Notes, Queries and Comments

On this page we post

  • queries from readers regarding aspects of the lives and works of the Durrells, and responses to such queries
  • comments on aspects of the work of Lawrence and Gerald Durrell
  • a ‘Pseuds’ corner’ for pretentious or preposterous items culled from any number of sources, not necessarily Durrellian.

If you have any response to any of the following, or if you wish to offer an original comment, note or query to our discussions, send an email to:

Scroll down to find:

  • The Avignon Quintet: extensive notes by Kennedy Gammage and a response by Bruce Redwine
  • A note on the background to Lawrence Durrell’s “The Moonlight of Your Smile”
  • Letters of Lawrence Durrell and Gostan Zarian
  • Lawrence Durrell, F R Leavis and the “Canon” of English literature
  • Proust and Durrell: a comment by Sumantra Nag
  • Durrell and Wordsworth: an exchange by Bruce Redwine, Ken Gammage and David Green
  • Durrell and E M Forster’s Alexandria
  • Alexandria in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Michael Haag’s Alexandria: City of Memory and the issue of colonialism
  • Incest: a comment by Bruce Redwine
  • Queries: : A Collected Letters of Lawrence Durrell?
    • Lawrence Durrell’s studies in Egypt
    • Yehudi Menuhin and Durrell
    • Durrell’s notebooks and work methods
    • Durrell’s personal library
    • Durrell’s Irishness
    • A revised “Collected Poems”?
  • Pseuds’ Corner

 The Significance of “Real” and Imaginary” characters in The Avignon Quintet

by Kennedy Gammage (copyright 2017 K. Gammage)

I first ran into Monsieur or the Prince of Darkness in 1984. I had just been to Avignon, and by picking up Monsieur, through the magic of reading, I was instantly back there and immersed in this most intricate and surprising series of novels, with their “real” and “imaginary” characters.

The Quintet was a work in progress when I happened upon it. Durrell was still alive and creating in the 1980s, and when I received my hardcover Faber & Faber first edition of Quinx upon publication in 1985 it felt as if Durrell had mailed it to me.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the Quintet is the interaction between the so-called real characters (including Blanford, Constance, Sam, Livia and Hilary – the original 5 young people who spent a magical summer at Tu Duc just before the war) and the supposedly imaginary characters: Sutcliffe, Toby, Pia, Trash, Sabine, Bruce and the Ogres: Sylvie and Piers. (Actually there is another set of Ogres who are supposed to be more real, but are probably not.)

They interact in mirrored milieus such as Tu Duc and Verfeuille, paired with their virtual counterparts (Blanford / Sutcliffe, Pia / Sylvie, Trash / Thrush, Galen / Banquo, Akkad and Affad)…some remain fixed on their reality tracks and storylines while others cross over.

What does this mean, real and imaginary characters, in the context of a novel? They’re all products of Durrell’s imagination, but are some more imaginary than others, or more real? In the Quintet, Aubrey Blanford gains putative advantage because he feels he is the creator of Sutcliffe – but since they are both creations of Durrell, Sutcliffe rightly feels entitled to push back – transcending his offstage death in the river to walk among living characters for the remainder of the Quintet.

There is of course literary precedent for the alter ego or fictionalization of the author, which might be thought to earn pride of place as a character. Stephen Dedalus is the alter ego of the young Joyce – “the artist as a young man,” who will in some sense grow into the real Joyce.

Does this mean that Blanford has earned pride of place as an alter ego of the young Durrell? By no means! He is just another character. In fact, Sutcliffe is much closer to representing Larry’s carousing Bohemian side – but of course we never really view Rob as a young man, and he acts more the tragic clown than an alter ego. He appears to amuse the author.

The Quintet begins with Monsieur, or The Prince of Darkness – a beautiful, evocative novel. Monsieur gives Durrell’s readers great pleasure by returning us to the much beloved setting of his Quartet for Monsieur’s justifiably renowned scenes: the idyll on the Nile and the visit to Macabru.

Though Durrell’s name is on the cover, Monsieur can be read as a novel written by Blanford about “imaginary” characters, who are based on “real” characters, his personal friends, taking place in familiar scenes from his earlier life. Bruce Drexel M.D., Blanford’s narrator, has enjoyed an idyllic ménage with the Ogres in a Provençal setting, based on Blanford’s nostalgia for his pre-war idyll with his friends at Tu Duc.

Monsieur is a straightforward narrative until we get to Sutcliffe, the “imaginary” novelist, who has created his own satirical character, “Bloshford” the effete doubly-imaginary novelist.

We meet “Bloshford” on page 178…but since we’ve made Aubrey Blanford the putative author of Monsieur (or even the whole series), it’s good to be reminded that we don’t even meet him in the first book until the last chapter, nearly 100 pages later. Before that, Bruce and the Ogres are the story, followed by Sutcliffe and Toby, Pia and Trash.

After all this, BLANFORD THE NOVELIST (as he is announced in all caps) steps confidently onto the page – and he certainly makes a big impression. We buy-in to his primacy: he’s been called into town to write the biography of the dead Sutcliffe, and there are really only two drawbacks to that scheme: Sutcliffe is not really dead, and Blanford is crazy as a bedbug. Which is OK.

Blanford (like Sutcliffe) is in Venice, where the phantom Duchess of Tu now resides for some reason. Reality shifts, and the book’s last chapter is capped by a psychotic break: Blanford dining with the ghost of his friend Constance – who seems to buy-into the Rob/Sam equation, which is self-evidently wrong!

The imaginary characters are supposedly composites of the real characters, which is insulting both to them and the reader. Sutcliffe = Sam + Blanford, “Pia a composite of Constance and Livia.” Nonsense. We would do well to be skeptical of Blanford at every opportunity. There is a real character named Constance in these books, and this phantom Duchess at the end of Monsieur is not her.

(Just as an aside: has Constance died of old age? Monsieur was published in 1974, when she couldn’t have been much older than 70.) What of Sutcliffe in his Venetian Documents, talking about “the old Duchess of Tu” who again seems to be a totally different person from Constance. Bruce and ‘Young Tobias’ are obviously on a different reality track from this old Duchess.

What is the relationship between Blanford and Sutcliffe – the prime pair of twinned characters, real and imaginary? Occasional deference by Sutcliffe, but more often a raucous and profane apparent friendship of, if not peers, then certainly near-equals. We never see Blanford bully Rob – though Sutcliffe complains that Blanford has killed him off: his exact words are “Refuse to be rushed off the planet in this clumsy and ignominious fashion.” Rob Sutcliffe’s long decline is laughable – living in the squalid digs of an angel maker with a bunch of starving children, spending his nights drinking himself to a stupor with the old crone – an absurd characterization by Blanford which didn’t stick.

I had forgotten that Rob Sutcliffe had written “a famous novel” about his brother-in-law Bruce’s relationship with the Ogres. Has Blanford anywhere in the Quintet published anything? We know from the very first lines of Quinx that Blanford had tried to write a book about the same characters, but “Alas, it had not come off.” Which is puzzling and contradictory.

What does it mean when Sutcliffe restates the opening lines of Monsieur, the “super glow worm” supposedly written by Blanford? Is Rob reading Aubrey’s mind, as Blanford reads his? If so there is no real difference between their status, and Rob just has an inferiority complex! In Quinx, when Rob asks Sabine to sleep with him, she gives him a long strange look before replying: “But I don’t know which one of you is more real – for Aubrey has already asked me that.”

Rob is Blanford, and THEY are Durrell! It reminds me of my favorite Lindsay Anderson film, O Lucky Man! where the same famous actors portray multiple characters. What does it all mean? In Constance, Blanford tells Sutcliffe: “It is as if we were versions of one another set upon differing time tracks.”

Of course they both married Lesbians, if that’s at all germane. What effect does Durrell intend to create with these overlapping casts of characters?

Here’s one, Blanford speaking: “He wondered if in the next book about these people he could not cut down a layer or two to reveal the invisible larval forms, the root forms which had given him these projections.”

Here’s another: in Quinx, Sabine shares an unspoken thought about herself and Sutcliffe: “Why were they not free to forge their own futures? What damnable luck to be simply figments of the capricious human mind!” That line struck me. It is spoken by a so-called imaginary character – but it speaks to me as a reader. Every one of us in this room is theoretically free to forge our own future – but we are also constrained by the realities of the present! As Felix Chatto muses to himself: “…so many petty humiliations!”

Re-reading this line recently, I felt I understood the significance of the imaginary characters. They are like us – pawns on a chessboard. As Sutcliffe replied to Constance when she says: “So after all you are real,” he laughs and says “Everyone is real.”

What clues about his intentions did Durrell leave us in ENVOI, “the begats” on the last page of Monsieur?

It appears from the punctuation that Durrell is implying Blanford not only created Sutcliffe and the other imaginary characters – he also created the real characters! Or not…

If Aubrey is capable of psychotic breaks like his phantom dinner with Tu, then perhaps the entire Quintet is a fever dream in his mind. To which I say: twaddle! Durrell’s name is on the books – and taking even a few minutes to scan Aubrey’s internal stream of consciousness at the conclusion of Constance will disabuse anyone of the idea that he would be capable of creating the Quintet and its most moving scenes, such as the tragic end of Nancy Quiminal. ENVOI is a red-herring, Durrell having fun. Blanford rhetorically asks: “And what of me, he thought. Am I possibly an invention of someone like old D – the devil at large?”

Who is the Préfet at the end of Quinx and what is the source of his insight?

There is much talk about “time tracks” in the Quintet, and readers have noted its shaky timeline. (Durrell himself disclaims this “slight divergence” in the Appendix to Livia.) Apparently the first book is the latest, the closest to the present day, where the last book, Quinx, takes place decades earlier, sometime after the conclusion of the Second World War.

However, Monsieur truly is first, introducing us to this five book world centered around Avignon, and Quinx is really last, concluding the series on an optimistic note. This is where we meet the Préfet. Of all the characters, his vantage is the most omniscient. He sees all the characters, real and imaginary. For me, the Préfet is Durrell, inserting himself like Alfred Hitchcock in this cameo appearance, “…noting with interest that some of them came from other time-fields or other contingent realities – like Toby and Drexel, who were there with his two charming and juvenile ogres who seemed rather like impersonations of Piers and Sylvie of the past.”

A hybrid of SF & fantasy – like Tunc and Nunquam less than a decade earlier.

Can the Quintet be considered science fiction, in the same sense that The Revolt of Aphrodite was?”

I don’t think Durrellians are shocked by the words science fiction, yet there is a stigma about “sci-fi” as serious literature, and probably some measure of disbelief from those fans who have perhaps only read the Quartet and the Island books, that Durrell was (or could be) a science fiction writer – though he explicitly employs the term in his Note of introduction to Balthazar (in reference to the 4th-dimensional scheme of the Quartet).

There is little “science” in the Quintet – but, as so-called speculative fiction, these overlapping time tracks and hierarchies among characters based on gradations of their fictitious reality…these are definitely fantastic or fantasy elements by their very nature. Durrell handles them deftly, with a light and affectionate touch, and not every reader noticed that these books could be considered science fiction or fantasy.

Who is the nexus of the real and imaginary characters in the Quintet? Freud! Constance is a disciple – but Pia, Bruce’s sister and Sutcliffe’s wife, is his patient, and Pia and Rob are the ones who save Freud’s couch in Livia and ship it to Provence! Across reality tracks to Tu Duc, not to its mirror image of Verfeuille from their own ‘imaginary’ world. (Actually it’s Blanford who redirects the couch to Constance, “as he carried more weight in everything to do with real reality.”) Yet, in the same book when he meets Sylvie at Montfavet, Blanford doesn’t recognize her, nor the name of her brother Piers – even though he supposedly ‘created’ them.

Durrell is playing with us! He is showing a deft hand at tweaking reality in interesting ways. Constance is a beautiful and frightening book about World War II, and is the Quincunx of this series as many have noted, central to the other four books. It is a serious and harrowing novel about life in the Vichy – but it also manifests these fantasy elements.

Not all of the characters are aware of the real/imaginary dichotomy but some are – particularly Constance. When she admits to the old doctor Jourdain at the asylum that she is having an (unethical) affair of the heart with Sylvie, a patient and one of the imaginary “ogres”, it appears that these two characters from different time tracks are interacting on the same level. But when the old witch reveals to Sylvie that her partner “would soon leave her – indeed, that she was not any longer loved,” that is when different levels of reality manifest themselves and Sylvie “saw herself diminishing, becoming a parody of a person…” She was reverting from real to imaginary, changing states. This is science fiction at its highest and most literary level!

