[ilds] Bitter Lemons and the darkness on the edge of town

James Gifford odos.fanourios at gmail.com
Wed Sep 10 08:39:01 PDT 2008


Hi Charles & David,

And excellent approach...  I must admit, I can't imagine reading /Bitter 
Lemons/ without the darkness.  Even apart from the inward glance of 
those dark globes, the role of darkness in the book seems to me to 
constantly anticipate the inevitable ending.  Any reading in 1958 knew 
how the book was going to end -- and it wouldn't end well.  "Blood" is 
casually mixed with the colours of the sunrise on the first page, on the 
second the glass palaces of the Doges are being pounded in a crystal 
mortar, or as Venice ends, "my thoughts turned to another sad relic -- 
the flayed and stuffed skin of the great soldier Bragadino which lies 
mouldering."  We know what Cyprus holds.  In fact, "blood" suffuses the 
first pages of the book, so it's no surprise when the book ends with his 
recollections of gaiety displaced: "the whole had suddenly become 
darkened with the air itself, by blood."  It is a dark book...

But, I sense that both Charles and David are edging toward something 
more, something inward.  I must admit that I've not considered a shift 
from darkness without to darkness within, though I don't think the early 
works are devoid of inner darkness, especially not /The Black Book/. 
I've interpreted /Monsieur/ somewhere as an exploration of the harm the 
characters bring upon themselves out of fear.  That inward exploration 
leads to something dark, being both unseen and dark in the metaphorical 
sense.  And like Oedipus, they blind themselves to this realization.

I see precisely the same problem in /Pied Piper of Lovers/.  As Ian 
MacNiven has argued, the novel is suffused with death, and like 
/Monsieur/, I tend to see that knowledge as driving the character's to 
blindness about themselves and into more limited or destructive lives. 
Walsh's fears lead him to a life he does not want, although we do have 
an Edenic ending in which he has fled the city to his "island" in a 
cottage, but he's still there to wait for death.

/Pied/ opens and closes with death (the last implicit), but they are the 
deaths of others (yet pointing to the dreaded death of himself, gasp -- 
if only he'd read Gilgamesh).  Still, self-exploration is prominent, 
partly as the protagonist's aim and partly due to this being LD's most 
autobiographical book (I'd say it's more autobiographical than any of 
the 'foreign residence' books).

/Panic Spring/ is again caught up in obsessions with death, and death 
marks the climax of the novel (I won't make the joke).  It's not as 
obsessively inward as /Monsieur/, but nearly all the chapters focus on 
remembering.  The quest, if it can really be said to have one, is for 
characters to look inward in order to move outward into a more free and 
enriching life, which is how we see the novel end for two characters, 
but it does not end that way for the character watching them, nor does 
it end thus for the dead.

But, Charles is quite specific in his question, and I'm rambling...

> My own hunch:  I think that the darkness changes
> its location and significance as Durrell ages.  
> Could the Darley / Pursewarden pairing stand 
> mipoint in the shift?  The younger writer still 
> perceives darkness as external; the older writer 
> recognizes his own darkness.

I'd go with that, but as a difference in degree rather than kind.  The 
junior artist of /Pied Piper/ seems to be reaching after Joyce's 
/Portrait/, while Darley in the Quartet is able to look back at the time 
leading him up to that self-exploration through writing "Once upon a 
time..."  Darley can externalize it.  Still, the inward exploration in 
/Pied Piper/ finds only pain, so I think the path of darkness and the 
inevitable return to finding it on the inside rather than outside was 
set from the beginning.

In a way, I suppose I'm saying that the darkness of the 1950s is 
different, while the darkness before and after is akin.

For David's focus on the poem "Bitter Lemons," I'd point not just to the 
dark globes of the fruit in the moonlight but to what is censored 
(unsaid), who is tortured, and whose habits are dead (and are the habits 
a hint to the religious influence on the island's politics)?  Darkness 
then appears cradled between "beauty" and "vehemence," which seem to me 
a clue.  They're three sides of the same "dark crystal," if you will.

Yet, if the poem's narrator is to find peace, it seems that beauty, 
darkness, and deep belief must all be pitched into the sea (let the sea 
nurses keep them) -- if we want a beautiful book, it's going need to 
plumb the darkness of sea monsters, torture, and death, otherwise we 
can't have beauty either.  That strikes me as very much Durrell's 
attitude in his first two novels.  Still, I see an anti-political tone 
in the early Durrell too, and I wonder if this 'prayer' in the poem is 
for us to pitch the dark crystal into the sea in life but gaze deeply in 
art: let the darkness work itself out in art rather than in the world.

Thanks for letting me ramble over my morning coffee...  Now off to work!

Best,
James


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