One of the best, and certainly one of the most civilized writers in English today is Lawrence Durrell. He has written a couple of superlative travel books, literary essays, miscellaneous belles-lettres, four volumes of poetry, and novels which are quite unlike any other fictions of our day at least until they produce imitators.
I enjoy Durrells poetry more than that of anybody else anywhere near his age now writing in the British Isles. In fact, only McDiarmid, Muir and Read appeal to me as much. 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. Wallace Stevens wrote with the same emotional subject matter, but his poetry is cooked and strident in comparison with Durrells easy relaxation. Again, he is gifted with a gentle, unselfconscious eroticism very rare in our nasty and Puritan world never nastier than among our most advanced émancipés.
The poet who has influenced Durrell most is probably the Greek poet Cavafy, the only homosexual writer in history who was not ridden with guilt. Durrells loves and adventures have been more normal and less random, so that he is saved from Cavafys heart-rending nostalgia for vanished and vanishing fulfillment. He seems to have come naturally, by easy, heterosexual means, to the kind of tolerance of the painful heart that must have cost Cavafy a lifetime of very disagreeable trouble. No one writing verse today can better evoke a scene, a place, a room, a situation, the body of a woman, alive at just that fleeting moment that it lived, with all the meaning of its present and all the pathos of its vanishing. Again, no one can better bow over unspeaking, resonant strings. Durrells overtones and references would be destroyed by notes. It is just a haunting flavor of Gibbons Theodora that counts in Durrells poem to a modern intellectual tart of the same name lurking in the background with her rumors of bear pits and brothels, like some evanescent herb dimly sensed in a production of morels stuffed with brochet. What glitters in the foreground is the gold fleck in the living girls eye recorded forever.
Stevens may have liked to think he approached art as the late Aga Khan might have approached a race horse, a pâté truffé, a girl or a Chateau Ausone of the year of the comet. Actually, his approach was more that of a New England insurance executive. Durrell is so convincing as a good European he comes close to being a good Levantine. And it is all done simply, with never a mirror the best kind of legerdemain, without a stick of apparatus. Its not for nothing that he wrote two poems years ago which are still the best ever written in Basic English. The ancestor is Horace. Someday, when the world has calmed down, maybe we will again realize that Horace was the perfect artist he was considered by less troubled times. Right now, Lawrence Durrell is the only person I know who has the indomitable guts to walk in his footsteps.
Just before the war Durrell wrote a novel, The Black Book. Nobody who ever read it ever quite got over it. It is the story, told from the inside, of a bunch of thoroughly wretched characters intellectuals seeking exquisite debauchery. It gets just the right tone. It is so perfect, so dead-pan, you have to think it over before you realize that Durrell himself didnt really mean it. Now lots of people have portrayed the evils of musical beds. I believe quite a few novels nowadays deal with this and related subjects. By and large, scratch a pornographer and a furious Puritan emerges from the tousled bedcovers. Above the bidets of The Black Books disgraceful boudoirs is written in a fine Spenserian hand: Durrell was here there is only the gentle echo of Epicurean malice.
Justine is at least the equal of The Black Book, from the comic irony of its title to the tour de force of a tour de force that is its style. It is an imitation of what the French call a récit of a weak, pretentious schoolmaster and amateur of the sensibility, who is very busy writing fine writing about his ridiculously self-conscious amours. But the take-off on fine writing is itself fine writing very fine writing indeed, and the two qualities, the real and its satirical mirror image, are so blended and confused that the exact nature of the aesthetic satisfaction is impossible to analyze. Proust managed this sometimes, as in the absurd scene where his hero uses pages to describe the maneuvers by which he managed to spy on Charlus in the lumber room. Durrell is so much more economical; Proust, delighted to discover a spark of humor rising in his humorless mind, usually worked his jokes to death.
