[ilds] authentic

James Gifford odos.fanourios at gmail.com
Mon Dec 3 11:35:15 PST 2007


Hello Ilyas,

I like how you phrased all of this.  At one point several years ago, as 
an idealistic first year MA student, I churned out a rather poorly 
written critique of scholarly readings of Old D that focused on 
'authenticity,' such as Mahmoud Manzalaoui, whom Anis cites.  For me 
then, and still now, the fascinating problem is the fracture between 
obviously fantastical texts that privilege contingency, as opposed to 
the expectation of accuracy to one's own experiences that we all have. 
The peculiar thing is that our aesthetic engagement with fiction, and 
the late 20th century favour for metafiction runs contrary to the 
political effects and expectations of accuracy that underpin most 
postcolonial and political approaches.  That both would rise to 
prominence at the same moment seems peculiar, and I think Durrell's 
importance to literary history relies (albeit to a small degree) on the 
problems he creates between these two paradigms.

To some degree, I think I'm just restating what you've said, but when I 
look at LD's works, I don't see an author who's concerned with getting 
'it' right ('it' being an image of the city that would work like a map 
or photograph).  That's not the 'authenticity' of his texts -- the truly 
'authentic' in Anis' sense would likely not prompt much imaginative 
engagement from readers.  So much of the humanity and aesthetic 'labour' 
of the _Quartet_ rests on admittedly personal reflections and 
interpretations, notably among characters who come to realize just how 
frail and multiple their views of the world around them are (ever 
changing and always a lie).

The frailty of those images matched by the fierce value of each 
perspective (each being an interpretive activity of the world much like 
the interpretive activity the reader is prompted to) strikes me as being 
openly and unabashedly 'unreal' (but not in Eliot's sense of the term... 
-- hence, the fantastical and imaginative becomes the 'real' city contra 
Old Tom).  I think that's the beauty of much of Durrell's works.  Yet, 
that's also what leaves a particularly political reader caught in a trap 
of either mistakenly thinking these subjective views are 'real' (and 
acting on that) or else trying to correct those misconceptions and the 
real world's social activities that develop from misperceptions.

I may be biased, having entered LD's works through the Quintet, but in 
either case I seriously doubt the Quartet encourages the reader to take 
each character's views as 'real.'  The aesthetic impulse of the entire 
work seems to point in a very different direction and to a different 
kind of 'authenticity,' which I think is what you mean.  That's not to 
say contemporary politics don't play a role, nor that exploring 
Durrell's politics or the politics of his critical readers wouldn't be 
useful, but doing so leads us away from the primary aesthetic direction 
of the work.  We have to work harder to use the text that way.

Is that akin to what you mean by 'authenticity'?  At one point, I wanted 
to call it epistemological skepticism (a mouthful) -- I still find 
Durrell exciting in that regard each time I have to set aside another 
set of suppositions, but the pressing academic need to place him in his 
cultural and literary-historical milieu leads me back to the 'factual' 
world far too much in my work.  Nonetheless, as a reader who still picks 
up these works on a snowy evening just to read for pleasure (as opposed 
to the teacher who has learning outcomes and reading goals for his 
students), it's that utterly and unabashedly personal view that keeps my 
attention.  Doris Lessing phrased this kind of plurality of vision in a 
way I like (paraphrased): 'Why do we always think of "or"?  That's what 
computers do.  Why not "and"?'

I don't think Durrell was interested in giving a British, colonial, or 
Egyptian perspective.  I think he picked up whatever was ready to hand 
and went ahead with it, shamelessly offering contradictory personal 
worlds in his characters.  If I stay on the level of the politics, I 
only make a mess: sometimes a useful and creative mess, but it's still 
not what makes these books exciting.  That aesthetic excitement makes 
the political import worth exploring, and not the other way around.

But, as you say, it's wonderful to read about home, and when we do it's 
often at the expense of the work we read.  I must admit that I've never 
been able to take the local writers terribly seriously because there's 
no room for my imagination in their landscapes.  I've already 
'colonized' it with my own images from childhood and memory.  Perhaps 
Anis felt the same way...  The closest I've been able to come is Malcolm 
Lowry's "Forest Path to the Spring," which is set near my home, but it's 
so deadly accurate yet completely unreal that I find it irresistible.

All that said, I do want to see more of the political debate, especially 
since that's what keeps LD current in the academic 'marketplace,' and 
Anis is so very close to combining the real political effects of the 
work (regardless of whether they reflect the nature of the text itself) 
that I hope we see some more from her.  My bias comes from my position 
in the academy, so I can never fully escape the parallel discourse of 
critical responses -- at some times I relish that and at others I lament 
losing the pleasure I had when I first picked up _Monsieur_ on a snowy 
long weekend...

Best,
James

Ilyas Khan wrote:
> Charles,
> 
> Durrell did care about authenticity. His descriptions of people (the 
> physical self); places (streets, houses, lakes, seas); and characters 
> (in the sense that you allude to with the question about duplicity and 
> multiplicity) are written with both a care and a focus that belies any 
> other answer. I believe the real issue arises when someone challenges 
> that (or those) descriptions. In the most basic case people will 
> challenge a particular street or house or even room scene and say “that 
> wasn’t real” or “I’ve been there, and I can tell you that wasn’t real”. 
> However, these challenges, often well deserved in the literal sense, are 
> not relevant in my view to the overall question that has to be posed 
> when assessing the work of LD the writer and artist. As you well know, 
> its very easy to take the easy way out when defending the work of 
> writers who are attempting reality, but who might be slap-dash in their 
> execution./ Justine/ falls so far out of that category – and scores so 
> highly from an aesthetic standpoint, that LD creates and sustains his 
> own authenticity. For thousands of readers who will never get to 
> Alexandria, the city and the people who inhabit his books (and the city, 
> by extension) have come alive.
> 
> I don’t, for a second, take issue with critics and commentators who will 
> look very carefully at a small piece of the book and explain why, in 
> their view, the writing might lack a degree of authenticity. After all, 
> we all come to the work with our own accumulated baggage, and in some 
> cases, our own specific local knowledge. But these opinions, at least in 
> my view, are not the basis upon which to attack LD for being an 
> outsider, or worst, a writer who loads his description with political 
> intent. The best example of why I believe this to be the case is that I 
> come from North West England, and will often read a novel or short story 
> that has been set in my part of the  world with an almost forensic 
> search for local detail. Its a human trait (I wont say failing) for us 
> to take that extra care to look at things which have personal resonance, 
> and then, if that resonance falls even infinitesimally short, we feel 
> justified in criticising the work as a whole. Rather like trying to 
> debate exactly how many angels might be dancing on the head of a 
> metaphorical pin !
> 
> The academic view (no shortage of academics on this list) too often miss 
> this point. Maybe its too obvious ? The debate rages on through minute 
> nuances that require years of research or privileged access to 
> institutional information to appreciate never mind comment upon. I will 
> leave that particular pleasure to our esteemed colleagues who specialise 
> in it, and will take my usual pleasure in being educated in the process, 
> but thought this fairly important point might be a good first response 
> to your post.


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