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Lawrence Durrell: an appraisal.

LAWRENCE Durrell made his name in the era from the end of the Second World War to the mid-sixties. In the austerity years, from 1945 to 1951, he provided welcome escapism in his travel writing, bringing the sunlight of the Greek archipelago into the Britain of rationing, exchange controls and post-war fatigue; and from 1951 to 3965, embodying the search for esoteric knowledge and personal fulfilment that followed as soon as restrictions were lifted and a brighter world of self-realisation and rejection of authority dawned. In the Alexandria Quartet and its successor The Avignon Quintet he made a notable contribution to the literature of his time. In Bitter Lemons he left us an unforgettable elegy to a vanished Cyprus. He had a gift for capturing what he called 'the spirit of place', in his novels and poetry no less than in his essays. His private life was, by contrast, an unhappy one, in which the imp of self-destruction was his constant companion. Durrell sacrificed himself to his writing, the 'daemon' that was within him, but at a price which Durrell paid only at considerable cost to himself.

In a world which, unlike post-war austerity Britain, is not short of sun and hedonism, where the virtual and reality overlap to the point where it is difficult to tell them apart, self-awareness is no longer as revolutionary as it was when Durrell began writing. As a standard bearer Durrell was, perhaps, not entirely convincing. It was not, in retrospect, a new world he presented but a very old one indeed, as far from reality as Barrie's Peter Pan or Grahame's Wind in the Willows, though one in which surrender to the esoteric offers an assurance of happiness as real as the perceived innocence and security of Never-Never-Land. In his major novels the multiplicity of characters and their complicated personal relationships, evolving under the benediction of exotic settings, cannot hide the truth that it is Durrell's own attempt to flee from reality which is at the heart of it all.

Durrell was a lifelong exile. He was born a hundred years ago on 27 February 1912 at Jullundur, in the Punjabi plain, near Lahore in present day Pakistan, the eldest of four children. His father, Samuel Durrell, was a civil engineer, most of whose career was spent in the Indian railways. His mother, Louisa, nee Dixie, was the daughter of an accountant of Irish Protestant origin. Both were of third generation 'India' families. Civil engineers, like Durrell's father, built the roads, railways, bridges, dams and barrages which made the high ideals of India's administrators a reality, but they came well below the Civil Service and the Army, the merchants and tea planters in the social pecking order. Durrell's father accepted this philosophically and tried to ensure that his children would do better by giving them the right sort of education. Durrell himself, on the other hand, felt himself the victim of an inflexible and hostile culture.

If India was Durrell's initiation into social awareness it also imparted a sense of the occult and of mystical 'other worlds', of regions of the spirit beyond man's cognisance, which were indelibly impressed on the boy's imagination when the family moved from Jullundur to Darjeeling, among the tea gardens and forests of the Himalayan foothills, where Durrell began his schooling. All his life he is said to have remembered those majestic snow covered peaks, with Everest dominating all, and the constant traffic of pilgrims of all sorts to the sacred regions of Tibet which lay beyond. Another side of India was similarly ever present in the sight of multitudes of beggars and deformed which confronted him daily. Deformity and disfigurement were to become persistent themes in his novels and a vivid awareness of the corruptibility of the flesh was to lead him into some unusual paths.

Throughout his life the tug of war between spirit and flesh would never be resolved, not even by sex nor by his writing, which became the means by which he sought to exorcise the demon. The flesh was almost always the winner but peace of mind was never its concomitant, least of all in victory. Beneath the convivial, hedonistic and often dissolute outer man lay hidden a much more uncertain person seeking his own Nirvana beyond the peaks of the imagination, not a Kim--who found fulfilment in the employment of the detested Raj--but another, Peter Pan. Similarly the succession of women in his life might be said to have been discarded because they were not Wendy but individuals with problems of their own, just as England was rejected for being a real place with a good many warts, not Never-Never-Land. Durrell was not good at other people's problems, his own being of more immediate and consuming interest.

