|Born||Lawrence George Durrell
27 February 1912
Jalandhar, Punjab, British India
|Died||7 November 1990
|Occupation||Biographist; poet; playwright; novelist|
|Notable works||The Alexandria Quartet|
|Spouses||Nancy Isobel Myers
Eve "Yvette" Cohen
(1961–1967, her death)
Ghislaine de Boysson
|Relatives||Lawrence Samuel Durrell (Father), Louisa Dixie Durrell (Mother), Gerald (brother), Margaret (sister), Leslie (brother)|
Durrell was born in Jalandhar, British India, the eldest 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. His formal education was unsuccessful, and he failed his university entrance examinations, but he began seriously writing poetry at the age of fifteen, and his first collection of poetry, Quaint Fragments, was published in 1931.
On 22 January 1935, he married Nancy Isobel Myers (1912–1983), in the first of his four marriages. Durrell was always unhappy in England, and in March of that year he persuaded his new wife, his mother, and his siblings (including youngest brother Gerald, later a major wildlife conservationist and popular writer), to move to the Greek island of Corfu, where they might live more economically and escape both the English weather and the stultifying English culture—what Durrell called "the English death".
In the same year Durrell's first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, was published by Cassell. Around this time he chanced upon a copy of Henry Miller's 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer and wrote to Miller, expressing intense admiration for his novel. Durrell's letter sparked an enduring friendship and mutually critical relationship that spanned 45 years. The two got on well, as they were exploring similar subjects. Durrell's next novel, Panic Spring, was heavily influenced by Miller's work. His next, 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. For the first few months the couple lived with the rest of the Durrell family in the Villa Anemoyanni at Kontokali. In early 1936 Durrell and Nancy moved to the White House, a fisherman's cottage on the shore of Corfu's northeastern coast at Kalami, then a tiny fishing village. Durrell's friend Theodore Stephanides was a frequent guest, and Henry Miller stayed at the "White House" in 1939. This period of his sojourn on Corfu is somewhat fictionalised in a lyrical account in Prospero's Cell, which may be instructively compared with the accounts of the Corfu experience published by Gerald Durrell in My Family and Other Animals and the rest of Gerald's so-called Corfu trilogy. Gerald describes Lawrence as living permanently with his mother and siblings—Nancy is not mentioned at all—whereas Lawrence's account makes only a few references to just one of his siblings, Leslie, and does not mention that his mother and other two siblings were also resident on Corfu. The accounts do cover a few of the same topics; for example, both Gerald and Lawrence describe the roles played by the Corfiot taxi driver Spiro Amerikanos and the Greek doctor, scientist, and poet Theodore Stephanides in their lives on Corfu. In Corfu he became friends with Marie Aspioti, with whom he cooperated in the publication of Lear's Corfu.:260
In August 1937, Lawrence and Nancy travelled 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, the main character 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 brothers returned to England, while he and Nancy remained on Corfu. In 1940, he and Nancy had a daughter, Penelope Berengaria. After the fall of Greece, Lawrence and Nancy escaped via Crete to Alexandria in Egypt. The marriage was already under strain, however, and Durrell and Nancy separated in 1942, with Nancy taking baby Penelope to Jerusalem.
During his years on Corfu, Durrell had made notes for a book about the island, but it was only in Egypt towards the end of the war, that he was finally able to write it. In the book, Prospero's Cell, Durrell described Corfu as "this brilliant little speck of an island in the Ionian", with waters "like the heartbeat of the world itself".
During World War Two, Durrell served as a press attaché to the British Embassies, first in Cairo and then Alexandria. It was in Alexandria that he met Eve (Yvette) Cohen, a Jewish woman and native Alexandrian, who was to become his model for the character Justine in The Alexandria Quartet. In 1947, after his divorce from Nancy came through, Durrell married Eve Cohen and in 1951 they had a daughter, Sappho Jane, named after the legendary Ancient Greek poet Sappho. (Sappho Durrell committed suicide by hanging in 1985, after many years of mental health issues.)
In May 1945, Durrell obtained a posting to Rhodes. The Dodecanese had been taken by Italy from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire in 1912, during the Balkan Wars. With the Italian surrender in 1943 their erstwhile German allies took over most of the islands and held onto them as besieged fortresses until the war's end. Mainland Greece was at that time locked in civil war, and so the Dodecanese came under a temporary British military government pending sovereignty being handed over to Greece in 1947, as war reparations from Italy.
