[ilds] Bitter Lemons as a novel

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Sun Jul 15 07:32:36 PDT 2007

On 7/15/2007 1:32 AM, Bruce Redwine wrote:

>         RP has a very interesting question, albeit entirely hypothetical, but still provocative.  Is Bitter Lemons fact or fiction?  As RP poses the question, I think, we are being nudged, for the sake of argument, understood, to assume that we live in our own imaginative universes and that everything we do is unreal.  

That arrow-point would fly far wide of the mark, Bruce.  At least for 
me, the better point about /Bitter Lemons/ would be to say that

        1) Durrell lived a life in the historical reality of Cyprus (no
        debate at all about that fact);
        2) Durrell experienced that reality from his particular vantage
        with its particular viewpoints, insights, and oversights;
        3) Durrell later wrote his book, /Bitter Lemons/, which, since
        he was a man of letters and not a writer of telephone
        directories, relates his experiences or "impressions" in words
        shaped by the accuracy and the vagary of memory, by literary
        style, and by an awareness of the demands of his publisher and
        his audience;

So a definitive "no" to this idea that "everything we do is unreal."  
Rather, Durrell really did many things in the real-world situation of 
Cyprus 1953-1956.  Some of those real things we really know.  A majority 
of that 1953-56 experience we will never know.  However, we do have 
access to this wonderful book, /Bitter Lemons/, which contains later 
re-tellings and re-touchings of the reality experienced earlier.

That was a very Rumsfeldian reading, eh?  "Things which we know that we 
know.  Things which we do not know that we do not know. . . ."   This 
effect defective.  Very like a weasel.  Where is our Shakespeare to limn 
this administration's players?

For myself, since I am most attentive to things literary, I am 
interested in securing knowledge about the historical realities of 
Durrell's life in order to measure and to appreciate how Durrell has 
sharpened or elaborated them in his memory-book.  But I never mistake 
the words on the pages of /Bitter Lemons/ for those earlier historical 
realities.  /Bitter Lemons/ says something about those realities, but it 
is not the reality itself. 

I follow Lawrence Durrell on these points.  I would not be so aware of 
the importance of human perspective, memory, and consciousness if his 
writings had not trained me to ask better questions about them.

>         Let the academics worry about "genre" on their way to getting their Ph.D.'s or tenure in some college or university.  Their concerns needn't concern us, the readers of Lawrence Durrell, those of us who will keep Lawrence Durrell alive through the ages -- yes, us -- not the academics.  I think we all know what a novel is and isn't.  We don't need a Ph.D. to tell us that.  That business is for the Ph.D.'s to write articles about.  That makes them feel good.  It also, don't forget, secures their status in the academy.

I will let others more directly concerned by this claim respond to it, 
Bruce.  I have two observations based upon my experience as an academic, 
some parts of which you will already be aware from the previous emails 
that you and I have exchanged. 

First, for my own part, writing articles about Lawrence Durrell does not 
help at all to secure status in the academy.  Far from it.  Within my 
department at my university, I am the designated Victorianist, hired to 
teach Victorian Poetry and Victorian Novels.  In performance reviews and 
job-interview situations, articles about "Lawrence Durrell" will raise 
more suspicions and difficulties for me than they will make an 
opening.   Right or wrong--and I think that it is /wrong/--this 
insistence upon specialization is the way it works.  Therefore, learning 
more about Durrell's notebooks and typescripts for the /Quartet /is my 
own personal focus, my labor of love.  I do it because I, like you, I 
want other readers "through the ages" to have a better chance to know 
that these writings existed.  I also do it because of the friendships I 
have made with all of these readers of Durrell, a significant number of 
whom have nothing to do with the academy.  

Second, at present, for any young Ph.D. to dedicate his or her work to 
Durrell is a definite risk.  Up to the present moment, if a young 
academic working in any major UK or US university with serious ambitions 
to succeed in the profession declared to his or her advisors that 
Durrell would be the focus of work--well, the response would most likely 
be incomprehension, bemusement, and gentle correction of the mistake.  I 
have heard this point made myself, made to myself.  And that is sad.  
Here I will gladly and openly join you in acknowledging the special 
prejudices that narrow the academy.  At most major and minor 
institutions, Durrell today is either unknown or held in suspicion or 
contempt.   We need not review all of the reasons for this mistake.  
Instead, let us be frank that the mistake exists.  Durrell's politics 
are seen as wrong for the current climate.  Durrell's allegiance was to 
his own survival and to his art, his aesthetic, and matters of form and 
aesthetics are not prime at present.  Cf. Terry Eagleton's review of Ian 
MacNiven's biography (once more) for a major statement of this sort of 
problem.  That review is a prologue in small of the larger tragedy to 
come, and academics should see the portraiture of their own consciences 
in its image.

Let us work to make Durrell more known and more appreciated 


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

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