This page carries reviews of Durrell-related or Greek-related books which have either appeared in print elsewhere or have been commissioned by the DLC.
Bruce Redwine reviews
Michael Haag, The Durrells of Corfu (Profile Books, 2017)
Haag’s Durrells: The One or the Many?
posted 30 June 2017 ©Bruce Redwine 2017
A review of Michael Haag’s The Durrells of Corfu, Profile, 212 pp., £8.99
Potboilers are not necessarily a bad thing. Professional writers have to make a living, so Potboilers are not necessarily a bad thing. Professional writers have to make a living, so they occasionally turn out books which are below their own standards. Lawrence Durrell’s early fame was in part attributed to his excellent book on Corfu—Prospero’s Cell (1945)—and to his equally fine one on Cyprus—Bitter Lemons (1957). (Keep in mind the transition from Shakespearean romance to Modernist pessimism.) But, by his own admission, he called his later travel piece, Sicilian Carousel (1977), a potboiler, although I strongly disagree with that assessment and still have a special fondness for his largely fictional memoir of a journey around Sicily. As D. H. Lawrence once observed: “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale. The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it.”1
Lawrence Durrell and Michael Haag share a common trait when it comes to self-criticism—either they are poor judges of their own work or they conceal their own intentions, deliberately or not. In The Durrells of Corfu, Michael Haag describes the family’s origins in colonial India and then traces its journey to England, Corfu, and beyond. His stated aim is “[to shed] new light on old stories and [to uncover] fresh stories.”2 He occasionally accomplishes this, but he also has another goal, implicit in the task itself, that is, to provide background material for a television series of the same title. Haag has undoubtedly written a potboiler which capitalizes on the production’s popularity. British Independent Television (ITV) has produced two seasons of installments. Richard Pine, Durrell scholar and founder of the Durrell Library of Corfu, informs me that a third is underway and that a fourth is under consideration.
The show is a hit. The book’s blurb characterizes the series as an “adaptation” of Gerald Durrell’s famous and highly successful My Family and Other Animals (1956), which, as the blurb gushes, “immortalised” the Durrell family. In today’s popular culture of “selfies” and social networking, immortality or notoriety—however fleeting either may be—has financial rewards for those who can market it. Haag was apparently hired to write a book which satisfies the hunger of those devoted fans who crave more information about the Durrells and their traveling circus: materfamilias and dipsomaniac Louisa, great writer-in-the-making and elder brother Lawrence (Larry), gun-toting and ne’er-do-well brother Leslie, oversexed and underrated sister Margaret (Margot), and youngest brother Gerald (Gerry), child prodigy and lover of all creatures great and small. Their very weirdness assures success.
Haag’s task is to elaborate on these characters, to correct misconceptions, and to provide new and interesting material. The task is basically an old one—to teach and to delight—or to tell “Tales of best sentence and moost solaas,” as Chaucer puts it (A 798). As potboilers go, Haag’s book is nowhere near the same quality as Lawrence Durrell’s money-making enterprises. Nor does it even remotely approach the excellence of Haag’s previous works: Alexandria: City of Memory (2004) and Vintage Alexandria: Photographs of the City, 1860-1960 (2008).3 Perhaps we should not expect the same degree of high quality, given the nature of his assignment, for the book is clearly not intended for the specialist. What makes it worthwhile, nevertheless, is the insight it provides (inadvertently no doubt) into Haag’s considerable abilities as a writer and his obsession with the life and work of Lawrence Durrell, the author who has become his lifelong passion. The exposé of those many Durrells tends to meander (as they themselves did), but it is most affecting about one Durrell in particular, that is, brother Larry, especially as Haag’s treatment resembles a Platonic argument, as Aristotle describes in the Metaphysics—“the one over many.”4 Plato argues for the primacy of a “Form” over a set of particulars.5 As Plato’s argument loosely applies to Haag’s book, the question arises—is the book really about many persons, as the title indicates, or is it secretly about one person who incorporates, to some extent, all the others? And who is that protagonist?
