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Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990)


Anglo-Irish novelist, playwright, best known for  the tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet (1957-60). Many once believed it would secure Durrell the Nobel Prize for Literature. The experimental novel of mystery, love, and espionage explored memory and knowledge, contrasting in its story the love affair of a young writer with the recollections of the other people. Durrell spent most of his life outside England – in India, Corfu, Egypt, Yugoslavia, Rhodes, Cyprus, and the south of France.

"Hellenic worlds are replaced here by something different, something subtly androgynous, inverted upon itself. The Orient cannot rejoice in the sweet anarchy of the body – for it has outstripped the body. I remember Nessim once saying – I think he was quoting – that Alexandria was the great winepress of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets – I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex." (from Justine, volume one of the Alexandria Quartet)

Lawrence Durrell was born in Darjeeling, India, the son of Lawrence Samuel Durrell, a British civil engineer, and Louisa (Dixie) Durrell, who was of pure Protestant Irish descent. Both his parents had been born and brought up in the India of the Raj. "God-fearing, lusty, chapel-going Mutiny stock," Durrell later described his family's Indian roots. At the age of twelve Durrell was taken to England. Durrell had little feeling for England and the English – when his mother had applied for a British passport, she declared: "I am a citizen of India." He attended numerous schools from 1923 to 1928 without much success, and worked for some time as a jazz pianist in a London nightclub. In the 1930s he went to Paris, where he started his career as a writer and associated with such authors as Henry Miller, who became his mentor. The two kept up an exchange of letters over 45 years.

In 1935 Durrell moved with his mother to the island of Corfu – several of his works were later connected to Mediterranean countries. His brother Gerald Durrell described life there in his book My Family and Other Animals (1956). Between the years 1934 and 1940 he edited a little magazine called Booster (later Delta). Durrell's first novel of interest, The Black Book: An Agon, heavily influenced by Miller, was published in Paris in 1938. The mildly pornographic fantasia did not appear in Britain until 1973. In the story Lawrence Lucifer struggles to escape the spiritual sterility of dying England, and finds Greece's warmth and fertility.

During WW II Durrell served as a press attaché to the British embassies in Cairo and Alexandria from 1941 to 1944. Durrell disliked Alexandria and he left the city for good in May 1945, taking with him his a "quarry" book, in which he wrote his first notes for an Alexandria novel. After the war he held various diplomatic and teaching jobs. He worked in Rhodos, Belgrad, finally settling in Cyprus in 1953. From 1947 to 1948 he was a director of the British Council Institute in Argentina. Durrell's observation of the diplomatic life at the British legation in Belgrade, where he was from 1949 to 1952, gave him material for White Eagles Over Serbia (1957), which gained considerable success. In the story Colonel Methuen of Special Operations Q Branch is called to the office of his commanding officer and asked: "How far would it be if one walked from Belgrade to Salonika? Methuen starts his perilous mission which takes him deep into the mountains of Yugoslavia. Durrell's description of the highlands of the country forms an intrinsic part of the novel.

"The woods were carpeted with flowers, sweet-smelling salvia, cranesbill, and a variety of ferns. Here and there, too, bright dots of scarlet showed him where the wild strawberries grew, and in these verdant woods the pines and beeches increased in size until he calculated that he was walking among glades of trees nearly a hundred feet in height. He could not help contrasting all this place and beauty with the grim errand upon which he was bent, and which might lead to him to sudden death." (from White Eagles over Serbia)

In 1953 Durrell left diplomatic service and moved to Cyprus, but from 1954 to 1956 he returned to it, on account of the Cypriot revolution, as director of Public Relations for the British Government. He finally settled in Provence, France, where he lived for the rest of his life. Among his later works are Justine (1957), in which Justine's emotional and sexual wildness fuels a highly-charged atmosphere, Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1959) and Clea (1960), forming together the Alexandria Quartet, entitled 'The Book of the Dead.' All four parts in the work climax in death. The metropolis serves as the basis in the exploration of human existence.

