[ilds] Takes

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Sat Aug 15 15:42:10 PDT 2009


Thanks for the interesting and informed email re a couple of "takes"  
on Lawrence Durrell and his standing in what? — "English letters?"    
Charles has already given his "take," and I agree with everything he  
said.  A couple of over-long comments, which I hope are relevant.

I mentioned earlier Chinua Achebe's article on Conrad's Heart of  
Darkness (1899), an early classic, especially ever since Eliot mined  
it for an epigraph in "The Hollow Men."  The article:  "An Image of  
Africa:  Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness" (Mass. Review 18  
[1977]).  Achebe is a Nigerian.  Besides labeling Conrad a racist,  
Achebe's criticism of HD basically boils down to saying, and here I do  
not quote, just paraphrase liberally, "The novella is not true.  It  
badly misrepresents Africa and Africans.  It's a gross and unfair  
treatment of the Congo and it's people, and it's typical of the racism  
of the European colonial mind."  In short, and here's a direct quote,  
"[Conrad's] obvious racism has, however, not been addressed.  And it  
is high time it was!"  All this I would argue strenuously against and  
say that Achebe doesn't understand what Conrad is trying to do.   
Moreover, I give Conrad complete latitude to say whatever he deems  
necessary to accomplish his artistic ends, which I see in no way racist.

Achebe's arguments are relevant to this discussion, because I find  
them very close to a lot of criticism I heard at "The Durrell  
Celebration," held in Alexandria, Egypt, 2007, on the occasion of the  
fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Justine.  There many  
Egyptian members of the audience stood up and attacked the Quartet,  
using arguments very similar to Achebe's.  I have no sympathy with  
that approach.

Now, Terry Eagleton is another prominent opponent of Durrell's work.   
First, I would mention Eagleton is a critic of questionable ethics,  
since he reviewed MacNiven's biography of LD in TLS?, without the  
courtesy of a complete and careful reading of the work.  Not  
surprisingly, Eagleton commits a number of factual errors about  
Durrell.  All this has been previously discussed on the List.  Second,  
Eagleton is a Marxist critic, and Marxist like to talk about the  
social value of literary works or "real human sympathy," as you quote  
Eagleton saying below — none of which should be confused with the  
ethical values of reviewers.  Finally, re Eaglerton's criticism of  
Durrell's "country of the mind?"  Charles deals with this well.  I  
only add, and what's wrong with that?  Joyce has his Dublin and Proust  
his Paris — all countries of the mind, in my mind, and they will endure.

Eagleton's final barb, however, strikes home, but not as he would  
like.  As a throwaway, he mentions Nabokov as another example of  
"elitism and aestheticism," but an author with a "finer literary  
talent."  And this is surely true.  Nabokov's Lolita consistently gets  
ranked as the second greatest novel of the 20th century, second only  
to Joyce's Ulysses.  Durrell's problem, as I see it, is that he wasn't  
enough of an artist or, to put it another way, not hard working  
enough.  He was too gifted and writing came to him too easily.   
Besides his other problems of overwriting and a propensity towards  
pomposity, he didn't revise as he should have and try to turn out a  
finished product equal to those just mentioned.  Of course, he had  
financial considerations — the pressures of wives, ex-wives, and  
children.  But I think something else caused his restlessness with  
art, and I don't know what it was.


On Aug 15, 2009, at 11:05 AM, Sumantra Nag wrote:

> Charles: "That sort of objection springs from the sense that  
> literature must
> accurately reflect some locatable, fixed reality--or that  
> literaturemust "reform" and "correct" misguided views of a stable  
> reality."
> Bruce: "How is Durrell's viewpoint to be taken?  How is it to be
> judged?  Is its portrayal of Alexandria fair?  Need it be?  To be
> honest, I've never satisfactorily answered these questions for myself,
> but that has not stopped me from continuing to enjoy reading the
> novels.  There's something in the Quartet that is magical and
> transcends conventional analysis,"
> ----------------------------------------------------------------------
> Charles, Bruce, thank you both very much for your thoughtful  
> responses. As points of reference, I am reproducing above, only a  
> small part of your respective comments.
> Bruce, it is some time since I read Joseph Conrad's "Heart of  
> Darkness". I think it is Lawrence Durrell's reflective comments  
> about Alexandria, scattered all over the Quartet, and reading like a  
> travelogue, that tend to portray the image of a colonial traveller  
> or expatriate. I don't recall the same impression in "Heart of  
> Darkness" where description is direct - but I may well be missing  
> out on something. (The intensity of prose in Conrad's "Lord Jim" is  
> held up by George Steiner as an example of baroque writing for  
> comparison with the prose of the AQ - I posted an extract from  
> George Steiner on ILDS some time ago.) I also think it is valid to  
> point out that Durrell's characters are seen as limited to  
> foreigners in Alexandria, and not to the Egyptian population - but  
> then Alexandria apparently had a strong European character,  
> different from the rest of Egypt. Again, Durrell's tendency in the  
> AQ to write subjective commentaries about the "City" and its people,  
> when he is actually writing about a very small section of the city's  
> population (even its European population), accentuates the neglect  
> of large portions of the city's people - even the cosmopolitan non- 
> Egyptian polpulation. This may not have happened if he gave a less  
> pervasive presence to "the City" in his novels. But then, the AQ has  
> a magnetic quality - a quality which you have described as magical  
> and transcending traditional analysis!
> Charles, I wonder whether Terry Eagleton's views are relevant in the  
> context of our discussions:
> "Durrell once described himself as a "supreme trickster", and this  
> is surely one reason why his celebrity proved so shortlived. The  
> glittering surface of his prose conceals an emotional anaesthesia,  
> for which the portentously "profound" reflections of the Quartet are  
> meant to compensate. Like many poets, his verbal sensitivity is in  
> inverse proportion to real human sympathy, a sublimated selfishness  
> evident in his life as much as his work. What was real was what he  
> could exoticise, convert to mythological archetype or high-sounding  
> platitude. His Alexandria is a country of the mind, attractive  
> precisely because its cultural and ethnic mix makes it at once  
> nowhere and everywhere. If he plundered Egypt for its symbolic  
> capital, he also groused about its "stinking inhabitants". His  
> combination of elitism and aestheticism was finally outstripped by  
> Nabokov, another rootless emigre who happened to possess a finer  
> literary talent." (From "SUPREME TRICKSTER" By Terry Eagleton, a  
> review of Ian McNiven's biography of LAWRENCE DURRELL.)
> George Steiner upheld the rich prose of Durrell as a relief from the  
> flat prose of English fiction which had set in by the 1950s. But it  
> seems to me that some critics (including perhaps Eagleton) see this  
> quality of Durrell as filling the need of a particular period. What  
> happens if you judge the novels in critical terms other than those  
> of the quality of prose?
> Best wishes
> Sumantra

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