In England Durrell failed to get into the school of his father's choice and had to settle for a less prestigious one. He did not do well. He was lively and intelligent but undisciplined, intellectually and otherwise. His mind was already moving in directions he was to pursue for the rest of his life. The curriculum bored him and he read widely outside it. He discovered a taste for the Elizabethan dramatists and Shakespeare whose influence on his prose style was to prove lasting. He enjoyed drama, allegory and colour and the high tones and subversive language of Renaissance literature appealed to his sense of drama. Suburban life, first at Norwood and then at Bournemouth, nourished a distaste for respectability. He spent some time at a crammers to prepare for the Cambridge entrance but failed after, he claimed, eight attempts.

It was a restless young man who, at the age of 19, launched himself into the London of the early thirties with the intention of becoming a poet. He was short and stocky with a snub nose set in an open countenance, thick fair hair, a charming smile and gregarious good manners. Some claimed to see in him the elements of a new Rupert Brooke. His father's death at about this time in India left him with a little money. He became familiar with the bars and pubs of Soho, singing songs of his own composition to the piano or guitar, and made friends among the artists and writers he met there. He read widely at the British Museum, mainly works dedicated to the erotic and esoteric, medical treatises and the works of de Sade.

Those London years were undoubtedly a stimulus. He was popular and, insofar as his means and inclinations allowed, his own master. It was at this time that he visited France and fell irrevocably in love with Paris. France was everything England was not, above all it was where art was appreciated and artists understood. It was in France that Durrell was to receive the greatest impulse of his early years from Henry Miller and from Miller's lover, Anais Nin. Both sought to promote the view that true personal liberation is achieved through sexual experience, that inhibition and social restraint are destructive of the individual. ('I write from here', claimed Miller once, striking his lower abdomen.) Miller was a noisy, opinionated extrovert, while Nin, whose appetite for sexual experience bordered on the insatiable, was a compulsive self-analyst every aspect of whose life and thought was copiously recorded in her diaries. Sex apart, the literary sources on which they drew was cosmopolitan but also supposedly Freudian, though true students of Freud might have questioned this. They saw Durrell as one of themselves; he, for his part, already a convert to D. H. Lawrence's gospel of sexual liberation, saw Miller and Nin as heralds of a trend which would replace the decayed middlebrow culture of 'Pudding Island', the name he habitually used to describe England, then and later. Durrell and Miller were to engage in a correspondence which was to last until Miller's death and the debt of the younger to the older man was considerable, though not always fortunate.

None of this, of course, made the disciplined life of a writer easier to achieve. Durrell enjoyed company too much. Drink, sex and conversation became a form of catharsis as well as a stimulus. No less than for others the first two proved ultimately debilitating and his personal relations, with women especially, were to suffer in consequence. As his wives were to discover, there was a streak of violence in him which approached the sadistic and women were its chief victims. He wrote three novels during this period, none of especially memorable quality, and some better poetry but his writing earned him very little money.

In early 1935 Durrell married the first of his four wives, a student at the Slade School of Art, Nancy Myers who, like Durrell himself, enjoyed a small private income. Tiring of England he persuaded his mother to abandon Bournemouth and take the family to Corfu which was warmer, cheaper and less inhibited. It was there that he started his long love affair with Greece and the Mediterranean and began to develop his latent talents as a descriptive writer and poet. He discovered other sources of inspiration, in folk myth and classical history and in the life of the local people which he tried to share. Marriage and the relaxed tempo of island life helped him to acquire his own 'voice'. He mastered demotic Greek which was to prove especially useful during the war which broke out in 1939.

The war was a good period for Durrell who took the confusion and uncertainty in his stride. He shed one wife and married another in the process, Eva Cohen, an exceptionally beautiful Alexandrian Jewess. He does not seem to have considered enlisting; 'War', one of his biographers remarks, 'was for other people'. Instead he found work, first with the British Council in Athens and then, after the Axis invasion of Greece, in Cairo and subsequently in Alexandria, as Press Attache with the British Embassy. (His wartime trajectory is almost identical with that of the fictional Guy Pringle, the main character in Olivia Manning's Fortunes of War.) After the war he served for a time in Rhodes and again in Athens, in a Greece still recovering from the effects of invasion and living in the shadow of civil war. There were to be further tours of duty in Argentina and Yugoslavia, both unhappy experiences, Argentina most of all.