Set in Alexandria during the period just before World War II, the first three novels cover roughly the same period of time and the events, while Clea advances the action in time. In the early decades of the twentieth century, Alexandria was known as a "Little Paris." Principal characters include the narrator L.G. Darley, his Greek mistress Melissa, the British ambassador Mountolive, the British intelligence agent Pursewarden, Durrell's spokesman for artistic vision, although his ambiguous death occurs already in Justine, the artist Clea, and Justine and her wealthy Coptic husband Nessim. All are bound together in a web of political and sexual intrigue: each novel reveals different aspect of the truth. Darley's point of view from Justine is contradicted by others in Balthazar; Mountolive gives the facts, and Clea tells of the writer's journey of self discovery. Conventional distinctions – major/minor characters, main plots/subplots – are denied. Numerous characters disappear, then re-emerge in altered form. It has been said that in Alexandria Quartet Durrell reinvented the modern novel. The ancient city itself is the fifth character – city of knowledge, books, and stories, at the same time real and half-imagined. (Other writers who have depicted Alexandria: Constantine Cavafy, Naguib Mahfouz, Edward el-Kharrat, E.M. Forster)

In general, the Quartet gained critical acclaim. Although the Egyptian author Mahmoud Manzaloui acknowledged Durrell's power in "setpieces, landscapes, and townscapes," he gave a lenghty list of Durrell's errors about Egyptian culture and the Arabic languege. The movie based upon the story was a flop. Durrell sought to replicate his success with The Avignon Quintet: Monsieur: or, The Prince of Darkness (1974),  Livia: or, Buried Alive (1978), Constance, or, Solitary Practices (1982); Sebastian, or, Ruling Passions (1983). Although the works had much in common, The Avignon Quintet did not commercially outdo its predecessor. Again the theme is an invard journey, but now West and East come together in a spiritual alliance. "We must learn from such doctor-mystics as Groddeck to treat the whole of reality as a symptom!... the two metaphysics, Eastern and Western, are moving steadily together and given time will meet in many essential fields." (Durrell, in Margaret McCall, The Lonely Roads: Notes for an Unwritten Book, Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 33, No. 3, Autumn, 1987)

Durrell was married four times, in 1935 with Nancy Meyers (divorced in 1947), and then with Yvette Cohen. His third marriage, in 1961 to a Frenchwoman, Claude, ended with her death in 1967. In 1973 he married Ghislaine de Boysson (divorced in 1979). He had two daughters by each of his first two marriages. His second daughter, Sappho, committed suicide in 1985, leaving behind writings that pointed accusingly at her father – probably without basis. Durrell died of a stroke at his home in Sommières, on November 7, 1990, following a lengthy struggle with emphysema. He was nominated as a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but in 1961, when Ivo Andric received the honor, the jury passed his name, because of his "monomanical preoccupation with erotic complications." Durrell also produced several travel books describing the places he had visited. Other publications include humorous short stories, plays in verse, and poems. Durrell's  brother Gerald Durrell (see below), zoologist and traveller, gained popularity with his animal stories.

