July 2012

Greer Mansfield


Durrell at 100

Lawrence Durrell's centenary passed in February 2012. Reaction seemed muted: the celebration was limited to a series of academic conferences in London and some notes in the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph (and, I've just noticed, a Newsweek and Daily Beast article hailing him as a prophet of globalization). More than five decades after Justine was published to delirious reviews, Durrell's place in literary memory is uncertain. He is still widely considered to be an important writer, but very few people are willing to take a position on how important, and why.

And why shouldn't this be the case? The reputations of writers and artists go up and down in the cultural stock market, sometimes dramatically. Public opinion among professors and book reviewers is as fickle and fad obsessed as any other kind, maybe more so.

Most Durrell discussion centers on his novel tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet. When it was first published in the late 1950s and early 60s, it was compared to Ford Madox Ford's Parade's End and Proust's A' la recherche du temps perdu (not to mention Conrad, Tolstoy, and Hardy). Durrell fans are still devoted to the series. Current bookchat writers, when they mention it at all, seem fixated on (and a bit embarrassed by) its luxuriant prose style. "Purple prose" is the lazy epithet that critics use for this sort of thing, forgetting that a rich prose like Durrell's paints with a variety of colors. The merely verbose writer uses an inflated vocabulary to avoid contact with anything graspable; this isn't the same as a writer who has a sensual love of the language and the things it describes.

What gets lost in the debate over The Alexandria Quartet (Pinnacle of the novelist's art? Pretentious melodrama? Something else entirely?) is the fact that Durrell was one of the last literary polymaths in the English language. He didn't specialize in one form the way most Anglo-Saxon writers do today: he wrote poems, travel books, essays, adventure stories for children, and novels serious and comic. Until the international success of Justine he worked for the British Foreign Office, and his letters from his postings in Greece, Argentina, Yugoslavia, and Cyprus are wonderfully vivid.  

Sometimes they're vividly grim, as in his letters from the shabby heart of Tito's Yugoslavia: "This country has withered me with its Utopian present (40% of the children have t.b.) and the even more Utopian future it promises for all of us." Durrell hated Belgrade ("this ghastly and inert police state," "this machine state") but loved Bosnia:

Torrents rushing, eagles flying. You come around a shoulder of rock and -- guess what? A Turkish town -- pure 1795. Soft pearl bulbs of minarets and trellised houses built up the steep sides of the mountains... The older houses look like charming birdcages hung about the hills. The whole town gives the air of being some late 19th century drawing by Lear, say. Mosques, minarets, fezes -- holding the gorgeous East in fee while the river cools the air, splashing through the town and the bridge on which whatsishame was assassinated (now called the People's Bridge).  

Diplomacy was once a fairly common day job for literary types: Durrell, Saint-John Perse, Paul Claudel, both Oscar and Czeslaw Milosz, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, and Durrell's friend George Seferis all, at one time or another, worked in their respective countries' foreign service. A curiosity of twentieth century literature.  

Durrell's books about the Greek isles are some of the best travel writing of the twentieth century. He liked to point out that his Greek books aren't so much "travel" writing as "foreign residence" writing, as he was writing about places he actually lived for certain periods of his life: Corfu in Prospero's Cell and Rhodes in Reflections on a Marine Venus. Both are lovely and exuberant books, full of gorgeous description and good humor. Durrell's writing is recognizably of the same vintage and spirit as his friends Freya Stark and Patrick Leigh Fermor: it wanders among historical periods, myths, and works of art as much as it does among places and characters. Like Stark and Leigh Fermor (and several other English travel writers during his lifetime, many of them fellow philhellenes) he was a bookish wanderer, a poet-traveler who reveled in historical, literary, and mythological associations.

He also had a kinship with Henry Miller. Durrell's early novel The Black Book is clearly influenced by Tropic of Cancer, and Miller's time in Greece with Durrell resulted in his own great travel book, The Colossus of Maroussi. Near the start of Colossus, Miller writes:

I had been receiving letters from Greece from my friend Lawrence Durrell who had practically made Corfu his home. His letters were marvelous too, and yet a bit unreal to me. Durrell is a poet and his letters were poetic: they caused a certain confusion in me owing to the fact that the dream and the reality, the historical and the mythological, were so artfully blended. Later I was to discover for myself that this confusion is real and not due entirely to the poetic faculty.

In his homespun and matter-of-fact way, Miller was getting at exactly what makes Durrell's travel writing so exhilarating to read. Here is Durrell exploring Bellapaix Abbey in Cyprus:

...the Abbey cloisters with their heavily-loaded orange trees and brilliant flower-gardens were a study in contrasts -- the grave contemplative calm of Gothic pricked everywhere, as silence is by music, by the Mediterranean luxuriance of yellow fruit and glittering green leaves. "Somewhere to walk," said the Kollis... "to think, whenever you please, to be quiet among the lemon trees."

