[ilds] Bitter Lemons as a novel

James Gifford odos.fanourios at gmail.com
Wed Jul 18 19:20:10 PDT 2007


Hello Michael,

I think this may be of general interest, so I'll add it to the list. 
You ask:

> I would be interested to know what of Durrell's
 > politics the academy finds objectionable. No need
 > to expend any trouble over this, just a few bullet
 > points would do.

Let me first say that I concur with Charles' comments, and my 
experiences are likewise limited in perspective.  The "academy" is a 
highly heterogeneous collection of individuals, and even within a single 
field, it's hard to nail anyone down to a particular 'group' or 
'movement' with any consistency.  Even within broad categories there can 
be fierce disagreement, so I think generalizations about the academy are 
by necessity vague and given to contradition.

In my experience, Durrell is often seen as

* an anti-feminist gent
* bent on stereotyping the non-Western world.

That's the stereotype of him -- I'm not saying it's true.  The real 
oddity is that I don't think either is accurate.  For instance, I know 
you disagree with my reading of the political element in "Oil for the 
Saint," but if I recall correctly, I don't think I ascribed a political 
motive to Durrell.  Instead, I ascribed an awareness of how 
representation works and functions in a political context.  Manipulating 
and toying with overlapping political histories doesn't necessarily make 
someone critical of empire, but it does prompt a reader to be more 
self-conscious of how these things work in texts.  In that one example, 
Durrell certainly has empire lurking continually, and with tropes of 
representation and stereotyping accompanying, yet the language is far 
from simple.  We might not be certain of his personal beliefs, but we 
can be fairly sure he knows how these things all work.

Likewise, Durrell didn't handle Egypt with kid-gloves, nor was he 
blinded by some stereotype of exoticism; he just knew how those things 
could work with his audience for a variety of uses and effects, some 
suiting his purposes and others not.

My hunch is that the stereotype of the sexist, ethnocentric Durrell 
exists for a far more practical and less useful reason.  In the academy, 
we tend to focus on works that can be taught in the span of a single 
semester and that are useful pedagogically -- for instance, when I teach 
a course for students in their first year, I often use Durrell's "Oil 
for the Saint."  Do I think it's his best work?  No.  Yet, it works 
exceptionally well to develop close reading skills, attention to the 
print history, a sense of historical context, debates over genre, and so 
forth.  And, here's the kicker, it fits into a single week.  Most of 
Durrell's major works do not.  Among the authors I enjoy the most, 
personally, I've only taught a few -- most of what I find the most 
pleasing is unsuitable for my students' educational needs and the 
curriculum through which they will progress.

It can be difficult to fit Durrell into a syllabus, or at least it *has 
been* difficult to do so with the various editions available.  This is 
especially so given his absence from the major anthologies.  That's 
changing, but it's a little late.

For specific politics, the Marxists do not rule the day in most English 
departments now -- I neither celebrate nor lament that but merely point 
it out.  Charles is quite right about Durrell's "greying" to Communism 
during his time in Belgrade, but Durrell expressed very clear and 
explicit opinions on Socialism and the relationship between politics and 
art for the major movements of the 1930s.  I honestly don't know where 
to pin him down, and I strongly suspect Durrell's specific political 
affinities (I'm careful of the word here) shifted over time.  But, he 
seems to have been fairly consistent in criticizing large social 
collectives and obligatory conformity, whether that came from a "left" 
or "right" political force (those are largely useless generalizations 
anyway).  Oddly, the libertarians have stayed away from him.

In other words, he does not comfortably sit within any established camp. 
  No one on a mission likes that, and I find it doubtful you can find 
pedagogy without a direction or purpose...

Durrell also hasn't fit so well into many of the paradigms that have 
ruled the roost for periods of time over the last 30 to 40 years: 
deconstruction, postcolonialism, marxism, national literatures, area 
studies, new media, modernism, psychoanalysis (Lacanian in particular), 
and so forth.

Someone might complain that this places the "theory" before the text, 
but that's only portion of the issue -- if I'm assigned to teach a 
course on the rise of nationalist bodies of English literature (or World 
Englishes, etc.), Durrell just doesn't work so well.  If I'm teaching 
Commonwealth literature in English, he's not so cozy.  Major influences 
on Modernism...  Literature of minority groups?  Literature related to 
major contemporary social issues?

Durrell just doesn't become a major author in that sense until we start 
to look at shifts in style across the middle of the century, the origins 
of the aesthetics of the 1960s, the avant garde of the 60s to the 90s, 
and so forth.  Durrell's influence is clear, and his importance there is 
likewise a given, but those just don't make up a big part of the courses 
listed for the 20th century, which is only one portion of "English" as a 
discipline.

Those are the practical reasons I see behind Durrell's relative 
exclusion from the academic mainstream.  Most scholars I know who've 
looked more closely have realized just what they've missed, but the 
narrow topic-driven nature of short courses is (to my mind) a larger 
factor than is any sense of Durrell's political orientations.

Best,
James


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