In the plot of Gerry’s book about his family, as well as that of the television series, a child of insatiable curiosity (Gerry himself) dominates the action at the expense of an adult of overweening literary ambitions (brother Larry). So, Gerald Durrell’s many fans (undoubtedly far more than Lawrence’s) may think Haag’s book is primarily about Gerry, whose mother and siblings make up a supporting cast, but I think that when Haag speaks of “Durrells,” he really has Larry at the back of his mind and cannot resist the pull of his personality. Haag’s real story is about Lawrence Durrell the artist and his rise and decline. A Gibbon could tell this story—a very big exaggeration, of course—although the Roman analogy holds, for Durrell’s last book is titled Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence (1990). Durrell lived in Provence for over the last thirty years of his life, and his “vast ghost” haunts Haag’s book. Unfortunately, Haag’s Durrells of Corfu has problems of execution and of documentation, both probably resulting from the publisher’s restrictions on timeliness and readability.
Haag’s Alexandria: City of Memory is a beautiful work of scholarship, meticulously written, convincingly argued, and accurately documented. It is not a commercial product hastily thrown together to meet a deadline. The same cannot be said of his latest endeavor. One oversight is inexcusable. Haag knows that Lawrence Durrell was born in 1912, but early on he implies that Larry was born in 1911 (3). A careful proofing or a good editor would have found the error and any subsequent slips. One assumes neither occurred. Haag’s method of narration is to incorporate his own research, which includes many personal interviews. These are of great value and point to his future work, a forthcoming biography of Lawrence Durrell to be published by Yale University Press, which will build upon this important research. His current text, however, sometimes lacks a clear identification of its sources and a clear differentiation of Haag’s own commentary, which has the breeziness of fictional narration (42, 71, 91, 95). He does not use footnotes or endnotes—probably at his publisher’s insistence—and as a consequence his narrative occasionally slides in and out of various voices and sources. These sources must be taken on faith. The casual reader would not object; a careful reader would find this method frustrating, inadequate, and annoying.
Despite these objections, Haag’s book has many delights. These involve revealing secrets or telling untold stories about the Durrell family. One family “secret” pertains to Louisa Durrell, the matriarch, who had a nervous breakdown and was prone to alcoholism (36). While in England, she tried to return to India, booked a passage on a liner, but failed to show up. Haag speculates that Louisa was attempting “to return to the land of her ghosts”; he also speculates that “possibly Larry” prevented her from taking the voyage (36). It should be kept in mind that Lawrence Durrell himself was an alcoholic and subject to bouts of depression. Mother and son mirror one another.
Although Haag’s “ghosts” have multiple images, they seem to collapse into one image—Larry’s. Another of those untold stories is Haag’s sketch of Margaret Durrell. Margo does not come off well in either the first of the ITV versions, nor in Gerald’s My Family and Other Animals, nor does she even merit a mention in Lawrence’s Prospero’s Cell. Gerry treats her as a nonentity, as “something of an airhead,” according to Haag (192). But through his interviews, Haag shows her to have been a woman of courage and acumen.
Unlike her brothers, Margo did not flee when the German army threatened Corfu in 1940. “Margo was going nowhere,” Haag reports (160). She wanted to stay on and blend in with the local peasantry, no matter how impractical that would have been. She remained loyal to Corfu and its people and had to be convinced to flee. Moreover, she was not taken in by her bothers’ bewitching rhetoric. Haag quotes her as saying that Lawrence and Gerald wrote books which were untrustworthy and embellished: “I do not trust writers” (130) and “I never know what’s fact and what’s fiction in my family” (xi, 160). Margo is a unique figure in her own right, but Haag also treats her as an ironic surrogate for her elder brother. Her refrain of being unable to distinguish fact from fiction is also an important theme throughout Lawrence Durrell’s oeuvre. It occurs at the end of The Alexandria Quartet, where Darley, Durrell’s alter ego, is advised to live within “the kingdom of your imagination,”6 and it gets mentioned in Sicilian Carousel, where a fictional character writes a letter to Durrell himself and says, “We have been brought up to believe that facts are not dreams—and of course they are.”7
By emphasizing this recurrent theme, Haag keeps the ghostly presence of Lawrence Durrell alive in his text, even when discussing other members or friends of the family. Here is another instance. Why does he relate a conversation about the best way to commit suicide—“[to hold] a revolver in the mouth at a forty-five degree angle” (126)—if not because suicide is another persistent theme in Durrell’s corpus? So, we have the prime example of Pursewarden’s suicide in the Quartet (310). In Haag’s text, Lawrence becomes like the ghost of Hamlet’s father—his voice echoes, he haunts, he will not go away.
