An introduction to Lawrence Durrell

By Stephen Colbourn

Lawrence George Durrell was the son of British parents who had spent all their lives in India and who were themselves the children of British imperial administrators. His grandparents had been stationed in India and his mother claimed that her nationality was Indian by upbringing rather than British by descent. Durrell was to take a similar view of his origins, regarding himself as a cosmopolitan who was British only by passport. He stayed in England for just over five years, attending a number of boarding schools which he loathed, and felt no attachment to England or the English.  

Subsequently he lived in France, Greece, - on the island of Corfu, - then in Egypt, Yugoslavia, Argentina, Cyprus, and, finally, in France again. His first published works were poetry, though he is best-known for his novels which are written in highly poetic prose. The Alexandria Quartet received critical acclaim, though, perhaps, more appreciation in Europe than in Britain. It appeared as four loosely-connected novels – Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1959), and Clea (1960). Durrell was proposed as a candidate for the Nobel Prize, but, like Graham Greene who was also a contender, did not receive it.

India was Durrell’s first home. It gave him an abiding interest in Eastern mysticism that is reflected in his writings. He blended Greek myth with Hinduism and Buddhism in an attempt to describe, in his words, ‘a cosmology’ of mid-twentieth century life. He believed that modern physics was approaching the Hindu world view which resembled the Greek philosophical teaching of Heraclitus that the world is in perpetual change and, consequently, any appearance of static Being is delusory: there is only dynamic Becoming.

The Alexandria Quartet is set in Egypt during the late 1930s and Durrell’s original sub-title for the group of four novels was The Book of the Dead (an ancient Egyptian collection of funeral texts placed in tombs to aid the deceased). Characters drift through the story giving their own viewpoints of the action: viewpoints which occasionally belie the narrator Darley’s account of what has truly occurred to Justine and her Coptic husband, Melissa who is Darley’s mistress, Clea the artist, Mountolive the British ambassador and Pursewarden the intelligence officer.

Durrell wanted to show that individual perceptions are subjectively true to themselves but only when taken together can these relative views amount to veracity, or, at least point towards the overall truth. The novels are composed in poetic language which twenty-first century readers may find overwritten.

The city of Alexandria itself is a character in the books and acts as a backdrop and world pool of memory; though there was nothing ancient about the city that Durrell knew. He worked as a press attaché in Cairo and Alexandria during the Second World War and saw the nineteenth-century Ottoman Alexandria with its European façades and elegant seafront, but these constructions were less than a hundred years old.

Ancient Alexandria had indeed been a great city and boasted one of the Wonders of the World – the Lighthouse or Pharos – together with the Great Library. Yet, this huge cosmopolis fell into such dilapidation that Napoleon’s troops found only a small fishing village on the site in 1798. The archaeological rediscoveries of Alexandria of the Ptolemies were not made until the 1990s when the harbour was dredged and extended. Old Alexandria was under the sea.

Durrell saw a port city that hosted a large expatriate community where French and Italian and Greek and English were spoken more than Arabic. The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis 1863-1933) lived here all his life and his poetry is much quoted in The Alexandria Quartet. The city was a target of the Egyptian Revolution and most foreigners left or were expelled in the 1950s.

Durrell wrote poetry and non-fiction as well as imaginative prose. His description of Northern Cyprus in Bitter Lemons (1957) is an historical record and a travelogue written before partition of the island and the advent of mass tourism; though, again, modern sensibility may not accord with Durrell’s notions of local colour and quaint characters.

He held various diplomatic and teaching posts, including British Council Director in Buenos Aires and Director of Public Relations for the British Government in Cyprus. His writings include light anecdotal sketches as well as an attempt to encapsulate his philosophical ideas in A Key To Modern British Poetry (1952) wherein he lays out the effects of Freud and Einstein on literature. He also kept up a correspondence with the American writer Henry Miller (1891-1980) for forty five years.

Durrell married four times and had four daughters. Literary gossip suggested that his mentally unstable daughter Sapphos’s suicide in 1985 was caused by her father’s sexual abuse, but the basis for this posthumous tale lay in Sappho’s diary along with other writings that lack coherence. This story is unsubstantiated but is still repeated.

Lawrence Durrell died of a stroke in Provence after several years of poor health. His brother Gerald was famous as a naturalist and wrote a number of zoological books including the well known My Family and Other Animals (1956) which was used as a set text in British schools.

© Stephen Colbourn, September 2006

Stephen Colbourn is a contributor to The Essentials of Literature in English Post-1914. Hodder Arnold. 2005

See also: British Books on Film >

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