Constance says to Blanford: “By the way, I thought for a long time your Sutcliffe was imaginary.”

She thinks: “It must be strange to exist only in somebody’s diary, like Socrates…”

How could Constance accept Sutcliffe deferring to Blanford as his maker? A doctor and disciple of Freud – and she takes at face value that one friend created another? I don’t believe it! Sutcliffe is as real as Blanford – arguably realer, with his more complex life experience, his sorrow over Pia’s “inversion.” The reader is not fooled, nor are the characters. Everyone is playing parts…As Blanford considers at the end of Quinx: “…perhaps they could also be the various actors which, in their sum, made up one whole single personality?”

It’s complicated. Did some readers experience a disconnect with the Quintet? Perhaps it was the sex scenes…Let me ask this question one last time:

“What does this mean, real and imaginary characters, in the context of the novel?” I think one way of looking at it is, these groups of characters are from different time fields. When we meet the cast of Monsieur, these are definitely the ‘imaginary’ characters, all embarked together on their own time track.

“Squinting around the curves of futurity” – this is Blanford’s key speech to Sutcliffe early in Livia: “…I saw something like a quincunx of novels set out in a good classical order. Five Q novels written in a highly elliptical quincunxial style invented for the occasion….they would not be laid end to end in serial order, like dominoes – but simply belong to the same blood group, five panels…” Here’s another:

“To celebrate the mystical marriage of four dimensions with five skandas so to speak.” The five books of the Quintet are the five Skandas, proceeding from the four dimensions of the Alexandria Quartet. Onward and upward – this was Durrell’s ambitious plan for the Quintet: an extended metaphor about the creative process: characters creating other characters. I think he pulled it off rather well.

I am pretty much a lifelong Durrell fan, always aware of those four paperbacks of The Alexandria Quartet in my parents’ hall bookshelf: the lovely Giant Cardinal editions. Thank you very much.

posted 23 June 2017

Response by Bruce Redwine ©Bruce Redwine 2017

Ken has written a valuable essay on Lawrence Durrell’s Avignon Quintet. . My thanks to Ken for sharing his intimate knowledge of these books. His essay serves as a guide to these novels. It clarifies a lot (paradoxically by posing numerous questions) and would be useful as an introduction to the Quintet (with adjustments, of course), in the unlikelihood of it ever getting republished.

I do not challenge Ken’s positions as he explains the workings of the five novels, but I am still puzzled by the value of the Quintet itself, that is, by the very nature of Durrell’s whole enterprise or undertaking. So, I address a question which Ken doesn’t deal with—why did Durrell ever go down this road of postmodernist speculation? That long road begins early in his life and involves a fictional exploration of the basis of the human personality and of reality itself. If I may indulge in metaphor, we live our daily lives in the world of Newtonian mechanics where reality obeys certain laws we all recognize and accept. But Durrell seems to live and write in the subatomic world of Quantum mechanics where things are unstable and just plain crazy. To continue the analogy, traditional narration and storytelling is normally Newtonian, whereas Durrell’s fiction in the Quintet is Quantum.

Another comparison may be useful—let’s compare Lawrence Durrell with Joseph Conrad. Durrell was not alone in his musings on personality and reality. Here is Joseph Conrad in one of his letters, “When once the truth is grasped that one’s personality is only a ridiculous and aimless masquerade of something hopelessly unknown the attainment of serenity is not very far off” (23 March 1896). This sounds familiar, no? Durrell and Conrad share a similar appreciation of Buddhist/Indian thought, which Ravi Nambiar is very good at explaining. Moreover, as we all known, “facts” in Conrad are highly elusive, if downright impossible to ascertain. I may add, Conrad’s fiction did not go to Durrell’s extremes, which may account for the former’s greatness. What is deep structure in Conrad becomes surface structure in Durrell, and this, in my opinion, works to the latter’s disadvantage.

Humor is another consideration in comparing Durrell and Conrad. Ken makes reference to Durrell playing with his reader. About these highjinks, Ken occasionally says, “Nonsense” or “Durrell [is] having fun.” If in the Quintet Durrell the author functions as God, the ultimate creator, then Durrell has turned himself into his own Pursewarden and written a version of God Is a Humorist. This experiment is in keeping with Ken’s explication. All of which is fine, I suppose, if one wants to laugh at everything as simply fiction. But such humor can degenerate into frivolity, and Joseph Conrad is never frivolous. He can be sardonic, funny, or comic—but never frivolous.

Nevertheless, thanks again, Ken.

Posted 24 June 2017

A note on the background to Lawrence Durrell’s article “The Moonlight of Your Smile” (1960)

“The Moonlight of Your Smile” is a semi-humourous occasional article describing a Cypriot factory manufacturing (among other dental and peridontal products) black false teeth for the Asian market. Lawrence Durrell contributed it to the magazine of King’s School, Canterbury, under accidental circumstances (see below). The article was reprinted in From the Elephant’s Back, a collection of ephemera edited by James Gifford (2015).

As a public official in Cyprus and editor of the Cyprus Review (1954-56), Durrell was asked to investigate a rumour about such a factory for a possible contribution to the Cyprus Review. Although the resulting article states that he never visited the factory, in Larnaca, in person, he does describe how he succeeded, by subterfuge, in acquiring a set of black false teeth from a well-guarded centre of production. The factory, Durrell said, had a market for such products in “the Far East” due to the regular chewing of betel nuts which blackened the teeth of the consumer and thus necessitated black replacements.

In his notes to the piece as reprinted, James Gifford omits any reference to the context in which the piece was occasioned. The following background may be of some interest:

The original American Porcelain Tooth Company was established in Philadelphia by Samuel Bloom (1860-1941), a Lithuanian Jewish emigrant who, between 1891 and 1909, had patented nine different types of artificial dental products. The company was hugely successful; it was one of only fifteen such companies in the world and was producing 20,000 teeth per day. By 1926, when Bloom’s son, Leon, had joined his father in the company, they relocated to Tel Aviv, in Palestine, partly due to Bloom’s Zionist sympathies and partly to expand the business into Europe.

In 1934, as a consequence of the protective tariff system introduced following the Commonwealth Conference on Economic Consultation and Co-operation (1932), it was considered necessary to diversify by moving some production to Larnaca, in British-controlled Cyprus. The new facility was named “The Empire Dental Industry Ltd” and was largely run by Bloom’s son-in-law, Rehavia Raymond Feinstein. Apart from exporting conventional false teeth to fifty-six countries worldwide, the Larnaca company also produced black false teeth for betel-chewers in Siam (Thailand), at that time also British-controlled and therefore offering the company the same tariff-assisted access to new markets.

The factory enjoyed greatly increased expansion during the second world war while also providing jobs for Jewish refugees from the warzone. However, the porcelain product was threatened by increasing consumer demand for plastic teeth. By the time Durrell was trying to investigate its operations, production had diminished considerably, and in 1960 the factory was only saved from closure by a change of ownership. Durrell was, however, writing about a period when it enjoyed worlwide success as a Zionist and industrial triumph.

Durrell would almost certainly have known of the Bloom-Feinstein factory, since he was at that date already familiar with many aspects of developments in Palestine. That he did not identify the factory in “The Moonlight of Your Smile” in this lightweight piece is probably due to his wish to tell a good story (in a boys’ school magazine) and partly also to his natural reticence about international affairs at the height of the enosis crisis and its aftermath (since Cyprus became an independent republic in the year of publication).

Publication of “The Moonlight of Your Smile” came about by accident: the magazine’s editorial stated: “Two weeks ago a profile of Lawrence Durrell in The Observer stated, quite incorrectly, that he was educated at King’s. On these grounds alone we wrote asking him for a contribution and were sent the excellent short story featured in this issue. Also enclosed was a letter: ‘I apologize for the nasty smear in The Observer. I wasn’t responsible and indeed haven’t seen it. I send you a short article as a form of apology. I hope you can mention that I was educated at St. Edmund’s or they may march on you. . . . I hope my name won’t get you birched by the head.’” It is instructive that the magazine editor considered the piece to be a “short story” rather than a factual account, and this may have contributed to an erroneous idea that “The Moonlight of Your Smile” was a piece of fiction.

Sources: Samuel Bloom, My Memoirs (Tel Aviv: Palestine Publishing Company, 1939); Sir John Hope-Simpson, Palestine: Report on Immigration, Land Settlement and Development (London: HMSO, 1930); David de Vries, “From Porcelain to Plastic: Politics and Business in a Relocated False teeth Company, 1880s-1950s”, International Journal of Business History, 14/1 (2013). I am also indebted to Grove Koger for drawing my attention to the “accident” by which the article appeared in King’s School Review, 1/2 (March 1960).

posted 16 July 2017


The letters of Lawrence Durrell to Kostan [Constant] Zarian, 1937-1951

The DLC has recently acquired a copy of Varian Matiossian’s “Kostan Zarian and Lawrence Durrell: a correspondence”, published by the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies (volume 8, 1995). This hard-to-find article reproduces twenty-five letters from Durrell to Zarian, dating from 1937 to 1951. Durrell met Zarian while they were both living in Corfu, and struck up a friendship. Zarian (1885-1969) was an established writer, while Durrell (at that time in his mid-twenties) was a fledgeling novelist and poet, with Pied Piper of Lovers (1935) and some privately-published poems to his credit and his second novel, Panic Spring, about to appear.

Zarian is mentioned several times in Durrell’s Prospero’s Cell. He was, with Durrell, Count Constantine Palatianos and Theodore Stephanides, a founder of the “Ionian Banquets” at the “Perdika [or Partridge]” taverna in Corfu town, described by Stephanides in his memoirs Autumn Gleanings (published by the Durrell School of Corfu in 2011). Stephanides records that “Mr Zarian had constituted himself master-of-the-ceremonies” in which capacity “he had composed a very special ceremony” for the admission of new members – in which Stephanides suspected that Durrell had also played a part.

The correspondence began after Zarian had left Corfu for Vienna because, as Matiossian tells us, “its bad climate affected his health”. Zarian wrote to his compatriot Hamastegh “Corfu is beautiful and cheap, but wet and treacherous”.

Matiossian’s brief account of Durrell’s movements after Corfu is erroneous in several respects, but his biographical details about Zarian must be taken as reliable (he is the author of “A traveller and his many roads”, a biography of Zarian – Ararat XXXV, 1994).

Durrell and Zarian met once again, in Ischia, where the latter was living from 1948 after returning from the USA. Matiossian tells us that “this encounter became the main subject for a semi-fictional novella by Zarian, The Island and a Man (published serially in 1955 and as a book in English translation by Ara Baliozian, in 1983). A copy of the French translation, L’Île et un Homme, by Pierre Ter-Sarkissian, is in the DLC. Durrell’s essay on Zarian was published as “Constant Zarian: Triple Exile” in The Poetry Review in 1952.

Although they never met again, Durrell mentioned in a letter to Henry Miller of 1954 that he expected a visit from Zarian in Cyprus (where Durrell was then living); Zarian was proposing “to start a giant international paper in French and English”. It is possible that they did meet in Cyprus in 1954 when Zarian was there en route to Lebanon, but Matiossian tells us “he does not mention Durrell at all in his recently published diary” – Navatomor [Shipbook], Nork’ no.2, 1994.

No extant letters from Zarian to Durrell have come to light. Durrell reckoned that those dating from the Corfu years were lost when he and Nancy left the island. Matiossian speculates that Zarian’s letters to Durrell post-1939 might still be located.

Leo Hamalian (As Others See Us: the Armenian Image in Literature – New York: Ararat Press, 1980) suggests that Zarian acted as Durrell’s “guru” in Corfu. As the more established writer, Zarian certainly impressed Durrell, who addressed him in letters as “Dear Master” and “Dear Arch-Master”.

The letters Durrell-Zarian comprise:

Corfu – 3

Rhodes – 2

Argentina – 4

Bournemouth – 1

Belgrade – 14 (both before and after the Durrells – Lawrence and his second wife, Eve – visited Zarian in Ischia)

Trieste – 1

In the letters written from Corfu, Durrell describes The Black Book, and its publication problems, suggesting that he finished writing the book on his twenty-fifth birthday; the progress of his “Hamlet” essay (New English Weekly 1937) which, he says, “is reprinted in America [and] France”; and the putative sale of Panic Spring (“the Corfu romance”) to an American publisher.