For further reading: Durrell and the City: Collected Essays on Place, edited by Donald P. Kaczvinsky (2011); Lawrence Durrell: A Biography by Ian S. MacNiven (1998); Lawrence Durrell: Coversations, ed. by Earl G. Ingersoll (1998); Through the Dark Labyrinth by Gordon Bowker (1997); Lawrence Durrell's Major Novels by Donald P. Kaczvisnky (1997); Lawrence Durrel: Comprehending the Whole, by Julius Rowan Raper et al (1995); Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape by Richard Pine (1994); On Miracle Ground, ed. by Michael H. Begnal (1990); Lawrence Durrell by John A. Weigel (1989); Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell, ed. by A.W. Friedman (1986); Joyce Cary and Lawrence Durrell by S. Vander Closter (1985); Lawrence Durrell and the Alexandria Quartet by A.W. Friedman (1970); The Muse of Science and the Alexandria Quartet (1978); Lawrence Durrell by G.S. Fraser (1970); Lawrence Durrell: A Study by G.S. Fraser (1968, rev. ed. 1973); The World of Lawrence Durrell by H.T. Moore (1962); My Friend Lawrence Durrell by A. Perles (1961). Gerald Durrell  (1925-1995):  British zoologist, traveller, writer, and broadcaster, brother of the author Lawrence Durrell. Gerald Durrell was born in Jamshedpur, India, the fourth surviving child of Louisa Florence Durrell and Lawrence Samuel Durrell. When he was ten, his widowed mother took her family to live on the Greek island of Corfu, where Durrell was educated by private tutors. From 1945 to 46 he worked at Whipsnade Zoo and then went on several animal collecting expeditions to Cameroon, Guyana, and other countries. In the 1950s Durrell published his first animal stories, which became very popular and were translated into many languages. My Family and Other Animals (1956) told tales about his unconventional family and the islanders on Corfu. In The Drunken Forest (1978) and Three Tickets to Adventure (1954) Durrell described animal-collecting expeditions. With his second wife Lee, a conservationist, Durrell bred rare species for eventual return to the wild. In 1958 Durrell founded the Jersey Zoological Park. He was also founder chairman of Wildlife Preservation Trust International in 1972. Durrell died on January 30, 1995. Selected books: The Overloaded Ark (1953, Arkillinen eläimiä),  Three Singles to Adventure (1954), The Bafut Beagles (1954), The New Noah (1955), My Family and Other Animals (1956,  Eläimet ja muu kotiväkeni), The Drunken Forest (1956, Vyötiäisten maassa), Encounters with Animals (1958),  A Zoo on My Luggage (1960), Island Zoo (1961), Look at Zoos (1961), The Whispering Land (1961), Menagerie Manor (1964), Two in the Bush (1966), Rosy is My Relative (1968), The Donkey Rustlers (1968), Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (1969, Eläimellistä menoa Korfussa), Fillets of Plaice (1971), Catch me a Colobus (1972), Beats in My Belfry (1973), The Talking Parcel (1974), The Stationary Ark (1976), The Garden of the Gods (1978), The Picknick and Suchlike Pandemonium (1979), The Mockery Bird (1981), A Practical Guide for the Amateur Naturalist (1982), Ark on the Move (1982), How to Shoot an Amateur Naturalist (1984), Durrell in Russia (1986, with Lee Durrell), The Fantastic Flying Journey (1987); The Fantastic Dinosaur Adventure (1989), Keeper (1990), The Ark's Anniversary (1990), Marrying off Mother (1991), Toby the Tortoise (1991), He Aye-Aye and I (1992), Puppy Tales (1993). Suomeksi Durrellilta on käännetty myös Takahe (1971), Kaikki kuninkaan eläimet (1975), Löytöretki luontoon (1983), Ihmeellinen lentoretki (1989).  Selected television works: The Amateur Naturalist (1983), Ourselves and Other Animals (1987)

Selected works:

