[ilds] Durrell Damned and Done for

James Gifford odos.fanourios at gmail.com
Fri Oct 26 14:04:56 PDT 2007


Bravo David, for bringing out attention to this problem!

One of my longstanding critiques of the postcolonial readings of Durrell 
(many of which are actually very good) is that they do not yet 
adequately account for satire.  By reminding us that Antrobus, the 
_Quartet_, and _Bitter Lemons_ are of the same moment, we are reminded 
of the problem... 

Yes, Durrell's Antrobus and his diplomatic motley crew have horrifyingly 
eurocentric views.  Isn't that _precisely_ what we're guided to laugh 
at?  It strikes me that Rexroth (who admired Durrell greatly at first 
and seems to have had ties to him through the anarchist Circle Editions 
in Berkeley, as well as possibly via Robert Duncan) misses the joke --  
we are not supposed to look up to Antrobus and his poor little natives.  
We're supposed to see the mockery of his relationship to his wildly 
mis-construed 'natives,' and that's the subject of Durrell's mockery.  
At least, that's the only thing any of the Antrobus stories that I laugh 
at in any way...  I don't find any of the things Antrobus 'laughs' at 
funny, but I do find Antrobus in that act quite humorous.  (must admit I 
still don't laugh...)

Of course, that does not excuse many things in a book like _Bitter 
Lemons_, but to my mind, it makes it terribly difficult to separate the 
satire of British colonial rule from Durrell's genuinely problematic 
representations of the Cypriots.  Like Conrad, it's difficult to 
distinguish where his time and place take hold and replace his critique 
of his time and place.  Recalling last summer, that's why I can't get 
the mention of Suez in the epigrams out of my head as I move through 
_Bitter Lemons_ (and I do read that first epigram as a sly 
acknowledgment of the raw motivations for British rule of Cyprus, 
pointing to satire), even when the Cypriots are described in terms that 
make my skin crawl.  Ditto for Mountolive and Leila when she quotes Ruskin.

Perhaps these little Antrobus stories tell us more when held up under 
closer scrutiny, but I do agree that Rexroth has it all backward in this 
instance (and I typically like Rexroth, so don't take that as a nasty jab).

Best,
James

Denise Tart & David Green wrote:
>
> Dear Durrellians,
>
>     As we say here in the antipodes "cop this!"
>
>  
>
> "While the four parts of the novel were coming out, Durrell published 
> /Bitter Lemons, Esprit de Corps, Stiff Upper Lip/. These are all 
> concerned with his own life as a diplomatic representative of Great 
> Britain. They all have the same fault, a blissfully unconscious, but 
> none the less absolute ethnocentrism. In /Bitter Lemons/ the Cypriots 
> are happy childlike innocents, misled by “demagogues” and the 
> “envenomed insinuations of the Athens Radio.” It never occurs to 
> Durrell that they might just want to be free of the British. Only the 
> most unworthy motives are ever ascribed to either the Turkish or Greek 
> leaders, who are always portrayed as “outside agitators,” interested 
> only in advancing themselves at the expense of naïve and friendly 
> schoolchildren. The English, on the other hand, are seen as silly, 
> bumbling, out of date, but oh so sane and wholesome and always 
> concerned only with the good of the charges that God has entrusted to 
> them. We’ve heard all this before; in fact, we can hear it almost any 
> day when a Southern Congressman is sounding off, and what day is one 
> not? /Stiff Upper Lip/ and /Esprit de Corps/ are unforgivable. They 
> are written in the most dreadful imitation of P.G. Wodehouse, a 
> favorite author of Durrell, by his own admission. (He reads him in 
> /Bitter Lemons/ during negotiations with the Cypriots over their 
> freedom.) It is a bad imitation and so vulgar it makes your flesh 
> crawl. These two books of purported humor explain much about what 
> happened to the splendid plan announced in /Justine/. Possibly, 
> carefully read, they explain everything. British diplomats are noble 
> and silly, Indians, Negroes, Egyptians are sly and rascally children, 
> uniformly portrayed in terms of a Soho pickpocket — the only “native,” 
> you feel, reading these disgraceful books, Durrell has ever known 
> personally. This, of course, is not true; he has lived most of his 
> life in the Levant. What is wrong with him? What is wrong with 
> Englishmen?"
>
>                     - Kenneth Rexroth (whoever he may be?)
>
> perhaps I misread Bitter Lemons. Durrell clearly has an affection for 
> greeks, but 'happy childlike innocents' I don't think so. Durrell's 
> Cypriots were often quite scary and unpredictable. While he writes it 
> for humour, Voices at the Tavern Door has menace in it. I would not 
> want to have been a 5 feet 4 inch tall Englishman alone in a bar with 
> Frangos and co in bad mood.
>  
> David
>  
>  
> Denise Tart & David Green
> 16 William Street, Marrickville NSW 2204
>  
> +61 2 9564 6165
> 0412 707 625
> dtart at bigpond.net.au <mailto:dtart at bigpond.net.au>
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