[ilds] Bitter Lemons and Academe

James Gifford james.d.gifford at gmail.com
Mon Apr 4 19:05:13 PDT 2016


Hi Bruce,

> Postcolonialism in the academy has some pernicious consequences.  In a
> recent article on Joseph Conrad in /PMLA,/ the premier journal of
> American literary studies, we find this first sentence:  “Critics tend
> to agree that Joseph Conrad’s novels engage in a critique of
> imperialism, but, given the novels’ pervasive racism the nature of that
> critique persist as a source of debate in postcolonial studies” (Regina
> Martin, “Absentee Capitalism and the Politics of Conrad’s Imperial
> Novels,” /PMLA 130.3/ [2015]:  584).  “Critics” do /not/ tend to agree
> on Conrad’s “racism” (read an eminent critic like Ian Watt on Conrad and
> the authoritative/ Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad)/ but Martin
> would have it so.

I'm not a Conrad scholar, but I can probably trouble this a bit -- we 
hosted the Conrad Society's conference here at FDU-Vancouver just after 
the last On Miracle Ground.  One side would certainly defend Conrad from 
the charge, but there's also a famous lecture (later paper) by Chinua 
Achebe on Conrad in which he offers the biting comment "Conrad was a 
bloody racist."   He goes on to give a more nuanced outline of the 
sentiment, but the laconic form makes the point.  As an instance of how 
that plays out, the outstanding Conrad scholar John Stape taught for us 
here in Vancouver and brought the conference here, and my Campus Provost 
was friends with Achebe -- when they talked, it was from two very 
different perspectives...

By granting the critique of imperialism along with the racism, I'd 
suspect Martin was trying to speak in a way that would reach both of 
those crowds (more a way of getting the two major readerships to feel 
okay than necessarily the central gesture).  I'd have to go to the 
article and read to say more!

That said, a comparable comment on Durrell from a global figure like 
Achebe but born in the mid-1970s would be rather helpful (a comparable 
age gap for us today from Conrad & Achebe).  After all, people tend to 
actually read the polemics -- it's the same reason bad reviews are 
better than tepid reviews: the stirring of curiosity is always a help.

> As to Durrell’s /Bitter Lemons,/ calling the book a “whitewash” of
> British policy is far, far too simplistic and another misreading of a
> complicated text written by an author who was deeply conflicted and
> troubled.

As you know, I tend to read Durrell as often ironic, and many don't 
agree with me -- I've said on the listserv in the past that I look to 
the opening of /Bitter Lemons/ in exactly the same way as I look to the 
opening of /Justine/ in the same year.  It speaks in the contradictions 
but not in what's said, much like the closing interpretation of silence.

Justine opens with Freud & Sade, but I think it's Freud *vs.* Sade, and 
the cut or unspoken portions are the most important.  Likewise, /Bitter 
Lemons/ opens with its claim "this is not a political book" but follows 
up an epigram that makes the irony pretty overt: "A race advancing on 
the East must start with Cyprus" followed by grand conflicts between 
nations and imperialism then a closing reference to how important the 
Suez Canal makes Cyprus.  It's always struck me as something like "of 
course I could not write this book if it were a political book, so it 
isn't -- by the way, I'm lying."

Durrell's anonymous writings on Cyprus make it clear he was thinking of 
the Cold War, not some "genuine" claim Britain had.  Only three years 
later he would write that humanity lives "under sentence of death and 
simply living from reprieve to reprieve."  It's unsurprising for the 
period -- in fact, what is surprising is that an author would turn to 
the kind of lush writing we find in the Quartet at that precise moment. 
  If we read /Bitter Lemons/ beside 1957 in literature, some other 
trends might stand out: Fleming's /From Russia, with Love/, Kerouac's 
/On the Road/, Pasternak's /Doctor Zhivago/, Rand's /Atlas Shrugged/, 
Wyndham's /The Midwich Cuckoos/, etc...  Durrell certainly stands 
distinct from his contemporaries, but the Cold War mentality seems ready 
to hand!  I think we'd be wise to see it as ready to hand in /Bitter 
Lemons/ as well, even if it's mumbled.

All best,
James


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