Besides being a fine writer and historian, Michael Haag is also a professional photographer of distinction. Egypt is one of his specialties, and he has published lavish studies of two Egyptian cities: Alexandria Illustrated (2003) and Cairo Illustrated (2006). At its best, his work is characterized by lush images of place and a sharp eye for the telling detail. Haag and Durrell have similar sensibilities, an acute sensitivity to what the latter calls “the spirit of place,” and Haag sometimes achieves in photography what Durrell accomplishes in prose. The Alexandria Quartet could be read with a copy of Alexandria Illustrated nearby. This exercise is surely intended. The art of making beautiful images aside, Haag’s use of photography has a strong narrative aspect. In Vintage Alexandria, his selection of old photographs tells a story: a city and its cosmopolitan past flourish and then abruptly terminate at the onset of a new cultural era.
Haag has also selected the photographs for his Durrells of Corfu, and they too tell a story, although possibly not the one he intends. Haag selects over eighty photographs and illustrations for his little book. They complement his text with photos of the Durrell family, its associates, and the places and things encountered. The book’s cover is a marketing ploy and is probably the publisher’s idea—a glossy illustration of “the Durrells of Corfu.” It represents the television series and shows a composite of the main cast of actors as they portray real-life people. A smiling Gerry sits with his animals at the center of the family photo; he is flanked by his mother and siblings in characteristic poses. The question returns, however. What is the primary focus of Haag’s book? Is it Gerald Durrell of My Family and Other Animals, or is it Lawrence Durrell of The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quintet? Gerry has twenty photos, either solitary or in a group, showing him as he grows and develops. Larry has seventeen. Advantage Gerry. Still, their poses and demeanors differ markedly. Gerry often smiles, stares inquisitively at the camera, and shares space with his beloved animals. His personality remains unchanged over the years. Gerry at two (18) is essentially the same as Gerry at fifty-two (197). In contrast, from an early age, Larry typically assumes a posture of bold self-assurance. His persona dominates, but, as he ages, it changes profoundly. It slowly shifts from haughty self-confidence to dark gloom. Durrell’s career as writer follows the same path: a journey from the dazzling light of Prospero’s Cell to the morbid darkness of The Avignon Quintet (1974-1985), his final fictional sequence.8
Nowhere is Lawrence Durrell’s evolving personality more evident than in three photos Haag has chosen as stages in a literary career. The first serves as the book’sfrontispiece, the second as a prelude to Durrell in Egypt, and the last as a final portrait of the famous author. In the frontispiece, the Durrell family poses on a veranda at the “Daffodil-Yellow Villa” on Corfu. The year is 1936. The photo is a group portrait, presumably taken by brother Leslie. They all stand, including Larry’s wife Nancy, and face the camera. Margo stands off to the side, as her brothers portrayed her. Gerry scales the railing like the unruly boy he is. Louisa looks serious. All are vertical except Lawrence, who grins and dominates the scene by sprawling across the railing. His right hand may hold a quill, possibly an emblem of his aspirations, and his diagonal posture disrupts the geometry of the composition, much like a transversal in Euclid’s final postulate. He is jaunty, rebellious, and mischievously arrogant.
In a photo taken in 1939 (162), Lawrence strolls in Athens with George Katsimbalis, a giant of Greek letters, whom Henry Miller calls “the colossus of Maroussi.”9 It is winter. Both men wear heavy suits. A long wool scarf trails from Lawrence’s neck, and he clutches a book or file of papers in his left hand. He could pass for an academic in the peripatetic mode, as he strides a step ahead of the older man, who looks down attentively at his young companion. Lawrence appears self-absorbed and caught in the act of explaining some point about literature. Katsimbalis was a head taller than Durrell, who was short, about five foot two. But in this photo Durrell dominates the scene like a colossus. The final photo is the penultimate one in Haag’s book (198). There an old and aged Lawrence Durrell stares morosely at the camera. The year is 1984 when he was working on the conclusion to the Quintet. Haag locates “the acclaimed novelist” as posing somewhere in Paris (198). Haag is being coy, for look closely at the backdrop, which is obscured and slightly out of focus. Durrell stands in a cemetery, possibly Père Lachaise, the most famous cemetery in Paris and the resting places of many famous writers: Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust among them. In 1984, Durrell was seventy-two and had six more years to live. His sad and heavily lined face shows that he was fully aware of his own mortality. The background suggests that he was also aware of his posthumous fame.
