[ilds] Bitter Lemons as a novel

James Clawson clawson at gmail.com
Sun Jul 15 15:24:29 PDT 2007

Having just successfully defended my PhD thesis on Durrell's novels a
couple weeks ago, I can't not agree with Charles in some of his
points, and I also can't help feeling obliged to respond to some of
Bruce's comments both on the illusion of a divide between academics
and readers and on the idea of reality in Durrell's (and others')

I may (or may not) be lucky enough to count myself as part of a newly
emerging "present moment" Charles mentions allowing academics once
again to consider Durrell worthy of "serious study," but I think the
questioning of who among us is meant to read and have an opinion of
Durrell is really strange for a list like this---we obviously all read
him.  If someone writes an article or a book or a dissertation or an
email to this mailing list, it shouldn't mean that person has more or
less right to enjoy Durrell's work and to comment upon it than does
the next.

As for Charles' three-point construction of Durrell's reality in
Cyprus, I can't help but think of /A Key to Modern British Poetry/, in
which he writes the following:

"Man is simply a box labelled personality. He peers out of the box
through five slits, the senses. On this earth he is permitted access
to three dimensions of space and one of time. Only in his imagination
can he inhabit the whole---a reality which is beyond the reach of
intellectual qualification: a reality which even the greatest art is
incapable of rendering in its full grandeur."

Durrell simply peers out of his box, accessing the space and time of
Cyprus [REAL Cyprus---historically, geographically, and politically;
Charles' first point] through his senses---as full and as limited as
they can be.  He can only look in one direction at a time, so, in his
mind, his imagination works to stitch together all the snapshots into
a vibrant panorama.  In doing so, it can't help overwriting some bits
that don't seem to fit or inventing others that seem to need to be
there [Charles' second point].  And from there again, I can't help but
think of Pursewarden's quote in /Balthazar/: "We live [...] lives
based upon selected fictions."  From these selected fictions, Durrell
writes a book---an act that, itself, inserts further emendations,
erasures, and inventions---in a manner that is ALSO by design
variously fabricated [Charles' third point].

These elements seem to me to mark /Bitter Lemons/ as more interesting
than even the /Quartet/, as it further troubles Bill Godshalk's
division of the /Quartet/ into "fictively fictive" and "fictively
real" elements.  /Bitter Lemons/ rocks the boat by allowing for
elements also to be "really real" or "really fictive," and by
demanding we acknowledge the third level of all of these transactions:
things in /BL/ can be (literarily) really real, (literarily) really
fictive, (literarily) fictively fictive, or (literarily) fictively
real.  Durrell's Preface asking us not to take the book as political
in the very midst of a political crisis underscores each of these

That said, you can't think of any of this without being reminded of
Virginia Woolf's "biography" of /Orlando/, which approaches the
question from the other side, even providing (fictive) photographs of
"Real people!  Flesh and blood!"  If only Durrell had published the
pictures with the book!  (How exciting would that be?!)  The question
of Genre might sound boring or irrelevant compared to all these
interesting questions of what levels of the book might really be real
(or really be fake); in "reality" they're the same.  I don't think we
can see /BL/ as "clearly" nonfiction while also acknowledging
Durrell's signature use of character and embellishment---or while
remembering his penchant for preface.

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