[ilds] The Lost Art of Lying

James Gifford odos.fanourios at gmail.com
Sun Mar 9 13:35:44 PDT 2008


> What is important is that none of these
 > examples give credit to their true sources,

Perhaps I'm in error (perhaps...), but what is the second item in the 
bibliography for /Prospero's Cell/?  Do I have some kind of bizarre 
variant in every different edition on my shelf?  What about the second 
paragraph of the Preface Durrell later added?

Gosh -- it's almost like we're being sent off to see how the work was 
constructed, as if it had a method that was remarkably akin to his 
contemporaries, was a big part of the aesthetic point, and even drew on 
the collage-oriented surrealists he was regularly interacting with 
during this period.

I still say that the instances of echoes and borrowings in *all* of his 
works don't bother me (at least what I've seen so far), with the 
exception of /Caesar's Vast Ghost/, and I seriously doubt he was fully 
responsible for assembling that book from his notes, clippings, and 
transcriptions.  Even the biography gives proof that someone else did 
that for him.

But, for the sake of actually analyzing an example, let's look at the 
text Durrell points his reader to: Atkinson's /An Artist in Corfu/.  The 
following passage has been brought to the attention of the list, though 
sadly it seems that I'm the only one who's willing to venture an actual 
interpretation:

--->

Atkinson 1911 (p. 69-70)

IN a good olive year the whole peasant population is absorbed by the 
olive harvest, which lingers from Januar)' till May, and is by far the 
most important crop for Corfu, furnishing practically its only export. 
For this reason it is to be regretted that the olive has not suited its 
internal economy to its responsible position. For it puts forth its 
flowers in April, just when it is most occupied with ripening fruit, so 
if its last year has been prolific it has really neither energy nor 
space to attend to this year's blossoming. Consequently its crops are 
very irregular, and the people dependent on them, at the best not rich, 
are in poor years almost destitute. It is said the peasants are 
improvident but a diet of bread and oil does not leave a wide margin for 
thrift ! They are independent in some ways, possessing their little bits 
of land and clusters of trees, or renting them, at the price of a few 
days' work in the landlord's vineyard. They work freely and as they 
like, and are content in their little society and hereditary tasks. They 
rarely advance or develop beyond these ; offers of comfort, good wages 
and light work hardly tempt them from their fields to town or country 
service. They would feel as exiles from their kind, and would soon 
return to hard work and hard fare in freedom, to the pleasant evening 
gossip in bottega or by the well, and the friendly greetings in the fields.

Durrell, 1941 (p. 91 or 123, depending on the edition[s])

    The Olive gathering is an all-weather business; in the blinding 
February storms you hear the little hard berries dropping to the ground, 
and, if you happen to be standing on the high ground looking southward 
you can see the visible track of the north wind as it strikes the 
valley, turning the olive trees inside out -- so that they change from 
green to sliver and back to green.  Under the shelter of archway and 
wall the women stoop in circles steadily filling their hampers while the 
rain rattles like small-shot in the leaves about them and the first wild 
flowers stir in the cold ground under their feet.
    **But the olive-tree has hardly suited its internal economy to its 
position, for its attenuated white flowering commences in April, just 
when its is most occupied with the ripening of its fruit; so that if its 
previous year's blossom has been prolific, it has hardly the strength to 
blossom again. Its crop is irregular, and the lean years for the 
harvesters are very lean indeed.  Bread and oil as a diet hardly leaves 
any margin for thrift.**
    After the first pressing in the mill-bed the men come with their 
wide-mouthed baskets and gather up the magma, piling its greyishness 
into a wooden press; ...

--->

For me, as a reader, I see Durrell likely sketching bits into a notebook 
as he read Atkinson (hence her overt and direct appearance in his 
Bibliography), but he changes and reshapes.  Where, for instance, is the 
cruelty of April and a month of showers breeding flowers of evil from 
the dead earth, let alone spreading liquor in the ground to engender the 
flower?  (Yes, that's a whack of allusions...).  Durrell grabs directly 
for that and adds its "attenuated white flowering commences in April." 
Durrell also drops Atkinson's views on labour and class with peasants 
who shun security in a job.  Durrell instead grants them a mythic depth, 
in particular in the preceding and proceeding paragraphs.