The most notable aspect of this turbulent period is the stimulus given to Durrell's creative imagination by Egypt, Alexandria especially. That polyglot city, once reputedly the most cosmopolitan and licentious in the world, had become a tawdry and unhappy place. It was to remain as such until Colonel Nasser gave it the coup de grace in the late 1950s by covering what remained of the best of it with concrete. 'Modern Alexandria is scarcely a city of the soul' wrote E. M. Forster in the early twenties, 'Founded upon cotton with the concurrence of onions and eggs, ill built, ill planned, ill drained'. The discreet and eclectic diversions which had once been its main attraction had given way to others less subtle and refined. Durrell took full advantage of the libertine atmosphere and the plentiful supply of 'beautiful but empty headed' ladies, who seem to have been an Alexandrian speciality, but, restless as ever, and helped by the poems of Cavafy and by E. M. Forster, he also discovered a quite different city, sensual and sybaritic, the one which Cavafy had written about. Cavafy's lines:
  The city shall ever follow you
  In these same streets you shall ever wander;
  And in the same purlieus you shall roam
  And in the same house you shall grow grey. ...
  There is no ship to take you to other lands, there is no road,
  You have so shattered your life here, in this small corner,
  That in all the world you have ruined it.

were to prove prophetic in Durrell's case for it was in Alexandria that The Alexandria Quartet was conceived.

His social life blossomed. He made lasting friendships with other Philhellines like Patrick Leigh Fermor, a writer whose descriptive gifts were as good as Durrell's, and Xan Fielding, both at that time serving with SOE in the Balkans, and with Robin Fedden, Robert Liddell--the biographer of Cavafy--Bernard Spencer and others. All were cultivated and cosmopolitan individuals and writers of considerable finesse who were to prove valuable counterweights to Miller. They found Durrell stimulating company; he 'pumped oxygen back into the air', according to Leigh Fermor, no mean pumper himself. He collaborated in the production of a literary magazine, Personal Landscape, which helped to introduce Keith Douglas to the world. He also earned praise for his official work, for his intelligence, grasp of detail, incisiveness, command of languages and personal rapport. Diplomacy represented for Durrell a world of stereotypes. It is not surprising that he should have found it an uncomfortable fit but he was undeniably pleased when his professional competence was acknowledged.

Durrell's time in diplomacy bore fruit later in the Antrobus stories, based chiefly on his experiences in Yugoslavia. The fictional Antrobus, a senior diplomat and former colleague, is the medium through which Durrell depicts a service in thrall to antique procedures and archaic language inhabited by unworldly eccentrics with comfortable private incomes who prove hapless and accident prone when confronted with the disagreeable everyday realities of the contemporary world--the Balkan world at that--and with others who do not play by the rules. The mockery, devoid as it is of affection, does not seem especially funny today, in a world of economic crises and the terrorist threat but, illustrated by Mark Boxer, the Antrobus stories enjoyed a mild success in their time.

The Diplomatic Service did not offer Durrell another job after Belgrade. But he was to serve the British government again, as Director of Information at the British High Commission in Cyprus during the EOKA emergency from 1953-56. He did well in difficult and often dangerous circumstances and won praise from the press who became accustomed to being briefed, succinctly and comprehensively, during picnics overlooking the sea with plenty of wine to go round and stimulating conversation to go with it. The result of his Cypriot experiences was Bitter Lemons, winner of the Duff Cooper Memorial prize, which is considered the best of all his books about place. In a way unlike his other books of the same kind, Prospero's Cell, Reflections on a Marine Venus or Caesar's Vast Ghost, it records a way of life in the process of vanishing forever under the pressures of the emergency and inter-communal rivalry between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. The tragedy in the making is heightened by the quality of Durrell's writing and his evident affection for the village in the Kyrenia mountains, Bellapais, in which, in the peaceful days before the emergency, he had bought a small house, and for its people. (See Irene Waters, 'Bitter Lemons of Cyprus Revisited', Contemporary Review, Summer 2007.)

