Born in India, Lawrence George Durrell led a wandering life that profoundly influenced all his work. His formal education was adequate but limited; ironically, he could never gain admission to Cambridge, which may have motivated his half-jesting claim that he became a writer “by sheer ineptitude.” In any event, he managed to acquire an astonishing fund of knowledge, becoming competent as a painter, a jazz pianist, a race-car driver, a teacher, and a diplomat. In his turbulent career, he lived and worked in London, Paris, Cairo, Belgrade, Beirut, Athens, Cyprus, Argentina, and Provence. Naturally enough, he also became an accomplished linguist, particularly in Greek. Many of the places mentioned above are familiar to readers as settings of his novels or travel books; they are also prominent in his poems.
Durrell’s personal life was no less an odyssey than his career. Married three times, he went through two divorces and became a widower in 1967. His friendships proved more lasting, in particular his evolving relationship with Henry Miller. Beginning as Miller’s disciple and admirer, Durrell virtually turned the tables. Even so, the two remained close and mutually stimulating friends, as evidenced by Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller: A Private Correspondence (1963).
After many years of working at odd jobs, teaching, and representing his country in various diplomatic posts, Durrell settled in Provence in 1957 and devoted his full time to writing. Always a rapid worker—he completed the monumental The Alexandria Quartet in less than a year of actual writing time—he published many novels, dramas, and collections of poetry from the 1960’s to the 1980’s. By the late 1970’s, his wanderlust seemed cured; he stirred only reluctantly. In his late seclusion, Durrell was perhaps like Prospero, from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611), a favorite character of his—he worked his magic and recalled his life at court. Both his poems and his prose reveal the fruits of an extraordinary life at many Mediterranean “courts.” Durrell died in Sommières, France, in 1990.
Lawrence George Durrell was born in Julundur, India, on February 27, 1912, to Lawrence Samuel Durrell, an English engineer who built the Tata Iron and Steel Works, and Louise Florence “Dixie” Durrell, of Irish heritage. Both his parents’ families had been in India for some time. When the boy was very young, the Durrells moved to Kurseong, near the Himalayas, so that the elder Durrell could accept a three-year contract on a mountain railway to Darjeeling. The sight of the mountains made a strong impression on the boy, so much so that he once described his childhood in a letter to Henry Miller as “a brief dream of Tibet.” While in Darjeeling, he began his education at the College of St. Joseph and received the first encouragement for his writing from a Belgian priest, Father Joseph De Guylder.
At twelve, Durrell was sent to England with his brother Leslie “to get the hall-mark,” as his father said, of a public school education. He attended St. Olave’s and St. Saviour’s Grammar School, where he developed his lifelong interest in Elizabethan writers, and later entered St. Edmund’s School in Canterbury. Despite several attempts, he was never admitted to Cambridge University and would later write of his life in England, “That mean shabby little islandwrung my guts out of me and tried to destroy anything singular and unique in me.”
The death of his father left Durrell with a small income, which he used to move to Bloomsbury in order to become a writer. During his Bloomsbury years, Durrell held a number of odd jobs, including jazz pianist and composer, race-car driver, and real estate agent. During this period he also met his first wife, Nancy Myers, a student at the Slade School, with whom he ran a photo studio for a time. At nineteen, he met John Gawsworth in a café after fleeing from an upstairs window during a police raid on the Blue Peter...
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