World Literature

Lawrence Durrell

 

BORN: 1912, Jullundur, India

DIED: 1990, Sommieres, France

NATIONALITY: Irish

GENRE: Fiction

MAJOR WORKS:

The Black Book (1938)

A Key to Modern British Poetry (1952)

Bitter Lemons (1957)

The Alexandria Quartet (1962)

 

 

Lawrence Durrell. Durrell, Lawrence George, photograph. © Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission.

 

Overview

Lawrence Durrell is known primarily as the author of The Alexandria Quartet (1962), a set of four novels widely considered to be among the finest achievements in twentieth-century fiction. Continuing in the tradition of James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, Durrell experiments 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 theories of Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Early Life, Early Success. Lawrence Durrell was born in India in 1912 to Anglo-Irish parents who had never seen England because his family had lived in India for three generations. England had officially made India a part of the British Empire in 1858, after many Indians had attempted to drive out the British East India Company, which had effectively ruled much of India for a century. Among the many industries that flourished in India— primarily for trade and shipment back to England—were cotton and silk production.

Despite his family history, Durrell considered himself an Irishman. His father was an engineer who worked on the construction of the Darjeeling railroad line which skirts the Himalayas. Durrell attended the College of St. Joseph in Darjeeling, and at the age of eleven, he was sent to England to continue his education at St. Edmund’s School in Canterbury. This move was the first great change in his life, but his father’s attempt to groom him as a member of the British ruling class did not succeed. After secondary school, according to Durrell’s own account, he deliberately failed the entrance examinations for Oxford four times, a conscious rebellion against his father. He became a jazz pianist at a London nightclub called The Blue Peter while aspiring to be a writer. After marrying artist Nancy Myers, Durrell completely devoted his energies to becoming a novelist.

Oppressed by the hardship of life in a grimy quarter of London, Durrell was also stung by the stifling pressure of British society on his artistic ambitions. In a letter he wrote, ‘‘England wrung my guts out of me and tried to destroy everything singular and unique in me.’’ In 1935, to escape ‘‘that mean, shabby little island,’’ Durrell went with his family to the island of Corfu, off the Adriatic coast of Greece. He wanted to live the life of an expatriate writer and to recreate the life of London in his novels, much as the expatriate James Joyce had done for Dublin. It was in Corfu that Durrell began reading the work of Henry Miller, whose work would have a major influence on the artist.

Durrell’s Muse. Durrell’s discovery of the works of Henry Miller had a tremendous effect on his writing, and Durrell initiated a correspondence which was to continue until Miller’s death. In 1938, after censorship problems had complicated its publication in the British Isles, Durrell’s The Black Book appeared from Obelisk Press in Paris, and he became what he calls a ‘‘serious’’ writer. The novel established Durrell’s reputation and drew lavish praise from Miller: ‘‘You’ve crossed the equator. Your commercial career is finished. From now on you’re an outlaw, and I congratulate you with all the breath in my body. I seriously think that you truly are ‘the first Englishman!’’’ The success of the novel instilled in Durrell the confidence that he was on the right track artistically.

The Alexandria Quartet. After a nineteen-year break in his novel-writing career, Durrell produced what would become the centerpiece of his career as a novelist: The Alexandria Quartet, comprised of Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. In this ambitious and intricate series of novels, Durrell attempted to create a fictional parallel of twentieth-century physics, based on the theories he had developed in his one book of literary criticism, A Key to Modern British Poetry. The books of The Alexandria Quartet, which Durrell called ‘‘an investigation of modern love,’’ are not sequential; rather, the first three books tell about the same events and characters in preWorld War II Alexandria, but from different viewpoints. The ‘‘facts’’ of the story of sexual liaisons and political intrigue are glimpsed only obliquely from the accounts of different narrators. There is, in a sense, no objective truth to be discovered. The fourth novel, Clea, is a more traditional chronological narrative which takes the characters through the war years.