Once again Durrell has turned to Cavafy in fact, Justine is almost a novelification (like a versification but backwards) of Cavafys poetry. It is not just an evocation, but a bodily conjuration of Alexandria soft, sweet, corrupt and crazy, like some impossibly cloying tropical fruit. Shanghai . . . Alexandria . . . Tangiers . . . only our time has produced these sanatoria with the luxury rooms full of uprooted rotting infants and the corridors full of eyeless beggars exhibiting their stinking sores. Not only is Durrells Alexandria so real that it envelopes you like a cloud of its own miasmas, but the people even though we see them through comic distorting mirrors are more real than real. The realest of all is the proverbial tart with a heart of gold. Both Durrell and I have been taken to task by the same British critics for imagining that this type of girl actually exists. He certainly makes her very convincing. I doubt if he just thought her up. Like all hearts of gold, she dies as pathetically as any Dickens girl. I doubt if the other people have hearts at all there doesnt seem to be anything inside them but dry râles and spoiling orchids. But they are frighteningly like the people you know.
Lawrence Durrells Justine was certainly one of the finest novels of the last ten years. Now it turns out that it was just the first of four concerned with the same people and circumstances. It should make a tetralogy of the rank of Ford Madox Fords Tietjens series, which was one of the major novels of the first half of the twentieth century.
Balthazar is not a sequel, it is a complete recapitulation. The story is told over, in the same circuitous and enveloping fashion, the method invented by Conrad and Ford, this time from the perspective of three characters who play a secondary role in the first novel Balthazar, Clea, Pursewarden. Justine emerged from asides, footnotes and contradictions as a compact, inevitably directed tragedy, as organized as Aristotles prescriptions, in spite of, or because of, its most un-Aristotelian methods. Now, seen by other eyes, the people, the web of events and motives, turn out to be completely different. Everything is taken apart and put together again to make another truth, equally inescapable. That is certainly a tour de force, as though Proust were four brothers and sisters, and usually tours de force bore me. Tales of the rich, idle and rotten bore me, too. But Lawrence Durrell is able to bring his magic off. If anything, this installment is more convincing than Justine. I think the reason is that this kind of relationship of author to work of art is essentially comic, in the sense that Machiavellis Mandragola and Ben Jonsons Volpone are comic not in the sense that there is anything funny about them. Balthazar does, as a matter of fact, get under way with a hilariously farcical tale about Scobie, the aged detective who turns out to be a transvestite. Presumably Durrell started this way with a purpose, to show that no man or woman is what he seems at first or even twentieth sight and even under the scrutiny of the most painstaking amateur psychologist and, as a corollary, that each new insight, from another person, means a complete bouleversement and, finally, that this is the very essence of the comic spirit.
Meredith and his disciples said much the same thing fifty years ago, so did Hardy. The very mention of the names Ford, Conrad, Meredith, Hardy shows what is taking place. Lawrence Durrell is moving up, onto the highest levels of the novelists art. There are two more books to come. Of anyone else I would say that he was bound to be trapped in his elaborate scheme, that such a conception would be bound to produce something thoroughly cooked. Not Durrell. It is of the essence of his artistic personality that it seems to thrive only when it sets itself fantastic problems and limitations. As the self-imposed conditions become in this book more outrageous, the prose becomes graver, more sonorous, the sense of human motivation more profound, the images of place and person more poignant. It looks as if we could anticipate at least one novel a season for the next couple of years which an adult will be able to read with pleasure.
Sitting down to write this review of Durrells Clea, I have little relish for the job. For a good many years now I have been a devoted, persistent fan of Lawrence Durrell. When Justine came out I wrote a very laudatory review for The Nation. It seemed the promise of a thoroughly adult job. The characters were a distasteful crew, but certainly they were grownups; the plot was as complex as any of Conrads, and since the succeeding three novels were announced as treating the same cast through the eyes of three different characters, the whole project promised to be a fabulous network of motives, false motives and imaginary motives. The style was saturated with a whimsical, self-mocking irony, fine writing making fun of itself. Altogether, I felt on sure ground when I prophesied a big work by a mature man, one worthy to be set alongside Ford Madox Fords Tietjens series [Parades End], the promise of a novel which would be fit reading for a male over thirty-five. Certainly, there arent very many such. Now, at least this one male over thirty-five is a disappointed man.
