The lost world of Lawrence Durrell

29 February 2012

11:56 AM

29 February 2012

11:56 AM

This week marks Lawrence Durrell’s centenary. Durrell was once the great white hope of British fiction, but the cult has lapsed since his sixties heyday. Richard Davenport-Hines recently
reappraised the The Alexandria
, Durrell’s most famous work. He wrote, ‘It is hard now to recapture the impact
half a century ago of these novels’ heat, luxuriance and profanity.’

50 years of sex and social liberalism in the West has obviously tamed Durrell’s ‘profanity’. And the conservative backlash in the Middle East has made his once
exotic tale seem slightly fanciful. The cosmopolitan Levant has ceased to exist, replaced by corruption of a different kind, characterised by fear, xenophobia and
oppression. Most modern eyes would read the famous duck shoot in Justine and see only the purple prose, which is not to everyone’s

Durrell’s prestige as a novelist has waned, perhaps forever. But his reputation as a 20th century travel writer is confirmed, next to Fitzroy Maclean and Patrick Leigh-Fermor in the British
pantheon. He was also a renowned poet and occasional musician. The British Library has released a centenary audiobook that includes much of his
non-fiction work, and it’s worth listening to out of curiosity. 

Plainly, Durrell thought of himself as something more than a mere ‘writer’. Indeed, his brother Gerald’s splendidly cheeky My Family and Other Animals records the youthful
‘Larry’ emerging from his room in the family house in Corfu to complain, ‘How can one be expected to write deathless prose amid this racket?’ In the letter below
(reproduced by Poetry Dispatch), the 24-year-old Dylan Thomas wrote to
the 26-year-old Durrell to insist that England is the ‘very place for a fiery and fluent writer’, revealing that Durrell wanted to be something other than an English writer from the earliest
moments of his career.

In the end he made a career of sneering at staid Britain (The Alexandria Quartet is full of snide jokes at Surbiton’s expense), and he presented himself as a cosmopolitan. He was not
always convincing. His wife’s daughter by a second marriage, Joanna Hodgkin, has just published a memoir of their bohemian marriage called Amateurs in Eden. The clue’s in the


Artifice also lurks in Durrell’s private correspondence with Henry Miller. The New York Times decreed that
they were both ‘masters of self-congratulation’, which is slightly unfair as it suggests that their friendship was false. The photograph above, which was apparently sent as a post-card
to a mutual friend, captures the warmth of their long affection. Durrell might have been a tad artificial, but he was no fake.

December 1938?


Dear Lawrence Durrell,

I would have liked to see you too, after that first short meeting in Anna’s house, in a clean pub with an evening before us and pockets jingling and lots of fire and spit and loud, grand
affectations and conceits of Atlases and London coiling and humming: but Caitlin and I went away in a pantomime snow, thrown out at midnight, and we spent the night very coldly and trained back
without tickets to charity in the morning. Now this warmth is ending, and we’ll train back without tickets to London and live there in a bad convention.

I think England is the very place for a fluent and fiery writer. The highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark. I like the grey country. A bucket of Greek sun would drown in one colour
the crowds of colours I like trying to mix for myself out a grey flat insular mud. If I went to the sun I’d just sit in the sun; that would be very pleasant but I’m not doing it, and
the only necessary things I do are the things I am doing. Unless by accidents, and my life is planned by them, I shall be nearer Bournemouth than Corfu this summer. It will need a nice accident for
us to live anywhere: we are stages beyond poverty; completely possessionless; and we are willing but angry; we can take it but we don’t want it. I liked your Stygian prose very very much,
it’s the best I’ve read for years. Don’t let the Greek sun blur your pages as you said it did. You use words like stones, throwing, rockerying, mossing, churning, sharpening,
bloodsucking, melting, and a hard firewater flows and rolls through them all the time…. And it’s so brave too; you used the sudden image of Christ with incredible courage. I mean to
borrow the typescript of the Black Book as soon as I get to London.

But I wonder what Anna will make of Miller’s books. I know her well. Morals are her cup of tea, and books are just beer: she swallows them down without discrimination of taste or body or
brew, and judges them by the effect they have on her bowels. For her a good book produces a bad poem from her, containing an independent moral judgement, but the poem could really have been written
without the book. And I think it insulting to books to take them as a purgative in order to void material which, with a little constriction of the muscles, could have been voided anyway. My own
book isn’t nearly ready. I am keeping it aside, unfinished, and writing off, now, the things which would be detrimental to it if I were to continue. You said on the back of the envelope that
you wanted a poem for a special number; I have one I can send but Miller, in his letter, said he did not know when two prose pieces of mine would appear, owing to some unexplained difficulties, and
it’s rather silly, isn’t it, sending you stuff to keep and not to print. But do tell me; I’d love to send you the poem of course.

Dylan Thomas

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Show comments
  • Snobbig

    Why no mention of his farcical diplomatic short stories? Sauve Qui Peut; Esprit de Corps and another whose name escapes me. Sour, sardonic and hilarious.

  • David Blackburn

    Francoise Kestsman Durrell,

    Thank you for the correction.

  • francoise kestsman durrell

    Johanna hodgkin is not Durrell’s daughter but Nancy second marriage daughter, I read her work and it’s seems to me good and sensible

  • Readingbookchin

    Durrell’s readers suffer from the same problem as Dylan Thomas’. They don’t understand the author’s post-war context and want a lazy realist read, hopefully with a kitchen sink… It’s the “Just give me a nice tea in a nice room with a nice window, and a story of not so nice spilled tea that comes out nice in the end” dilemma. Durrell (and Thomas for that matter) don’t want those lazy readers. You’ll have to work for it.

    Durrell’s Purswarden speaks for the author on it — he prefers the French editions because “I would not want a reader too lazy to use a knife on me.” Alas, Pudding Island seems to want books like pudding or “nice” tea. Best consumed with a straw…

  • Donna in Sussex

    I too have never read him, although I have long meant to out of curiosity, as Gerald’s autobiographical books on their life in Corfu have been a long-time favourite in our family.
    It is rather a shame, I think, that someone who so wanted to be thought of as a distinguished author is now best known as a character in his brother’s books, particularly when the brother in question followed a career path predominantly as a naturalist.

  • On Benzos

    No, Jeremy, he isn’t.

  • Jeremy

    Never read ‘im. But then I’ve never received the impression that he’s an essential read. Am I wrong?

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