Lawrence Durrell Durrell, Lawrence (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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…. 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...

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Robert Martin Adams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jane Lagoudis Pinchin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Peter Stothard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Peter Kemp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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