Haag does not conclude his book with Lawrence Durrell’s photo, rather with a much earlier photo taken on Corfu (201), where a twelve-year-old Gerry and his Greek friend Spiro Halikiopoulos cook an eel near the seashore. Behind them, Spiro’s old Dodge sits at the water’s edge. Lawrence sent the photo to Henry Miller and inscribed the following: “Just after this was taken the car was nearly carried away by the sea and we had to stand up to our waists in water and dig it out” (201). So, Haag lets the elder brother have the last word of his main text. This final emphasis suggests that Lawrence Durrell is the real subject of Haag’s book. He is the prime storyteller and encapsulates all the other members of the family. He tells a good story, in keeping with the many adventures of the Durrells of Corfu, but it is also highly improbable that a few people could extricate a large vehicle stuck in the sand at high tide. As Haag himself says, “The Durrells themselves were masters of fabulation” (xi). And Lawrence was the master fabulator.
At the end of his book, Michael Haag’s selection of photographs reveals a problem with focus and conception. Is the book about Gerald and his supporting cast, or is it about Lawrence and his wayward career? There is no doubt which of the two brothers is the more interesting. The final photo of Gerald and the Dodge, along with the story of its unlikely rescue from the sea, suggests that Haag felt compelled to end on a note about the Durrells of Corfu and their often fabulous exploits. After all, this is surely what he was paid to do. But the final inscription and the graveyard photo of Lawrence Durrell points to Haag’s real obsession—the secrets lurking behind the life of one of the great and most perplexing artists of the twentieth century. That mystery still waits unraveling, although it is undoubtedly resistant to any definitive solution.
1 D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature (1923; New York 1961), 2.
2 Michael Haag, The Durrells of Corfu (London 2017), xi. Subsequent citations in text.
3 For an analysis of Haag’s formidable talents, see my review of these books, “Haag’s Many Alexandrias,” Arion 17.3 (2010): 133-59.
4 The Complete Works of Aristotle: The Revised Oxford Translation: Metaphysics, ed. Jonathan Barnes, trans. W. D. Ross (New Jersey 1984), II: 1566; 991a.
5 I am indebted to Gareth B. Matthews and S. Marc Cohen for an explanation of these issues regarding Platonic Forms. See their “The One and the Many,” The Review of Metaphysics, 21.4 (1968): 630-55.
6 Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea (London 1962), 877. Subsequent citation in text.
7 Lawrence Durrell, Sicilian Carousel (New York 1977), 36.
8 For a personal exploration of Durrell’s psychic landscapes, see David Green, “Out in the Midi Sun—Adventures in Lawrence Durrell country,” A Café in Space: The Anaïs Nin Literary Journal, 14 (2017): 85-95.
9 Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi (1941; New York 1958), 40.
James M Clawson
Durrell Re-Read: crossing the liminal in Lawrence Durrell’s major novels
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016
James Clawson characterises Lawrence Durrell as “a poet by passion, a novelist by profession and a travel writer by penury”. The first of these is undoubtedly true. Durrell was a poet, with all the poet’s oblique, opaque and subjective insights into landscape and character. But he was not, in my opinion, a great poet in verse. He was a great poet in prose; and this has proved an obstacle to those literal critics who seek exact meanings and transparency where none is intended. Clawson enviably and admirably avoids that trap.
Above all, Durrell was a storyteller, with all the faithfulness to fable that that requires, and all the irresponsibility that becomes an artist in words. Clawson and Robert Scholes are at one in identifying Durrell as a fabulator, devoted, as Clawson puts it, “to the space between fiction and reality”. It is this liminal space that provides Clawson with the provocation for his excellent study.
There are so many points on which I would comment – almost as many as there are pages – in this stimulating, challenging and absorbing study, that I can only concentrate on Clawson’s cardinal ideas (and deplore the lack of an adequate index).
Clawson is anxious to establish at the outset that only twelve works constitute Durrell’s “opus” rather than his “oeuvre” as a whole: The Black Book, The Alexandria Quartet, Tunc and Nunquam, and The Avignon Quintet. He thus excludes all Durrell’s “minor mythologies”, the poetry, the essays and the island writing.
But he does pay attention to The Key to Modern Poetry and is absolutely correct in thinking that this is “the key to Lawrence Durrell” in the sense that almost all of Durrell’s ideas about time, poetry and modern civilisation are to be found there.
Clawson’s thematic approach persuades him to examine all the works consecutively in each chapter: Subject and Object, Reality and Fiction, City and World (possibly the weakest chapter), Past and Future, Modern and Postmodern. He thus assesses Durrell firstly as an artist in pursuit of himself; secondly in relation to “truth” and other forms of articulation; thirdly in terms of space, and fourthly of time; while finally attempting to decide whether or not Durrell was a modernist or a postmodernist and, thankfully, abandoning that question.