In 1956, on becoming an EOKA target, Durrell had to leave Cyprus. The emergency had already witnessed the collapse of his second marriage. But he quickly married his third wife, Claude Forde, an author in her own right, with whom he was to make a new home in the Provencal Midi. Tragically she died from cancer in 1967. He was to marry again and enjoy the diversions of other women but it was Claude Forde--the most efficient, selfless and Wendy-like--whose stamina had seemed likeliest to survive the strains put on it by life with Durrell.

With fairly frequent intermissions, usually prompted by the need to keep himself in the public eye and explain his books, Durrell continued to live in Provence until his death in 1990. Life was primitive, no mains water, no proper sanitation, no electricity, all of which had to be first, earned, and then installed in an epoch before the elevation of rural Provence to tourist status. Claude Forde, and then his fourth wife, Ghislaine de Boyssen, must have been women of quite exceptional character to have put up with it all, plus Durrell, though Durrell's violence finally proved too much for the latter. For a man of such gregarious instincts the seclusion of those years must have been hard to bear, towards the end especially, in spite of drink, immersion in Buddhism and yoga and the devotion of Mme Francoise Kestsman, who became the companion of his last years after his divorce from Mme Boyssen. He wrote fitfully, doing nothing else for days at a time, and then not touching a typewriter for as long. As if contaminated by his fascination with bodily corruption his face, once so charmingly boyish, became bloated and his nose swelled grotesquely. The suicide of his daughter, Sappho, the child of his second marriage, by then a married woman, must have darkened his days even further. How far Durrell's conception of fatherhood and its responsibilities might have contributed to her despair has never been resolved though it is undeniable that contribution there was. There was never the remotest chance of finding a pram in the hall in any Durrell household: he wanted the release of his 'daemon', not its slow suffocation.

It was in these chaotic circumstances, with the harsh Provencal atmosphere pressing all round him, that he attempted to return to the success of The Alexandria Quartet by writing The Avignon Quintet. The coping stone of Durrell's fiction is without question those two novel sequences. Durrell packed everything into them, though for many admirers The Avignon Quintet was like a conjuring trick whose novelty has worn off. His approach to both was innovative. The introduction to the Quartet serves for both and needs no elaboration:
  This group of four novels is intended to be read as a single
  work ... a suitable descriptive title might be 'a word continuum'.
  I adopted, as a rough analogy, the relativity proposition. The
  first three were related in intercalary fashion (ie harmonised by
  means of interpolation). Only the last was intended to be a true
  sequel and to unleash the time dimension. The whole was intended
  as a challenge to ... the time saturated novel of the day ... if
  the axis of the work has been properly laid down it should be
  possible to radiate from it in any direction without losing the
  strictness and congruity of its relation to a 'continuum'.

The fixed point of the Quartet is Alexandria and the Nile Delta. The latter is an annihilating place, 'a flat alluvial landscape and exhausted airs', only briefly and memorably beautiful. Alexandria itself is, in the narrator's words, a place of:
  .....a thousand dust tormented streets.. five races, five
  languages, a dozen creeds.. the sexual provender which lies
  to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion. You would
  never mistake it for a happy place.. the great winepress of
  love; those who emerged from it were ... all who have been
  deeply wounded in their sex.

The central figure, around whom others revolve and to whom the narrator himself is in thrall, is, not unexpectedly, a woman, Justine, a device repeated in the Avignon Quintet. Dark-haired, enigmatic, delphic, she is both desirable and destructive, possessing the magic wand of liberation which is really enslavement. Like a conductor with his baton it is Justine who gives the story Durrell has set to music its particular resonance, though the baton is handed on to others as the novels progress. Early on she says to the narrator, while being fitted at a couturier: 'Look! five different pictures of the same subject. Now if I wrote I would try for a multi-dimensional effect in character, a sort of prism-sightedness'. Durrell takes the hint.

