[ilds] RG Justine -- book reviewing for fun and profit

Michael Haag michaelhaag at btinternet.com
Tue May 29 11:34:50 PDT 2007

By way of being helpful I have included, below, Eagleton's review.  
This will make it very easy for Richard Pine to highlight all those 
facts, all those accurate facts gleaned from the book under review, 
which demonstrate how much attention Eagleton gave to Ian MacNiven's 
biography of Durrell.


On Tuesday, May 29, 2007, at 07:08  pm, Durrell School of Corfu wrote:

> This is ridiculous. Professional reviewers (of which I was one in the
> 1970s-80s) must skim other than the most notable titles otherwise they 
> can't
> do the work they are paid for (another topic we shall be addressing 
> next
> week without any input from the ILDS). It is obvious that Eagleton 
> couldnt
> possibly have acquired the minimal facts unlesss he had skimmed 
> MacNiven.
> Eagleton (for whom, I repeat, I hold no candle) was not 'shabby and
> dishonest' - he just wrote what he felt about LD - is that so wrong?
> Opinions please,.
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: "Michael Haag" <michaelhaag at btinternet.com>
> To: <ilds at lists.uvic.ca>
> Sent: Tuesday, May 29, 2007 6:37 PM
> Subject: Re: [ilds] RG Justine -- book reviewing for fun and profit

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

New Statesman, 13647431, 04/24/98, Vol. 127, Issue 4382
Database: Academic Search Premier



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 

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.

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