What happened? In the first place, I think a purely mechanical mistake. Durrell sold Justine before the rest of the work was completed, and for the next three years had to produce a book a year against an inexorable deadline. Maybe Dickens or Dostoevsky could do this; they hated it and groused about it, but they produced masterpieces that way. It is obvious that Durrell could not. Times have changed. Writers are far more self-indulgent and temperamental nowadays they are artists, and rigorous business arrangements upset them. Durrell felt frustrated and hemmed in. Each year he put off writing and then wrote carelessly, perhaps even defiantly. What had been complex and subtle and ironic turned into something flimsy, schematic and flashy.
Plotting, which at the start was careful and wise, became sensational. It not only became sensational, it became frivolous and irresponsible. Perhaps it makes a good hot item for the paperbacks to suggest that the Egyptian Copts and the Jews are in a plot with the Nazis to betray the Arabs and British in Egypt and Palestine but this is the kind of yarn we associate with Talbot Mundy, not with a serious writer. It is all too easy to envisage a young Egyptian officer in charge of a border post reading that book between hours of duty. This kind of childish meddling with the lives of the innocent should be left to Steve Canyon and Terry and the Pirates. The word for it is cheap as well as dangerous. One step more and the word is malicious.
The writing has decayed in the same way. Pain and disaster emerged at first from the necessary relationships of the characters; in the later books it is applied from the outside. Cleas disaster with the fish-gun is not tragedy, it is sensationalism, on a par with the highly sophisticated sadism of the pseudo-highbrow French and Italian movies. Furthermore, its gratuitousness shows; they do this so much better in Japan where sentimental agonies have a long tradition of great skill. Gone too is the subtle mockery of fancy writing. The narrator of Clea has decided that now he can really write, at last he is an artist. You wont get far in the book before the horrible suspicion sneaks over you that Durrell agrees with him. Ill take De Quincey.
What is wrong with this writer? He has terrific talent, he is no longer a young man, he has learned all the lessons there are to learn. Is it an incorrigible Bohemianism? Perhaps. I went back and reread The Black Book. All the Alexandria Quartet is there, writ small. It is one of the first and best books of its kind that long spate of tales of the life and loves of the Underground Man that have become the characteristic literary fad of the last twenty years. It is a tale of a wretched warren of loathsome characters, and like Dostoevskys manifesto, Notes from the Underground, like Les Liaisons Dangereuses, like the life and letters of Baudelaire, its moral point is that all such people can do is debauch, in rotten frivolity, the ignorant and trusting innocent. This, in a sense, is the point of the first of the kind, the immensely fashionable parent of the whole genre, that other Justine by Sade. The trouble with The Black Book is that you can never be sure of Durrells intention. Did he know what he was doing? How close is he, really, to his characters, the closeness of the artist who understands all, or the embroilment of the participant who understands nothing?
In his preface to the new edition of The Black Book Durrell speaks of it as an attack on Puritanism and identifies it with the genre of Lady Chatterleys Lover. But Chatterley is not an attack on Puritanism at all. It reeks of Puritanism and crippled, self-conscious sex and of the personal spites and ill tempers of Lawrence as well. Only an adolescent, recently escaped from the Epworth League, could think of it as a pagan manifesto of sexual freedom. So too, The Black Book is a tour de force of ingrown Puritanism, and so too, I am afraid, is the Alexandria Quartet.
While the four parts of the novel were coming out, Durrell published Bitter Lemons, Esprit de Corps, Stiff Upper Lip. These are all concerned with his own life as a diplomatic representative of Great Britain. They all have the same fault, a blissfully unconscious, but none the less absolute ethnocentrism. In Bitter Lemons the Cypriots are happy childlike innocents, misled by demagogues and the envenomed insinuations of the Athens Radio. It never occurs to Durrell that they might just want to be free of the British. Only the most unworthy motives are ever ascribed to either the Turkish or Greek leaders, who are always portrayed as outside agitators, interested only in advancing themselves at the expense of naïve and friendly schoolchildren. The English, on the other hand, are seen as silly, bumbling, out of date, but oh so sane and wholesome and always concerned only with the good of the charges that God has entrusted to them. Weve heard all this before; in fact, we can hear it almost any day when a Southern Congressman is sounding off, and what day is one not? Stiff Upper Lip and Esprit de Corps are unforgivable. They are written in the most dreadful imitation of P.G. Wodehouse, a favorite author of Durrell, by his own admission. (He reads him in Bitter Lemons during negotiations with the Cypriots over their freedom.) It is a bad imitation and so vulgar it makes your flesh crawl. These two books of purported humor explain much about what happened to the splendid plan announced in Justine. Possibly, carefully read, they explain everything. British diplomats are noble and silly, Indians, Negroes, Egyptians are sly and rascally children, uniformly portrayed in terms of a Soho pickpocket the only native, you feel, reading these disgraceful books, Durrell has ever known personally. This, of course, is not true; he has lived most of his life in the Levant. What is wrong with him? What is wrong with Englishmen?