But the Quartet introduces another Durrell device in the person of Justine's husband, Nessim, a man whose immense wealth places him above worldly considerations. He is revived as Balthazar and Akkad, later in the Quintet. Their independence and power place the keys to the dark secrets of the occult in their hands. They are, pre-eminently, the father figure incarnate, seductive, omnipotent but ultimately destructive.

The sexual merry-go-round is diverting but sterile; no-one finds self-fulfilment, though in one case a frustrated artistic talent is released and a paralytic cured. It is difficult to know, among his many female characters, whether they are all one in their dual capacity of life giver and destroyer, merely different reflections of the same in a couturier's mirrors, or separate and distinct creations, but the point is immaterial since what they reveal, in their different ways, is the confusion within Durrell himself about his relations with women. His wide reading would no doubt have contributed to the confusion, given the primacy of woman in the ancient cults in which he became interested, Isis, Demeter, Aphrodite and all the rest. The novels are not easy reading for the ardent feminist since woman is not a being in her own right but a stepping stone to man's self-awareness.

Many of the characters in the novels are disfigured or deformed. One has a hare lip, another no nose, others are paralysed or half blind. These physical deformities are matched by emotional ones. With one or two exceptions--one, paradoxically, a diplomat--no one is entirely whole, not even the narrator. There is suicide, madness and perverted sex, nothing is normal. The contamination, physical or moral, comes from within, we are led to believe, in consequence of a human condition condemned to a life that is at best partial and unwholesome. The tone throughout is dark. The Nile Delta and Provence are harsh, unforgiving places where man is a cripple and ordinary, blameless, moderately productive and secure existence a chimera. The elaborations of government and society restrict man's freedom ever further, condemning him to a life of sterility.

The characters are embodiments of the novel's darker undertones and it is Alexandria which, here again, introduces us to these. The city was not only a sexual entrepot but, until the Muslims sacked the city and burned its library in the seventh century AD, putting an end to its intellectual traditions, a religious one, the place where Christianity came into contact and, more often than not, into conflict with the tradition of Greek speculative thought, the hub of the religious controversies in which the Early Fathers engaged. The Coptic church, of which Nessim, Justine's husband, was a member, was a consequence of this since the Copts are Monophysites, heretics in the eyes of orthodox Christianity, believers in the single nature of Christ, ie one in which the divine eliminates or absorbs the human. But Monophyitism is an offspring of a much earlier heresy, Gnosticism (from gnosis, meaning the knowledge of the initiate) otherwise known as Dualism or Manichaeism. Gnosticism was, to begin with, an amalgam of the religious ideas and practices which predate Christianity which it later introduced to Christian thought. It proved immensely attractive and in the Middle Ages it spread throughout the Near and Middle East, into the Balkans, the Mediterranean Basin and beyond into Northern Italy and France. It fascinated Durrell. It is difficult not to imagine that someone so sensitive to the spirit of place as Durrell would not have been aware of the Gnostic origins behind the long Bogomil tradition in the Balkans or the tragic history of the Cathars in Southern France and the persecution and brutal suppression of the Templars, the search for whose treasure is a theme of the Avignon Quintet.

Variously described as 'Christianity perverted by learning and speculation', or, to put it another way, the 'refining away of the gospel into a philosophy', Gnosticism is a form of intellectual pride. It aimed to explain the nature and origin of sin. God--The Kindly One--who is wholly good and perfect, could not have created a world that was flawed; sin must have preceded the Fall, but wherein are its origins? The Gnostic answer was that there were two worlds, the material, the world of the flesh, prone to sin, over which the Demiurge presides, and the immaterial world, that of the spirit, presided over by God. The world of the Demiurge is dark, that of God, light. The division is not quite absolute since there were intervening worlds, more or less sinful, dark or light, the exact number of which depended on the beliefs held by particular Gnostic sects. But one, common to all, is that world immediately below the one where the Kindly One reigns. Since Gnostics could not reconcile the punitive God of the Old Testament with the redemptive God of the New it is in this second, immediately subordinate world, that Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, has his kingdom. Thus in the Gnostic cosmology the God of Abraham, Moses and the early prophets becomes an enemy of God, the Kindly One.