  • Quaint Fragments, 1931
  • Ten Poems, 1932
  • Ballade of Slow Decay, 1932
  • Bromo Bombastes, 1933 (as Gaffer Peeslake)
  • Transition, 1934
  • Mass for the Old Year, 1935
  • Pied Piper of Lovers, 1935
  • Panic Spring: A Romance, 1937 (as Charles Norden)
  • The Black Book, 1938
    - Musta kirja (suom. Viljo Laitinen, 1963)
  • Poems, 1938
  • A Private Country, 1943
  • Prospero's Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corcyra, 1945
  • Cities, Plains and People, 1946
  • Zero, and Asylum in the Snow, 1946
  • Six Poems From the Greek of Sikelianós and Seféris, 1946 (translator)
  • The Parthenon, 1946
  • Cefalû: A Novel, 1947 (republished as The Dark Labyrinth)
    - Pimeä sokkelo (suom. T. A. Engström, 1981)
  • On Seeming to Presume: Poems, 1948
  • Georg Groddeck (Studies in Genius IV), 1948 (in Horizon)
  • The King of Asine and Other Poems / George Seferis, 1948 (translator, with others)
  • A Landmark Gone, 1949
  • Deus Loci, 1950
  • Sappho: A Play in Verse, 1950
  • A Key to Modern British Poetry, 1952
  • The Tree of Idleness, and Other Poems, 1953
  • Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes, 1953
  • The Curious History of Pope Joan / Emmanuel Roídes, 1954 (translator)
  • Private Drafts, 1955
  • Selected Poems, 1956
  • Esprit de Corps: Sketches from Diplomatic Life, 1957 (illustrated by V.H. Drummond)
  • Bitter Lemons, 1957
    - Katkerat sitruunat (suom. T.A. Engström, 1970)
  • White Eagles Over Serbia, 1957
    - Serbian valkoiset kotkat (suom. T. A. Engström, 1964)
  • Justine, 1957 (Alexandria Quartet)
    - Justine: romaani kiehtovasta Aleksandrian kaupungista ja rakkauden ongelmista (suom. T. A. Engström, 1959)
  • Stiff Upper Lip, 1958 (drawings by Nicolas Bentley)
  • Balthazar, 1958 (Alexandria Quartet)
    - Balthazar: romaani kiehtovasta Aleksandrian kaupungista ja rakkauden ongelmista (suom. T. A. Engström, 1960)
  • Mountolive, 1959 (Alexandria Quartet)
    - Mountolive: romaani kiehtovasta Aleksandrian kaupungista ja rakkauden ongelmista (suom. T. A. Engström, 1962)
  • Clea, 1960 (Alexandria Quartet)
    - Clea: romaani kiehtovasta Aleksandrian kaupungista ja rakkauden ongelmista (suom. T.A. Engström, 1963)
  • The Henry Miller Reader, 1959 (editor)
  • The Best of Henry Miller, 1960 (editor)
  • Collected Poems, 1960
  • Art and Outrage; a Correspondence about Henry Miller between Lawrence Durrell and Alfred Perlès, 1961
    - Kirjeitä = Art and outrage (suomennos: T. A. Engström, Pentti Saarikoski & Seppo Ilmari, 1968)
  • Acté, or the Prisoner of Time, 1961
  • The Poetry of Lawrence Durrell, 1962
  • Lawrence Durrell [and] Henry Miller: A Private Correspondence, 1963 (edited by George Wickes)
  • An Irish Faustus: A Morality in Nine Scenes, 1963
  • A Persian Lady, 1963
  • Selected Poems, 1964
  • The Ikons, and Other Poems, 1966
  • Sauve Qui Peut, 1966 (drawings by Nicolas Bentley)
  • Tunc: A Novel, 1968 (The Revolt of Aphrodite, book 1)
  • Nunquam: A Novel, 1970 ((The Revolt of Aphrodite, book 2)
  • Red Limbo Lingo: A Poetry Notebook, 1971
  • The Suchness of the Old Boy, 1972 (drawings by Sappho Durrell)
  • Vega and Other Poems, 1973
  • The Plant-Magic Man, 1973
  • The Big Supposer: A Dialogue with Marc Alyn, 1973 translated by Francine Barker, illustrated with paintings by Lawrence Durrell)
  • Lifelines: Four Poems, 1974
  • Collected Poems, 1974
  • The Best of Antrobus, 1975
  • Monsieur: or, The Prince of Darkness, 1975 (The Avignon Quintet)
    - Monsieur (suom. Jussi Nousiainen, 1982)
  • Blue Thirst, 1975
  • Sicilian Carousel, 1977
  • Selected Poems of Lawrence Durrell, 1977 (selected by Alan Ross)
  • Livia, or Buried Alive, 1978 (The Avignon Quintet)
    - Livia (suom. Jussi Nousiainen, 1985)
  • The Greek Islands, 1978
  • Collected Poems 1931-1974, 1980 (rev. ed., edited by James A. Brigham)
  • A Smile in the Mind's Eye, 1980
  • Literary Lifelines: The Richard Aldington-Lawrence Durrell Correspondence, 1981 (edited by Ian S. MacNiven and Harry T. Moore)
  • Constance: or, Solitary Practices, 1982 (The Avignon Quintet)
  • Sebastian: or, Ruling Passions, 1983 (The Avignon Quintet)
  • Quinx: or, The Ripper's Tale, 1983 (The Avignon Quintet)
  • Antrobus Complete, 1985 (drawings by Marc)
  • The Durrell-Miller Letters 1935-1980, 1988 (edited by Ian S. MacNiven)
  • Spirit of Place: Mediterranean Writings, 1988 (edited by Alan G. Thomas)
  • Letters to Jean Fanchette 1958-63, 1988
  • Caesar's Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence, 1990 (photographs by Harry Peccinotti)
  • Henri Michaux: The Poet of Supreme Solipsism, 1990
  • Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel, 1998 (edited by Alan G. Thomas)
  • Lawrence Durrell: Conversations, 1998 (edited by Earl G. Ingersol)
  • Selected Poems of Lawrence Durrell, 2006 (edited by Peter Porter)

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