Durrell set up house in the little gatekeeper's lodge of an old Turkish cemetery, just across the road from the building used by the British Administration (today the Casino in Rhodes' new town), where his co-habitation with Eve Cohen could be discreetly ignored by his employer, while remaining close enough to be within the perimeter security zone of the main building. From this period comes his book Reflections on a Marine Venus, a lyrical celebration of the island; the text avoids more than a passing mention of the troubled times.
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 with Eve in the summer of 1948, around the time that Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia 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, Eve had a breakdown and was hospitalised in England. Durrell moved to Cyprus with Sappho Jane, 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. Durrell left Cyprus in August 1956, after problems on the island and his British government position led to him becoming a target for assassination attempts.:27
In 1957, he published Justine, the first part of what was to become his most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet. Justine, Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958) and Clea (1960), deal with events before and during the Second World War in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. The first three books tell essentially the same story but from different perspectives, a technique Durrell described in his introductory note in Balthazar as "relativistic". Only in the final part, Clea, does the story advance in time and reach a conclusion.
The quartet impressed critics with 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." In 2012, the Nobel Records were opened after 50 years and it was revealed that Durrell was among a shortlist of authors considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature, along with John Steinbeck (winner), Robert Graves, Jean Anouilh and Karen Blixen. It was decided that "Durrell was not to be given preference this year"—probably because "they did not think that The Alexandria Quartet was enough, so they decided to keep him under observation for the future". Also a candidate in 1961, Durrell had in the previous year been ruled out because he "gives a dubious aftertaste … because of [his] monomaniacal preoccupation with erotic complications".
Durrell separated from Eve Cohen in 1955, and was married again in 1961, to another Alexandrian Jewish woman, Claude-Marie Vincendon, whom he met on Cyprus. Durrell was devastated when Claude-Marie died of cancer in 1967. His fourth and final marriage was in 1973, to a French woman, Ghislaine de Boysson, whom he divorced in 1979.
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.
In 1982 Durrell wrote About Eduardo Sanguinetti, the preface to Eduardo Sanguinetti's philosophical essay Alter Ego (1986). He wrote: "This is what the work of Sanguinetti shows us, in the form of a mirror image. Or, to put it in less philosophical terms, Eduardo Sanguinetti, like almost any other creator, has little understanding of what he is going to do and only partially understands what he has done. Sanguinetti, in a way of contemplating the world and all his work, whatever the medium, reveals this particular way. Sanguinetti is a style. He is an extraordinarily coherent statement of a way of being in the world." Other works from this period are Sicilian Carousel, a celebration of that island, The Greek Islands, and Caesar's Vast Ghost, which is mainly about Provence, France.
Durrell said that he had three literary uncles—his publisher T. S. Eliot, the poet George Seferis, and Henry Miller. He found a copy of Tropic of Cancer that had been left behind in a public lavatory. He said the book shook him "from stem to stern". He became lifelong friends with Miller and Anaïs Nin.
Durrell suffered from emphysema for many years. He died of a stroke at his house in Sommières in November 1990. His lifelong friend Alan G. Thomas donated a collection of books and periodicals associated with Durrell to the British Library, which is maintained as the distinct Lawrence Durrell Collection. Thomas also acted as editor for an anthology of additional writings, letters and poetry, Spirit Of Place, which contains much that supplements Durrell's own books.
One year after his death, the literary magazine Granta published excerpts from the journals of his late daughter Sappho, in which she intimates that she had an incestuous relationship with her father. The nature of her "largely incoherent" writing makes it impossible to determine whether the events she describes were real or imagined. Sappho Durrell committed suicide in 1985 at the age of 33 after many years of psychiatric problems.
Durrell's poetry has been overshadowed by his novels, but Peter Porter, in his introduction to a Selected Poems, calls him "One of the best [poets] of the past hundred years. And one of the most enjoyable." He goes on to describe Durrell's poetry: "Always beautiful as sound and syntax. Its innovation lies in its refusal to be more high-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 attaché 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 later refused a Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, because he felt his "conservative, reactionary and right-wing" political views might be a cause for embarrassment.:185 Durrell's works of humour Esprit de Corps and Stiff Upper Lip are about life in the diplomatic corps, particularly Serbia. He claimed to have disliked both Egypt and Argentina, although nowhere near as much as he disliked Yugoslavia.
For much of his life, Durrell resisted being identified solely as British, or as only affiliated with Britain, and preferred to be considered cosmopolitan. It has been suggested since his death that Durrell never had British citizenship. In fact, he became defined as a non-patrial in 1968, as a result of an amendment to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. Hence, he was denied the normal citizenship right to enter or settle in Britain under the new laws, and had to apply for a visa for each entry.
Biography and interviews
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