06 February, 2009
Lawrence George Durrell was an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist, and travel writer, though he resisted affiliation with Britain and preferred to be considered cosmopolitan. His most famous work is the tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet.
Durrell was born in Jullundur, British India, the son of Indian-born British colonials Louisa and Lawrence Samuel Durrell. His first school was St Joseph's College, North Point, Darjeeling. At the age of eleven, he was sent to England where he briefly attended St Olave's Grammar School before being sent to St Edmund's School, Canterbury, in England. England was a country in which he was unhappy and which he left as soon as possible. Although his formal education was unsuccessful, and though he failed his university entrance examinations, Durrell had started writing poetry seriously at the age of fifteen. His first collection, Quaint Fragment, was published in 1931.
On January 22, 1935, Durrell married Nancy Isobel Myers, the first of his four marriages. In March of that year Durrell, Nancy, his mother, and his siblings (including brother Gerald Durrell, later to be a major British wildlife conservationist and popular writer) moved to the Greek island of Corfu.
In the same year, Durrell's first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, was published by Cassell. Around this time, he wrote to Henry Miller, expressing intense admiration for his novel Tropic of Cancer, which sparked an enduring friendship and mutually-critical relationship. The two got on well, as they were exploring similar subjects, and Durrell's next novel, Panic Spring was heavily influenced by Miller's work, and after that The Black Book abounded with "four-letter words... grotesques,... [and] its mood equally as apocalyptic" as Tropic.
In Corfu, Lawrence and Nancy lived together in bohemian style in a number of large houses, notably the 'White House' on the coast at Kalami. Henry Miller was a guest in 1939. The period is somewhat fictionalized in Durrell's lyrical account in Prospero's Cell, which may be instructively compared with the accounts of the Corfu experience published by Gerald Durrell, notably in My Family and Other Animals. Gerald describes Lawrence as living with his mother and siblings -- Nancy is not mentioned at all -- whereas Lawrence's account makes few references to the fact that his mother and three siblings were also resident on Corfu. The accounts do cover a few of the same topics; for example, both Gerald and Lawrence describe the role played by the Greek doctor, scientist and poet Theodore Stephanides in their lives on Corfu.
In August, 1937, Lawrence and Nancy traveled to the Villa Seurat in Paris, to meet Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin. Together with Alfred Perles, Nin, Miller, and Durrell "began a collaboration aimed at founding their own literary movement. Their projects included 'The Shame of the Morning' and the 'Booster', a country club house organ that the Villa Seurat group appropriated for their own artistic...ends." They also started the Villa Seurat Series in order to publish Durrell's Black Book, Miller's Max and the White Phagocytes, and Nin's Winter of Artifice, with Jack Kahane of the Obelisk Press as publisher.
Durrell's first novel of note, The Black Book: An Agon, was heavily influenced by Miller and was published in Paris in 1938. The mildly pornographic work only appeared in Britain in 1973. In the story, Lawrence Lucifer struggles to escape the spiritual sterility of dying England, and finds Greece's warmth and fertility.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, Durrell's mother and siblings returned to England, while he and Nancy remained on Corfu. In 1940 he and his wife had a daughter, Penelope Berengaria. After the fall of Greece, Lawrence and Nancy escaped via Crete to Alexandria in Egypt, where he wrote about Corfu and their life on "this brilliant little speck of an island in the Ionian" in the poetic Prospero's Cell.
During the war, Durrell served as a press attaché to the British Embassies, first in Cairo and then Alexandria. After the war he held various diplomatic and teaching jobs. It was in Alexandria that he met Eve (Yvette) Cohen, who was to become the model for the character Justine in the Alexandria Quartet.
In 1947 Durrell was appointed director of the British Council Institute in Córdoba, Argentina, where for the next eighteen months he gave lectures on cultural topics. He returned to London in the summer of 1948, around the time that Marshal Tito broke ties with Stalin's Cominform, and Durrell was posted to Belgrade, Yugoslavia where he was to remain until 1952. This sojourn gave him material for his book White Eagles over Serbia (1957). In 1952 he moved to Cyprus, buying a house and taking a position teaching English literature at the Pancyprian Gymnasium to support his writing, followed by public relations work for the British government there during agitation for union with Greece. He wrote about his time in Cyprus in Bitter Lemons, which won the Duff Cooper Prize in 1957. In 1954, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
In 1957, he published Justine, the first part of what was to become his most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet. Justine, Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1959) and Clea (1960) deal with events before and during the Second World War in Alexandria. The first three books tell essentially the same story but from different perspectives, a technique Durrell described in his introductory note to Balthazar as "relativistic". Only in the final part, Clea, does the story advance in time and reach a conclusion.
The Quartet impressed critics by the richness of its style, the variety and vividness of its characters, its movement between the personal and the political, and its exotic locations in and around the city which Durrell portrays as the chief protagonist: "... the city which used us as its flora - precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!" The Times Literary Supplement review of the Quartet stated: "If ever a work bore an instantly recognizable signature on every sentence, this is it." There was some suggestion that Durrell might be nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, but this did not materialize.
Given the complexity of the work, it was probably inevitable that George Cukor's 1969 attempt to film the Quartet (Justine) simplified the story to the point of melodrama, and was poorly received.
Durrell separated from Eve Cohen in 1955, and was married again in 1961 to Claude-Marie Vincendon; she died of cancer in 1967.
Durrell settled in Sommières, a small village in Languedoc, France, where he purchased a large house standing secluded in its own extensive walled grounds on the edge of the village. Here he wrote The Revolt of Aphrodite, comprising Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970), and The Avignon Quintet, which attempted to replicate the success of The Alexandria Quartet and revisited many of the same motifs and styles to be found in the earlier work. Although it is frequently described as a quintet, Durrell himself referred to it as a "quincunx". The middle book of the quincunx, Constance, or Solitary Practices, which portrays France under the German occupation, was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982 and the opening novel, Monsieur, or the Prince of Darkness, received the 1974 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. In 1974, Durrell was the Andrew Mellon Visiting Professor of Humanities at the California Institute of Technology.
Durrell's poetry has been overshadowed by his novels. Peter Porter, in his introduction to a Selected Poems, writes of Durrell as a poet: "one of the best of the past hundred years. And one of the most enjoyable." He goes on to describe Durrell's poetry as "always beautiful as sound and syntax. Its innovation lies in its refusal to be higher-minded than the things it records, together with its handling of the whole lexicon of language."
Durrell also spent several years in the service of the Foreign Office. He was senior Press Officer to the British Embassies in Athens and Cairo, Press Attache in Alexandria and Belgrade, Director of the British Institutes in Kalamata, Greece, and Córdoba, Argentina. He was also Director of Public Relations in the Dodecanese Islands and on Cyprus.
Durrell suffered from emphysema for many years. He died of a stroke at his house in Sommières in November 1990.