I was excited to see that his opening chapter was to be entitled “Self and Other”, only to find that it had somehow become “Subject and Object”, which is not at all the same thing. To see self as other, and other as self, is quite a different process from the subject-object nexus which Clawson discusses, but he is assiduous in pursuing the self-other theme as it runs right through the ‘opus’.
Clawson draws attention to the night-fishing expedition in the Quartet to illustrate his basic thesis of Durrell as a liminal writer. It isn’t the best illustration of liminality to serve such an important study, nor is his second example, Mountolive’s ambivalence as ambassador-versus-friend. “These men in boats literally throw light upon and draw emphasis to the threshold between two states that had been, before that moment, otherwise stable and unseen” (page 4). They are “neither fish nor fowl, but they effect the circumstances in which both come together”. Clawson might have also remarked that it is at twi-light – the liminal between-light – that the fishing expedition occurs. He does not quote from the Key, but his thesis rests on an identical basis: “to accept two contradictory ideas as simultaneously true”. This is the crucial fulcrum on which scholars of Durrell should draw breath: the storyteller abandons logical sequence in order to create a logic of his or her own, a Heraldic Universe into which the listener is drawn as if magnetised by the merveilleux of the fable.
Clawson’s aim is to explore “the flux of transition” and I hoped that he would refer to Durrell’s fascination with the writers of the Elizabethan age whose works he treasured – Nashe, Greene, Marston, and especially Middleton, from whose pamphlet The Black Book (1604) Durrell drew both his title and the character of Lawrence Lucifer. (Middleton’s Women Beware Women might also be cited as a possible signpost towards Livia, while Herbert Gregory’s “Grace” in The Black Book might well be a latter-day Doll Tearsheet.) Certainly Durrell’s love of that period was due to the fact that it represents the cusp or limen between the mediaeval and the modern, and as such had the energy of the one and the excitement of the other. These twin strategies inform all of Durrell’s own writing, whether philosophical or visceral.
Clawson rightly attributes to Durrell such essentially ontological questions as “How does one begin living?” “How does one become, in a word, one…? (page 12) The preliminary answers are not only to be found in Pied Piper of Lovers (which Clawson, by definition, excludes from his survey) but also throughout Durrell’s writing life, as he worked towards himself as an achieved writer. In “The Placebo” (his unpublished draft for Tunc and Nunquam, which Clawson has presumably not seen) he wrote “Gradually one dies to oneself and the others take one’s place. Who is he? Who is she? When will they meet? Will they ever discover the secret?”
Ignoring the poetry, Clawson therefore denies himself the opportunity to discuss the poem “Je est un autre” with its lines “In three European cities / He has watched me watching him … often / I hear him laughing in the other room. / … O useless in this old house to question / The mirrors, his impenetrable disguise”. The poem is absolutely central to the question Clawson is discussing: is the artist one, or two, or many? Is he aware of a double, an alter ego, and if so, how does he attempt to live with him? If the artist is capable of self-centredly creating a Heraldic Universe by drawing a circumference around himself and admitting nothing within it, then he is able to declare “I am an artist, I am god!”
In 1939 Durrell drafted the following note, which I think helps us to appreciate further Clawson’s excellent exegesis of Durrell’s attitude to time and thinking:
“Time and experience has [sic] made us aware of an underlying principle in our selves which we have tried to express in every department of our thought. This is a schism, a rupture between two portions of our spirit, which has resulted in two separate techniques of being. For the purposes of pure convenience Feeling and Thinking: cognition and perception … In science the straight line and the curve represent symbolically this duality; the line, thought, the curve, sensibility.
The logical end of the straight line is infinity ∞
The logical end of the curve is the ‘o’ circle a symbol of deep mystical and religious importance in the history of the world’s thought.”
It is this circle which constitutes the Heraldic Universe which , for Durrell’s self-preservation, is a place of isolation, one might say islomania.
Possibly the point on which I would take greatest issue with Clawson is his discussion of Tunc and Nunquam to which, like most readers and critics, he prefers to refer as The Revolt of Aphrodite. Setting aside the fact that that title (unloved but accepted by Durrell) sits uneasily with the two components tunc and nunquam, and their origin, the liminal moment “it was then or never”, one has to ask what is “Aphrodite” and what is she revolting against? The close of Nunquam sees Felix and Benedicta (the most unhappy and the most unblessed of folk) in joint revolt against the hegemony of The Firm, Merlin’s. But the entire book can be read as the revolt of Everyman against the downward course of western civilisation. “Love” and the goddess of “love” are merely two – admittedly major – elements in the collapse/implosion of trust, creativity and, marginally perhaps, politics.
