Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Lawrence Durrell on Love, Life and No Escape

Auction dramatics at Sotheby's.
Yesterday I did a post about a typescript of Justine that was being auctioned today at Sotheby's in New Bond Street.  That was part of one lot.  A second lot was mostly copies of Durrell's books that Durrell had inscribed for a collector, and two or three of these were interesting.

One was a first edition of Reflections on a Marine Venus, his book about Rhodes where Durrell lived for two years immediately after leaving Alexandria in 1945.  His inscription, dated 1974, says that he spent 'a long period in this island at the end of the war – one of the nicest and best periods of my life'. I know from Eve Durrell that it was paradise for them - Durrell had taken his Alexandrian girlfriend Eve Cohen to Rhodes with him as his secretary and eventually they married there.  'We had the island all to ourselves', Eve said.  This inscription gives emphasis to Durrell's remark about Rhodes in his 1978 Greek Islands book, 'They were the happiest two years of my life'.

The Marine Venus in the Rhodes Museum.  'The sea-water had sucked at her for centuries, till she was like some white stone jujube ... the absence of firm outline
only lent her a soft and confusing grace'.
Anyone reading Prospero's Cell about his pre-war years in Corfu would have guessed that those must have been the happiest years of Durrell's life.  Prospero's Cell sparkles with delight in the island and everyone he knew there, not least the seemingly wistful figure of N, his first wife Nancy, who appears like a sylph in its pages. For good measure Durrell writes in The Greek Islands that 'Corfu and Cyprus are much more beautiful' than Rhodes.

But he was happiest in Rhodes. Happy that the war was over, happy that he had left Egypt, happy that he was back in Greece.  But most of all happily in love with Eve.  Eve said the same; they shared love and happiness in Rhodes, a happiness that Durrell recalled many years later despite the final disaster of his marriage to Eve.  Paradise for Durrell was Rhodes with Eve, not Nancy and Corfu. Yet oddly Reflections on a Marine Venus lacks that beauty and lightness of touch and subtlety and sadness that imbue Prospero's Cell.  The reason is probably very simple: Durrell was too busy living happily to waste his time writing about happiness.

Prospero's Cell, published in 1945, had been written in Alexandria in the immediate breakup of his marriage to Nancy.  Reflections on a Marine Venus took longer to write and was published only in 1953. But what Durrell did complete on Rhodes was a light book about people getting lost in a labyrinth, unable to escape.  During his last months in Alexandria and when he came to live in Rhodes he wrote Cefalu, published in 1947, later republished as The Dark Labyrinth.  The second lot up for auction at Sotheby's included a first edition of this too, inscribed in 1974. 'Human life is a damnable labyrinth out of which one never escapes.'

Human life is a damnable labyrinth out of which one never escapes.
That was one of Durrell's major themes, a gnostic notion that can be found in his notebooks already in the 1930s and which grows over time and dominates his thinking.  It is there in The Alexandria Quartet - the seductiveness of the city yet the need to escape, which his hero Darley finally manages to do because he has become a true writer at last, a creator, a person who knows how to play - divine play. 

But later the notion becomes oppressive, the attempts at play more desperate - in The Avignon Quintet, for all its multiple and dissolving and intertwining and infinitely begating characters, nobody escapes.

Monts├ęgur, last bastion of the Cathars. When they surrendered 220 Cathars were burnt en masse on the lower slope of the mount.
The key to Durrell is to understand why life seemed to envelop him in a lie. His anger and his resolve against the lie is palpable in his forward to the 1977 English translation of Jacques Lacarriere's The Gnostics, a people 'whose total refusal to believe in the world as outlined by the Christian theologians led to their destruction both in Egypt and in Bosnia, and lastly at Monts├ęgur, that Thermopylae of the Cathar soul'.  Lacarriere's book, wrote Durrell, possessed a 'burning topicality to a world which is also playing at Gnosticism - the pathetic cockroach world of the anti-hero with his anti-memoirs, not to mention his anti-poetry.  How noble in comparison with this shallow hippy defeatism is the grand poetic challenge of the Gnostics.  They refused to countenance a world which was less than perfect, and they affronted the great lie of Lucifer-Mammon with the hopeless magnificance of the Spartan three hundred'.

Durrell carried this gnostic sensibility around with him, and he was the one person he could not escape. But he may have made a mistake in settling in Provence.  For all its brightness and life, there is something dark about it, a darkness that Durrell explored in The Avignon Quintet through the Cathars and the Templars, both victims of what he called 'the gas chambers of the pope'.  Durrell might have been happier staying in Greece.   

A table waiting at the White House, Durrell's home in Kalami, Corfu.