Gnostic man had embedded in him a fraction of the divine spark. To be saved he had to return to the immaterial world from whence it came. This was possible only for initiates, known as the Elect or the Perfect, who were relatively few. The many, who would never achieve initiation, were known as the 'Believers' and existed to serve the Elect. In attempting to resolve the conflict between spirit and matter, the incorruptible and the corrupt, Gnosticism gave rise to a many interpretations, each championed by a sect or sub-sect. In its hostility to the flesh and to the material world it went either to extremes of asceticism, since flesh, being matter, is inherently evil and should be avoided, or its opposite, self-indulgence, by allowing man to give free rein to his basest instincts, since flesh, being matter, is not worthy of serious consideration. It was this--and deviant practices among the Elect themselves in certain sects--that gave rise to accusations of orgiastic practices and perverted rites of initiation. Hostile propaganda greatly exaggerated these charges for its own purposes--since from both the political and orthodox religious standpoint Gnosticism was dangerously subversive--but most Gnostics led blameless lives. The Cathars, especially, seem to have been quiet, sober people who loved animals, whose example is said to have inspired St Francis of Assisi. They appear to have shown no interest in 'the ecstasies of Gnostic sex' which so fascinate Durrell's characters.

But the 'ecstatic' element in all this meant rather more for Durrell than extreme physical gratification since Gnosticism's origins are universal and it draws its inspiration--if that is the right word-from the Hermetic lore of Ancient Egypt, from Zoroastrianism and from Buddhism as well as from the Graeco-Jewish traditions of the Early Church. Durrell, with his concern for the sterility of Western sexuality, because of its spiritual dislocation from the East, would have found this universality especially compelling. The lure of gold also plays its part, in the real world as in Durrell's; the Initiates were suspected of possessing magic lore which gave them the key to great riches; it was for their supposed wealth as much as for their heresy that the Cathars suffered.

The above is an over-simplification of a subtle and controversial subject. Gnosticism was not an ignoble initiative and the questions it sought to resolve remained pertinent until the materialism of the late twentieth century and the dawn of the post-Christian era took sin off the agenda. Its traces lingered long after its extirpation in Western Europe. Any religious organisation in which the doctrine of predestination plays a role, such as Calvinism, Presbyterianism, Jansenism and Quietism, incorporates elements of Gnostic thought, though not the heretical parts. But Durrell is not concerned with the higher reaches of Gnostic philosophy. The Quartet--and later the Quintet--were really intended to be the record of a search for self-knowledge and liberation. Durrell makes it clear that it is the reader's search quite as much as his own. But neither the Nile Delta nor Provence lead the reader to illumination; instead he or she is drawn deeper and deeper into the world of money, power and sex. The novels' characters reflect, in their several ways, different aspects of the Gnostic lower universe, eons and so forth, with Nessim, Akkad and Co taking the part of the Demiurge.

As with the Gnosticism so it is with Durrell's fascination with psychoanalysis and the subconscious. If Darwin's Origin of the Species and The Ascent of Man can be said to have had a profound effect on the literature of the nineteenth century, so too with Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams in the twentieth. In neither case was it easy to incorporate the new thinking into fiction, though the attempt had to be made if novels were to remain relevant and reflect the human condition. If Durrell attempted a synthesis of the two as a basis for his own highly personal philosophy he laboured under a number of handicaps. One was his dislike of all monotheistic religions. He thus left unexplored one side of the argument since Gnosticism cannot be understood without an understanding of traditional Christian doctrine. Mystical union is at the heart of all religion but Durrell derides not only the more conventional examples--Holy Communion, for example-but ignores the cenobite and anchorite tradition of which Egypt was the birthplace in the Western world. It is even more strongly a Buddhist tradition and both share the doctrine of living at peace with the created world. But austerity and self-denial is not the route Durrell's characters pursue. Even less do they seem to follow the Gautama's teaching that peace comes only with material annihilation. Their search for love is complicated by the ego which deflects their quest into the pursuit for self-gratification. Durrell was too intelligent a man not to see that, whatever the apparent affinities between Freud's concept of life-giving and destructive forces and the underlying philosophy of Gnosticism, they are essentially at odds, not complementary, but the problem remains.