Durrell’s admiration for Miller’s Tropic of Cancer is well-known, especially its iconoclastic spirit. In a letter to Zarian, Durrell puts himself in the same bracket, describing The Black Book as “a complete exposure of the spiritual and mental death of Europe” rather than the more limited notion of “the English Death” with which the book is usually associated.

The letters also discuss a notional-aspirational project, most likely generated in meetings in Corfu, for a self-publishing writers’ co-operative. This in fact became the “Villa Seurat Series” which Durrell, Miller and Anaïs Nin briefly set up in Paris at that time (1937-38); financed with Nancy Durrell’s money, it published (through Jack Kahane’s Obelisk Press) Durrell’s The Black Book, Miller’s max and the White Phagocytes and Nin’s Winter of Artifice.

From Rhodes he tells Zarian that Nancy has divorced him and that he has re-married. He hopes for a posting to France.

From Argentina he writes the type of woes with which we are familiar from his letters to Miller: “this is the very end of deadness”. “I am in the town of Cordoba in the north – supposed to be a charming old university town – my foot! It’s like Milan”. Nevertheless, he hopes for a job with the British Council in Italy, but his heart remains in Greece. He recommends Zarian to live near Beirut and seems to know the geography of Lebanon; “but my dear, it is the Orient, it is the Koranland: one gets so tired of Moslems”.

From Cordoba Durrell mentions the possibility of a holiday in Siena with friends, the Ambron family, who were presumably the owners of the mansion in which Durrell had lived in Alexandria.

Contrary to his hopes, Durrell had to “go before a Foreign Office board” with the result that he was posted to Yugoslavia; again, we have the letters to Miller, Alan Thomas and Theodore Stephanides describing his views of the communist régime. To Zarian he wrote: “Utter despair and destitution – and the smell of slavery and claustrophobia in the air!” “After seeing Metaxas in Greece and Péron in Argentina I find there is no difference at all here”. “Belgrade: this filthy medieval city with its hairy dirty Serbs”.

He writes of the composition of Reflections on a Marine Venus about Rhodes: “where for a short time we had a happy little group of friends – and a life not unlike our Prosperine life on Corfu”. He mentions that a Greek translation of Prospero’s Cell is due to appear, published in Corfu, and reports that George Wilkinson had returned to Corfu.

In July 1951 he tells Zarian that “I managed to get ten days leave in order to be in England when Eve produced a small daughter of a distinctly Chinese cast of countenance who is named provisionally Sappho Jane – don’t ask me why”.

Durrell mentions a duty tour to Bosnia and Montenegro “with a BBC commentator” – an account of this tour would eventually be published in the form of an official report by his colleague John Gibbs (Information Officer in Zagreb) in the Times Literary Supplement (7 August 2009) as “’No bugs or fleas’: a raod trip through Tito’s Yugoslavia” by Lawrence Durrell and John Gibbs.

One of Zarian’s replies (which were sent via the diplomatic bag in London to avoid local censorship in Yugoslavia) was delivered, in error, to the British prime minister rather than the Foreign Office, which caused Durrell some amusement.

The letters from Belgrade are interrupted by the Durrrells’ visit to Ischia in 1950 – leaving on 1 June by Simplon Orient train to Naples. In Ischia, Durrell’s poems Deus Loci were published by Di Maio Vito, and later Durrell would ask Zarian if he could send him “a little packet” of the poems, as “the Americans have just started getting interested in it and I think I could make some dollars”.

On their return journey they stopped at Rome and Venice. In Rome they met Zarian’s son Hovan, a philosopher, with whom Durrell discussed the work of Spengler. Having arrived back in Belgrade, Eve is planning a visit to Egypt in October to see her parents. Durrell describes his The Key to Modern Poetry as “my book on the metaphysics of poetry”.

The correspondence ends with Durrell’s impending departure from Belgrade and the hope of a prolonged reunion in Ischia – which was not to materialise.


Lawrence Durrell, F R Leavis and the “Canon” of English literature: an exchange

Sumantra Nag

I was intrigued by the interesting comments from Bruce under this title on the DLC and in particular by the anecdote about the discussion with E. M. Forster in Cambridge.

I was an undergraduate in Natural Sciences at Jesus College, Cambridge during 1967-69, taking my Tripos in two years in 1969 as a graduate student from Delhi University. At Cambridge I changed from physics to History and Philosophy of Science at the end of my first year and read this subject for my Tripos in Natural Sciences which I took at the end of my second year at Cambridge.

I started writing English poetry as a student if St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University and in Jesus College at Cambridge I participated in the meetings of the thriving Literary Society in the college, where one evening was devoted to reading and commenting on poems written by members of the college which were submitted by them for discussion. There were a number of talented students of English in the college at that time.

I believe it was after my first participation in these meetings that I was in the College bar in the company of a distinguished Irish research fellow in English literature at the College who had also just attended the meeting of the literary society where our poems were read and discussed.

In the bar on that evening we happened to be in the company of an obviously committed British undergraduate of English literature from our college. I spoke of my interest in Lawrence Durrell and The Alexandria Quartet, giving my reasons for liking his work and citing my Bengali disposition which responded to the vivid imagery of Durrell’s prose as one of the reasons for my liking Durrell.

My companion, a distinguished Irish research fellow – who later joined the British Civil Service – seemed to support and warm to my appreciation of Durrell’s prose and The Alexandria Quartet. He seemed to share my affinity for Durrell and his Quartet and I later learned from him that he had visited Alexandria.

During our discussion that evening he constantly encouraged me in my arguments in favour of the Alexandria novels while our other companion the serious and communicative British undergraduate in our company, appeared to be quite dismissive of Durrell and The Alexandria Quartet.

Later, I found most of my other friends in College – including those who were reading English literature – indifferent rather than hostile to The Alexandria Quartet. But the Irish research fellow whom I continued to meet, seemed to feel differently and given his academic position I believe his support of Durrell was an important indication of individual literary tastes.


Richard Pine, 5.3.17

Here’s an extract from the book which I am currently writing:

Influence of F R Leavis

If Mrs Leavis set the pace and the tone for literary snobbery, her husband, F R Leavis, made a direct, derogatory and denigratory attack on Durrell which has not helped me to respect Leavis: in The Great Tradition he wrote:

It is true that we can point to the influence of Joyce in a line of writers to which there is no parallel issuing from Lawrence […] In these writers, in whom a regrettable (if minor) strain of Mr Eliot’s influence seems to me to join with that of Joyce we have, in so far as we have anything significant, the wrong kind of reaction to liberal idealism. I have in mind writers in whom Mr Eliot has expressed an interest in strongly favourable terms: Djuna Barnes of Nightwood, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell of The Black Book. In these writers – at any rate in the last two (and the first seems to me insignificant) – the point of what we are offered affects me as being entirely a desire in Lawrentian phrase, to ‘do dirt’ on life.1

Leavis is further credited with having referred to Durrell as “not one of us”;2 whether he meant “not university educated” (Durrell was an autodidact with all the freedom from academic constraint that that bestows) or “not a member of the literary establishment” is unclear, but the put-down is unmistakeable: an élite, identified by Leavis, to which Durrell did not belong and could not be admitted.

Leavis’s hasty dismissal of The Black Book overlooks the fact that it derives from Middleton’s Black Book (1604) and its character “Lawrence Lucifer”, and from Durrell’s passionate interest in the Elizabethan age, a literature on the cusp of modernity yet bringing with it into the modern age the values, fears and energies of the medieval, the dark and the light, the joy and the terror. The expression “does dirt” must be one of the most unprofessional and morally disgraceful remarks ever made by one critic on another, but one can understand it, given the straitjacket of Leavis’s critical mind. The student who actually wants to encounter dirt in literature will hasten towards Durrell and Miller, only to find that Durrell and Miller, Barnes and, by association Eliot himself, are surprisingly “clean” and, therefore, that Leavis was wrong.

1 F R Leavis, The Great Tradition, p.26.

2 The remark is attributed by R. W. Dasenbrock to Ray Morrison in “Centrifugality: An Approach to Lawrence Durrell”, in L. W. Markert and C. Peirce (eds.), p.210.


Bruce Redwine, 9.3.17

Your topic is a problem in literary history, which is largely subject to literary tastes, and, as we all know, such tastes are fickle.  Leavis, an arch-conservative, had his moment at Cambridge, but who treats him seriously today?  He was “wrong,” as you say, but worse, he was strident and dogmatic in his likes and dislikes.  His charge of Durrell, Miller, and Lawrence “doing dirt” on life is reprehensible.  As far as I can see, Lawrence Durrell lost his appeal and his audience sometime after the Quartet (except for some devoted followers).  Nowadays say the word “Durrell,” and brother “Gerald Durrell” pops to mind for most folks.  Why?  I offer a few reasons.  One, Durrell follows in the footsteps of the Romantics, and Romanticism is currently out of favor (except among Romantic scholars!).  So, E. M. Forster’s irate criticism.   Two, he was an outsider, a “colonial,” and that was held against him.  He couldn’t rise through the British class system.  No contacts, no sponsors.  So, he had no Oxbridge degree conferring acceptance (even being “sent down” or getting a “gentleman’s degree” was considered respectable, to wit, Byron, Shelley, and Robert Byron).  Three, he was perhaps too versatile in both what he wrote and what he liked as literature.  He could take it all in, high and low.  A real Rabelais.  The “Minor Mythologies” fit in here.  Finally, he’s hard to understand.  He’s a great storyteller only when he wants to be; otherwise, he goes off pursuing his philosophical and religious interests.  So we have the Quintet, which is an exercise in the European “novel of ideas,” but which is not as good as the Quartet, which, for all its metaphysical framework, nevertheless tells a good story.


Gulshan Taneja, 11.3.17

1.    Bruce mentions that no one takes Leavis seriously today. It is perhaps true: I have no idea. But where has Bruce taken this judgement from? Or based it on what authority? Let’s say if Leavis had had ten books (or twenty) published on him since the new millennium began, would then Leavis qualify? Or will he qualify if we discover that Leavis in actual fact has a great deal of wonderfully positive things to say about Durrell?
I am not saying Bruce’s comment is wrong, as it is irrelevant to any serious discussion of any kind. Leavis’s judgements EITHER help us appreciate literature in general and, in this case, Durrell in particular, OR they are of no help in our reading of Durrell. 

2.    Even if no one is reading Leavis (or any other author in a similar context) seriously at all today, a scholar and thinker like Pine or a judicious reader like Sumantra may decide that we are likely to find Leavis or someone else useful. After all, we won’t turn to a daily newspaper to figure out if Leavis is popular enough and we should start taking him seriously.

3.    Richard tells us he doesn’t respect Leavis as much as he would have, had Leavis not been “derogatory and denigratory.” Richard’s personal feelings about Leavis have no relevance to us at all. What might be academically relevant is to figure out why a once widely admired critic like Leavis despised Durrell: whether he hated Durrell as Richard dislikes Leavis for personal reasons, or had a good argument to offer.  If it appears Leavis offers no potential for insight into Durrell oeuvre, let’s not allow him on this forum!

4.    In discussing Leavis’s unhelpful comments, the snide aside about Mrs Leavis seems similarly so irrelevant, even though perfectly delightful. Also, I would be reluctant to give her this honour (“Mrs Leavis set the pace and the tone for literary snobbery …”). I shall be happy to uphold T. S. Eliot’s treatment of D.H. Lawrence as worthy of Olympian laurels in this regard.

5.    Critics cannot be categorized as wrong or right. Some might find them useful, some not. More people dislike Leavis here than I do perhaps, but let’s willingly take his limited advice: even a List-serve or what DSC proposes to do can commit themselves to a ‘common pursuit of true judgement’ by urbanely listening to each other rather than asserting angry dismissals. Bruce and Richard both I am sure don’t want to act like Leavis in his “derogatory and denigratory” habits of comment, considering how valuable theier contribution has been in the past and will be I am so sure in future in these forums.


Richard Pine, 11.3.17

In relation to Mrs Leavis’s position, I should point out that her book Fiction and the Reading Public (1932) predated almost all FR Leavis’s publications, and also that, after FRL’s death, she claimed that the idea for The Great Tradition was hers, and that she was responsible for shaping most of it.


Bruce Redwine, 11.3.17

A response to Gulshan.