Other Genres. In addition to his novels, Durrell is noted for a series of works generally referred to as the ‘‘island books,’’ a hybrid genre incorporating autobiography and satiric social commentary. Prospero’s: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corcyra (1945) is an ‘‘island portrait’’ of Corfu, its geography, lore, customs, and eccentric inhabitants. Durrell’s literary output also includes twelve volumes of poetry, three plays, several books of satiric sketches of diplomatic life, short stories, and collections of his correspondence with Henry Miller, Alfred Perles, and Richard Aldington. Durrell died of emphysema at his home in the village of Sommieres on November 7, 1990.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Durrell's famous contemporaries include:

Anais Nin (1903-1977): Nin is best known for her erotica and for her seven-volume journal, which Henry Miller predicted would someday ''take its place beside the revelations of St. Augustine, Petronius, [Pierre] Abelard, [Jean Jacques] Rousseau, [Marcel] Proust, and others.''

Robertson Davies (1913-1995): This Canadian novelist's work often deals with religion and metaphysics while interweaving theatrical elements with traditional novel forms.

William Faulkner (1897-1962): This American novelist often experimented not only with the limitations of the novel form but also with the use of dialect.

Richard Nixon (1913-1994): This U.S. president's time in office was marred by the Watergate scandal, which eventually forced Nixon to resign for fear of being impeached.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

The Alexandria Quartet retells its key events multiple times from different points of view. The idea here seems to be that, so long as stories are told by human beings, they are defined by their subjectivity; therefore, the stories will not be reliable sources of truth. Here are some other examples of artistic works that wrestle with the idea of subjectivity as it relates to truth:

The Things They Carried (1990), by Tim O'Brien. In this collection of short stories, Tim O'Brien describes the experiences of a soldier in the Vietnam War; however, it becomes clear that the events recounted are not "factually true'' but only "emotionally true."

Rashomon (1950), a film by Akira Kurosawa. A tragic encounter between a bandit and a samurai and his wife is recounted several different ways by the participants and witnesses—including the dead samurai, who offers his testimony through a medium.

The Indian Killer (1996), by Sherman Alexie. In a traditional murder mystery novel form, Alexie introduces a new twist: Because the serial killer in this novel is never discovered, murder and fear continue to reign at the end of the novel, and the truth is never found.

 

Works in Literary Context

Durrell’s writing career began during a period of formal experimentation in literature. Sensing the limitations of conventional novels and poetry, authors were trying to figure out how the human experience could be fully expressed in literature. Consequently, a narrator might attempt to recount the haphazard development of a human being’s thoughts. Writers also began to push the limits of ‘‘decency,’’ describing with unflinching openness sexuality and sexual deviancy. Durrell primarily subscribed to these kinds of experimentation, though he also delved into some narrative design experimentation in his acclaimed The Alexandria Quartet.

Rebel Writers and Formal Experimentation. One of the most significant influences on Durrell during his search for his own voice as a writer was Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. Miller’s 1934 novel, which introduced a frankness in subject matter and expression never seen before, was published in France, banned in England, and immediately joined James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) as major books that were widely read ‘‘underground.’’ Durrell was influenced by the innovations of all three writers: He admired Miller’s openness, Joyce’s formal experimentations, and Lawrence’s erotic honesty and spirit of revolt. In The Black Book, Durrell deliberately tried to create a plot that would move in memory but remain static in linear time, radiating instead out into space. He referred to this principle that he would go on to refine in The Alexandria Quartet as ‘‘heraldic.’’

Indeed, The Alexandria Quartet was an experiment in form. The outer plot, a story of love, mystery, and spies, is narrated by a young writer who takes an archetypal journey to find love, self-knowledge, and his artistic voice. He writes a first novel Justine about a love affair in Alexandria, and then follows with Balthazar, which contradicts the first by quoting other people. Finally, after interjecting a third omniscient volume, Mountolive, revealing the ‘‘facts,’’ the narrator adds a last novel— Clea—that moves forward in time toward his attainment of maturity and wisdom.

The form of the Quartet is intrinsic to the work; Durrell had been concerned for many years with how the new physics of space-time might apply to fiction, and insofar as The Alexandria Quartet experiments with the novel’s limitations with regard to chronology and memory, it is easy to link it to William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929). In this novel, the plot is developed in backward chronological order and is completely immersed in the dialect of the Deep South, thereby requiring readers to discover a new way to think in order to follow the details of the novel.

In fact, Durrell’s experimentation with the interplay of memory and narrative has been effectively used to describe the way post-traumatic stress disorder affects Vietnam War veterans by contemporary writers. Novelists such as Tim O’Brien have helped modern readers understand that for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, there are essentially two existences: the one in the here and the now and the one that is stuck in the traumatic events of the Vietnam War. Successful experimentation with memory and its effect on novel chronology does not merely describe this sensation; the reader actually has a sense of what it feels like to be living within two realities.

