[ilds] Durrell's Diction

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Sat May 1 07:25:25 PDT 2010

> Now, Durrell's chosen vocabulary may simply be part and parcel of his 
> Romantic disposition, his infatuation with the exotic, somewhat like 
> Poe's.  Maybe.  I suspect, however, that something else is going on, 
> something rooted in his psyche, if you will.  If I had to liken 
> Durrell's love of words to anyone's, it would be to Shakespeare's, 
> whom the English Romantics valued above all others.  This discussion 
> is, of course, just speculation.  What is needed is an examination of 
> the data, and by that I mean an extensive lexical study of Durrell's 
> vocabulary and usage throughout his oeuvre.  Some enterprising 
> graduate student should take this up.  It would involve a lot of work.
The project would be important, no doubt.  Perhaps the most necessary 
element would be the kind of maturity of thought required to analyze 
"Durrell's prose style for Durrell's prose style's sake."

That is to say, the scholar could certainly analyze and place Durrell's 
style in relation to the long history of English prose stylists.  But to 
begin the task with the working assumption that Durrell's style is 
somehow aberrant or ineffective would do little than to reinforce the 
status quo--bosh and Grundyism of the narrowest provincial sort.  

You mention Poe.  Most critics fail with Poe because they cannot enter 
his weird stylistics with the Negative Capability that style requires.  
Not stopping to mark their own shortcoming as readers with a very 
limited notion of literature, such critics would take a clipboard to his 
language, checking off penalty marks for archaism and artifice that 
extrudes and layers itself like coral.  Artifice is not wrong.  Weird is 
not wrong.  Both artifice and weirdness are tools of estrangement, 
sometimes calculated, sometimes expressive.  Cf. Freud's /unheimlich/. 

Shakespeare is right on as a comparison, Bruce, because Shakespeare 
seems to share Durrell's skepticism about language's ability to catch 
the Thing (cf. /Hamlet/).  Shakespeare also seems to share Durrell's 
conviction that we have very little else to turn but these words, words, 
words.  In response to that realization, Durrell and Shakespeare do not 
take the stylistic turn of Beckett, into withdrawal, but turn in another 
direction--to densities of artifice and layered illusion, reminding 
their audiences about how very little knowing is possible.  If one must 
have a moral, I suppose that is a sort of darkling moral of the Yorick 
sort. . . .

Durrell's style is quite remarkably what it is.  Durrell's style is a 
serious challenge.  If the scholar comes to it with a moralist, 
corrective, progressive sensibility--the sort of reader who desires to 
gain a vantage on to the "true" world by means of a supposedly "clear," 
correct prose style--that scholar will go very wrong, very early.  Very 
few students coming up today have the maturity, the training, and the 
independence of mind to carry out such an analysis, I am afraid.  

But good luck to the ones who try!

Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

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