1.  I overstated.  Undoubtedly a few people do take F. R. Leavis seriously, and I am one of them when he limits himself to those three authors treated in depth in The Great Tradition (1948), namely, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad.  Who doesn’t think much of Leavis?  Fred Crews of UC Berkeley for one, who satirized him in his Pooh Perplex (1963).  (At Berkeley English in the 1970s, Leavis was treated as something of a joke, usually eliciting a sneer from a professor.)  What makes Leavis so controversial is his penchant for dismissive statements and rigid standards.  Those would probably exclude the likes of Lawrence Durrell.  Leavis, as arbiter of English literature, has brought himself into this discussion, which is about Durrell’s fallen reputation.  So, he’s highly relevant.  I haven’t read all Leavis wrote.  But I doubt he thought much of Durrell.  “He’s not one of us,” seems right as an attribution to FRL re LD.  (“Not one of us” defines Durrell as the outsider, perhaps in the context of certain British or literary values which need to be examined.)  I believe F. R. Leavis and E. M. Forster, along with the redoubtable D. J. Enright, shared similar opinions about Durrell.  Is it a coincidence that all three were associated with Cambridge?  Or is that fact indicative of a “climate of opinion,” which excluded Durrell from serious consideration as a writer?

2.  I agree that “critics cannot be categorized as right or wrong.”  (I assume this statement refers to opinions, not matters of fact or basic interpretation.)  Their usefulness is what counts.

3.  I hope this discussion does not get limited to stuffy rules of decorum.  I like listening to Richard’s occasional “snide asides,” which I take in the spirit of Pursewarden’s “Conversations with Brother Ass.”  As Gulshan notes, such commentary can be “perfectly delightful.”

4.  I would not call “snobbish dismissals” or  “angry dismissals” accurate.  I am not offended by strong opinions.  The problem with Leavis was that his opinions were delivered as judgments ex cathedra.

  1.  The question remains—why has Lawrence Durrell’s repute and popularity fallen on such hard times?  It seems to me that, aside from the “one of us” issue, this is a problem in literary tastes, how and why they change.——————————————————————————————————Richard Pine 12.3.17When it was suggested in the Times Literary Supplement that the “canon” established by FRL was – in the USA at least – no longer taken seriously, David Collard retorted that “In Britain the study of canonical texts is enshrined by law in the National Curriculum”, featuring “two of the four authors cited by Leavis in his seminal work” and that Leavis’s “critical values continue to influence the standards of educational policy-makers and examining boards”: Letters, 25 September 2016.


David Green, 11 and 12.3.17

I’d be interested to know how popular Durrell was, even during the height of his fame from 1957 into the late 60s, incidentally roughly the time he lived with Claude at Mazet Michel, the happiest years of his life in my opinion. Durrell has always struck me a niche writer. When I started reading him in the 1980s, I got where he was coming from, but, even then I felt that many would not; not only the subject matter, but the manner of writing. There is baroque quality to Durrell, which is at odds with English Protestantism. How much did Durrell care that he was not ‘one of them’? Apart from the Duff Cooper prize for Bitter Lemons, he won no other awards of which I am aware and certainly not from pudding Island. Did this bother him. Maybe.

I have always been interested to know how popular LD really was. Here in the antipodes, he is barely known and much less so than his brother. My Family was a big hit down here. The AQ made a modest splash amongst the arty farty set in the 60s, but the ripples didn’t travel far. My mum had a few Faber Paperback of the AQ but I am not sure if she read them, maybe Justine. I wonder how impact the new Durrell series will have. The first series was quite popular.


Bruce Redwine, 12.3.17

Lawrence Durrell’s reputation soared during and after the publication of The Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960), which led to the republishing much of his earlier work, the poetry included.  Bitter Lemons comes out in 1957, and it too was a great success, leading to the Duff Cooper prize.  The Paris Review interview is in 1960.  I recall Curtis Cate’s profile in the Atlantic Monthly  (1961), which has the author himself on the front cover in his pea jacket and scarf.  Quite dashing.  Around this time, there was talk of a Nobel Prize.  Yes, the years at Mazet Michel with Claude were definitely the glory years.  Then Claude’s death in 1967 and the “collapse.”  The beginning of the collapse of his reputation comes rather quickly.  I’d say around the late 1960s, and her death has much to do with it, I think, from an emotional and editorial standpoint.  (Michael Haag thinks Durrell’s writing suffers after the loss of Claude as his chief editor.)   The Revolt of Aphrodite (1968-1970) was not well received.  Durrell has many styles (from Senecan to Ciceronian).  But, as you point out, “Baroque” may be the most apt characterization.  Sumantra has compared him to Sir Thomas Browne (esp. Urn Burial), whose style is definitely Baroque.  I think Sumantra is right.  “English Protestantism” is an excellent analogy.  I associate that with late Renaissance writers such as Paul Bunyan (Pilgrim’s Progress) and John Milton (Samson Agonistes).  Durrell obviously doesn’t much care for British Protestantism.  So, on an immigration form, Pursewarden identifies as his religion:  “Protestant—purely in the sense that I protest.”  


Richard Pine, 12.3.17

When I was lunching with Durrell in his house in Sommières in 1988, he went to answer the telephone – the operator was putting through a long-distance call. Larry returned to the table wreathed in smiles. He recounted the conversation:

Operator: “C’est M. Lawrence Durrell?” LD: “Oui, bien sur, c’est moi.” Operator: “L’auteur de Quatuor d’Alexandrie?” LD: “Oui”. Operator: “Con!”

Larry was thrilled that a French telephonist had called him a “cunt” for having written the Alexandria Quartet.


Sumantra Nag, 12.3.17

I read Sir Thomas Browne’s writing including Urn Burial out of curiosity after finding from critical works on Durrell that his prose was compared with that of Sir Thomas Browne. Durrell’s prose was also compared with the prose of Thomas de Quincey whom I had earlier read. 

I remember reading an essay by George Steiner where he used the term Baroque to describe the novels of the AQ.  

I agree that a Protestant view of literature will not perhaps find an affinity with Durrell. 

I would ask: does the life of Forster show a strong mooring in Protestant religion or Protestantism in terms of social and moral mores followed by him? 

In Alexandria at least, he seems, with Cavafy, to have become a part of the “inverted” – if one may use a rather broad term for the sake of brevity – sexual activity which Durrell treats as the background for his work. Durrell’s use of the phrase ” . . .  subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself.” (Justine, page 2, The Alexandria Quartet, Faber paperback 1968/74).

By the way, Bruce, glancing through the chapters devoted to Forster in Haag’s  Alexandria, City of Memory I am no longer sure that it was in Wendy Moffat’s book EM Forster: A New Life that I read additional material on Forster in Alexandria, as I recently suggested in a mail, though there may be something of interest there. I will have to read Haag’s extensive account based on Forster’s world in Alexandria again, and perhaps go through Wendy Moffat’s book again. 


Bruce Redwine, 12.3.17

Good question.  Does a clear writing style reflect Protestant mores?  We have to be careful here, for Thomas Browne, whose style is “Baroque,” was a devout Christian.  Dunno about E. M. Forster, but I suspect he was agnostic.  So, I’m not sure what the relationship is between writing and religion—that is, if we can effectively define a Protestant style developing from its mores.  Samuel Johnson was a devout Christian, and his writing is spare.  Hemingway, famous for terseness, cited the Hebrew Bible, Genesis in particular, as one of his models.  He wasn’t religious, however.  I tend to think that there is something to the “Protestant style,” which seems to have developed in opposition to Catholic ostentation.  In America, the Puritans were famous for their lack of ornamentation, their “purity.”  Where does Durrell fit in here?

I wonder if Forster, a homosexual, was offended by Durrell’s treatment of homosexuality in the Quartet.  I doubt that Forster liked being labeled “inverted” (he was secretive about his sexuality), and that may have had something to do with his intense dislike of Durrell.  Durrell’s term, by the way, was probably picked up from Freud.


Sumantra Nag, 13.3.17

Like Proust, Durrell is writing about an “amoral society” in The Alexandria Quartet. Does that go against a canon emerging from The Great Tradition of F R Leavis? 

I would also put this question to Gulshan who has been concerned with both Lawrence Durrell and Leavis. 

Leavis reacted strongly to Durrell’s The Black Book which appeared to me – on a partial reading – to be an early novel heavily influenced by Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer. The novels of The Alexandria Quartet are set in a much larger and a different canvas and possess what one early review of Justine described as great beauty. 

Moral questions do pervade the novels of The Great Tradition (of which I have read at least one novel by each of the authors included). 

What moral view does Leavis take of Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  

Bruce, while speaking of your reference to a protestant view, I was really asking a question about acceptability of the material chosen for a novel, it’s treatment and the presence of moral questions. 

I had not thought so much of styles associated with protestantism, but as you have very rightly pointed out, a conscious absence of ornamentation in prose would perhaps be the natural quality of prose associated with a protestant view. 

May I ask if it would be possible for DLC to collect all the reviews of Lawrence Durrell’s novels? I think the earliest reviews, particularly of Justine would reveal the first – and perhaps the most appreciative – critical reactions to the novels of the AQ.


Gulshan Taneja, 14.3.17

   1.       Leavis supported and defended Lawrence throughout his active career. Leavis upheld D H Lawrence as against T S Eliot. But he didn’t consider Lady Chatterley Lover as important because of, what he considered its didactic intent. For him the novel deliberately propounded a certain ‘ideological’ viewpoint and  it, thus,  had an agenda that the author wanted pushed at all cost. So he rated it low on artistic grounds compared to other major novels such as Women in Love or Rainbow.
Leavis wrote on Lawrence extended studies in 1930, 1955, and 1976. But in the trial of
Lady Chatterley’s Lover,  he refused to join Penguin as a witness in defence of the novel  because he felt that the trial and the Defence being offered at Old Bailey by intelligentia were projecting Lady Chatterley’s Lover as central to Lawrence’s oeuvre, as important to an understanding of Lawrence’s art and thought. Leavis didn’t want to strengthen that impression. The Defence of the Novel against charges under Obscene Publications Act (1959) saved Penguin and Sir Allen Lane from the law but distorted an appropriate understanding of Lawrence’s art and thought.

     Whether Durrell suffered for Leavis in view of the Leavis’s viewpoint propagated in The Great Tradition, an easy and simple answer would be: The art and content for Leavis were one one thing. Meaning, one couldn’t write a novel with great art but poor morality or vice versa. So if Leavis rated Durrell low, it has to be because he found Durrell’s book wanting in artistic values as much as moral indicators. But that’s a big question and needs a greater explication and better handling than I am doing here.

2.       Perhaps I should have added that The Obscene Publications Act had been introduced in 1959 and Lady Chatterley’s Lover  was the first book to be the subject of prosecution under its provisions. When in October 1960 at the Old Bailey a jury of nine men and three women prepared for the trial of “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Sir Allen Lane managed to put together the who’s who of the times, Noel Annan and all, to act as witnesses for the defense against the prosecution’s charge. It won’t have helped if someone were to say in the witness box that the book being prosecuted was not exactly a great book. The tenor of defense was that cause of great art would receive a big blow of  Sir Allen Lane were to charged and the book were to be banned. In the transcripts of the trial, Lady Chatterley’s Lover emerges as a monumental work of artLeavis didn’t want Lawrence to become universally famous as the “author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”  So he decided not to lend additional weight to the flaunted but non-existent merits of the book by refusing to join the list of distinguished defenders of the legally charged book.


Sumantra Nag 14.3.17

This contribution from Gulshan appears to clarify Leavis’ views and therefore puts in perspective Lawrence Durrell’s position as seen in terms of Leavis’ Canon on fiction and literature. But as far as I can see, Leavis’ view of Durrell was based only on The Black Book. 

The Alexandria Quartet is what established Durrell and I don’t know how the Canon of Leavis would apply to this large and complex work. 

The AQ is supposed to have received both critical and popular acclaim when it first appeared. 

To what extent are the critical criteria of Leavis alone responsible for the forming of reading tastes? And to what extent do we relate reading tastes to specific schools of literary criticism? 