“There is always a missing child” is not only part of the argument of Constance but, as is well known, a central leitmotiv of Justine and of Felix’s entire lack of felicity in Tunc: when he describes himself (and, I infer, Benedicta) as “people deprived of a properly constituted childhood” who experience a “buried hunger … aggravated by a sense of emotional impotence”, whose motor power is provided by “the central lack”. This emptiness fuels the rage which becomes a revolt, as if it is the Heraldic Universe (Bettelheim’s “empty fortress”) of the autistic child who becomes the destroyer of norms and accepted wisdom.
(BTW, although Clawson discusses the robotic Iolanthe’s fall from the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s Cathedral on page 68, he earlier (p.53) refers to the venue as “St Peter’s Basilica” – not quite the same place, even in poetry.)
Clawson is rightly vexed by Durrell’s attitude to death, by its pervasiveness within the lives of his characters, some of whom are, possibly, revenants or not even “real” people at all. Here, Beckett would have been a useful referent, since his entire oeuvre depicts the waiting-room-for-death that some call “life”. Death itself is a liminal state of course, but (unless you subscribe to a spiritual afterlife or to reincarnation) not as fateful as the liminality of birth, as Durrell described it in Pied Piper of Lovers. And especially when we consider that, as in Godot and Endgame, there are two men waiting, in the room next to Darley and Pursewarden, Blanford and Sutcliffe, Lucifer and Gregory. Another piece of “The Placebo”: “Time is a life for each of us – but it includes all time. But at death does time die? Our notion of time as a flux must be at fault”.
In discussing Durrell’s use (or his disuse) of time in the Quartet Clawson seems to accept that “it is impossible to say that one thing comes before another, or that one thing follows from another” (page 105).
Durrell himself was constantly being born into other worlds, other times: from India into England, into Corfu, into wartime Athens, into Kalamata, into Alexandria, into Rhodes, into Belgrade, into Cordoba, into Cyprus, into Sommieres. Each a different theatre of either war or peace – or both – in which to find a foothold for poetry, and places in which to consider the deaths of loved ones – his mother, Claude, Sappho…. His own death-list, which he fictionalises in the Quintet, is not merely a record of the passing of friends: it is a threnody for the voisins de coeur who made poetry possible.
I find it difficult to accept Clawson’s somewhat abrupt indication that Durrell refutes Bergson. I have always thought that Durrell pays homage to Bergson’s idea of time and also the stream of consciousness
in which [as Bergson put it in Time and Free Will] succeeding each other means melting into one another and forming an organic whole. … Our perceptions, sensations, emotions and ideas occur under two aspects: the one clear and precise, but impersonal; the other confused, ever changing, and inexpressible, because language cannot get hold of it without arresting its mobility or fit it into its common-place forms without making it into public property.
Bergson went on to suggest that a novelist might
Show[s] us under [the] appearance of logic a fundamental absurdity, under this juxtaposition of single states an infinite permeation of a thousand different impressions which have already ceased to exist the instant they are named, we commend him for having known us better than we knew ourselves. This is not the case, however, and the very fact that he spreads out our feeling in a homogeneous time, and expresses its elements by words shows that he in turn is only offering us its shadow: but he has arranged this shadow in such a way as to make us suspect the extraordinary and illogical nature of the object which projects it.
This, I believe, is what Durrell set out to demonstrate, not only in his “opus” but in his entire “oeuvre”.
I am also puzzled by some of Clawson’s asides: he says that in Clea Darley “for no reason given in the text, bites into an apple”. Does he need a reason? Did Darley need a reason? If it were portrayed cinematically, we might infer a cause and effect, but we would certainly not be entitled to a reason. Thankfully, Clawson is one of those critics who does not over-indulge in spurious recognitions. He tells it like it is, and he is mercifully free of both theory and jargon. While he uses Emile Benveniste on linguistics or John Frow on postmodernism as referents, he does not insist on their application to Durrell, merely on their appositeness to his own argument. This is responsible criticism.
* * *
The blurb for the book states that “Durrell described Alexandria as ‘a hybrid, a joint’, which tells us more of Durrell than of Egypt”. This is sheer ignorance; to say that Durrell is “a hybrid, a joint” is superfluous: so is every child born of a woman and a man.
