Commentary Magazine


Four Novels by Lawrence Durrell

A Major Novelist

Justine.
by Lawrence Durrell.
Dutton. 253 pp. $3.50.

Balthazar.
by Lawrence Durrell.
Dutton. 250 pp. $3.50.

Mountolive.
by Lawrence Durrell.
Dutton. 318 pp. $3.95.

Esprit de Corps.
by Lawrence Durrell.
Dutton. 104 pp. $2.75.

 

When Lawrence Durrell’s Justine appeared in 1957, I wondered why, with the exception of Howard Nemerov, none of our major critics had anything to say. Now, after the publication of Balthazar and Mountolive, two of the three projected “sibling” novels to Justine, I can better understand the silence. The temptation to say merely that Durrell sometimes writes extremely well and sometimes not so well, and let it go at that, is almost, but not quite, overwhelming.

Many readers will recall Durrell’s Black Book of 1938, an amusing, highly intellectual tour de force which provoked one of T. S. Eliot’s crushingly emphatic encomia—“The first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction”—an endorsement that may, for some readers, have put it with Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood in a special class of untouchables. But Eliot has not always been wrong about fiction. The Black Book, though not all that good, now seems a natural prelude, in its exuberance and learning, its raffish common sense and its commonsensical raffishness, to the mature work of Justine. In the intervening two decades, Durrell has camouflaged himself as a rather elusive literary handyman, writing verse (occasionally very good), criticism, another journeyman novel (Cefalu), travel books, a verse play (Sappho), and a book on Cyprus (Bitter Lemons), serving as press attaché in the Foreign Office, teaching school in Argentina. Along with his Irish parentage and Indian upbringing, all this adds up to an exceedingly amorphous picture, one of the anomalies of which has been uncritical support from those Laurentian buccaneers, Kenneth Rexroth and Henry Miller. (Durrell was Miller’s guide and companion during the Colossus of Maroussi visit.)

Where is the common denominator of a body of writing that can draw equal praise from the arch anti-Laurentian Eliot and the arch-Laurentian Rexroth? And, oddly enough, from Time and the Times Literary Supplement also, who respond to a strain of good-old-dogginess in the lesser Durrell. (Time particularly liked Esprit de Corps, an agreeable but also rather coy collection of anecdotes about diplomatic life in the Balkans, a refreshing contrast, Time felt, to the “steamy” atmosphere of Justine. I found Esprit de Corps passably funny but also embarrassing, as any obvious potboiler by a first-rate novelist is embarrassing.) Is there, then, a real world in Durrell, or is he only the sort of talented exile-in-residence who strikes all the chords of nostalgia without ever really composing?

There is such a world in the Justine books, beyond any question, but Durrell has set a trap for reviewers. None of the fine epigrammatical summaries scattered through the books, quotable as they separately are, really define the whole. The Justine books are, first of all, an exercise in perspective. Each character is a planet revolving in an eccentric orbit that intersects the others at surprising points. Durrell calls Balthazar and Mountolive “siblings” to Justine because they are complementary rather than sequential. All three share a number of characters—notably the two novelists, Darley and Pursewarden, the glamorous, passive and protean Justine, Melissa the dancing girl and Clea the neurotic painter, Nessim the rich Alexandrian Coptic businessman, Pombal the French diplomat, Scobie the racy sea-dog policeman, Balthazar the old Jewish Cabbalist, and a few others—but some of the chief actors in Mountolive are of no importance in Justine while Darley, who narrates Justine and Balthazar, dwindles into nothing in Mountolive. This is a genuinely new kind of fictional enterprise, sui generis and not easily summarized.

Indeed, Durrell has made the whole notion of plot problematic. Not that any of the novels are plotless but that with each change of perspective the plot radically alters. Balthazar and Mountolive each pick up hitherto neglected strands of action and develop them, shifting the point of view and demonstrating how, in expert hands, plot, tone, style, and point of view must all change when one of them changes. This provides a demonstration of fictional technique that recapitulates most of what we have learned about the possibilities of the novel, but so cleverly and concisely that the lesson seems fresh.

Durrell’s faults are easily summarized. Most of them are a backlash, a slopping over of energies: metaphors run out of hand, needlessly multiplied analogies, repetitious descriptions. His humor is occasionally too heavy and his sententiae too obvious. With a few exceptions, he is weak at characterizing his people by their speech, and he lacks, as a philosophical novelist, Dostoevsky’s genius for drama, for inventing situations where action and thought are indistinguishable. He works in fragments and private encounters, rarely confronting more than two or three characters at a time. The worst one can say of Durrell, I think, is that he is a genuine enthusiast, but he is blessed with an intelligence that overcomes most of the vices of enthusiasm.