Meanwhile he has published something else. Grove Press has brought out his Selected Poems and there are rumors a Complete Collected Poems will be along eventually. These are great poems, lovely, temperate, with every subtle cadence so carefully controlled, so excruciatingly civilized. They reek of the Levant at its best, with all of its best reeks. There is little self-consciousness in them, and little Puritanism, but lots of the weary sensuality and fleshy joy of Greek and Turkish and Egyptian life and love and food and drink. These poems, not Justine, really transfuse into the pale British bloodstream the wistful lewdness and wisdom of that great bad Greek, the poet Cavafy, who was one of the most consummate evil livers in all literature. Durrells poems avoid Cavafys more lurid sin, but they perfectly transmit his smile and his impeccable taste. I think the poems answer the question, Whats wrong with this initially so ambitious work? Closeness, or embroilment? Durrell is an old and loyal friend of Henry Miller. So loyal in fact that he recently edited an anthology presenting poor Henry as a Thinker; it would seem that Durrell really believes Miller thinks. This is a fine friendship, well tested through almost thirty years, and it is not fortuitous. Like Henry Miller, Durrell is suspiciously like some character in his own fictions.
In 1938 Lawrence Durrell sent the typescript of The Black Book to Henry Miller, asking his opinion of it, and telling him to pitch it into the Seine when he had read it. Miller took it to his own publishers, the Obelisk Press, who immediately published it. It has been a banned classic ever since. It is hard to understand, reading it today, why it should ever have been banned in the first place. T.S. Eliot, Cyril Connolly, everybody who was anybody in those days, greeted it with shouts of joy. Eliot called it the first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction. Although it has a few common colloquial terms for human anatomy and physiology scattered through it and its subject is a sort of hall-bedroom sexual rat race, it is about as salacious as a VD clinic.
It is the story of the denizens of a cheap rooming house in South London, that illimitable expanse of faceless squalor that covers many hundreds of times the acreage of the city that the Upper Classes and the international world of tourism and business know as London. The two most human people in the cast are foreign students, the rest are lumpenintelligentsia. They are the underemployed or unemployable, devoid of all skills, too poorly educated to be of any good to others, with too much education for their own good.
It is the story of typical representatives of a class who are habitually terrorized by sex, and who therefore use it habitually as an instrument of terror. Sex does not frighten them because it is sex, but because it is humane. If wine, or music, or good food were as important as humane sex is to humane living, these too would occupy the center of attention. Good food, of course, as an instrument of humanitas does not terrify any Englishman of any class. Unless he crosses the Channel he never has an opportunity to encounter it. But sex is inescapable. In one form or another, as they say, it persists in raising its head. The characters of The Black Book cant cope with it. It obsesses them and frightens them. Their response is a kind of disheveled misery.
It is a study of the etiology of one, and the commonest, kind of Bohemianism. We forget that there are at least two kinds. Mimis friends in Puccinis opera are the first kind, young artists on their way up. They have the arrogance of young genius. They are poor and immoral. At the end of the story they are mostly very successful, and Mimi is dead. But while it all lasted, they had a good time love, wine, food, music. This kind of Bohemian is an under- or unemployed intellectual who gives up most of the necessities of the poor so he can enjoy some of the luxuries of the rich. But there is another kind, by far more common, the upstart product of a lower-middle-class Puritan background who discovers himself unable to compete with the world of civilized men which he is trying to enter. This demoralizes him. He rebels. He reads erotic books. He tries pederasty, at least in his imagination. He neglects to shave and often to wash. Above all else he is frightened. This is the character who forms the pattern for most of the people in The Black Book. Dostoevsky called him the Underground Man. He is a debauched Puritan, an unwisely paroled shopkeeper.
