Reviews

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.

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.

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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.