 

Works in Critical Context

Although critics have differed widely in their assessments of Durrell’s canon, they have never questioned the quality of the island books, but from the Quartet onward, contention swirled around his experiments with form, with characterization, with layering of ideas, and with language itself. Yet viewed as a whole, his work finally takes on, as John Unterecker said in On Contemporary Literature, a ‘‘marble constancy’’ all its own. It ‘‘fuses together into something that begins to feel like an organic whole.’’

The Island Novels. Durrell’s island novels, or landscape books, are drawn from the Greek world, but they are far more than travelogues or catalogues of places to visit. Much like the travel literature of Norman Douglas and D. H. Lawrence, they recreate the ambience of places loved, the characters of people known, and the history and mythology of each unique island world. The first three landscape books, Prospero’s Cell, Reflections on a Marine Venus, and Bitter Lemons form a kind of trilogy mounting in intensity and power. Prospero’s Cell is considered by critics to be the most beautiful of the three, evoking the Corfu of the young Durrell, his Greek friends, and the history of the island and resonates with myths from Homer to William Shakespeare and beyond.

In comparison, Reflections on a Marine Venus is a harsher, less romantic look at the life of the people of Rhodes immediately after the war. In Reflections, Durrell classified his love of islands as ‘‘Islomania’’: ‘‘This book is by intention a sort of anatomy of islomania, with all its formal defects of inconsequence and shapelessness.’’ Bitter Lemons is critically seen to be the finest of Durrell’s island studies and among the most outstanding of his works. Published in 1957, the book was written immediately after he returned to England from Cyprus, where his romance with Greece had been tragically strained by the island’s nationalistic uprisings. The author’s mixed emotions are expressed vividly in Bitter Lemons. In the New York Times Book Review, Freya Stark praised its ‘‘integrity of purpose, ... careful brilliant depth of language and ... the feeling of destiny which pervades it,’’ declaring that the book elevated Durrell to the highest rank of writers.

The Alexandria Quartet. Well-read in Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung and in Sir James Frazer’s mythic theory, Durrell saw modern thought returning full circle to Far Eastern and Indian philosophy, and he wanted to weave all these concepts into the tapestry of The Alexandria Quartet. He explained in Paris Review that ‘‘Eastern and Western metaphysics are coming to a point of confluence in the most interesting way. It seems unlikely in a way, but nevertheless the two main architects of this breakthrough have been Einstein and Freud. ... Well, this novel is a four-dimensional dance, a relativity poem.’’ Durrell’s concept of space-time has been greatly debated by critics of his work. Anthony Burgess contended in The Novel Now, that ‘‘To learn more and more as we go on is what we expect from any good novel, and we need no benefit of ‘relativity.’’’ In Lawrence Durrell, John Unterecker voiced the opposite: ‘‘The relativity theory involves a reorientation for the modern writer not only toward the materials of his art but also toward himself, his audience, his world.’’ In no sense a pretentious or superfluous theory imposed on the Quartet, space-time is, in many ways, the central structure of the work.

 

Responses to Literature

1. Read The Alexandria Quartet. To what extent do you feel Durrell’s experimentation with form is successful? Consider specifically the use of repeated stories from different viewpoints.

2. Read at least two of Durrell’s island novels. In these novels, Durrell attempts to bring to life the myths, the geography, and the people of the islands he describes. Draft a short essay in which you describe the people, places, and myths of your hometown, considering Durrell’s work while you write.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Cocker, Mark. Loneliness and Time: British Travel Writing in the Twentieth Century. London: Secker & Warburg, 1992.

Friedman, Alan W. Lawrence Durrell and The Alexandria Quartet. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

Hawkins, Tiger Tim. Eve: The Common Muse of Henry Miller and Lawrence Durrell. San Francisco: Ahab, 1963.

Lemon, Lee. Portraits of the Artist in Contemporary Fiction. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1985.

Pinchin, Jane. Alexandria Still: Forster, Durrell. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Pine, Richard. Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.

Rowan Raper, Julius, Melody L. Enscore, and Paige Matthey Bynum, eds. Lawrence Durrell: Comprehending the Whole. London: Secker & Warburg, 1992.

Unterecker, John. Lawrence Durrell. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.