It is not presumably Clawson’s own view and in any case it is contradicted by what he says about Alexandria in his book, recognising it as the nexus between east and west, Greek and Egyptian cosmography, a city which is both village and cosmopolis.
Clawson valuably speaks of a “layering of authenticities, an interplay between fictionality and ‘reality’” as “fundamental to all of Durrell’s opus” (page 37). Inter-play is indeed one method of appreciating (but not necessarily understanding!) Durrell: the play between texts (alright, call it intertextuality if you wish), between different ideas of the same person, between creator and creation, between poetry and prose, between the (ir)responsible public servant (and child of the Raj) and the iconoclastic perennial adolescent who insists on the sacral ikon. Alexandria itself is a palimpsest, allowing itself to reveal its historic layers until it reaches the point of refusal: the disclosing of its most sacred mundus.
Think of a club-sandwich, where (as in At Swim-Two-Birds) the different (p)layers take on a life of their own, get out of control, swap places, dislodge each other. There you have, on your plate, a “layering of authenticities”. It is an interlinear, an intercalation of comestibles, obeying the law of “be ye part of one another”. And suddenly it’s a croque monsieur and just as suddenly a croque madame – a Chantal de legume, wherever and whoever she might be, with a smile in her mind’s eye. Justine, Clea, Melissa, Constance, Livia, morphing into, with, and through their male counterparts.
When Pursewarden (in Balthazar) says “we live lives based on selected fictions” he is merely describing the way we all live: choosing at each moment from a menu of possibilities, all or none of which may be authentic, all or none of which may be true or false, palatable or repulsive. Marriages depend on such charades and sleights of tongue.
When Pursewarden goes on to say (in Clea) “life itself was a fiction” he is expressing the gnosticism that Durrell espoused so readily – not necessarily the so-called Gnostic Gospels but the concept of a Demiurge and the ontology of life itself. Watch The Matrix if you disbelieve me. It’s Durrell-meets gothic-meets sci-fi (or “science friction” as he called it). Life, to drag in Kundera, is elsewhere. Never here, where we are, because there is a massive interrogation mark over our “actual” existence. Life, at best, is in the next room, watching us. I am outremer. In this sense, in Durrell’s mind gnosticism meets buddhism, culminating in his attempt to write the “Tibetan novel” in the Quintet.
Clawson spends much time considering whether or not Durrell and his work can be “categorized”, preferring instead to agree with Reed Way Dasenbrock and others that he, and it, cannot be labelled, and instead making the valuable point that Durrell’s work “destabilizes categorization”.
In the spirit of the Key Clawson leads us to the conclusion (page 127) that “Durrell’s opus offers a response to and reaction against ‘modern’ literature in a bid to reanimate what he thought to be a genre grown out of touch”.
The basic fact that all earnest and no doubt sincere critics must accept is that, ultimately, Durrell did not care one way or the other about their opinions, judgements, categories or their pursuit of his sources and inspiration. As he warned in Caesar’s Vast Ghost, “Though you a whole infinity may take / You’ll not unravel the entire mosaic.”
To reduce Durrell to “one or the other” is to insist on a binary (Aristotelian) excluded middle of “either/or” rather than the inclusive “both/and”. Durrell had an Indian appetite – to swallow the whole world. To deny him that in the pursuit of scholarly rectitude is immoral.
Clawson quotes with approval Durrell’s 1968 statement that “I’ve built a whole system of question marks…This is what bothers the critics with their passion for categorizing. They don’t know what to call the books”. Durrell was utterly disruptive, an enfant méchant, who simply wanted to give the universe and its academic respectability a nudge.
This is jeu, the essence of poetry and the essence of life. As Clawson says, “only in an act of imagination can we be wholly part of the world” (page 39). When he adds that it is by means of the imagination that we “make sense”, he finds landfall on the littoral of poetry. Bravo!
Richard Pine, Durrell Library of Corfu
From the Elephant’s Back: collected essays and travel writings
by Lawrence Durrell
Edited with an introduction by James Gifford
University of Alberta Press 406 pp., Can$39.95
reviewed in The Irish Times 21 November 2015
I am writing this in Corfu, the island which was Lawrence Durrell’s first European home, a compensation for his lost childhood in India. In Corfu, where he lived 1935-39, Durrell said “Greece offers you the discovery of yourself”. It was here that he completed The Black Book (1937) and conceived the blueprint for his entire life’s work: the Alexandria Quartet (1957-59), Tuncand Nunquam (1968-70) and the Avignon Quintet (1974-85). The Quartet is the work by which his reputation as an experimental novelist will eventually live or die.