This other, immaterial, world of the spirit remains an unattainable ideal for Durrell. Distance and remoteness are its spell, never to be broken. The analogy with that earlier glimpse of the small boy leaning from his dormitory window in Darjeeling to gaze at the Himalayas could hardly be clearer: Darjeeling itself, surrounded by hills covered in lush, dripping, forest vegetation, strangely comforting for the evidence of abundant life all around, the comings and goings of humans and animals, the constant stream of pilgrims, while beyond, almost immeasurably distant, the rampart of peaks, forbidding in the icy austerity and grandeur of their bare slopes. Small wonder that he should have shivered in his thin pyjamas and turned back into the room.

This is not a polemic and none of it is intended to disparage the scale of Durrell's achievement. The ordinary reader need not worry about Durrell's deeper motivation beyond the wish to write a good book. The fascination of both Quartet and Quintet is evident even if he or she disregards the signposts towards the profundities scattered throughout and allows himself or herself to be seduced. The continuum is, first and foremost a work of great sensuality, full of telling detail and vivid description of setting and atmosphere.

Attempts to elucidate the meaning of his work from Durrell himself usually ended with no one being any the wiser. At times he appears to have dismissed the whole thing as an elaborate joke. His biographers grapple manfully but unsuccessfully. Whatever inspiration moved him to undertake the task remains unfathomed. 'All that is of importance to me is in my poems', he said to one interviewer. As a poet he was described by one anthologist as 'an excellent entertainer: the ingredients are not always new but they are blended with a light hand'. His novels, by contrast, remain dark and disturbing for the state of mind they reveal of the author.

In his poem Poggio, Durrell, deliberately or inadvertently, celebrates his own life and death:
  How should you know that behind
  All this the old buffoon concealed a fear -
  And reasonable enough--that he might be
  An artist after all? Always after this kind
  Of side splitting evening, sitting there
  On a three legged stool and writing, he
  Hoped poems might form on paper ...

Poggio is a clown and clowns, as Durrell needed no reminding, are much misunderstood; beneath the greasepaint and buffoonery lies sadness. Durrell's life, in all its hectic self-advertisement, alternating between bouts of creativity and self-destruction, seems as much an attempt to distract as a clown's antics in the ring. The human condition, as he saw it, was an unhappy one, (especially perhaps for Durrell who, as he once put it was 'born dead') its pleasures mere diversions incapable of concealing that truth, though they might ma. sk it temporarily. Somewhere must lie the key to a less guilt-stricken and more self-fulfilling world. Islands, their small scale and separate character, attracted him for that reason, as refuges. His moments of retreat and seclusion were interludes of sometimes painful recollection, most of all in his last home, the dilapidated mazet, standing alone, a small island in the inhospitable surroundings of the Provencal hills. But with the martens, bats, mice and other small creatures which inhabited the upper floors of his home he seems also to have come within reach of that tranquillity of which the Buddha spoke. He died, alone, on the morning of 7 November 1990 of a cerebral haemorrhage, while the devoted Mme Kestsman was out shopping.


The sources consulted include, in addition to Durrell's own works and Professor Gordon Bowker's biography, The Medieval Manichee (Runciman), Enthusiasm (Fr Ronald Knox), L'Eglise des Apotres et des Martyrs and L'Eglise des temps Barhares (Daniel-Rops), Cavafy (Liddell), Pharos and Pharillon (Forster), Cairo in the War (Artemis Cooper), Darwin's Plots (Gillian Beer).

Sir Allan Ramsay is a retired British Diplomat and former Ambassador.
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Author:Ramsay, Allan
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Mar 1, 2012

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