BORN: 1912, Jullundur, India
DIED: 1990, Sommieres, France
The Black Book (1938)
A Key to Modern British Poetry (1952)
Bitter Lemons (1957)
The Alexandria Quartet (1962)
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
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 pre– World 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.
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.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Durrell's famous contemporaries include:
Anaïs 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.
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.
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.”
Rashômon (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.
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
- 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.
- 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.
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.
A prolific British author, Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) wrote several large-scale, multi-volume series of novels as well as poetry, plays, short stories, and travel books. People and places of the Mediterranean were a central theme of his work.
Lawrence Durrell was born on February 27, 1912, in Darjeeling, India, at the foothills of the Himalayas. His parents were Irish Protestants engaged in colonial service. After attending the College of St. Joseph in Darjeeling, the 11-year-old Durrell, like many Anglo-Indian children, was sent to England to complete his education. He went to St. Edmund's School, Canterbury, and, failing to gain entrance to Cambridge, took up a bohemian existence and supported himself by working as a jazz pianist in London night clubs and taking on a variety of odd jobs. He also began to work seriously on his poetry and fiction.
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. He wrote in a letter: "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. At this time, Durrell read Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, a book whose plain style and sexual candor would greatly influence his own fiction. He went to Paris to meet Miller, and so began their life-long friendship.
Durrell's stay on Corfu was interrupted by the onset of World War II. His life for the next 17 years was shaped by a series of postings in government service. Durrell was in Athens and Crete from 1939 to 1941 teaching English, in Cairo and Alexandria until 1945 as an officer in the Foreign Press Service, in Rhodes until 1947 as director of public relations for the Dodecanese Islands, in Argentina in 1948 as director of the British Council Institute in Cordoba, in Belgrade through 1952 as press attaché, and in Cyprus from 1953 to 1956 as director of public relations for the island's government. The literary result was that the world of the Mediterranean became Durrell's chief subject matter, in both his fiction and his many travel books. In 1957 he left government service to dedicate himself to this writing and settled in a village in the south of France, where he lived until his death in 1990.
Durrell's first important novel was The Black Book (1938), which, though similar in theme, represented a major stylistic break from his earlier fiction. The novel shows the influence of Miller's Tropic of Cancer, but The Black Book was no mere imitation. The novel recounts the lives and loves of struggling writers and artists in a grubby London hotel. Because of the novel's sexual frankness, Faber & Faber refused to bring out an unexpurgated edition; the book was finally published in its complete form through the efforts of Henry Miller. (The Black Book did not find a publisher in the United States until 1960.) With its appearance, Durrell was recognized as a major literary voice.
Durrell's subsequent fiction explores the people and places of the Mediterranean that he came to know so well. Cefalu (1947; later retitled The Dark Labyrinth) is a satirical portrait of a group of English tourists who are for a time trapped in the Cretan labyrinth, home to the legendary Minotaur.
The centerpiece of Durrell's career as novelist is The Alexandria Quartet, comprised of Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960). In this ambitious and intricate series of novels, Durrell attempted to create a fictional parallel of 20th-century physics, based on theories he had expounded in his one book of literary criticism, A Key to Modern British Poetry (1952). In a prefatory note to Balthazar, Durrell wrote: "Modern literature offers us no Unities, so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition. Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup mix recipe of a continuum." The books of The Alexandria Quartet, which Durrell called "an investigation of modern love," are not sequential; rather, the first three books tell of the same events and characters in pre-World 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.
In The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell adopted a highly ornate and sensuous narrative voice which drew much critical attention. George Steiner described the Quartet's style as "complex aural music" in which "light seems to play across the surface of the words in a brilliant tracery." The "baroque" style was not to everyone's taste though; Martin Green complained that "a steady diet of [Durrell's] sentences … makes one feel one is sickening for a bad cold."
Durrell's career as novelist continued with two other large-scale, multi-volume works. Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970) comprise The Revolt of Aphrodite, which tells a gothic story of corporate intrigue. The five-part Avignon Quintet is made up of Monsieur, or the Prince of Darkness (1974); Livia, or Buried Alive (1978); Constance, or Solitary Practices (1982); Sebastian, or Ruling Passions (1983); and Quinx, or the Ripper's Tale (1985). These later works, which are heavily weighted with allusions to gnostic mysticism and the medieval legends of the Knights Templar, are direct descendents of Durrell's Alexandria series. As the critic Alan Friedman points out:
They too offer exotic settings peopled by improbable characters; multiple fictional and narrative layerings; … extensive mythical and metaphysical speculation on the nature of the universe and its creator, on the ego and personality, on the enterprises of being, becoming and creating; a harsh critique of western civilization and values; and an erotically charged prose style whose evocations and allusions overtly echo and invoke the Quartet.
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 Cell (1945) is an "island portrait" of Corfu, its geography, lore, customs, and eccentric inhabitants. Later, Durrell published Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes (1953); Bitter Lemons (1957), which deals with the Greek-Turkish conflict on Cyprus; Sicilian Carousel (1977); and The Greek Islands (1978).
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, November 7, 1990.
Spirit of Place (1969), edited by Alan G. Thomas, is an extensive anthology of Durrell's essays and fiction which serves as a Baedecker to Durrell's life and travels. Two important collections of criticism are Harry T. Moore's The World of Lawrence Durrell (1962) and Alan Warren Friedman's Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell (1987). Readers interested in Durrell's friendship with Henry Miller might turn to the Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-1980 (1988) or to Always Merry and Bright (1978), Jay Martin's biography of Miller. □