Bruce Redwine, 14.3.17

In The Great Tradition, F. R. Leavis extols Jane Austen, George Eliot, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad.  D. H. Lawrence also gets special recognition.   Leavis’s main interests lie in demonstrating art as some kind of moral endeavor, so “[the greats] are all distinguished by a vital capacity for experience, a kind of reverence before life, and a marked moral intensity” (p. 9).  I’m not sure what Leavis means by “moral,” a word repeated continuously, but I am not opposed to emphasizing morality and conduct, especially as seen in Conrad, but there’s more to literature than all that.  As Richard previously mentioned, Leavis singles out Henry Miller and Durrell of The Black Book as writers who “‘do dirt’ on life” (p. 26).  Leavis incorrectly attributes the quotation to one of Lawrence’s letters.  Michael Haag has dug up the correct source as Lawrence’s Pornography and Obscenity (1929).   By “doing dirt” Lawrence means pornography; Leavis seems to mean that and something more, possibly something associated with morality.  As to the latter’s criteria, “vital capacity” applies to LD, but “reverence before life” and “moral intensity” do not readily characterize him as writer, unless we redefine “morality” to include Durrell’s claim that he’s a “religious” writer, perhaps one of the “kingdom of the imagination” (cf. the Gospel of Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven”).

Putting aside his dislike of Romanticism and sloppy writing, I think that E. M. Forster was most appalled by Durrell’s apparent amorality, as depicted in the Quartet.  He seems to me a “Leavite” in this regard—however immorality may apply to Durrell.  On the other hand, Forster himself was not the most moral of persons.  In City of Memory, Michael Haag is good at bringing out Forster’s highly questionable treatment of his lover in Alexandria, the Egyptian Mohammed el Adl.  That conduct I would call a lack of “moral intensity.”


Gulshan Taneja, 14.3.17

Bruce, Not that it matters, but I don’t get the impression that Leavis is attributing ‘do dirt’ expression to Lawrence’s letters. I don’t hv Lawrence prose handy and I can’t check my notes, but Lawrence has used the expression several times all over. 


Bruce Redwine, 14.3.17

Gulshan, I’m looking at my edition of Leavis’s Great Tradition (1973).  His documentation is deficient.  On p. 26, he notes the “Laurentian phrase, to ‘do dirt’ on life” but does not cite the original text.  In the next sentence, Leavis quotes from Lawrence’s letters:  “One must speak for life and growth, amid all this mass of destruction and disintegration.”  By today’s standards of documentation, “do dirt” would be attributed to DHL’s letters.  Of course, Leavis was writing in 1948, when citations were more relaxed.

On Leavis’s use of “moral,” I wonder if anyone else is confused or troubled by Leavis’s diction.  This may get to the heart of the Leavis problem, that is, the standards he uses to evaluate literature.  It seems to me that his usage is vague, idiosyncratic, and contradictory.  I reread his introductory chapter 1.  In it, he sets up Lord David Cecil as a critic he disagrees with.  Cecil associates George Eliot with “Puritanism.”  Leavis disagrees, “Actually, though ‘Puritan’ is a word with many intentions, it is misleading to call her a Puritan at all” (p. 13).  He then quotes Cecil’s description of Eliot’s Puritanism:  it’s a “moral code,” which involves knowing “right and wrong,” admiring “truthfulness and chastity and industry,” and disapproving “of loose living and recklessness and deceit and self-indulgence” (p. 13, n. 2).  All these “Puritan” qualities, indeed universal values, seem bland and unobjectionable enough.  Leavis, however, objects and says, “I had better confess that I differ (apparently) from Lord David Cecil in sharing these beliefs, admirations and disapprovals, so that the reader knows my bias at once” (p. 13, n. 2).  What?  Leavis may be objecting to Cecil’s suggestion that Eliot exemplifies these values, he has his own interpretation of what’s great about Eliot, but he does not define his own sense of “moral” and “morality.”  Instead, he simply makes a declaration.

F. R. Leavis’s sense of “moral” literature seems similar to Lawrence’s dictum:  “one must speak for life and growth.”  It’s a declaration of some kind of creationism.  It’s pro-life.  That’s one aspect.  But here’s the paradox—he also latches onto the immorality of “doing dirt on life.”  Both Lawrence and Leavis associate this with pornography, and it smacks of Puritanism, which both of them oppose.  So, Miller and Durrell get chastised with a Puritan whip.


Ravi Nambiar – posted 15.3.17

Mulk Raj Anand about Leavis in my interview with him: “F. R. Leavis was a teacher of English in Cambridge. He reacted against Durrell and Henry Miller because of his middle class obsession. Leavis did not see beyond the English novel, to read from Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe or Flaubert’s Madam Bovary. In these writers there was recognition of women’s urges in France before the English realized the aspirations of the female.” [The quotation is from C Ravindran Nambiar’s Indian Metaphysics in Lawrence Durrell’s Novels (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), pp.165-190].

David Green, 15.3.17
Ah, Puritanism; a favourite subject. We live in an age of neo Puritanism centred around vegetarianism, cycling, gluten free, gym memberships and eco purchasing, a drift towards other forms of extremism etc, etc,
After discovering the wonders of Henry Miller’s ‘man sized work’ I suggest that Durrell went out to shock deliberately, if artistically, the in Alexandria Quartet. He said as much to Miller when he claimed he was going to write upper class porn. Well, I don’t think it’s porn but i do think that, apart from creating a vast personal canvas which he would inhabit for the rest of his life, he aimed to shove it up the likes of Leavis and the other pudding islanders, a major fuck you statement. Let us consider how relatively tame his pre Quartet book are?? Suddenly a bold writer goes on the front foot, no longer dwelling in olive groves by the sighing sea but into a bigger world of pouffs, perverts, lesbians and mad bastards, decadent aristos, women of the night; all the types he encountered in wartime Brit empire Egypt and he never looked back. Or maybe he did. For me he wrote his best stuff from Prospero’s Cell to Bitter Lemons, including Justine. But then I like the sound of cicadas in the trees and crickets underground, quiet bays and octopus in red sauce. Not too mention jugs of cold retsina. Pombal can eat his adjectival radish.
Sumantra Nag, 15.3.17


Personally I cannot associate The Alexandria Quartet with porn of any kind and you have rightly pointed this out. In the AQ Lawrence Durrell writes in an impressionistic manner about sexual activity as a constant presence in Alexandria, but without graphic detail. He writes as Proust wrote, about an amoral society, and about homosexuals, lesbians and people who were bisexual.
The point is that Durrell concentrates on features of Alexandrian life dealing frequently with sexual activity, but excludes other aspects of the city which included cultural activity and the performance of opera and music in the city by renowned artistes. Of course Durrell does draw on the history and mythology of the city.
At the time of its publication the AQ was definitely regarded as a masterpiece and I would say it’s scope is far too large for it to be simply a provocative reaction to the British fiction of his time or to the tenets being built by Leavis.
The Black Book on the other hand might fit the role of a book designed to shock. But the AQ is surely far too large and contains elements of beauty which put it beyond a shocker. It would challenge the puritanical in terms of its dealing with urban sleaze in an exotic setting, but ironically, the richness of Durrell’s language raises the material of the AQ to a level where it often acquires a dream like quality. I don’t know if that sounds like an overstatement.

Proust and Durrell: a comment by Sumantra Nag

23 February 2017

Having resumed my reading of Proust   after a lapse of many years, I devoted the last few months to reading the last four volumes (Cities of the Plain, The Captive, The Fugitive and Time Regained) of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) in the English translation by Terence Kilmartin (Penguin 1983).

This translation, evidently includes some reworking of Scott Moncrieff’s original translation but was described as a very faithful translation of Proust’s work. I gather that later translations were done by different translators around 2010 but I haven’t accessed them yet.

Having read these last four volumes I returned to the earlier volumes to refurbish my memory of them, since I had read them many years ago.

My recent reading of Proust’s monumental work led me to perceive that many of the qualities marking The Alexandria Quartet are present in the novels of In Search of Lost Time (to use the original title) where these qualities prevail in much greater depth, range and variety.

To begin with, if Durrell’s original description of his novels (the AQ) was “an investigation of bisexual love” – subsequently edited by the publishers to read as “an investigation of modern love” – Proust’s work deals with homosexuality, lesbianism and bisexual love through an extensive range of characters and situations which are explored at length. 

In Proust’s work the narrator’s extended relationship with Albertine and his sense of loss following her death are expressed in great detail with a stirring poignancy. Larry’s feelings for the impoverished Melissa in the AQ has a similar quality.

Proust records obsessive love and jealousy with great intensity. In the AQ Justine and her relationships with both Larry and her husband Nessim reflect a similar concentration of feeling.

Proust describes landscape and the effect of light with the vividness of a painter and deals with moods associated with landscape. Durrell displays a similar preoccupation with the colours and effects of landscape.

One could go on . . . Psychological analysis and rhetorical observations abound in Proust and Durrell’s rich prose includes a similar content.

I presume I am scratching the surface of a literary comparison which has received scholarly treatment about which I am eager to learn.

An early review of the AQ novels spoke of a “Proustian ferocity” with which Durrell deals with his material. While on this point, it might be interesting to read all the reviews of the novels from The Alexandria Quartet if they are available in a collected format.

and a response by Bruce Redwine

24 February 2017

Sumantra, I think you’re right about Proust’s influence on Durrell’s Quartet.  The parallels you point out are there.  When the novels came out in the late 1950s, critics mentioned the Proustian effect, especially in the context of memory and the evocation of Alexandria.  Durrell himself spoke of À la recherche du temps perdu and the roman-fleuve in his 1960 Paris Review interview.  If we think of the 20th-century novel as having two major strains, the Joycean and the Proustian, the Quartet clearly belongs to the latter, whereas the Quintet more to the former.  Durrell, of course, denies these traditions in the Balthazar note, but we can’t believe everything he says.  You rightly point out “bisexual love,” which got changed to “modern love” in that same note.  Proust was a homosexual, and bisexuality describes an aspect of his narrative technique.  Whether or not Durrell himself had such “tendencies” remains open to debate.  More importantly, bisexuality is a major topic in Freud, and Durrell certainly knew his Freud.  His characters go through stages of sexuality—Justine is mannish, Clea a lesbian (for a while), Darley gayish, and so on.  On the audio section of the DLC, listen to Durrell’s very amusing “Ulysses Come Back.”  His interest in multiple aspects of the female personality seem in tune with fluid sexuality.  I think Proust was Durrell’s natural affinity.  More should be done on this topic.


Lawrence Durrell and Wordsworth: an ongoing exchange:

This exchange began with Bruce Redwine posting the review by Helen Vendler of a new edition of Wordsworth’s 1805 Prelude.

Bruce Redwine:  It is superb.  She focuses on Wordsworth’s poetic rendition of “consciousness.”  I read her essay and immediately thought of Durrell.

Ken Gammage: I freely admit to some chagrin reading it. Before you sent this I would have said The Prelude is one of my favorite poems – yet I plainly failed to read the whole thing or understand what it was about. At least the parts about the French Revolution! I have a Penguin English Poets parallel edition of the 1805 and 1850 versions, without any further commentary following a brief introduction by J.C. Maxwell. As an undergraduate (which is all I ever was – with a BA) I was fascinated by the younger version, and contemptuous of the revision 45 years later.

Bruce Redwine: as to Helen Vendler’s review of The Prelude, 1805 version, what she points out to me is Wordsworth’s use of language as a way to represent the poet’s unfolding consciousness.  Which is part of the problem with figuring out what the poem is trying to say in its very strange way.  (He would flunk Imagist concerns about “specificity.”)  I think Vendler is very good at explaining that process.  The story is not her main interest, rather the mind that records it.  After all, the poem’s subtitle is “the growth of a poet’s mind,” a fact often ignored by critics, as they concentrate on events and not language.  Yes, the 1805 version (don’t forget the 1799 two-part Prelude) is better than the 1850, which loses much of its spontaneity.  How does this relate to Lawrence Durrell?  It seems to me that Durrell is doing something very magical with language, something analogous to Wordsworth’s “growth of mind.”  I’m baffled at how he creates his own world, which is not really Corfu or Alexandria or Avignon.  We’re really inside Durrell’s dazzling mind.  Swallow the “hot nude pearl” and you’re in a very mysterious place.

Richard Pine: LD really envied W – his ability to be 2 people and to co-habit those 2 people (he says it in his introduction to the Penguin W)

Bruce Redwine: That’s interesting.  I’ve ordered the Penguin edition of Durrell’s selection of Wordsworth’s poetry.  My impression, based on the two quotations below, was that Durrell held Wordsworth in low regard, primarily because of his Englishness.

With what emotion we gazed over Westminster Bridge, reciting Wordsworth’s indifferent sonnet and wondering if his daughter grew up less beautiful for being French.  (Clea)

The whole area was tastefully laid out with gardens full of daffodils and other Wordsworthian aids to memory.  (Livia)

Then there’s the Quinx epigraph taken from a letter.  The two quotations from the poetry are among Wordsworth’s most famous (and beloved) poems—“Composed upon Westminster Bridge” and “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”  A little envy at work?