And later in the book:

Sitting in the long grass among the spiked and abandoned British guns on the Kyrenia wall, I would watch the Turkish children flying their colored kites in the fresh evening wind which ushers in the summer twilights of the capital. Or sitting on the leads of Saint Sophia watch the black well of darkness slowly flicker into light, candle by candle, like Easter worshippers greeting the risen Christ.

Both of those quotations come from Bitter Lemons, Durrell's book about living in Cyprus. It might be his best "spirit of place" book. The tension between his love of the island and its genus loci (Aphrodite, Othello, waves of picaresque invaders of which the British are only the most recent) and the seemingly hopeless political problems he encounters there make for a sweet and sour masterpiece.

Durrell had thought he was escaping the Diplomatic Service by moving to Cyprus. Instead, the Greek insurrection against the British and demand for enosis (union with Greece) forces him back into "the thousand preoccupations of office waiting for me, and the noisy contentions of demagogues and illiterates which had begun to fill the empty void of world affairs with the shrill waspish voice of the time -- nationalism."

His description of rival fanatics can be applied to plenty of other violent sloganeers, not just Greek and Turkish examples. Durrell himself doesn't come out of Bitter Lemons entirely unblemished: at times he condescends to the Cypriots, and he has a somewhat "colonial" view of the situation. For all his dislike of England, Durrell was a believer in the British Empire, and was never quite the honorary Greek that Patrick Leigh Femor was. He thought Britain had a right to administer the island, but was hardly dogmatic:

If Cyprus were to be frivolously wished away then what of Hong Kong, Malta, Gibraltar, the Falklands, Aden -- all troubled but stable islands in the great pattern? ...Cyprus belonged, from the point of view of geography and politics, to the Empire's very backbone. Must it not, then, be held at all costs?

I could not find my way forward among all these mutually contradictory propositions; it seemed to me that everybody was right and everybody wrong.

However, he later came to see British policy in Cyprus as cynical and "double-faced." He even thought that the government he represented played a part in engineering the disasters of 1974: the Greek junta's proxy attack, the Turkish invasion and deportations, and the eventual dismemberment of the island. Bellapaix, the town where Durrell lived (home to the gorgeous abbey and the Tree of Idleness) is now an outpost in the ethnically cleansed state of Northern Cyprus.

The Tree of Idleness in Bellapaix was also the subject of one of Durrell's poems. It begins "I shall die one day I suppose / In this old Turkish house I inhabit..." He didn't, of course. The bitterness of Cyprus drove him away, and he eventually settled in Provence, about which he wrote a wonderful book called Caesar's Vast Ghost (his American publishers insisted on literalness and changed the title to Provence). His evokes a romantic company in this late love letter to his final home: Camargue bulls, the Romans, the troubadours, the Cathars, the women of Arles with their "raven hair and flashing looks," Provence's vineyards and plane trees and shadowed lavender fields. It's all very hard to resist.

Also hard to resist, and sadly underrated these days, is Durrell's poetry. There's no point in trying to improve on Kenneth Rexroth's characterization:

It is a poetry of tone, the communication of the precise quality of a very precious kind of reverie -- animalism and skeptic faith recollected in tranquility... he is gifted with a gentle, unselfconscious eroticism very rare in our nasty and Puritan world -- never nastier than among our most advanced émancipés.

For a taste of what Durrell can do in a poem, try reading this out loud:

A song in the valley of Nemea:
Sing quiet, quite quiet here.

Song for the brides of Argos
Combing the swarms of golden hair:
Quite quiet, quiet there.

Under the rolling comb of grass,
The sword outrusts the golden helm.

Agamemnon under tumulus serene
Outsmiles the jury of skeletons:
Cool under cumulus the lion queen:

Only the drum can celebrate,
Only the adjective outlive them.

A song in the valley of Nemea:
Sing quiet, quiet, quiet here.

Tone of the frog in the empty well,
Drone of the bald bee on the cold skull,

Quiet, Quiet, Quiet.

Durrell will be a strong cultural presence whenever new novelists, poets, and travel writers find something worth emulating in his writing. A would-be hundredth birthday can only lead to a labored and artificial commemoration. Writers live not when professors produce monographs and hold conferences on them (as valuable as many of these are) or when they have the official approval of reviewers (of either the column-writing or the star-clicking variety). A writer's work is alive when it finds a receptive home in -- Durrell's phrase in a poem about Seferis -- the "lost property office of the loving mind."