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Lawrence Durrell

Though sex and sexuality had always been amongst the staples of literature, it was only in the thirties that graphic representation of sexual activity laid claim to being considered as high literature. Pornography of course had always existed, but previously it had been something kept under the counter, and even the classics of antiquity had sometimes been issued in expurgated form to ensure that literature remained pure.

The name that is most commonly associated with the change that took place between the wars is that of Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Capricorn I remember reading, with some disappointment, when I was a schoolboy, having found it on my parents’ bookshelves. He, and other experimental authors as they were described at the time, were published by something called the Olympia Press in Paris, founded by a man called Maurice Girodias. I discovered one of their publications at the old Gunasena’s Bookshop when I was buying prizebooks, and took hold of it eagerly, though I did not venture to take it to school to be duly stamped as a prizebook. It was a parody of the Odyssey, and seemed to me much more entertaining than Miller, as was also the 18th century classic Fanny Hill, lent to me by a fellow prizewinner at school, who later became a lay preacher.

Despite his seminal efforts, no pun intended, Miller is now largely forgotten, and it is not only because he is American that I am not including him in this series. However, one of the group that worked with him in Paris, Lawrence Durrell, having duly published there The Black Book, which only appeared in England in 1973, went on to much greater things after the war. He spent much of this in Egypt, working for the British government as a press attaché, and based on this experience he published The Alexandria Quartet between 1957 and 1960. Before that he had worked for the British government in hotspots such as Yugoslavia, when Tito was cutting himself away from Soviet influence, and in Cyprus when the islanders were seeking freedom from the British so as to unite with Greece. One must assume then that he was involved in all the intrigues that Britain engaged in through gifted amateurs, in the days before spies turned professional and self-consciously dangerous.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2010
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