Lawrence Durrell: A towering visionary philhellene who has shaped English literature

by dollydelightly

Lawrence Durrell was a prolific and protean writer. Unlike many of his contemporaries his livelihood depended exclusively upon his literary undertakings.  Not only that, Durrell laboured in a variety of genres – criticism, translation, philosophy, satire, travel writing – to be able to sustain himself in “exotic squalor”. He also wrote poetry. And one of his biggest regrets, which he voiced throughout his life, was his failure to establish himself as a credible poet through the work which he regarded as “closest to his heart”. Yet the prodigious corpus he produced as a poet demands that he should be regarded as one. Durrell was a towering visionary philhellene who has left an array of ideas that have shaped not only literature but how it is read. His tremendous gift should have made him a beacon of English writ, but instead this tireless craftsman has been invidiously overlooked. Durrell was one of few major 20th century writers without university training, who aspired to the profession from the vernal age of eight after reading Charles Dickens and subsequently spending the remainder of his childhood “madly scribbling”.  Following a rejection by Cambridge and a miscellany of jobs – a nightclub pianist, a photographer, an estate agent – Durrell decided to try and live by his pen. And I for one am very glad he did.

Durrell’s Collected Poems were given to me by a friend, and as we sat in the pub flicking through the compendium I felt myself beset by a sensory fever incited by Durrell’s words. His poetry shines with the shellac of a virtuoso modernist endowed with an enviably pitch-perfect ear and a knack for intense sensuality. Most of the verses describe sexual couplings, amatory intrigues and the complexities of the human condition in startlingly vivid, baroque syntax and febrile imagery. Reading his poetry one gets the distinct impression that Durrell was retooling convention, or at the very least bending it to his will. Poems such as Strip-tease reveal him as an apostle of the avant-garde, exemplified in the closing lines when talking about the “girls” he says: “So swaying as if on pyres they go/About the buried business of the night/Cold witches of the elementary tease/Balanced on the horn of a supposed desire/Trees shed their leaves like some of these.” 

The greatest of Durrell’s distinctions is his originality, and his work should stand as an archetype for future poetic exertions. His observations, aphorisms and ideological pronouncements are abundant and judicious. They are also superlatively poignant. Yet Durrell shies away from romanticism. In a poem called Plea, for example, he refers to love as a “cruel apprenticeship” and concludes that “Pleasure is greatest pain so dearly bought/And love unfaithfulness.” In another poem, Repeat, he speaks along the same lines: “I would be rid of you who bind me so/Thoughtless to the stars: I would refrain and turn/Along the unforgotten paths I used to know/Before these eyes were governed to discern/All beauty and all transience in love.”

But Durrell could also be consummately quixotic. In Echo dedicated to his wife Nancy Myers and his new-born daughter Penelope, Durrell ostensibly celebrates the symbolist ideal. “Nothing”, he writes, “is lost, sweet self/Nothing is ever lost/The unspoken word/Is not exhausted but can be heard/Music that stains/The silence remains/O echo is everywhere, the unbecoming bird.”  Similarly in another poem to his wife: “We have endured vicissitude and change/Laughter and lanterns, colours in the grass/And all the foreign music of the earth/Starlight and glamour: every subtle range/Of motion, rhythm, and power that gave us birth.” Despite the romantic nature of the two poems, Durrell somehow manages to strip his work of cloying sentimentality, yet he also, and more importantly, strips it of rhetoric and ridged precedents in order to present his ideal of a heraldic reality that is in keeping with his own defiant nature. Some of his best poems are the most seemingly labile, often set in symbolist Greece and full of mystic lyricism, references to the bucolic landscape, the sea and “foreign music of the earth capable of turning a key…in the heart”. His fascination with the Mediterranean is prevalent in much of his work; the campestral setting almost always the central point, the pivot, along with its “cities, plains, and people”.  Another of Durrell’s fascinations was the Greek poet Constantine P Cavafy, who is a spectre – ironic, pained – in the sensibility of much of Durrell’s verse. In an eponymous poem dedicated to his hero, Durrell writes: “And here I find him great. Never/To attempt a masterpiece of size/You must leave life for that. No/But always to persevere the adventive/ Minute, never to destroy the truth/Amid the coarse manipulations of the lie.” 

