Monday, February 27, 2012

A book out of these scraps

Lawrence Durrell, the author of The Alexandria Quartet and several highly-respected travel books on Greece, was born a century ago today. His fictional style has gone out of fashion but was revered by many - not least myself - in the 1960s and 1970s. Durrell does not seem to have been a diarist, and there is no evidence of diaries in waiting, so to speak, for publication. However, one of his classic travel books, about Corfu, is based on, and quotes from, a diary or notebook he kept when first living there.

Durrell was born in Darjeeling, India, on 27 February 1912, the son of a British civil engineer, and Louisa, an Irish protestant, both of whom had been brought up in India. In 1923, he was sent to be educated in England, and attended various schools without much success. In 1935, he married Nancy, the first of his four wives, and moved with her and other members of his family (one brother, Gerald, also became a writer) to live on Corfu.

In 1937, Durrell travelled to Paris where he met Henry Miller and Anäis Nin (a lifelong diarist - see The Diary Junction), and in 1940, he had a daughter with Nancy. On the outbreak of war, Durrell’s mother and brothers returned to England, but Durrell and Nancy stayed (having a daughter in 1940) until the fall of Greece when they escaped to Alexandria. They separated soon after.

During the war, Durrell served as press attache to the British embassies in Cairo and Alexandria, and, after, he held various diplomatic and teaching posts mostly in Greece, but also in Belgrade and Buenos Aires. In 1947, he married Eve Cohen and they too had a daughter, Sappho. She committed suicide in 1985, leaving behind a diary - published in the literary magazine Granta - with unsubstantiated accusations of incest with her father.

From 1953, Durrell lived in Cyprus, initially teaching English literature but working again, for a while, for the British Government during the Cypriot revolution. During this period he began writing Justine, the first of four novels in The Alexandria Quartet, which would bring him literary fame. During the latter part of his life, Durrell lived in the South of France (he bought a large house in Sommières, a small village in Languedoc in 1966) and this was the setting for his most ambitious work, The Avignon Quintet. Apart from novels, he also wrote several celebrated books about the Greek Islands and poetry.

Durrell married twice more, his third wife dying of cancer, and the fourth marriage ending in separation. He died at Sommières in 1990. More biographical information is available at Wikipedia, the International Lawrence Durrell Society, and a French website celebrating Durrell in Languedoc.

There is no evidence that Lawrence Durrell was a diarist, except for the few dated diary-type notes that take up part of his book about Corfu - Prospero’s Cell: A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra. This was first published by Faber & Faber in 1945, and is part travel guide and part travel literature. The dated diary entries included are more like notes (similar to those found in some of his novels) and largely impersonal. Here are several extracts from the first few pages of Prospero’s Cell.

29 April 1937
‘It is April and we have taken an old fisherman’s house in the extreme north of the island - Kalamai. Ten sea-miles from the town, and some thirty kilometres by road, it offers all the charms of seclusion. A white house set like a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water. The hill runs clear up to the sky behind it, so that the cypresses and olives overhang this room in which I sit and write. We are upon a bare promontory with its beautiful clean surface of metamorphic stone covered in olive and ilex: in the shape of a mons pubis. This is become our unregretted home. A world. Corcyra.’

5 May 1937
‘The books have arrived by water. Confusion, adjectives, smoke, and the deafening pumping of wheezy Diesel engine. Then the caique staggered off in the direction of St Stephano and the Forty Saints, where the crew will gorge themselves on melons and fall asleep in their coarse woollen vests, one of top of the other, like a litter of cats, under the ikon of St Spiradion of Holy Memory. We are depending on this daily caique for our provisions.’

6 May 1937
‘Climb to Vigla in the time of cherries and look down. You will see that the island lies against the mainland roughly in the form of a sickle. On the landward side you have a great bay, noble and serene, and almost completely landlocked. Northward the tip of the sickle almost touches Albania and here the troubled blue of the Ionian is sucked harshly between the ribs of the limestone and spits of sand. Kalamai fronts the Albanian foothils, and into it the water races as into a swimming-pool: a milky ferocious green when the north wind curdles it.’

7 May 1937
‘The cape opposite is bald; a wilderness of rock-thistle and melancholy asphodel - the drear sea-quill. It was on a ringing spring day that we discovered the house. The sky lay in a heroic blue arc as we came down the stone ladder. I remember N[ancy] saying distinctly to Theodore: ‘But the quietness alone makes it another country.’ We looked through the hanging screens of olive-branches on to the white sea wall with fishing-tackle drying on it. A neglected balcony. The floors were cold. Fowls clucked softly in the gloom where the great olive-press lay, waiting its season. A cypress stood motionless - as if at the gates of the underworld. We shivered and sat on the white rock to eat, looking down at our own faces in the motionless sea. You will think it strange to have come all the way from England to this fine Grecian promontory where our only company can be rock, air, sky - and all the elementals. In letters home N says we have been cultivating the tragic sense. There is no explanation. It is enough to record that everything is exactly as the fortune-teller said it would be. White house, white rock, friends, and a narrow style of loving: and perhaps a book which will grow out of these scraps, as from the rubbish of these old Venetian tombs the cypress cracks the slabs at last and rises up fresh and green.’

By way of a personal postcript, here also are a few extracts from my own diary about Durrell. As a young man, I adored his books, and, I suppose, very much wanted to be like him - though, clearly, time has proved my ambition was a little o’er-reaching. 

26 December 1978
‘Durrell completely entrances me with his writings - but completely.’

27 September 1979
‘Durrell lives and moulds our lives. I’m not given to hero worship but it’s fun to try.’

9 November 1990
‘Lawrence Durrell has died. One of my few heroes. He was 78 years old. The newspapers find a news story in his death as well as giving him a reasonable obituary. I am delighted to discover that he had written yet one more book, about Provence, which is due to come out any day now. His style of writing is so completely out of fashion but I still love it and may now be tempted to reread a novel or two.’

18 April 1990
‘[A Spanish friend who had been living in London with us in the late 1970s] said recently she had finally consumed Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet after several failed attempts. It had struck her suddenly that Harold [a close friend at the time] and I were trying to create Durrell’s world and that Mu [another friend then living in Greece but often with us in London] was a Justine figure.’

25 July 1991
‘Information today on the Reuters wire that one of Lawrence Durrell’s wives is trying to get an injunction against a woman who intends to publish the diaries and letters of Durrell’s daughter Sappho. Sappho committed suicide some five years ago when she was 33; the diaries and letters appear to show that she had an incestuous relationship as a teenager with her father.’

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