Thursday, 6 November 2014

Only the City is Real: Lawrence Durrell’s Journey to Alexandria

Only the City is Real: Lawrence Durrell's Journey to Alexandria, by Michael Haag, was originally published in Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, the annual journal of The American University in Cairo (26, 2006).

The crossroads in Durrell's original Book of the Dead: view north in 1929 into Tottenham Court Road from Charing Cross Road, with Oxford Street entering from the left. In The Alexandria Quartet the crossroads would be Rue Fuad and Rue Nebi Daniel, supposed site of Alexander the Great's tomb.
Lawrence Durrell’s travel books on Corfu, Rhodes, Cyprus and Provence are books of place. To the extent that there is movement, it is not about arrival, instead about leaving. In every case these books end with a departure, traumatic or verging on the traumatic; in the case of Durrell’s last book, Caesar’s Vast Ghost, the departure is from life itself, and the book ends with a poem in which ‘time is winding down’, its last line containing a single word: ‘Goodbye’. It is the same in Durrell’s group of novels The Alexandria Quartet, in which one volume ends with a death and funeral and the other three with the narrator’s departure from Alexandria, or rather his escape.

In fact the theme of an irruption from place was anticipated by Durrell in a notebook dated 1938 when he drew a map and labelled it ‘Plan for the Book of the Dead’. This is apparently Durrell’s first mention of the Book of the Dead, his working title for the novel that would evolve into The Alexandria Quartet. At the centre of the map was the crossroads of a city, but the city was not Alexandria where Durrell would unexpectedly find himself four years later; instead this was a map of Bloomsbury and its environs.

At the crossroads of his map, Durrell indicated Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road. On the west side of Tottenham Court Road he marked Fitzroy Square and Howland Street, and on its east side he marked Millman Street, Guilford Street, the British Museum and the publishing offices of Faber and Faber.

Charing Cross Road, view south from the crossroads, 1935.
The map amounts to a sketch of Durrell’s youthful experience of London, when not quite twenty but determined to be a writer he immersed himself in powerful literary associations by renting a room off Charlotte Street in Bloomsbury, in the very same house on Howland Street, Durrell believed, where Verlaine and Rimbaud had carried on their tumultuous affair in 1872. Later he briefly took a room around the corner in Fitzroy Square, one-time home to Virginia Woolf and still inhabited in the 1930s by members of the Bloomsbury Group.

Durrell would read voraciously in the Reading Room of the British Museum, and in 1932 he moved into a flat in Guilford Street where he was soon joined by Nancy Myers—a painter at the Slade School of Fine Art—who would become his first wife. ‘Love, despair, agony’, he wrote next to his flat in Guilford Street. In an attempt to make a living doing something arty, Durrell and Nancy set up a photographic studio nearby in Millman Street. ‘Last gasp’, Durrell wrote next to Millman Street; the photographic studio failed and with it their attempt to survive in London. Supporting themselves on exiguous inheritances they soon moved to Corfu. 

Durrell's favourite pub, the Fitzroy Tavern, Charlotte Street.
Now in 1938 and still only twenty-six years old but having written The Black Book, the novel he described as ‘my first real book’ and which won him international recognition, and the attention of T S Eliot at Faber and Faber, Durrell was casting his eye back over his Bloomsbury days, over a cultural environment he had triumphantly abandoned for the Mediterranean, and was planning his Book of the Dead.