nineteenth- and twentieth-century Alexandrian history differs from Forster's, and get another glimpse of Durrell's vision of life, Alexandria, as battle-ground. Both Forster and Durrell wrote about the British presence in Egypt and about the conflict between a growing nationalism and the interests of a large foreign community. Both wrote about the ways in which the East can free the Englishman from a damning rigidity and complacency. (p. 179)

[Like] Forster [in A Passage to India] Durrell [In The Alexandria Quartet] writes about a friendship between Englishman and Oriental, that, for the former, defies race. He too knew the civil service and found himself drawn to those intrigues that entangle public and private selves, that involve all who have an historical imagination. (p. 180)

[Durrell's] talent is a large one, and in the Quartet the epic, historical sweep engulfs us in its magic, partly because it is so grand, partly because Durrell, a most un-Cavafian temperament, creates the old Greek poet as a presence in his work, a figure who adds a welcome tension to the quest, who can undercut pomposity and even the Passions of Justine…. History and landscape—reality itself—must be interpreted to be felt, to be understood. And for Durrell relativity is the key; there seem, at least, to be a thousand truths. (p. 184)

Durrell manipulates his readers just as Cavafy did—perhaps with more audacity, for he uses figures from our own recent past. D. H. Lawrence is Pursewarden's beloved friend! Rimbaud, Claudel, and Joyce are added to the tribe, but fittingly no historical personage, no artist—not even Lawrence—takes on the importance of C. P. Cavafy who, like the city herself, actually becomes a character in the novels. Durrell gives us more than a Cavafian character—although he does that too: he gives us Cavafy. Along with Cleopatra and Alexander the poet becomes an exemplar of the city…. His thoughts and even his voice frame and haunt the whole; his poems encompass it. (pp. 185-86)

[Durrell's Darley] is a character who bears witness and, only in the end, is able to leave and enter other worlds. He learns from foolish older men,… men who are privy to the wisdom of maturity and the Orient, and finally to the wisdom of death, who have accepted the chaos of violence and disorder with a measure of dignity—like Scobie and Pursewarden, like Cavafy and his friend Balthazar. (p. 186)

The use of the Cavafy poem ["The God Abandons Antony"] seems fitting, a leitmotif binding, lending a sort of homogeneity to, the Quartet. And in a way it is. As in Forster's vision, music holds together what relativity or even logic would pull apart. But Durrell has turned the poem on its head. Cavafy's poem is about endings, about the dignity that comes when we face loss without deception.

The leave-takings with which the Quartet closes do not encompass loss; the war is over and all good lovers are united, almost as neatly as if "happily ever after" accompanied the "once upon a time" that Darley can finally write. (p. 198)

[Anthony] Burgess—and others like [D. J.] Enright and Bonamy Dobrée—strike a raw nerve when they complain of the violence in the Quartet, the sensationalism that, with the blink of an eye, does away with arms, noses, and eyes themselves…. We think of Pursewarden's nickname for Darley. But there of course is the final joke, the final irony. It is a touch that Cavafy would have thoroughly enjoyed. L.G.D. Old Lineaments of Gratified Desire knew his weakness all along—and made sure he would have the first chuckle. He even allows Pursewarden to parody Darley's prose—the prose of Justine. The Quartet becomes an ironic comment on itself, on its very style.

His readers get angry with Durrell—for overblown action, for a patronizing vision of the female and the oriental, for the need to write a masterpiece of size that would all but destroy the understated truth upon which poetry like Cavafy's is based. Then they hear echoes of another popular song that Durrell, the self-taught jazz pianist, brings into the Quartet. "Tiresias." Tiresias, master of masculine and feminine knowledge, with whom Cavafy has been aptly compared. Tiresias, who like Esmiss Esmoor becomes an oriental patron-saint, embodied as El Scob, at whose shrine men and women talk and laugh. Like Pursewarden's chuckle, here is a tune that encompasses loving-kindness and undercuts excess…. (pp. 198-200)

And if Durrell did not hear all the chords of "The God Abandons Antony," he does hear Cavafy in other poems and lets the old man's voice help him find the phrases of tenderness—and loss as well—that are in the Quartet, that become its magic, a magic of repetition as well as fragmentation. (p. 200)

[It] is the Cavafian love poem, hesitant and melancholy, that Durrell integrates into the Quartet so beautifully, adding much to the texture of his work. He does not use these poems in fictive relationships among homosexuals…. The homosexual in the Quartet is a loner, a wise old man, a Tiresias—an ironic observer of the scene.