Richard Pine: this raises the massive question: does what a writer puts into the mouths of his characters necessarily reflect his/her own opinions? Probably, yes it does, but it allows wriggle room. After all, LD also adopted that (misquoted) aphorism by W as the epigraph for QUINX: “must itself create the taste by which it is to be judged”. By associating himself with this from W, was LD saying “the only arbiter of my work is the man who wrote it, like W I can only be judged by my own standards”, and if so, was this his “retaliation in advance” for the fact that he knew Quinx to be a poor conclusion to the Quintet?

Bruce Redwine: This is indeed a massive question.  I tend to think, however, as you do too apparently, that Durrell’s fictional statements (of the kind indicated below) do in fact reflect his own opinions.  Re the Wordsworth epigraph, I would go further and suggest that Durrell was “retaliating in advance” for the poor reception of the Quintet in its entirety.  In other words, he’s saying, “I know what I’m doing, and you critics are too dumb to understand.”  I guess, with respect to Wordsworth himself, Durrell was posturing.  “Westminster Bridge” is a pretty good sonnet.

Richard Pine: Yes, it can certainly be read as LD – I was paraphrasing the Irish expression – getting his retaliation in first. But, since W did say it too, even if casually (in a letter) it has to be taken seriously at face value. I think LD’s admiration for W would overcome his somewhat derogatory references to his poetry. Anyone who could write “I’ve measured it from side to side   / It’s two feet long and three feet wide” or something along those lines, has to be jettisoning his reputation as a poet. Even “…. comes and goes / and lovely is the rose” is pretty damn awful in my book.

Bruce Redwine: Wordsworth famously had his problems as a poet—some truly great poems, some awful (as you point out).  Aside from running out of juice somewhere around 1814, his problem seems to arise from his poetic doctrine, as stated in the Preface to The Lyrical Ballads.  He became too committed to the language of the common man.  It’s a bad idea to be obsessed with any kind of dogma.

David Green: Someone once said to me that Wordsworth had brilliant lines but terrible poems. I like the line from Tintern Abbey ‘quiet inland murmur’. Reminds me of summers in the Blue Mountains cooling off in shady streams in the middle of bushland nowhere.

Bruce Redwine: “Michael” and “Tintern Abbey” are two of my favorites.  Lurking in the shadows of both poems are a couple of dark inklings—betrayal and incest.  “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her?” Really?  And what about Dorothy and her “wild eyes,” Wordsworth’s sister and constant companion?  What was going on with that pair?  They remind me of Maggie and her brother Tom in Mill on the Floss.

Bruce Redwine: My thanks to Richard for pointing out Durrell’s book of a rather brief selection of Wordsworth’s poems (Penguin 1973), which is undoubtedly the publisher’s fault (so I imagine the order, “Make your selections short and sweet—keep expenses down!”).  I got the thin paperback today.  It’s apparently part of a series:  “Poet to Poet.”  On the cover, Durrell’s name is as large as Wordsworth’s, which says something about Durrell’s status in the early 70s.  His excellent introduction is long (12 pp.), much longer than any of the poems selected, and somewhat surprising, to me anyway, given my previous impression that he didn’t much like England’s Poet Laureate, W.W., Esq., B.A. (Cantab).  It would be interesting to know if Durrell got involved in the project simply to make money and promote his own name, or if he had a genuine interest in the famous recluse of the U.K. Lake District.  The latter I think; he didn’t have to do it for all the work involved and the pittance he surely got as payment.  Anyway, Durrell’s opening theme is Wordsworth’s double identity, announced in the first sentence:  “The problem of Wordsworth the poet has always been bedeviled by the double image of the man” (9).  Durrell knew something about double identity (wasn’t he himself also something of a recluse in Sommières, when he wasn’t promoting his own books in London and elsewhere?).  His profile of Wordsworth the man is fair and just, so I guess when poets speak about poets and poetry (“this task, to which he had been called by the deepest part of his own nature” [11]), they tend to honor and eulogize their common calling.  Nihil nisi bonum.  Durrell’s portrayal of Wordsworth’s illegitimate daughter Caroline, by Annette Vallon, is quite sympathetic, as is his depiction of Wordsworth’s “beloved sister Dorothy” (mentioned twice) and shows no obvious trace of incest (which surely crossed his mind).  But what does “[Dorothy’s] natural place” and “the voluptuousness of the transference” in W.W.’s affections really mean (12, 13)?  Durrell gives Freud extensive treatment, although Freud’s theory of incest goes unmentioned.  Seems to me that incest was on the tip of Durrell’s tongue, which he ended up biting, and substituting with a love of siblings that “outstripped all thought of real sexuality” (14).  Still, Durrell’s description of W.W.’s domestic household is among the best I’ve read.  It’s noteworthy that he gives most of his space to Wordsworth’s biography, which he apparently considers more interesting than the poetry.  (Durrell’s sometimes seems to be talking about himself as he describes Wordsworth’s tribulations—read Claude-Marie Vincendon when the grief over Dorothy Wordsworth’s decline gets mentioned.)  This introduction is important for Durrellian studies, but so too is Durrell’s selection of the poetry, for, although many of the standards poems are here, a couple are not.  Durrell omits the very famous rainbow poem (“My Heart Leaps Up When I Behold”), along with the equally famous daffodil poem (“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud”).  Which is a little strange for a poet famous for his own natural descriptions.  I hear Pursewarden’s sarcasm determining these omissions.  Durrell also has a double identity.

Ken Gammage: Good Bruce! Why does Wordsworth supposedly have this double image that Durrell relates to, more than say any number of other writers and poets? (I can see that Miller doesn’t – he is pretty consistently himself.) But most people have more than one side to their personalities. For Durrell what can it be with Wordsworth other than the intriguing relationship with his sister? I just went back to “Nutting.” Strange poem. Seemingly autobiographical. The boy finds a quiet bower and rests there: then rapes and pillages it. Sounds like a Cheever story! But how does it end. Does he feel sorry, or just uneasy because there’s a Spirit in the woods.


A  bibliographical curiosity: Forster’s Alexandria

The Times Literary Supplement of 22 August 1980 published the following letter from Lawrence Durrell:

“Would you permit me to impose upon the good nature of your readers with a question? It is a small matter but a vexatious one. recently an English publisher asked me to preface the Alexandrian Guide of E  M Forster. I replied that I had already done so ten or fifteen years ago for an American paperback. This duly appeared. I saw and handled a copy with my preface. The little note even earned the approval of Forster, for he gave me a kindly passing mention as  a”late lover of the city”. No trace of this production can be found; publishers in the United States, both paperback and hardback deny the existence of such a preface. Nor does it figure in any bibliography devoted to my work. Its disappearance is so complete that the English publisher is coming to believe that I am romancing; and yet … despite old age and the odd slipped cog of memory, I cannot have dreamed up this preface. I would be so grateful if its existence could be signalled – and even more for a photocopy of the same. It was very short. LAWRENCE DURRELL, Sommieres 15, Gard 30250 France”.

Bruce Redwine adds the following (copyright B Redwine, 2017)

E M Forster and Lawrence Durrell

E. M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell admired the city of Alexandria, Egypt, but mutual admiration did not foster mutual respect.1 The former lived in Alexandria during World War I, the latter during World War II. Forster’s experiences resulted in Alexandria: A History and a Guide (1922), and Durrell’s culminated in The Alexandria Quartet (1960). When Durrell lived in the city, he used a copy of Forster’s book as a guide and would later comment that the work ‘contains some of Forster’s best prose, as well as felicities of touch such as only a novelist of major talent could command’.2

The two writers never met, and P. N. Furbank’s biography, E. M. Forster: A Life (1978), does not mention Durrell. E. M. Forster, however, did have an opinion about Lawrence Durrell. Awhile ago

Andrew Stewart, a friend, told me an anecdote. Between October 1966 and May 1969, he was an undergraduate in Classics at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. Forster was an honorary fellow at King’s College. King’s was then renovating its halls and kitchens, and its fellows would eat at St Catharine’s. (‘A Cat may look at a King’, so went the adaptation of the proverb.) On one occasion, Stewart was invited to the High Table; he sat next to Forster. This was before Forster went ‘gaga’. Lawrence Durrell came up in conversation, and Forster’s eyes immediately lit up. The old man unleashed a number of unkind words about Durrell. The gist of the tirade was that Forster considered Durrell a sloppy writer and guilty of deplorable Romanticism in his depiction of Alexandria. My

friend thought Forster had written up his opinion in an essay. I haven’t found it. But I do recall D. J. Enright’s essay, ‘Alexandrian Nights’ Entertainments: Lawrence Durrell’s “Quartet”’, which says much the same thing and ends with, ‘[W]hen Durrell is good he is very good, and when he is bad he is horrid’.3 Enright also graduated from Cambridge, so there may be another one of those Forsterian ‘connections’.


1. My thanks to Andrew Stewart for permission to relate this anecdote. He is Nicholas C. Petris Professor of Greek Studies, University of California, Berkeley.

2. E. M. Forster, Alexandria: A History and a Guide, Introduction by Lawrence Durrell, Afterword and Notes by Michael Haag (London, 1986), xv.

3. D. J. Enright, Conspirators and Poets (London, 1966), 120.

Sumantra Nag sends the following comment on Forster and Durrell

I was intrigued by the interesting comments from Bruce under this title on the DLC and in particular by the anecdote about the discussion with E. M. Forster in Cambridge.

I was an undergraduate in Natural Sciences at Jesus College, Cambridge during 1967-69, taking my Tripos in two years in 1969 as a graduate student from Delhi University. At Cambridge I changed from physics to History and Philosophy of Science at the end of my first year and read this subject for my Tripos in Natural Sciences which I took at the end of my second year at Cambridge.
I started writing English poetry as a student if St. Stephen’s College in Delhi University and in Jesus College at Cambridge I participated in the meetings of the thriving Literary Society in the college, where one evening was devoted to reading and commenting on poems written by members of the college which were submitted by them for discussion. There were a number of talented students of English in the college at that time.
I believe it was after my first participation in these meetings that I was in the College bar in the company of a distinguished Irish research fellow in English literature at the College who had also just attended the meeting of the literary society where our poems were read and discussed.
In the bar on that evening we happened to be in the company of an obviously committed British undergraduate of English literature from our college. I spoke of my interest in Lawrence Durrell and The Alexandria Quartet, giving my reasons for liking his work and citing my Bengali disposition which responded to the vivid imagery of Durrell’s prose as one of the reasons for my liking Durrell.
My companion, a distinguished Irish research fellow – who later joined the British Civil Service – seemed to support and warm to my appreciation of Durrell’s prose and The Alexandria Quartet. He seemed to share my affinity for Durrell and his Quartet and I later learned from him that he had visited Alexandria.
During our discussion that evening he constantly encouraged me in my arguments in favour of the Alexandria novels while our other companion the serious and communicative British undergraduate in our company, appeared to be quite dismissive of Durrell and The Alexandria Quartet.
Later, I found most of my other friends in College – including those who were reading English literature – indifferent rather than hostile to The Alexandria Quartet. But the Irish research fellow whom I continued to meet, seemed to feel differently and given his academic position I believe his support of Durrell was an important indication of individual literary tastes.
posted 6 March 2017

Alexandria in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and Michael Haag’s Alexandria: City of Memory

a post by Sumantra Nag, 16.3.17

Durrell’s characters and his depiction of Alexandria in The Alexandria Quartet viewed against Michael Haag’s Alexandria: City of Memory 

Michael Haag writes in Alexandria: City of Memory: “There was an innocence about Alexandria then, in those early days of the war, an innocence that some would say the city never really lost. ‘It was unthought of for an unmarried girl, or even an unmarried boy’, recalled Bernard de Zogheb, ‘to leave the family house and have a flat of their own…Certainly most girls in Alexandria went to their weddings as virgins – girls of all communities. We were brought up to think that sex was a mortal sin.’…” (Haag, p.184) 

Haag quotes Eve Cohen, Durrell’s second wife: ‘I had a father who was very possessive and for very good reasons. He was also, I think infatuated with me… It was the closest he had been to any human being…And Larry understood this to mean, when I told him, that my father had interfered with me sexually, but he never did… he was an honest-to-God man; he just didn’t know what was happening to him…” (Haag, p.231).

How does this fit with Lawrence Durrell’s broad claims about the Alexandrian people? For instance:

1. “The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body – for it has outstripped the body…Alexandria was the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets – I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex.” (The Alexandria Quartet, Justine, Faber paperback, 1974, p.18).

