Lawrence Durrell

A prolific British author, Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) wrote several large-scale, multi-volume series of novels as well as poetry, plays, short stories, and travel books. People and places of the Mediterranean were a central theme of his work.

Lawrence Durrell was born on February 27, 1912, in Darjeeling, India, at the foothills of the Himalayas. His parents were Irish Protestants engaged in colonial service. After attending the College of St. Joseph in Darjeeling, the 11-year-old Durrell, like many Anglo-Indian children, was sent to England to complete his education. He went to St. Edmund's School, Canterbury, and, failing to gain entrance to Cambridge, took up a bohemian existence and supported himself by working as a jazz pianist in London night clubs and taking on a variety of odd jobs. He also began to work seriously on his poetry and fiction.

Oppressed by the hardship of life in a grimy quarter of London, Durrell was also stung by the stifling pressure of British society on his artistic ambitions. He wrote in a letter: "England wrung my guts out of me and tried to destroy everything singular and unique in me." In 1935, to escape "that mean, shabby little island," Durrell went with his family to the island of Corfu, off the Adriatic coast of Greece. He wanted to live the life of an expatriate writer and to recreate the life of London in his novels, much as the expatriate James Joyce had done for Dublin. At this time, Durrell read Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, a book whose plain style and sexual candor would greatly influence his own fiction. He went to Paris to meet Miller, and so began their life-long friendship.

Durrell's stay on Corfu was interrupted by the onset of World War II. His life for the next 17 years was shaped by a series of postings in government service. Durrell was in Athens and Crete from 1939 to 1941 teaching English, in Cairo and Alexandria until 1945 as an officer in the Foreign Press Service, in Rhodes until 1947 as director of public relations for the Dodecanese Islands, in Argentina in 1948 as director of the British Council Institute in Cordoba, in Belgrade through 1952 as press attaché, and in Cyprus from 1953 to 1956 as director of public relations for the island's government. The literary result was that the world of the Mediterranean became Durrell's chief subject matter, in both his fiction and his many travel books. In 1957 he left government service to dedicate himself to this writing and settled in a village in the south of France, where he lived until his death in 1990.

Durrell's first important novel was The Black Book (1938), which, though similar in theme, represented a major stylistic break from his earlier fiction. The novel shows the influence of Miller's Tropic of Cancer, but The Black Book was no mere imitation. The novel recounts the lives and loves of struggling writers and artists in a grubby London hotel. Because of the novel's sexual frankness, Faber & Faber refused to bring out an unexpurgated edition; the book was finally published in its complete form through the efforts of Henry Miller. (The Black Book did not find a publisher in the United States until 1960.) With its appearance, Durrell was recognized as a major literary voice.

Durrell's subsequent fiction explores the people and places of the Mediterranean that he came to know so well. Cefalu (1947; later retitled The Dark Labyrinth) is a satirical portrait of a group of English tourists who are for a time trapped in the Cretan labyrinth, home to the legendary Minotaur.

The centerpiece of Durrell's career as novelist is The Alexandria Quartet, comprised of Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960). In this ambitious and intricate series of novels, Durrell attempted to create a fictional parallel of 20th-century physics, based on theories he had expounded in his one book of literary criticism, A Key to Modern British Poetry (1952). In a prefatory note to Balthazar, Durrell wrote: "Modern literature offers us no Unities, so I have turned to science and am trying to complete a four-decker novel whose form is based on the relativity proposition. Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup mix recipe of a continuum." The books of The Alexandria Quartet, which Durrell called "an investigation of modern love," are not sequential; rather, the first three books tell of the same events and characters in pre-World War II Alexandria, but from different viewpoints. The "facts" of the story of sexual liaisons and political intrigue are glimpsed only obliquely from the accounts of different narrators. There is, in a sense, no objective truth to be discovered. The fourth novel, Clea, is a more traditional chronological narrative which takes the characters through the war years.

In The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell adopted a highly ornate and sensuous narrative voice which drew much critical attention. George Steiner described the Quartet's style as "complex aural music" in which "light seems to play across the surface of the words in a brilliant tracery." The "baroque" style was not to everyone's taste though; Martin Green complained that "a steady diet of [Durrell's] sentences … makes one feel one is sickening for a bad cold."

Durrell's career as novelist continued with two other large-scale, multi-volume works. Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970) comprise The Revolt of Aphrodite, which tells a gothic story of corporate intrigue. The five-part Avignon Quintet is made up of Monsieur, or the Prince of Darkness (1974); Livia, or Buried Alive (1978); Constance, or Solitary Practices (1982); Sebastian, or Ruling Passions (1983); and Quinx, or the Ripper's Tale (1985). These later works, which are heavily weighted with allusions to gnostic mysticism and the medieval legends of the Knights Templar, are direct descendents of Durrell's Alexandria series. As the critic Alan Friedman points out:

They too offer exotic settings peopled by improbable characters; multiple fictional and narrative layerings; … extensive mythical and metaphysical speculation on the nature of the universe and its creator, on the ego and personality, on the enterprises of being, becoming and creating; a harsh critique of western civilization and values; and an erotically charged prose style whose evocations and allusions overtly echo and invoke the Quartet.

In addition to his novels, Durrell is noted for a series of works generally referred to as the "island books," a hybrid genre incorporating autobiography and satiric social commentary. Prospero's Cell (1945) is an "island portrait" of Corfu, its geography, lore, customs, and eccentric inhabitants. Later, Durrell published Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes (1953); Bitter Lemons (1957), which deals with the Greek-Turkish conflict on Cyprus; Sicilian Carousel (1977); and The Greek Islands (1978).

Durrell's literary output also includes twelve volumes of poetry, three plays, several books of satiric sketches of diplomatic life, short stories, and collections of his correspondence with Henry Miller, Alfred Perles, and Richard Aldington. Durrell died of emphysema at his home in the village of Sommieres, November 7, 1990.

Further Reading on Lawrence Durrell

Spirit of Place (1969), edited by Alan G. Thomas, is an extensive anthology of Durrell's essays and fiction which serves as a Baedecker to Durrell's life and travels. Two important collections of criticism are Harry T. Moore's The World of Lawrence Durrell (1962) and Alan Warren Friedman's Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell (1987). Readers interested in Durrell's friendship with Henry Miller might turn to the Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-1980 (1988) or to Always Merry and Bright (1978), Jay Martin's biography of Miller.