Love relationships in the Quartet are not homosexual; they are heterosexual and in some ways strangely whole. By the end of Clea all those Alexandrians who have been in love are either linked with their perfect mates or, it would seem, equally neatly dead. (p. 204)

Two poems, "The Afternoon Sun" and "Far Away" (or "Long Ago"), are linked and used as a kind of refrian for the quiet and touching affection that binds Melissa to Darley, and for the loss of all precious moments. (p. 205)

In his notes Durrell-Darley gives us complete translations of both poems, but they appear and mingle in the text when, during the war, Darley once again enters the same flat to find old furniture and the Cavafian lines still knocking about in his mind. The servant Hamid gives him a crumpled photograph of Melissa and Darley walking arm in arm on a forgotten "winter afternoon around the hour of four."… "Yes, it was winter, at four o'clock. She was wearing her tatty sealskin…. 'Sometime in August—was it August?' I mentally quoted to myself again." (p. 206)

Like Durrell's portrait of Cavafy, Melissa is pieced together through images from the past. We remember what Durrell wrote about Cavafian "passionate actuality," when he was translating some of Cavafy's earliest poems. We see the poet allowing a simple, shop-worn object to reinfect his memory. But for Darley the experience is too wearying, and in a sense too real. Melissa had "utterly vanished," could not be evoked—even "with that lying self-deception so natural to sentimentalists" …—for the poems will not allow the prose to exaggerate, to lie. It is fitting that Melissa is Greek and, although everyone's mistress, Darley's innocence.

Here is the sense of loss, of personal disappointment and ironic tenderness that Cavafy brings to the Quartet. At its best it is a small and subtle force, but like its poet, "standing at a slight angle to the universe," it does much to shape our vision of the whole. (pp. 206-07)

Jane Lagoudis Pinchin, "Durrell and a Masterpiece of Size," in her Alexandria Still: Forster, Durrell, and Cavafy (copyright © 1977 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1977, pp. 159-207.

Peter Stothard

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Over the years Durrell's mania for islands has spawned the pastoral optimism of his Corfu idyll, Prospero's Cell, pessimistic resignation in his portrait of Rhodes, Reflections on a Marine Venus, and an abject disillusion that dominates his Cypriot chronicle, Bitter Lemons. Now he has selected from his experiences of all the Greek islands….

[On] the evidence of the text alone 'islomania', rather than overwhelming its victim in his old age, weakens and ages along with him.

The Greek Islands reveals Durrell as less now of an obsessive than a whimsical fanatic….

Durrell claims to answer two questions to which his tourist-admirers might require answers: what would you have been glad to know when you were on the spot and what would you feel sorry to have missed? On the credit side it is difficult to read the book without feeling that one really is on a journey. The tone of Durrell's prose and comments stays steadily in tune with the changing scenery as he moves the reader from lush Corfu, through windswept Sporades and the dry sanctity of Delos, to Salamis, Spetsae and Aegina, islands that are little more than Athenian dormitory suburbs. As for telling the tourist what he'd want to know, the book has a cheerful carelessness for strict guidebookish facts….

But after the first few chapters I have to admit that Durrell's ever-protean presence began to get on my nerves. Not only does he try to change his writer's voice as often as he changes ferries, there is also a hard core of Durrellness that remains equally irritatingly unchanged, for instance Durrell the travelling philologist, the chap who tells me that there is something especially indestructible about the Greek language because today's students of modern Greek begin by studying from an ancient attic grammar while it would be impossible for a Greek to learn English from Chaucer. Try learning modern Greek from Hesiod, one yearns to shout back.

An only slightly less disagreeable Durrell persona is that of the travelling mystic….

It would be unfair, however, to leave The Greek Islands without mentioning the few exceptional descriptive passages for which alone this book deserves its present place in the best-seller lists. Durrell can still breathe the most extraordinary life into descriptions of the ordinary people of Greece, from the fatalistic sponge-fishers of Calymnos to Chios's camera-shy monks. And there are places, too, particularly some of the barer rock hunks of the Aegean, which, unlike the plane trees of Cos, benefit from every breath of imposed magic they can get. (p. 52)

Peter Stothard, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright Peter Stothard 1978; reprinted with permission), November, 1978.

Peter Kemp

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Mr Durrell's narrative [in Livia] is never impeded by qualms about verisimilitude.

