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.

The Alexandria Quartet certainly is full of intrigue, political and personal intrigue as well as authorial artifice. The first three books tell essentially the same story, from different perspectives, beginning with that of an apparently simple English teacher working in Alexandria and fascinated by the beautiful Justine. She is Jewish, maried to the Coptic Christian Nessim, and the guiding spirit of this first book is one of complex sexuality. Couples fall in and out of love, and consummate or do not consummate their love, while paying due attention to ethnic and social differences that loom large in a layered society in which sex and love and marriage all have different parameters as to acceptability.

Alexandria itself was as much a Greek as an Egyptian town, its most famous inhabitant since Cleopatra and the Greek heretic Hypatia, torn to pieces by mad Christian monks in Charles Kingsley’s novel of that name (one of the texts I duly studied to understand the presentation of women and marriage in the Victorian novel), being the Greek lyric and homosexual poet Cavafy. The second novel in the Quartet, Balthazar, is about a wise old Greek homosexual, who adores Justine, and has to protect her from the consequences of her betrayals of her lovers.

The third novel is called Mountolive, and deals, in a more linear narrative than the others, with the British ambassador, who had also served in Egypt previously as a junior diplomat, and had had a passionate affair then with Nessim’s mother Leila. He is shattered to find now that he is being used, by Leila as well as her family, to further their own political aims, which include smuggling of arms to Jewish terrorists in the British mandate of Palestine.

That wicked creation of the post First World War Settlement, it will be remembered, resulted in a tug of war within the British establishment between those who wanted to set up a Jewish state that would be their perpetual ally against those of a different complexion from themselves, and the more orthodox who thought Britain had an obligation to the Arabs, whom they had successfully supported against the Turkish Empire. Of course the latter may have been motivated by anti-semitism as well as concepts of honour, but they proved no match for the realpolitik of their opponents, fuelled as the latter were by massive funding from American and other Jewry, as well as racism directed at more obviously different people.

Durrell’s account of Mountolive’s anguish at what he sees has been slipped past him is masterly, as is the consolation to which he turns in a catatonic state, namely a symbolic rape by rather than of child prostitutes. Miller might not have envied the scene, as detracting from the real thing, but it is a stunning symbolic as well as grossly physical use of sexuality.

The final novel Clea, centred on a wise young woman with one hand who had understood better than most all that was going on, wraps things up, but is a bit of an anti-climax after Mountolive’s virtuoso performance as a British colonial of the old sort, swept away by the new world. In a sense that went for Durrell too, after the brilliance of the Quartet. In the sixties he wrote two novels about the corporate World, Tunc and Nunquam, then and never, but though the concept was in advance of its time – multinationals that literally take their employees captive – the novel veered between the fantastic and realism so that its effect was muted.

Durrell’s last great effort was a set of five novels which he called a Quincunx rather than a quintet, I suspect because he rather liked the former sound. It is wildly experimental and, though I remember enjoying the only one of the five I have read, I can remember nothing else about it, and have no inclination to return to the charge.

Durrell also wrote poetry and travel books, and his memoirs of Cyprus, and of Corfu, where he lived in the thirties with his family, are wonderfully evocative of a lost world. The latter experience was however described even more interestingly by his brother Gerald in My family and other animals, in which his eager sexually driven elder brother is perhaps the most interesting of the animals.

It is finally for the Quartet then that Lawrence Durrell will be remembered, and deservedly so. Indeed, as intrigues in that part of the world continue to affect all of us, the Quartet should be read also as a historical document, apart from for its vivid depiction of human relations. And sometimes I cannot help feeling, as we see the impact of individual predilections on government policies and external populations – ranging from the evangelical obsessions of George Bush to the sexual predilections of Sir Olaf Caroe on the Northwestern Frontier of imperial India – that we need to pay due attention to Durrell’s characterization of colonial outposts like Alexandria, ‘the great wine-press of love; those who emerged from it were the sick men, the solitaries, the prophets – I mean all who have been deeply wounded in their sex’. This was said by Nessim, and matching it in Mountolive was the poet Pursewarden’s dictum, ‘Home of the eccentric and the sexually disabled. London!’