It is the story of a group of people suffering from incurable spiritual malnutrition, and by spiritual I mean physical fleshly. These are nervous systems which can never do anything but starve. The joys of life are as unassimilable as crushed rock. Above all else, these are people who cannot assimilate one another. Humaneness is the fine art of enjoying other people. Each of these people is utterly alone, not one knows there is anybody else out there.
All this sounds as if The Black Book was not very enjoyable reading. Certainly Dostoevskys Notes from the Underground is one of literatures more disagreeable experiences. On the contrary, The Black Book is often even funny. It is in the tradition of bitter comedy, like Jonsons Volpone or Machiavellis Mandragola but then, I suppose, so is Dostoevskys book, in a sense. It is more than just the comic form. I cant imagine anyone less like Mark Twain than Durrell, but in almost everything he writes he shares one salient and splendid characteristic with Mark Twain he so obviously has such a good time writing. Some of the passages in The Black Book are a young authors fine writing, later to be parodied by Durrell himself in Justine, but, unlike so much of this sort of thing, they are never self-consciously written. They flow out of youthful scorn and pity and out of just plain enthusiasm with the newly mastered ability to write. This creates a kind of audience participation, a stylistic excitement not unlike the excitement of jazz.
The dominant mood of The Alexandria Quartet is a comic overcivilization. Its world is peopled exclusively by provincial avatars of Oscar Wilde, Whistler, Mercedes dAcosta, Princess Polignac, Ida Rubenstein, Diaghilev, Nazimova in other words, a seedy Edwardian glamour, long since vanished from Europe, and gone off to the backlands of the Levant to die. The book smells of something I for one have never smelled, that fascinating substance so popular in the novels my Aunt Minnie read, patchouli. The Alexandria Quartet is saved from comedy by its sad irony. If it werent for its irony it would be a kind of chic, reader-flattering Ouida.
The dominant mood of The Black Book is plain rambunctiousness. To press the comparison to jazz, if The Alexandria Quartet is like the Modern Jazz Quartet playing Sleepy Lagoon (I rather hope they never have!), then The Black Book is like the King Oliver Band, or, to be very precise because it deals with exactly the same subject Jelly Roll Morton playing and singing I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.
As George Elliott has pointed out, The Alexandria Quartet is romantic to the core. It would be like dAnnunzio if dAnnunzio had had good taste. Everybody is frightfully high class. Even the servants and tramps have an Arabian Nights grotesquerie. In The Black Book, everybody is low class, the lowest class of all, the homeless upstarts of the lower middle class. The tragic wastrels of Alexandria are sometimes foolish, sometimes silly. The characters of The Black Book, in their dirty socks and rayon combinations, are ridiculous. What redeems them is Durrells own youth because he has, in abundance, one of the rare, sterling virtues of youth, an all-devouring, all-forgiving angry pity. As Robert MacAlmon says in Hemingways novel Oh, give em anger, and give em pity.
Durrell seems to be fascinated with the thin sentence of sense in the vast, dull mass of Sade, the notion that the most life-destroying of all poisons is guilt. Guilt flagellates the major characters of The Alexandria Quartet with a whip of scorpions. At least they have, most of them, something to feel guilty about. Guilt has emasculated the characters of The Black Book at birth. They pay the penalty but are incapable of comprehending, much less enjoying, the crime. This is certainly as pathetic a predicament as could be imagined. There is other pathos, too, of the plain old-fashioned kind. The central story of the book, the vacuous debauching of the vulgar dying waif, Gracie, by her witless debaucher, Gregory, is a kind of malicious parody of the tragedy of Mimi and her lover, the La Bohème of hobohemia. It may be sickeningly sentimental in a perverse way, but it is one of the most unforgettable tales in modern fiction.