Another figure of great importance to Durrell was Henry Miller. The two were lifelong friends, maintaining an epistolary correspondence for over 40 years. In a paean called Elegy on the Closing of the French Brothels Durrell reminisces about their time together in Paris and nebulously mirrors Miller’s pleasure without compunction. He writes: “Of all the sickness, autumnal Paris/This self-infection was the best, where friends/Like self-possession could be learned/Through the mystery of a slit/Like a tear in an old fur coat/A hole in a paper lantern where the seeing I/Looked out and measured one/The ferocious knuckle of sex.” Durrell has a gift for dramatic traction and for combining irony and vulnerability, which strikes at the centre of human emotion. But, on occasion, he can also be obscure, fragmentary and opaque. He does, however, make up for his shortcomings with a number of rhapsodic verses which utilise modernist devises with alchemic valour.

His love poems, which pepper the collection throughout, are among my favourite. They reveal Durrell at his best, as a man of many passions, a lover of numerous women and someone who bravely unveiled and refracted his life on the page. Durrell’s poesy, magisterial in range, contains a great many influences from spiritual philosophy to Elizabethan dramaturges, and enjoys a synergy between fiction and reality: one knows when reading his work that every line has origins in some truth or emotion once felt. Love’s Intensity, one of my favourite poems in this veinis of simple structure and arrangement but reveals Durrell as a spirited assertor of the soul. It seems to be at once joyous and melancholic: “In all the sad seduction of your ways/I wander as a player tries a part/Seeking a perfect gesture all his days/Roving the wildest margins of his art/I would drink this perfection as a wine/Leash the wild thirst that binds me more than taste/Hoard up the great possession that is mine/Not squander as a drunkard makes his waste/I will be patient if the world be wise/And you be bountiful as you are curt/Until a song awakes those distant eyes/And all your weary gestures cease to hurt.” Another favourite is Return. Here, Durrell reminisces about the past with eloquent intensity: “There is some corner of a lover’s brain/That hold this famous treasure, some dim room/That love has not forgotten, where the sane/Plant of this magic burgeons in the gloom/And pushes out its roots into the mind/Grown rich on the turned soil of days that passed.” Many of Durrell’s love poems are distinguished by a literal view, which is continually merging into the most rapturous or passionately abstract. His divergent voices testify to the endless experiments and the complexity of his poetic expression, to his talent as a modernist, and more importantly to his status as a poet.

Durrell’s multifaceted career and his genre-transforming prose represent the diversity of his contribution to literature. They also point to the fact that he was perhaps one of the first English writers to speak for the post-war generation, chastened and perplexed by a collapse of order and reduced to mindless boredom by decades of chaste parlour prose.  Born in India in 1912, the first son of an engineer, Durrell developed his sense of the exotic through his Anglo-Indian upbringing. Yet according to his biographer Ian MacNiven, Durrell also thought of his self-elected lifelong exile as a “psychic burden” and of himself as “the lonely colonial child shadowed by the cosmopolitan writer.” He had a complicated relationship with England, where the family relocated after the premature death of Durrell’s father in 1928. In the early days, Durrell published a few poems between bouts of “drinking and dying”, and in 1935 an acutely autobiographical novel about life in Bloomsbury called Pied Piper of Lovers. That same year Durrell married Myers, the first of his three wives, and moved with his entire family to Corfu, where he wrote his second novel, Panic Spring, published in 1937 under a pseudonym of Charles Norden. His first book of real significance, however, materialised through his correspondence with Miller, who helped him get it published in 1938 by Obelisk Press. Reflecting on that period, Durrell said that The Black Book had a “special importance because in the writing of it I first heard the sound of my own voice.” By 1941, at the outbreak of World War II, Durrell was on his way to Egypt, where he served in Cairo and Alexandria as a British press officer. Exhausted by her husband’s philandering, his avuncular and long-suffering wife left him, making way for Durrell to openly cavort, and eventually marry several other women. It was in Egypt that he began working on the Alexandria Quartet, inspired by the decaying splendour and the seedy café nightlife of the once magnificent city and all its denizens. The Quartet is Durrell’s most remarkable accomplishment, eminently deserving of the Nobel Prize it failed to win. But his poetry is also an achievement of some import, and one which has been overlooked for far too long.