Moreover, the borrowing and reworking from Atkinson is notably presaged 
by "rain rattles like small-shot in the leaves about them and the first 
wild flowers stir in the cold ground under their feet."  This gunfire of 
rain echoing among the peasants at their work surely goes beyond 
Atkinson and catches at that ache over the war-time loss and assault of 
Corfu that Durrell so keenly felt.  Likewise, Durrell played in his 
poetry with Eliot's appropriation of Chaucer's "Prologue" in "The Waste 
Land" (that's why I posted "Anniversary" the other day) -- hence, I find 
it compelling that when April appears in /Prospero's Cell/, it has a 
reworked tradition integrated into the text with the appearance of April 
showers feeding the vines and leaves and flowers from the earth, which 
it strikes like "small-shot."  This war-like ache, however, only leads 
to "the first wild flowers stir in the cold ground under their feet," 
which is strikingly akin to Eliot's "stirring / Dull roots with Spring 
rain" and Chaucer's "bathed every vein in swich liquor."  Yet, Chaucer 
tell us we need "And smale fowles maken melodye," so Durrell gives them 
to us in the preceding paragraph while Atkinson's image has none.

So, yes, I see Pastiche, and I see lots of it.  Tell me, does "the 
trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceive" and does Durrell actively 
prod us look to other works, other books, other memories "as one might 
enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted"? 
  Coming out of his contemporaries, running in a clear line from Wilde 
through Eliot, just what would Durrell be expected to refract if it 
weren't other texts?  He admitted it, sometimes cited it, and frequently 
made such borrowings the aesthetic core of many poems...  In other 
words, it's part and parcel of the *point* of such books, and also very 
much a part of the milieu.

Is it really so mad to see pastiche as a driving impulse here?

After all, Durrell put Atkinson in his bibliography and admitted openly 
in his later preface "In Alexandria a hospitable Greek business man made 
me free use of an excellent library of reference books and I used his 
books not so much as crutches, but as provocations to memory, correcting 
myself by this previous information."  Atkinson is certainly used as a 
provocation to his memory, and those words pop out at striking moments 
not so very distant from Eliot's sense that April's rains are "mixing / 
Memory and desire" while "Winter kept us warm, covering / Earth in 
forgetful snow," which gestures rather strongly to an established method.

And, lest by charged with trying to cover up any instances, let me 
actually ADD to them...

There's plenty more, such as if we compare the top of Durrell's page, 
two paragraphs earlier than what I quote above, with Atkinson on her p. 
71.  The mill, magazine, and bunkers of olives jump out, as do the women 
in the rainy season, but here again the differences expand -- Durrell 
grants them shadows that "leap and flap against the gloom of the 
archways, throwing into sudden relief the strings of onions and tobacco 
hanging from the roof, the unruffled chickens lying in the straw, the 
weaving-loom, and perhaps the sagacious evil face of the billy-goat 
munching in a corner."  The most Atkinson offers of this is that they 
are "Rembrandt-like" (though she is also a very lovely writer).

I see much more allusion in Durrell's reworking, with a Plato-like cave, 
shadows, and a darkness in the evil face that Atkinson avoids.  After 
all, we know what will happen to the chickens, and the weaving loom 
broadens the image significantly (weaving as Durrell does), as does the 
relief.

Simply put, I'm inclined to ask "Who were Durrell's literary heroes at 
the time" and "does this reflect an established method extolled by 
Durrell's literary heroes."  If I answer those questions, I'm really not 
surprised, but I certainly have a more exciting interpretive venture set 
before me than I did before I began...

Other interpretations?  Can I see someone do a genuine close reading of 
the two, which I have only shrugged toward here?

Best,
James


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