Corfu provided him with the elements of a Greek drama: agon (Black Book),pathos (the Quartet), sparagmos (Tunc and Nunquam) and anagnorisis (theQuintet). He married the Greek idea with Indian and Chinese philosophies in his determination to fuse the western narrative tradition with the eastern spirit, but his roots were always in Greece, where east meets west.
The title essay – perhaps the most important in this collection – celebrates Durrell’s Indian childhood. One of his lifelong motifs was: “whoever sees the world from the back of an elephant learns the secrets of the jungle, and becomes a seer”. Kipling’s Kim was his bedside book, from which he learned that the twin narrative techniques are “the game” and “the quest”, whether in love story, political thriller or verse drama: a mixture of “Boy Meets Girl” and the Secret Service, that achieves a compelling storyline.
Durrell was also a very accomplished travel writer; and his short pieces here on Corfu, Rhodes, Dublin and Egypt demonstrate his ability to create atmosphere in a few words that immediately bring the reader into the context, as in his sniffing the air in Dublin’s Moore Street, where “fruit and vegetables are sold to a background of scabrous backchat worthy of Aristophanes”. We relish Durrell in all genres because of this capacity to turn a baroque pen to even the most trivial subject. You can taste the writing.
The gems in this volume are the title essay, his highly personal interpretation of Wordsworth, his two essays on Shakespeare, and the introduction to the psychoanalyst Georg Groddeck.
Durrell was a misogynist in private life, but even though it sometimes shows in his fiction, he created the memorable characters of Justine, Clea and Melissa in the Quartet and the central figure of the Avignon Quintet, Constance, who he told me was his ideal woman. This collection would have benefitted from the inclusion of his essays on Harems, and the unpublished “Gynococracy”: they would have made a fine copula.
There are several essays on modern literature (Henry Miller, Cavafy, Dylan Thomas, T S Eliot) but where is the introduction to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published eight years after he had expressed his willingness to give evidence in the 1960 trial of the novel in Britain?
But the greatest missed opportunity is the essay “Minor Mythologies” in which Durrell argued against literary snobbery and insisted that the heroes of popular literature (such as Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond or Jeeves) represent mythic archetypes who are as relevant as their counterparts in the canon of “major” or “highbrow” novels.
There are many other pieces – forewords, essays, filmscripts and unpublished fiction – which cry out for a second elephant, but it would be foolish to entrust it to a dull academic as inept as the present editor. Pat Kenny’s da, who for many years was the elephant-keeper at Dublin Zoo, would have done a finer job.
Anyone who gives credence to James Gifford’s apparent fixation with proving (in his Introduction and copious endnotes) that Durrell was an “anarchist” would do well to consider Durrell’s self-description as a “Selfist” – not a Surrealist but a “Durrealist”. As a colonial functionary for much of his life (in Greece, Egypt, Yugoslavia, the Argentine and Cyprus) he was too aware of the inevitability of an ordered society to ever espouse anarchism. One might as well humour an earnest scholar who believes that Queen Elizabeth I wrote Shakespeare.
This insistence on Gifford’s part is indicative of his lack of humour: how can one write about Durrell without relishing his humour? At one point Gifford believes that a sheaf of hoax “letters to the author”, left lying around by Durrell are, in fact, genuine. To appreciate Durrell, one needs a sense of humour, a taste for the bizarre, and the joy of literary sprezzatura. Gifford lacks all three. One could never tire of reading Durrell. One tires immediately on encountering Gifford.
And anyone who thinks that we need endnotes to explain who Huxley, Virginia Woolf, Gauguin, Sartre, Einstein, D H Lawrence and Admiral Nelson were, must be immune to the intelligence of the general reader.
There are also many errors of both fact and judgement: the geography of Dublin and Corfu, the statement that Durrell spoke “fluent Greek” (he did not), the belief that two quite different essays on Shakespeare are one and the same.
I am glad I belong to the Durrell school of “necessary uncertainty”, the delicious ambiguity that no amount of critical apparatus can invade or diminish. Gifford’s editorial comments are heavy-handed and inelegant, often unnecessary or irrelevant, sometimes blatantly incorrect and always tedious. But buy the book for Durrell’s wit, elegance, philosophy, joie de vivre and flaming intelligence.