_____________

 

Any idea or cluster of ideas, no matter how tired it may seem, will yield a complete version of the world if explored thoroughly enough, even the ideas of moderation and non-commitment so well exploited by Robert Frost. Durrell answers Frost’s famous maxim by saying, in effect: I was not a political fence-straddler in my youth for fear of being a political fence-straddler in my old age. The overt “lesson” of Frost is humane resignation; the covert, presented matter is the primitive wildness of things. Durrell, though as gentle a man as Frost, reverses this equation. His overt material is one with his philosophizing, exotic and extreme—all polyglot literary amorism, bed-hopping voyeurism, and jolly perversity.

What renders this sane, and distinguishes him from Paul Bowles and others of that sun-burnt fraternity, is not only his “beautiful intelligence” (in Nemerov’s words) and high-hearted, delicate, athletic gusto, his range and keenness of experience, but most of all, his historical imagination. On a modest scale, he belongs in the line of Thackeray, Stendhal, and Turgenev as one of the scientific chroniclers of power, one of the serious political novelists for whom nothing is more interesting than the exact equation at any time or place between imagination, power, and mind. Like Stendhal, he is a connoisseur of melodrama.

Americans usually like their melodramas straight and can easily miss the affectionate common sense at the bottom of Durrell’s, for the same reason that Stendhal’s Lucien Leuwen and Fitzgerald’s The Rich Boy, two great naturalistic portraits of high society, are seldom read over here. To become good readers of this kind of fiction requires, in an equalitarian society, much solitary determination. We like to regard power as transparent, in its substance and motives, when it is often anything but.

The “new failure of nerve” controversy some years back was set off by a quotation from Gilbert Murray’s study of Alexandrian religion, the fourth stage in a process of religious evolution seen by Murray as disintegration. Since then, all right-thinking American intellectuals have been supposed to be forewarned against encroachments from this mystical city of libraries, sects, neurosis, and the naked worship of power. Behind the Alexandrian bogey is doubtless a wholesome assumption that, far from providing a refuge from Moloch, the city offers merely a more refined and hence more helpless slavery. Bogey or refuge, golden bird or dirty joke, the city is still very much alive; whether you call it London, Rome, Paris, Tokyo, or Istanbul, we pay our young laureati to go there and luxuriously absorb its “poisons.”

Granted for the moment that Alexandria is the true image of our desire, what is it like? What is the real weight of Taste, Elegance, Independence, Good Living, Philanthropy, Vision, and Culture, the idols of our Metternichian era? Have they really replaced, as we are often told, prudence, temperance, justice, and courage? What, finally, is left of Love, the great Christian nostrum? Something like this, certainly nothing less, is Durrell’s subject.

_____________

 

Of his incidental achievements in the series so far, perhaps the most interesting is the figure of his novelist-diplomat, Pursewarden. Pursewarden hovers and comments, sometimes rather annoyingly, throughout Justine, eventually coming alive in Balthazar. Standing midway in the series, acting and suffering as intensely as he thinks, Pursewarden is the mediating figure between concrete modern Levantine history and Durrell’s book-fed imagination. Balthazar is therefore Durrell’s most intimate study of the equation between power and art. Pursewarden is eventually stripped of most of his glamor, but without—and this is a measure of Durrell’s hard-headedness—ceasing to be both charming and as “tiresome” as Darley, the narrator of Justine, says he is. He is, to be sure, the best type of colonial, a man passionately sympathetic toward minorities and eager to protect their interests; abrupt, genial, stoical, and profane, given to writing breezy messages on mirrors with lipstick and other such hallowed shenanigans. He is also a successful novelist, though from the title of his series—God Is a Humorist—not, one is meant to infer, as good a novelist as his creator. For Purse-warden’s humor has gone a bit sour. He is too weak to compose his interests, too worldly wise after the currently approved models. He is, as it were, souped up; whereas Durrell himself memorializes corruption with something of the Hyperborean gusto and the dignified professorial innocence of Yeats.

There is magnificence in these books, of design, of writing, and of imagination. There is something in them for almost every taste. With them, Durrell has become one of the half-dozen or so most interesting novelists writing in English.

_____________

 

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