[ilds] On First Discovering Lawrence Durrell

Denise Tart & David Green dtart at bigpond.net.au
Mon Oct 12 17:01:53 PDT 2009

Sumantra wrote: It seems to me that on the ILDS forum, quite a few people to be gripped by 
Durrell's writing first read him as adolescents.

I can't speak for all, but I first discovered LD as an adolescent via My Family & other Animals. The character of Larry and his loony friends was so hilariously invoked by brother Gerald that I had to know more about him. From here I discovered Prospero's Cell, then the other Island books. My mother showed me Justine which I attempted as a teenager but could get into until I was much older. I still think the island books contain some of LD's finest writing - and stereotypes to which I wish to return.

Others may have noticed that LD trades in 'national characteristics'. Thus we have apes in nightgowns, father Nicholas and Manoli, the typical greeks, Sabri the Turk. On page 45 of Bitter Lemons Durrell writes "...history - the lamp that illuminates national charater.." 

Sabri is described on page 39 as:-

But what was truly Turkish about him was the physical repose with which he confronted the world. No Greek can sit still without fidgeting, tapping a foot or a pencil, jerking a knee, or making a popping noise with his tongue. The turk has a monolithic poise, an air of reptilian concentration and silence.

This is charming but a generalisation surely. No Greek! I saw many Greeks in Paros sitting outside taverns with only cigarette smoke wafting drifting up from their fingers telling of any movement and they would sit there for hours. Above, the Greeks are warmly described, but there is menace in the Turk - reptilian concentration like a snake about to strike. National characteristics can be a convenient tool for a writer and can be amusing for a reader (or annoying) but they cannot ever be entirely accurate. What for example is the American national character, or the English, the Australian? The French, as personified by Pombal, are lazy, fornicating types whose Gallic charm masks a philosophical ossification. And on the point of philosophical ossification that Durrell mentions in his description of Pombal, I think Durrell is saying that French thinking begins in excitement and discovery and ends in some form of armour proper, a stereotyped response.

To illustrate this point I take the military inventiveness of the french under the early Napoleon which hardened into a standard doctrine of bludgeoning aggression carried right through to World War One where red trousered French infantry enthusiastically charged German machine guns to no avail. A strategic and tactical doctrine was no longer being thought about, merely enacted as the proper response. This ossification is what I think Durrell means when describing Pombal and the Gallic temperament.


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