[ilds] Durrell's Diction

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Sat May 1 10:21:51 PDT 2010

Bruce Redwine wrote:
> I would go beyond the level of intention, however.  That is, beyond what you refer to as "reminding their audiences about how very little knowing is possible." 
I agree. I usually avoid argument by intention, and perhaps I made my 
expression of the point unclear by my figure, substituting "Shakespeare" 
and "Durrell" for "the works of Shakespeare" and "the works of Durrell." 

To put it in different terms, I have no idea what either Shakespeare or 
Durrell truly meant or thought when they set out to right.  By contrast, 
I can track what experiences and impressions I have while reading the 
writings of Shakespeare and Durrell, the evidence that they left behind. 

I follow Pater and Durrell in this point: 

        "'To see the object as in itself it really is,' has been justly
        said to be the aim of all true criticism whatever, and in
        aesthetic criticism the first step towards seeing one's object
        as it really is, is to know one's own impression as it really
        is, to discriminate it, to realise it distinctly." 

The "object" itself is difficult.  The experience of the object, the 
filter of streaming sensory data running back and forth between the 
viewer and the object, must be carefully monitored.  In essence, I think 
that Durrell's style is grounded in this sort of realization.  
Substitute Pater's terms with Durrell's terms, and you might find the 
plot of /The Alexandria Quartet/ writ small:  "In /The Alexandria 
Quartet/, the first step towards seeing Justine as she really is, is to 
know one's own impression of Justine as it really is, to discriminate 
one's impression of her, to realise one's impression of Justine distinctly."

>         I would also point out where Durrell fails and not assume that every example of his style is a success.  

But how could Durrell's prose style ever be otherwise than what it is?  
He wrote what he wrote, no matter our wishes.

I suppose that you are arguing from a Classical or Idealist position.  
In the Classical position, a standard of excellence is created from the 
tradition or canon of writing that has gone before.  Durrell measured 
against Flaubert or Joyce or some such touchstone.  Arnold holds to that 
method in the nineteenth-century, and Arnold's work is fascinating.

Setting aside the Classical standard and shifting to the Idealist 
position, the critic imagines how in Platonic terms there is somewhere 
in the aether a perfected /Alexandria Quartet/ and how the written and 
published earthbound instance of /The Alexandria Quartet/ somehow falls 
short of and fails to achieve the fullness of what one might call /The 
Ideal Alexandria Quartet/.  There may be a bit of Gnostic thought latent 
in this line of criticism.  The Idealist critic suspects the writer of 
falling short, in effect catching out the author as Demiurge, thinking 
of the author as a false demigod creating something that should have 
been created in other terms or never should have been created. 

I fancy Durrell's works already carry that Gnostic realization within 
them, setting ready traps for Idealist critics.  After all, the 
"sancing-bell" passage occurs right at the opening of "My Conversations 
with Brother Ass."  Bruce, you write about how

>          I sense something below that driving the man on, and I don't know what it is.  

And that reminds me uncannily of Pursewarden regarding Darley, 
contemplating Darley's suspicions of his fellow writer, writing that

>         In me he scents an enigma, something crying out for the
>         probe.  ("But Brother Ass I am as clear as a bell--a sancing
>         bell!  The problem is there, here, nowhere!")

Bruce's "sense" for Darley's "scent"--what do we "sance"? 

Perhaps Billy gave us more than he know when he first rang up with his 
query about Pursewarden's ironic bell.  To what is Durrell summoning you? 

The strange High Church allusion, the parentheses and the quotation 
marks, this "writer's notebook" cropping up suddenly within a novel 
filled with other extracts from notebooks--now that is a style worth 
reckoning, a style full of infinite jest!  Truly, "My Conversations with 
Brother Ass" is Durrell's Grave Digger scene, with Darley playing Hamlet 
to the dead Pursewarden's Yorick, and with all of us readers in the 
aftertime acting in the same role to the dead Lawrence Durrell.  Who can 

I can understand the Classical and Idealist approaches, but I think they 
are valid only if the critic uses them with an honest admission that he 
seeks a goal which never in fact existed--a /tertium quid, /dreams of 
the critic's own making, revealing more about the critic than the work 
at hand.  I would label them subjunctive endeavors.  That in no way 
means they do not hold value.  They make for great reading. 

By contrast, being a plain and plodding sort fellow, I start out by 
holding to the historian's method, the bibliographer's method.  
Durrell's books exist as data.  Durrell's prose is what is, no matter 
how much we imagine how it might have been, could have been, should have 
been, or wish it to have been something other than what it is.  Here I 
think of Nabokov, who told his students that

>         In reading, one should notice and fondle details. There is
>         nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it
>         comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly
>         collected. If one begins with generalization, one begins at
>         the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has
>         started to understand it.

With that understood, I then move to a Durrellian (or Paterian) position 
and ask, "What do I experience when I analyze the particularities of 
this prose style, with all its quirks and curves?  This prose style 
being just so and not other, what does it make me feel or think, and how 
are those things different from my experience of other prose styles?"

So what about the "sancing bell"?  


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

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