What makes The Alexandria Quartet, of course, as everybody knows, is its structure. It is a tour de force of multiple-aspect narrative. Durrell has said, in several interviews, in England and in France, in Encounter, in France Observateur, and in LExpress, that he had never read Ford Madox Fords The Good Soldier or his Tietjens series. I dont doubt his word, but find the fact astonishing. It would seem that Ford occurred spontaneously to all three interviewers. Certainly he occurred to me. I know of no modem novelist more like Durrell. Very likely he had read Conrad, and possibly the complex, cobwebby novels which Conrad and Ford (then Hueffer) wrote together. Maybe he just naturally thinks that way.
The Alexandria Quartet is a big job, with lots of room to maneuver. The Black Book is a volume of about three hundred pages with a small and rather ambiguously defined cast of characters. Yet The Black Book, too, is a carefully braided indirect, direct, and third-person narrative. Much of it is cast in the form of a diary by the lamentable Gregory. Circling over and under and around this narrative is another, equally immodest, diary-like in form and substance, purportedly the direct utterance of Durrell himself (he uses his own name). Consequently, the image of the characters is always unstable, they merge and go out of focus and return in altered form. The writing wanders off and explodes in amateur surrealist fireworks, and when it returns, the pattern of the characters has changed again. Gregory himself never appears in the flesh. Durrell is part of the time writing in the same dismal London rooming house, part of the time he is recollecting in replete and guiltless tranquility in rainy, wintry Corfu (or is it Crete?).
What is important in all this counterpoint is that Durrell, as first-person narrator, gets slowly sucked into the moral world of his shoddy diarist, whom, incidentally, he has never seen, and then, as imperceptibly and gratuitously, escapes. The book ends like Ulysses, with an invocation to the existential flesh of the wife in bed beside him, in Greece, on a rainy morning.
The characters in Durrells first novel are somewhat like idiot brothers and sisters of those in his new one. Their doom is less well upholstered and attended. They are bound for Hell in a third-class carriage. Justine and her friends are headed there in a private car on the Orient Express, but the road is the same doom, the end is the same Hell, just a grubbier slum of that vast city.
Actually, though they are vaguely enough drawn, the people in The Black Book are a little more real, at least they are more convincing. Most of us have relatives like them somewhere. My own parents, as a matter of fact, were well-to-do provincial intellectuals, and, I suspect, modeled their lives on characters like Justine and Nessim. Maybe such people really once existed, flirting dangerously among the fine bindings, at a reception of Mrs. Potter Palmers, away from the crowd, in the dimly lit library, but for me at least, their reality is impaired by books my mother read. On the other hand, these people reading deep books in their unmade beds in South London are all about us they have made a number of disagreeable revolutions in our time.
I wonder if Durrell is, even today, aware of who stands out in the book as most real, most convincing? I, for one, think the Peruvian, full of South American animality, demoralized, but still there, and Miss Smith, the African girl who is studying Middle English, but who, someday, when she has mastered the mysteries of Europe, is going back to Africa and her own race. Neither of these people is involved, nor do they need to be involved, in the interpersonal hunger strikes of the others. Soon they will pick up and go, back to a wiser world. Meantime, Lobo can never quite make it, Miss Smith, calmly and courteously, doesnt even try. They point the moral. It is an old one. I suppose it is an anti-Puritan one, as the book narrowly escapes being an anti-Puritan tract. It is certainly a religious one. Sin is the failure of the organ of reciprocity.
The failure of reciprocity, incongruity, low life, these are the ingredients of classic comedy. So The Black Book is a classic comedy. This might only mean that it is a careful concoction following the recipes of Aristotelian and Renaissance cookbooks. It is so much more because it is a lyric comedy, and the lyricism is the voice of Durrells anger and pity and enthusiasm.
Just incidentally, it is also, along with Millers Tropics and a few other books, one of the first of what has become the characteristic genre of mid-century fiction the highbrow true-confession story, the mixture of semi-autobiography, diaristic style, interior monologue, random expostulation and prose dithyramb the artifice of convincing immodesty. The later Céline, Miller, Kerouac, even Lolita. Over in France, on lower levels, there are a half dozen published every month. The Black Book is still one of the very best.
These four reviews of books by Lawrence Durrell originally appeared in various magazines 1957-1960. The first, third, and fourth were reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). The second one, which appeared in The Nation (September 6, 1958), was never reprinted. Copyright 1958, 1961. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.