Authors: Lawrence Durrell

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist, poet, and critic


Lawrence George Durrell (DUR-uhl) is widely regarded as one of the more important British writers of the twentieth century, his fame in both Europe and America deriving primarily from the four novels of The Alexandria Quartet–namely, Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea.{$I[AN]9810001217}{$I[A]Durrell, Lawrence}{$S[A]Norden, Charles;Durrell, Lawrence}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Durrell, Lawrence}{$I[geo]INDIA;Durrell, Lawrence}{$I[tim]1912;Durrell, Lawrence}

Lawrence Durrell

(© Rosemary Clausen)

Durrell was born to an Anglo-Indian family living on the fringe of the Himalayas. Young Durrell spent his first ten years in India and the rest of his childhood in England; he immediately disliked his new home, seeing it as a gloomy and emotionally repressive place compared to the East. Rejecting university education and other conventional, middle-class aspirations, he determined to pursue a writing career instead.

In 1935, Durrell read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) and experienced a sense of liberation from the constraints of English sexual morality and ordinary novelistic technique. The result was his first significant work, a youthful but remarkable novel of self-discovery, The Black Book, published in France in 1938 with Miller’s assistance. It had been considered too bawdy for publication in England. Not a commercial success, it nevertheless drew warm praise from T. S. Eliot.

It was in 1935 that Durrell married Nancy Myers. In that same year, he escaped England by moving to Corfu, beginning a lifelong attachment to the Mediterranean world. In 1941, the Germans invaded Greece, forcing Durrell to flee by sailboat with his wife and child; they settled in Egypt, where he became a press officer in the British diplomatic service. By midwar his poetry was gaining greater recognition, but his marriage had collapsed. A second marriage, to Egyptian Eve Cohen, was also to fail.

After the war Durrell served as a government official on the islands of Rhodes and Cyprus. On Cyprus he met Claude Vincendon, another writer. They moved to southern France, living there until her death in 1967. A fourth marriage in 1973 ended in divorce.

Durrell’s most popular works were written in the 1950’s. Bitter Lemons is a humorous account of life in Cyprus, but it also reflects his distress over the struggle between the Greek Cypriots, whom he loved, and the British government, to which he was still loyal. More important was the appearance of the four novels making up The Alexandria Quartet, an examination of love’s power set in Egypt and involving pre-World War II political intrigue. Durrell had brooded over this project for many years, but the actual writing took only thirty-eight weeks. The work was an immediate critical and commercial success, freeing him at last to devote all of his time to writing.

Durrell’s subsequent novels, however, were not so well received. Tunc and Nunquam (two volumes also known as The Revolt of Aphrodite) seem to many commentators to be less spontaneous, less radiant than The Alexandria Quartet, however admirable their theme of struggle against the inhumanity of the modern age. The Avignon Quintet (the five novels published between 1974 and 1985) is set in southern France during the 1940’s; in this work, Durrell’s characters search in vain for a highly symbolic medieval treasure trove. The Quintet is a continuation of Durrell’s lifelong probing of the mysteries of love, time, and art; unfortunately, many critics have found it to be far too obscure, especially since its characters do not inspire the kind of reader empathy which made the The Alexandria Quartet’s puzzles such a delightful and worthwhile challenge.

Going beyond Romanticism, Durrell took twentieth century physics as his model, seeing in it a kinship with mysticism and art. Humans live in isolation, like atoms, yet paradoxically these “human atoms” are also aspects of emotional, life-force “fields,” somewhat like the gravitational fields of modern physics. Thus an Alexandrian “field” governs the behavior of its “atoms,” the characters of The Alexandria Quartet. Again, in modern physics, wave theory and particle theory can contradict each other, but both can be “true.” Therefore, two characters can both be “right” even though they describe the same event in different ways.

In the Quartet, Durrell avoids appearing pompous by laughing at all literary theory, his own included. Perhaps, then, his real claim to greatness is simply his storytelling ability, his tragic tales, his marvelous jokes, his dazzling style. Then again, perhaps he believed that tragedy and comedy, style and theory, must simultaneously be taken seriously and humorously as reflections of a paradoxical universe. Critics are divided not only over Durrell’s importance in modern literature but also over the very nature of his contribution.

BibliographyBengal, Michael H., ed. On Miracle Ground: Essays on the Fiction of Lawrence Durrell. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1990. Limited to Durrell’s major fiction, these essays reflect the variety of critical responses the novels elicited “from metafiction to close textual analysis to deconstruction to reader response theory.” “Overture” by Durrell gives his own understanding of the forces that shaped him. Contains a useful bibliography of secondary sources.Bowker, Gordon. Through the Dark Labyrinth: A Biography of Lawrence Durrell. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997. Bowker reveals Durrell to be a complex man beset at times by incredibly painful circumstances that he was somehow able to transmute into his fiction.Durrell, Gerald. My Family and Other Animals. 1956. Reprint. New York: Penguin, 2000. This memoir by Durrell’s youngest brother, a naturalist, covers the time the family lived in Corfu before World War II. While hardly complete as a strict biography, this book, along with Fauna and Family (1978) offers an interesting and amusing picture of Lawrence Durrell and his literary circle.Fraser, George S. Lawrence Durrell. London: Longman, 1970. A perceptive pamphlet-length study of Durrell’s major literary output up to 1970, tracing the themes and plot of The Alexandria Quartet with admirable clarity. Contains a select bibliography.Friedman, Alan Warren. Lawrence Durrell and “The Alexandria Quartet”: Art for Love’s Sake. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970. This pioneering study of Durrell’s writing concentrates on The Alexandria Quartet as the culmination, at the time, of his writing. Durrell is placed as a leading experimental novelist in the traditions of the Impressionists and the stream-of-consciousness novelists. The bibliography, though out of date, is helpfully organized and contains primary and secondary sources.Herbrechter, Stefan. Lawrence Durrell: Postmodernism and the Ethics of Alterity. Atlanta: Rodopi, 1999. An investigation of the notions of alterity which underlie the work of Durrell and postmodernist theory. The introduction sketches the Levinasian ethics of alterity and reevaluates Durrell’s fiction within the context of postmodernism.Kaczvinsky, Donald P. Lawrence Durrell’s Major Novels: Or, The Kingdom of the Imagination. London: Associated University Presses, 1997. An excellent discussion of Durrell’s seminal works.Kersnowski, Frank, ed. Into the Labyrinth: Essays Concerning the Art of Lawrence Durrell. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1991. This collection of critical essays and biographical reminiscences contains essays on all forms of Durrell’s writing and painting. The reproduction of art by Durrell and the chronology of his life provide information not readily available elsewhere.MacNiven, Ian. Lawrence Durrell: A Biography. London: Faber and Faber, 1998. Written with Durrell’s cooperation. MacNiven has extraordinary access to both his subject and his papers (including notebooks and letters). MacNiven’s interviews with Durrell’s friends and lovers are integrated into a probing look at the sources of his writing. Includes illustrations, chronology, family tree, and notes.Vander Closter, Susan. Joyce Cary and Lawrence Durrell: A Reference Guide. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985. This annotated bibliography of secondary material is essential to anyone writing about Durrell. Reviews, essays, and critical studies from 1937 to 1983 are listed chronologically. The first half of the book concerns Joyce Cary, and the second half concerns Durrell.Weigel, John A. Lawrence Durrell. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1989. This revision of the 1965 study provides a clear overview of Durrell’s life and writing. The discussion of individual works is useful for students approaching Durrell for the first time. Although Durrell’s poetry, drama, and criticism are discussed, the study focuses on the novels.
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