Nor is it arranged into much shape. There are a few hieratic gestures intended to suggest that profoundly meaningful patterns are being unrolled. Durrell is writing about Blanford who is writing about Sutcliffe who is writing about…. And dark, devilish Livia is set against fair, wholesome Constance—her sister who goes to Vienna, not Munich; admires Freud, not Hitler; and, when war breaks out, heads for the Red Cross, not the Iron one. But these tired symbolic stand-bys fail to hold the story-line, which goes lurching round baroquely kinky tableaux like a drunk adrift in a Fellini film-set. Following its incoherent progress soon gets wearying. (p. 591)

Peter Kemp, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1978; reprinted by permission of Peter Kemp), November 2, 1978.

Peter Vansittart

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Style, writes Proust, is in no way an embellishment … it is not even a question of technique; it is like colour with certain paintings, a revelation of a private universe which each one of us sees and which is not seen by others. The pleasure an artist gives is to make us know an additional universe.

This is handy for the heightened realities of Livia, successor to Monsieur, 'written in a highly eliptical quincunxial style invented for the occasion', set largely in the ominous late 'thirties…. The complex relationships of a group of young people are dramatized, occasionally blurred, by the fabled allusive atmospherics—the book is preceded by a Chinese proverb. 'Five colours mixed make people blind'—itself counterpointed by periodic intrusions of the squalid: an obsession with rancid armpits, a repulsive treatment of clap.

The evocations are dreamily persuasive…. Serious issues seem more explicit, the characters more fleshed, than in Monsieur, though their actual age seems speculative, time itself occasionally in abeyance. 'I am a writer who hovers over things' Durrell has said, elsewhere. The evil is more concrete as the Nazis reach full flourish. There is much silly, exuberant talk, absurd politics, and jet-set assertions…. Also a rankling nostalgia for lost domains, great wines, irreverent moonlit occasions, the elegiac courses of loves mislaid or doomed. (pp. 125-26)

Peter Vansittart, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1978), December-January, 1978–79.

Alastair Forbes

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Five years ago Lawrence Durrell announced in his envoi to "Monsieur" that it was to be the first novel in a quincunx—"five novels only dependent on one another as echoes might be." There he begat an alter ego, Blanford, with whom he shared the authorship of "Monsieur"; and Blanford begat another writer, Sutcliffe, whose commonplace book full of uncommonplace and conflicting thoughts supplies a sort of preposterously punning Greek chorus to the present volume ["Livia"]; Sutcliffe in turn begets another writer, Bloshford—and so on, one supposes, ad finem quincunxis. This "quincuncial style" may suit the author, but what one might call the Doppelgänger effect all too often leaves the reader in the lurch. "The writer Blanford suddenly felt like an enormously condensed version of a minor epic. Buried Alive!" Many readers may share that suffocating sensation as they worm their way through "Livia."…

The sense of place in Durrell's poetry and prose is always wonderfully strong and well-wrought. In "Livia," Avignon is given a connoisseur's celebration as his characters approach it by barge. Thereafter, every nook and cranny of the town is nocturnally explored, until on the last page Blanford, the narrator, contemplates a mechanical pump used to drain the primitive sanitation system and thinks to himself: "It is sucking out the intellectual excrement of the twentieth century in a town which was once Rome."…

Durrell, like his character, seems aware of the traps his self-indulgence can set for him ("He felt the lure of language stirring in him … a vomit of words linked by pure association"), and sometimes disarms his critics by preempting their criticisms….

Still, even if he does give himself due warning ("Enough of the pornocratic-whimsical"), a sizable portion of "Livia" is taken up by a lamentable set piece in a brothel where demoiselles d'Avignon of varying shapes and ages above and below that of consent attempt to satisfy an elderly Egyptian prince stripped down to his Jermyn Street long-johns. Dwarves abound. Livia herself is a promiscuous lesbian with a special proclivity for gypsies, who are naturally thick on the ground between Avignon and the Camargue. It is all pure cinema and better left perhaps to Fellini, who has better mastered the genre.

One need not be angry with the good Durrell, poet-historian of the Mediterranean, when he nods. If in "Livia" he seems scarcely up to form, much of his writing—not least his jokes and puns, both good and bad—can still give its customary pleasure. I fear that many American readers of "Livia" may justifiably feel that anything Durrell once did, Updike can now do better. All the same, Durrell remains an irreplaceable master of English and European literature. Long may he continue to write.

Alastair Forbes, "Dwarves Abounding in Provence," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 22, 1979, p. 14.


Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 1)


Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 4)