2. “It is as if the preoccupations of this landscape were centred somewhere out of the reach of the average inhabitant – in a region where the flesh, stripped by over-indulgence of its final reticences, must yield to a preocccupation vastly more comprehensive…” (The Alexandria Quartet, Justine, Faber paperback, 1974, p.38).

On the other hand these are Michael Haag’s accounts about the British in Alexandria (Alexandria: City of Memory):

1. “Who were Durrell’s original Alexandrians? In fact their names read like the cast of characters in a Noel Coward play: Charles, Damien, Claudia, John, Hogarth, Baroness Irma, Tessa, Melissa, Corege. Almost all his characters are British; they turn out to be like Durrell and his friends, not true denizens of the cosmopolitan city but exiled in Alexandria by the war.”(Haag, p.299).

But Gwyn Willams (‘Durrell in Egypt’) is also quoted by Haag as referring to ‘Zananiri, Sachs, Baddaro, Menasce, Zogueb, Suarez…’. and ‘It was out of this varied and dying ferment that Larry invented his Alexandria Quartet’. (Haag p.259)

2. “Gwyn Williams would watch ‘for as long as one cared to look’ at British servicemen and women in ‘a motionless clinch’…pressed against walls…” and “For Mario Colucci, ..he remembers seeing ‘a Wren standing on the pavement…her skirt hitched up, one foot on the wall, having sex with a soldier.’ ” (Haag, pp.213-14)

This scene appears as follows in the novel Clea: ‘The city was always perverse but it took its pleasures with style…never up against a wall or a tree or a truck!’ (p.732, The Alexandria quartet)

3. Haag writes of the temporarily resident Englishwoman in Alexandria, Elizabeth Gwynne (Elizabeth David) – not a native citizen of Alexandria – who had the history of having been raped by a close relative: ‘But it is not clear if eventually she herself or Cowan or a mutual friend told Durrell that at the age of fourteen she had been raped by a member of her family…’ (Haag, p.274).

This incident of being raped by a relative in her adolescence has been transposed by Durrell in his novel, to the history of Justine created as a Jewish native of Alexandria.

4. “…for a time the navy itself operated a brothel…with a medical officer permanently on duty. ‘It created a big scandal that the British should participate in such activity…’ ” (Haag, p.213)

5. In his novels, Durrell also underplays or ignores the life of cultivation among the elite of Alexandria, mentioned in Michael Haag’s book: “..Nuovo Teatro Alhambra on the Rue Missalla and the Mohammed Ali Theatre on the Rue Fuad, where Pavlova danced and Toscanini conducted, where the opera season was brightened by the stars of La Scala…’ (Haag, p.136)

The British population in Alexandria appears to have provided material which Durrell generally used to describe native Alexandrians although the indigenous Alexandrians undoubtedly formed a part of the background as well.

A most curious contrast is between Durrell’s Alexandria (“ . . Alexandria was the great winepress of love . .”) and Haag’s description of the Alexandria covering the same period:  “There was an innocence about Alexandria then, in those early days of the war, an innocence that some would say the city never really lost.”  (Haag, p.184)

Bruce Redwine, 17.3.17
Sumantra’s very interesting observations illustrate a continuing problem in Durrellian studies, namely, how does the reader understand Durrell’s treatment of Alexandria in the 1930s and 1940s?  Fact or fiction?  Travelogue or desecration?  First, a brief anecdote.  I attended the Durrell Celebration in Alexandria in 2007.  It was arranged and sponsored by the British Council.  The two-day conference celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of Justine and was attended by several hundred people, mostly Egyptians.  I have written about this in an article (Arion 16.1 [2008]).  The conference speakers (Egyptian and British) were generally supportive of Durrell, the audience was largely not.  In question and answer exchanges, many of the Egyptians saw Durrell as a colonialist who grossly misrepresented and disparaged Egyptians.  They were angry and indignant.  This outrage or dismissiveness persists in the scholarship of writers such as Edward W. Said (1983) and Shaden M. Tageldin (2011).  These are “Postcolonialists.”
Sumantra presents Michael Haag’s historical analysis of the actuality of Durrell’s Alexandria, one which contrasts with the fictional portrait.  I accept Haag’s research.  It suggests that Durrell’s Alexandrians were not, to say the least, solely the “inquisitors of pleasure and pain,” as he makes them out to be in Balthazar.  In City of Memory, Haag uses as an epigraphy a quotation from an American expat:  “I don’t want to pick an argument with that gentleman [Lawrence Durrell], but I thought it very wrong of him to describe it as a degenerate city.”  Many would agree with this comment—Durrell lies.  The city, however, is surely Durrell’s fantasy, an imaginative recreation.  D. J. Enright, an excellent British critic who was associated with F. R. Leavis at Cambridge, calls the Quartet “Arabian Nights’ entertainments.”  He would know, for he lived in Alexandria shortly after Durrell left.
It seems to me that the problem here is the expectation that fiction is obligated to represent fact.  I don’t.  Moreover, I like reading the Arabian Nights.  One also has to admit that reading Enright’s Academic Year (1955), a novel situated in Alexandria around 1947, is a very dull affair.  It is reflective of someone who, like Leavis, rejects Romanticism.  I’ll take Durrell’s Alexandria over Enright’s.  My point of view is that of a Californian, who first read Durrell as an adolescent and who looked wistfully at his Alexandria as a kind of dazzling mirage on the distant horizon.  I never thought it was real.  I always knew I was seeing the city through the eyes of a great poet.  But my eyes are not those of the residents of the city.  I see poetry; they see squalor.  I think Durrell should be given some poetic license.  Harry Tzalas, a Greek born in Alexandria, was one of the speakers at the conference.  He answered the heated criticism of Durrell’s portrait by simply saying that Durrell had a right to his own vision of Alexandria.  I agree with him.
Sumantra Nag, 17.3.17
Durrell: Signs of a colonial view of     Alexandria? 
As an Indian, it is natural for me to eventually note that Durrell is writing at least partially as a colonial when he writes of Alexandria.
The very fact that he is known to have hated Egypt, and especially Cairo, will to some extent endorse this perception! Somewhere he has also described his departure by boat from Alexandria with a degree of relief. In Alexandria he always seemed to be pining for the Greek islands.
So what does he mean when he says in the opening pages of Justine . . . “Beloved Alexandria” . .? I took this to be a genuine expression of affection for a city seething with atmosphere. It could be what is called a “love-hate” relationship and I see something like this in Durrell’s view of Alexandria, which gets encapsulated in his exclamation “Beloved Alexandria . . .”
So when I read Durrell’s AQ, I see the inescapable presence of an outsider from the west. In Alexandria there is also the presence of expatriates who form a loosely bonded society of their own:
“Almost all his characters are British; they turn out to be like Durrell and his friends, not true denizens of the cosmopolitan city but exiled in Alexandria by the war.”(Haag, p.299). Durrell was a part of this colonial society despite his independent vision.
 Even after allowing for the validity of Durrell’s freedom as a novelist to create his own Alexandria, I believe these questions need to be addressed despite the prominent artistic merit of the The Alexandria Quartet, its seductive romanticism and the prose which is refreshingly rich and poetic.
Richard Pine, 17.3.17
Is it possible that LD who was, as Miller observed, English in spite of himself, was always at one and the same time an observer of the colonial field and a participant trying to shed his colonial eyes?
In Cyprus, he had a real head-vs-heart situation, where he was paid to think and be British, but in his philhellenic heart he had severe doubts as to the validity of British rule.
I think he had that ambi-valence all his life. HE WAS KIM, and Kipling’s Kim recurrently asks himself (and the world) “Who is Kim? Who am I?” This dual heritage, dual personality, dual allegiance, dual context(ualisation) made LD the double person that he was: “je est un autre” that we find  in the drafts of Charlock,* a man who was in fact two men, on parallel courses on different temporal planes.
Of course I’m biased, I WANT LD to be exonerated from any culpability in his apparent difficulty of being both/and, because I want him to be acknowledged as a great writer (poet in prose), a great humorist, a great if puzzled thinker. But I have to acknowledge that he was also a plagiarist, a misogynist, a liar….
*In the edition of “The Placebo”, edited by Richard Pine and David Roessel, to be published 2018 by Colenso Press for the Durrell Library of Corfu


Bruce Redwine, 17.3.17

In a letter to Henry Miller in July of 1958, Durrell claims, “I loathed Egypt.”   The letter followed the early success of The Alexandria Quartet.  Sumantra asks if Durrell’s admission had anything to do with his depiction of the people and the land in the Quartet.  That is to say, if he in fact “loathed Egypt,” how could he say at the beginning of Justine, “Beloved Alexandria!”  Of course, strictly speaking, this is Darley’s declaration, not Durrell’s.  Nevertheless, the question is a good one.  My sense is that Durrell did not loath Egypt at the time of writing Justine, which was about ten years after he left the country.  This cuts to the issue of time and memory.  Memory changes over time.  Bad things turn into fond things.  Don’t we all have experiences from our childhood which were once troublesome but upon reflection years later accrue a certain nostalgia?  Sometime like this might be going on with Durrell.  Furthermore, Sumantra seems to imply that Durrell’s depiction of Alexandrian squalor and licentiousness  (“flies and beggars” and “sexual provender”) has something to do with his “loathing.”  I don’t think this is the case.

Richard Pine, 17.3.17

 I do think his “loathing” was partly to do with “flies and beggars”, but only superficially. There was also a much deeper ennui due to the torpid experience of the war, and the boredom of fucking and drinking, exacerbated by the fear of death.



Bruce Redwine writes:

“Incest has a long and controversial history.  Ancient Egyptian royalty practiced it.  Germanic mythology has the hero Siegfried created as the child of an incestuous union between Siegmund and Sieglinde.  In John Kerr’s A Most Dangerous Method:  The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein (New York:  Knopf, 1993), the author discusses Freud’s putative affair with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays.  He calls this liaison “incest” (141).  He also points out that in the nineteenth century incest had a certain intellectual cachet.  It was viewed as a revolt against society and accepted norms.  Kerr writes, “Indeed, to face issues like incest was thought an indication of a writer’s philosophical and psychological depth” (142).  Kerr cites Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.  He quotes the latter in The Birth of Tragedy:  “The magic circle of nature, extreme unnaturalness—in this case incest—is the necessary antecedent, for how should man force nature to yield up her secrets but by successfully resisting her, that is to say, by unnatural acts” (142)?  This all fits Lawrence Durrell as man in revolt, l’homme révolté.  Most particularly, it fits a character like Pursewarden, who exemplifies the writer at odds with his society.  Incest as heroic revolt was certainly “in the air” when Lawrence Durrell was born in 1912.
Sappho Jane Durrell (1951-1985) was Durrell’s second daughter.  In autumn 1991, a portion of her edited diaries was published in Granta, a British literary journal.  Sappho was psychologically unstable (her mother suffered a bout of schizophrenia in 1953) and eventually committed suicide.  In her diaries, she wrote, “I feel very threatened by the fact that my father is sleeping with women who are my age or younger.  I feel he is committing a kind of mental incest and that it is a message to me as his favourite daughter” (70).  Whether or not incest actually occurred is unproven and highly suspect; I would like to know, however, the full implications of Sappho’s charge of “mental incest,” beyond the immediate context of her remark.  She was familiar with her father’s work, and the theme of incest occurs throughout the oeuvre.  For example, there is Ludwig Pursewarden’s affair with his sister Liza in Mountolive (1958).  Then there is the suggestion of mother-son incest among the Von Esslins of Constance (1982).  The latter fits the definition of “mental incest.”  I expect many more examples can be found.  The Ludwig-Liza example follows the paradigm of Lord Byron and his half-sister Augusta Leigh.  Incest is also a theme in Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales (1934), which Durrell read and greatly admired.  So, my question—was Sappho Jane playing out her father’s own fantasies, literary or otherwise?
If you wish to reply to, add to, or comment on, Bruce Redwine’s question, send an email to: with a succinct expression of your views. We reserve the right to edit in the interests of concision and clarity.

Richard Pine writes:

Bruce Redwine expresses the opinion that “I think the success of the Quartet depends on literature, whereas the lack of success of the Quintet depends on philosophy”. If we add to this Frederick Schoff‘s comment that “More now than ever, perhaps. I think being a poet made him the novelist he became” we have a very compelling way of looking at Lawrence Durrell’s work, especially his final major book, the Avignon Quintet in which his avowed intention was to create a ‘Tibetan novel’.

