[ilds] Durrell's place in the pantheon

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Mon May 28 14:29:32 PDT 2007



On 5/28/2007 4:17 PM, william godshalk wrote:

>Charlie,
>
>When Durrell is named either to praise him or to damn him, it 
>suggests that he is big enough to demand his place in the story. He 
>cannot be ignored. And that's good for Durrellians.
>
>That's at least part of what I'm hearing you say.
>
Yeah.  Just think how strange it really is for any of these 
characters--Said or Eagleton or Scruton--to turn their attention to 
Durrell in these particular moments and situations.  Durrell?  
Surprising, revealing, pleasing in a passing way, curious.

Eagleton's anecdote in his review tells us what we should know about the 
target of his animosity:

>My old Cambridge tutor, a deeply traditionalist scholar, used to have a copy of Lawrence Durrell's novel Justine lying with casual deliberateness on his desk. The book looked suspiciously unthumbed. It was there as testimony to his (entirely spurious) avantgardeness, for in the early 1960s Durrell was one of the last words in high-brow literary experiment.
>
>These days Durrell is probably even less of a remembered name than his zoologist brother Gerald, suggesting that aardvarks linger longer in the public mind than the avant-garde. Whatever happened to this audacious aesthete?
>
Well, well.  But then Eagleton proves the power of what I have been 
calling "cache."  With his name in ascendancy and Durrell's on the wane, 
Eagleton found that he could trounce Durrell's reconsideration while 
neglecting to read Ian MacNiven's biography or to reread Durrell's 
works.  Dean Swift could have appreciated the hubris of Eagleton's 
arrival in Corfu.   Bladders of peas gain you free admittance to his 
lectures.

Here below my signature appears Eagleton's review.  We will play fair in 
this court.

Charles

-- 
**********************
Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu
**********************

Title: Supreme trickster.,  By: Eagleton, Terry, 

New Statesman, 13647431, 04/24/98, Vol. 127, Issue 4382
Database: Academic Search Premier
 
Find More Like ThisSUPREME TRICKSTER

LAWRENCE DURRELL: A BIOGRAPHY

Ian MacNiven Faber & Faber, £25

My old Cambridge tutor, a deeply traditionalist scholar, used to have a copy of Lawrence Durrell's novel Justine lying with casual deliberateness on his desk. The book looked suspiciously unthumbed. It was there as testimony to his (entirely spurious) avantgardeness, for in the early 1960s Durrell was one of the last words in high-brow literary experiment.

These days Durrell is probably even less of a remembered name than his zoologist brother Gerald, suggesting that aardvarks linger longer in the public mind than the avant-garde. Whatever happened to this audacious aesthete?

Justine is one of the volumes of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, a monument of fake exoticism and pseudo-profundity which some of us at the time mistook for great literature. It was an adolescent taste, rather in the way only 18 year olds regard Albert Camus as a great philosopher. In those years in Cambridge some of us saw ourselves as existentialists, which just meant that as frightened youngsters away from home we weren't feeling too chirpy. Today it is known in some quarters as post-structuralism. The brittle, hot-house preciousness of the Quartet lent itself wonderfully to parody: "The city is languid tonight, its mood half-churlish, halfremorseful. The sea glints a jaded mauve, wrinkled and knotted like the veined neck of a Lebanese brothel-keeper. Sipping his sherbert, Pelagius says that love is the stale morsel we are left with when desire lapses into memory."

The Durrell who carved himself a literary colony out of Alexandria was himself the son of a colonialist. Born in India in 1912, the child of an affluent engineer, he spent the rest of his life drifting like a literary playboy from one fancy European hotel to another. Part of the fag-end of cosmopolitan modernism, he shacked up in Corfu, Athens, Egypt, Rhodes, Buenos Aires, Cyprus and France, changing wives almost as often as he changed countries. Some of this placeshifting was an attempt to keep one step ahead of the second world war, which he did his aestheticist best to ignore. While Hitler was on the rampage, Durrell was in search of a spot more sunshine. He despised politics, thought Marxists "synonymous with pigs and fools", and set his thoughts instead on the eternal.

As a textbook bohemian, Durrell knocked around Paris with Henry Miller and Anais Nin, and loafed about London with Dylan Thomas and a few stray surrealists, while describing his own artistic tendency as "Durrealist". Loftily contemptuous at first oft S Eliot, he changed his opinion of him overnight when Eliot, then editor at Faber, published one of his novels. He ended up as a bored, taxevading semi-recluse, dying in London in 1990 just as he was about to launch yet another marriage. Samuel Johnson's comment on such marital ventures - "the triumph of hope over experience" - has rarely been more apt.

Ian MacNiven has chronicled the flittings of this literary flaneur --"Larry" to him - in 700 pages of painstaking research. The book is a model of tenacious scholarship, but as Uma Thurman remarks to John Travolta in Pulp Fiction when he announces his need to take a pee: "That's just a little more information than I needed."

The trouble with biographers is the dead-levelling way in which every scrap of information about their subject becomes as important as every other. The book resounds with the sound of a gnat being blasted by a Howitzer.

Durrell once described himself as a "supreme trickster", and this is surely one reason why his celebrity proved so shortlived. The glittering surface of his prose conceals an emotional anaesthesia, for which the portentously "profound" reflections of the Quartet are meant to compensate. Like many poets, his verbal sensitivity is in inverse proportion to real human sympathy, a sublimated selfishness evident in his life as much as his work. What was real was what he could exoticise, convert to mythological archetype or high-sounding platitude. His Alexandria is a country of the mind, attractive precisely because its cultural and ethnic mix makes it at once nowhere and everywhere. If he plundered Egypt for its symbolic capital, he also groused about its "stinking inhabitants". His combination of elitism and aestheticism was finally outstripped by Nabokov, another rootless emigre who happened to possess a finer literary talent.

Unlike Nabokov, Joyce and D H Lawrence, Durrell was on permanent vacation rather than in artistic exile. Perhaps because he had been born outside England, his work lacks that tension between home and abroad, the pains of expatriation as well as its creative possibilities, which marks his great modernist forebears. Whereas Joyce and Lawrence spent their lives on the run from cultural traditions they knew from the inside, Durrell never experienced them in the first place. Like his life, the overbred, cosmopolitan range of the Quartet conceals a cultural shallowness. MacNiven's naively uncritical narrative seems blind to this thinness, perhaps because, like many a biographer, he forgets to stand back from the trees to give us a glimpse of the wood. "To understand Lawrence Durrell," he admonishes us, "one must go to India, physically if possible..."; but this volume is quite expensive enough.

48n1.jpg






More information about the ILDS mailing list