Durrell, all his life, was both disillusioned with western society, and the way its novelists constructed narrative prose, and fascinated by various aspects of eastern thought, especially Buddhism. And Durrell was a poet manque, in the sense that much of his prose is in fact prose-poetry. From Prospero’s Cell to Caesar’s Vast Ghost, Durell was not only writing a poem-in-prose to (respectively) Corfu and Provence, but was trying to achieve poetry-in-prose as an art form.

Yes, the attempt to fuse east and west in a ‘Tibetan novel’ was unsuccessful, but was it ‘doomed’ to failure or can at least some of its disappointment be attributed to his failing health and the long period over which he wrote the book (1974-1985). If we look at far less ambitious novels by western writers about the ‘mystery’ of the east – for example, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon (1933, with Frank Capra’s film following in 1937) – we can see how it’s possible to approximate to the idea of the east, and in particular the ‘far country’ of the western imagination when contemplating the  Himalayan landscape.

Ravi Nambiar adds to this discussion: Bruce Redwine’s statement “I think the success of the Quartet depends on literature, whereas the lack of success of the Quintet depends on philosophy”, prompted me to collect some of Durrell’s own words from the interviews he gave:

“…this quintet is more important to me than the Alexandria Quartet”.
“Avignon Quintet will be my last book, a present to France.”
“The English don’t very much like ideas and abstraction.”
“The book is really written for learned people.”
“The Avignon Quintet is an intellectual autobiography.”
“Quartet, the hurly-burly and ripening of experience, quintet the acceptance of reality.”
“The Alexandria Quartet takes into account Western psychology, dualism, and ambivalence.”
“The Quintet accordingly offers a solution: the East as a way out for the West. Things are so simple, nor so abstract.”
It is agreed by almost all D scholars that to understand Durrell, one has to read all of his work. The Quartet, the four, slides into the five, the Quintet (“five baskets of experience”): unlike in the quartet, “…in the quintet the last page is really the last page.”

For a further examination of Durrell’s ideas on the structure and content of the Avignon Quintet,see Lawrence Durrell: the Mindscape, which can be viewed on the TEXTBOOKS page. This is an extract:

‘It will be my star-ypointed pyramid’ Durrell wrote twice in the quarry books for the Quintet. The triple significance of the expression (which founds its explicit way into the text of the Quintet 1300) is remarkable: not only does it suggest a metaphysical conceit, since it echoes the ‘star y-pointing pyramid’ which Milton ordained for Shakespeare’s bones, but also reminds us of the initial memory on which Monsieur is predicated (‘I was reliving the plot and counterplot of Shakespeare’s Sonnets in my own life. I had found the master-mistress of my passion’ – Quintet 10); it also replicates the pyramidal force-field of the quincunx as exemplified in architecture from both east and west, including the Taj Mahal and the temple of Bakheng, of which Durrell had made particular note.

These geometric notions gave Durrell the mechanistic encouragement he required to ‘build’ a structure of five novels which would then form a force-field in a truly scientific sense. Thus the quincunxial idea both provided the basis for what he was trying to achieve in the east-west entente and the vehicle for one of the oldest of grail themes, that of a square of four trees with a fifth planted at its centre, beneath which the treasure lay.

But the most significant fact is that Durrell believed that the ‘power of five’, when linked to his previously elucidated ‘rule of four’, would provide him with the means to negotiate the hitherto inaccessible, those ‘buried alive’. This would be the true meaning of anagnorisis, the moment of recognition between sisters; between lovers; between writers; between master and servant, creator and created; between the boy who left home and the man who returns. It would represent the point at which the man who, all his life, had told himself ‘he must not remember’, could regard himself in the mirror and, by submitting to memory, name himself.”


Tributes to the late Yehudi Menuhin in BBC Music magazine include the following in the June 2016 issue:

“Humphrey Burton’s centenary memoir of Yehudi Menuhin reminds me that in 1956 Diana Menuhin (nee Gould) took her husband to Cyprus to meet an old flame, Lawrence Durrell. Menuhin had a long-lasting impact on Durrell who became a lieflong friend. He introduced Durrell to yoga and thereby probably reduced the effects of Durrell’s drinking and smoking. Many years later, the Menuhins visited Durrell at his home in Sommieres (in the south of France) and Durrell reported to Henry Miller that while he was able to stand on his head for yoga, Menuhin could actually play the fiddle while doing so.”
Richard Pine, Corfu



Brewster Chamberlin asks: “Is anyone out there interested in editing a collection of LD’s letters? The project would take time and energy, but need not be as comprehensive as the projected 17-volume edition of Hemingway’s correspondence, the first three of which are already in print.”
The query initiated a discussion:

Bruce Redwine: “Brewster, can you elaborate on what editing LD’s letters would involve?  That is, what’s the size of the corpus, where is it, who are the correspondents (not Miller, presumably), and any other pertinent information?”

Richard Pine: “In addition to the Durrell-Miller letters, there is also the Durrell-Aldington collection, edited by MacNiven and Harry Moore. Also, the “Letters to Jean Fanchette 1958-1963″ were published by Two Cities in 1988 and the letters to Durrell by Theodore Stephanides were published (in an edition in French and Greek, but without the English-language originals!!!) by Presses Universitaires de Paris in 2006. Kostan Zarian’s and Durrell’s correspoindence was published in the Journal of the Society of Armenian Studies in 1995. Presumably Brewster is thinking of an edition of letters from (and to?) Durrell by correspondents other than these?”
Brewster Chamberlin: “Take a look at the four-volume edition of Beckett’s letters and you will see what an edition of LD’s letters would look like. The project would take years for a team (not one or two persons) to complete. The sources are dauntingly multiple and all the libraries and archives housing the papers of LD’s friends and acquaintances to whom he may have written must be ransacked. The catalogues of auction houses which deal with literary papers would need to be reviewed. The depositories where LD materials are located (Southern Illinois U, the collection curated by Corinne Alexandre-Garner at the Nanterre branch of the Univ. of Paris, the collection at the University of Alberta, and so on. See the general editors’ introductions to the Beckett, Hemingway, D.H. Lawrence editions of letters and Ian MacNiven’s list of sources in his biography and Richard Pine’s in The Mindscape to give you an idea of the parameters of such a project. To be complete the edition would reprint the letters in the Miller-Durrell, LD-Aldington volumes and the letters to Franchette, which Richard mentioned somewhere recently. Do not, however, bother with the Picasso-Gertrude Stein or the Sylvia Beach letters volumes; they are travesties and should not have been published as they exist.”
James Gifford: “That’s a daunting project, but clearly one that would be team-driven and covering many years…  A first challenge, however, would be securing a press and rights, followed by actually acquiring the mountain of materials. I’ve spent a good deal of time looking into the smaller archival holdings for Durrell, mainly because most people don’t so that’s where the surprises are, and there’s quite a lot of Durrell spread out across Europe & America.  The workload would be enormous.  And then there’s so much still in private hands.”


In the course of correspondence, Bruce Redwine asks: ” There’s more ancient Egypt in the Quartet than is readily apparent. These days I’m interested in knowing how serious Durrell was in his studies.  (He was not a serious student of Egyptology but knew more than he let on.)  Did he try to get to the bottom of a problem, or did he just follow his wide interests? ”

To which Richard Pine replies:

I think the question about LD’s interest in and knowledge of Egypt is best answered by a quote from his own Intro to the book of photos of Egypt by Dorothy Bohm (1989):

“This work is full of felicities of observation and intuition, full of artistic slyness, yet it completely avoids showing off. This achievement is so difficult in a field where one is always tempted by the striking, the flashy, when it comes to anecdote or situation….

Her landscapes swim or rather float in this dense, honeyed light, transformed into dramatic pictorial ikons coaxed into being by the attention of her observant camera….

….these splendid opulent studies of Egypt – the Egypt of everyday, yet at the same time a very personal Egypt, the private Egypt of the artist, unique and full of colour and sap.”

I think that if you convert ‘camera’ to ‘pen’ then Durrell’s eye does the same as Bohm’s – it observes, describes, ‘coaxes’…

We must recall that D was interested in Egypt in 2 ways: 1) the war zone where he lived, and its hinterland, for which he read authoritative guides like Anthony de Cosson’s “Mareotis” and “guide books” like R Talbot Kelly’s “Egypt” and (the “standard” work) Lane’s “The Modern Egyptians” and 2) the “Egyptian Book of the Dead” and other scholarly works on the Egyptian past. He was building a book (as always) on 2 levels, both subservient to the narrative exploration of the main themes of the Quartet.”


Bruce Redwine asks:
Was Durrell systematic in his studies (Freud, Gnosticism, Buddhism)? Did he record notebooks and such in his research, say, when writing the Quartet, Revolt, or Quintet? Did these materials get collected and then thrown into boxes and later scattered to the four winds of Academia?

Richard Pine replies: I tried, within permissible limits, to indicate in Lawrence Durrell: the Mindscape, the nature and extent of Durrell’s readings and their influence on / presence in his own writing. He did keep voluminous notebooks, ranging from ‘commonplace books’ in which he copied quotations, to scrapbooks in which he pasted photos, press cuttings, and other ephemera which captured his imagination, and which he might somehow (Endpapers and Inklings) incorporate into his fiction. This can be established from his time in the 1930s while reading in the British Museum/Library right through to the writing of the Avignon Quintet. The DLC will be posting some facsimile pages from these notebooks in the near future.


Bruce Redwine writes:

It would be nice to have a catalogue of the books held in Lawrence Durrell’s personal library. Any thoughts about this? I realize how difficult this would be to put together.

DLC replies: we hope in the next few weeks to publish a page listing (as far as can be established) the books known to have been in Lawrence Durrell’s possession at some time in his life.


Emmet Fitzhume writes:

I was surprised not to see Lawrence Durrell’s Irish ancestry mentioned in the biography – especially since he made repeated reference to it in interviews, etc. It is often said that it was his mother, Louisa Dixie, who was of Irish descent. Does anyone have concrete information about the family’s Irish connections?


The following comment has been posted by Bruce Redwine:

James A. Brigham’s revised edition of Durrell’s Collected Poems: 1931-1974 was published by Faber in 1980. Is anyone working on Durrell’s Complete Poems: 1931-1990? — BR

BR continues: “As everyone surely knows, Durrell’s poetry begs for an edition of his complete poems, 1931-1990. In 1980, Faber published James A. Brigham’s revised edition of the poetry from 1931-1974. Durrell continued to write poetry after 1974, much of it very good. I especially like the last poems in “Caesar’s Vast Ghost”—they glow with a sad and mysterious light. In 2006, Faber published Peter Porter’s edition of Durrell’s “Selected Poems,” a mere fragment of the corpus but containing an interesting introduction by a highly respected poet, who calls Durrell “one of the best of the past hundred years.” For all that, I don’t think Porter fully understood or appreciated Durrell. A complete edition with annotations would also be most helpful (the kind that Ricks and McCue have recently done for T. S. Eliot). But given Durrell’s fallen reputation, I doubt Faber would support such a massive undertaking.”


“Pseuds’ Corner” will feature any text or other matter which, in our opinion, is pretentious, ignorant or foolish. We will not reveal the source of any item displayed here, in the interests of preserving the dignity/self-respect of those who should know better.

“But we open in Poggio’s, although even in that we really open with Dostoevsky, and in French rather than Russian (and I think in Boris de Schlözer’s existentialist translation).”

“Yet, the pogonometry isn’t really a pretense to realism or the novum in Suvin’s sense (reaching to Auerbach and Lukács). ”

Both the items above relate to a reading of Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc.


“Durrell’s ink is painfully akin to the larval gall wasp of the oak whose chrysalis may be pumiced down to make black iron ink from which to weave the cloth of gold writing”.




From an essay in The Modernist Review, September 2016:

“While in the basement at Reed, waiting to climb Mount Tabor to pick blackberries (no allusion to Heaney since they were for eating now) with a colleague at work on Mina Loy and Pound (authors deeply influential in Eddings’ lecture notes), I realized it would be ridiculous to keep up the pretence anymore. I cannot not genre modernism.”


Pigeon arrested in India carrying message for prime minister. Border guards detain bird after suspecting it of being Pakistani agent


A reviewer, for instance, should be a fast reader. My lips routinely mouth every syllable, and at the end of an afternoon my voice scarcely breaks a hoarse whisper. For me to write anything – even a note to the postman – requires several drafts.