Sunday, 24 June 2012

Lawrence Durrell's Panic Spring: to Alexandria from Corfu

Panic Spring published in the United States by Covici-Friede, first edition 1937
'Charles Norden', the author of Panic Spring, is really Lawrence Durrell.  His first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, published by Cassell in London, had not sold well; when his new publishers, Faber and Faber, suggested that his second novel, Panic Spring, appear under a pseudonym, Durrell based the name on Van Norden, a Jew in Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.  The Faber edition appeared in 1937 and in the United States the novel was published by Covici-Friede in the same year.  Neither sold well and copies are rare; a Faber copy in good condition will set you back many thousands of pounds and a good Covici-Friede edition will cost in the hundreds to a thousand or so; luckily my beaten-up copy cost a few quid.

Alexandrian themes.
Nowadays nobody needs to hunt far and wide nor pay an arm and a leg for a reading copy; both Panic Spring and the earlier Pied Piper of Lovers have recently been published by ELS Editions in Canada.

They make interesting reading.  As the blurb I wrote for the cover of Pied Piper of Lovers says, the book 'introduces in nascent form themes, techniques and characters that Durrell will develop in his later novels. Not least intriguing are his protagonists Walsh and Ruth who will appear again in the streets of Alexandria, Athens and Avignon; their mysterious relationship, which lies at the heart of Durrell's creative urgency, is first explored here in Pied Piper of Lovers'.  And, I should say, it is further explored in Panic Spring, set on a Greek island and written while Durrell was living in Corfu.

Even reading the front flap blurb of the first US edition of Panic Spring is to sense the familiar, what will become fully developed in The Alexandria Quartet - for the island read the city, for Rumanades read Nessim, for his beautiful young mistress read Justine, etc.     

But apart from all that there is the inscription in my copy which has its own story to tell - just as the inscription in my first edition of A Passage to India that I mentioned in an earlier post also had its tale.

My copy of Panic Spring is signed by its owner Harriet Bienstock and dated 6 June 1938.  Later it is stamped with Harriet's ex libris device; she has married Eric Fried and among the pleasures of the loving young couple is to lie before a fire with nothing much on reading books such as Panic Spring
Ex Libris: Nothing much on.
I was curious to know who this Harriet was, and what a nice girl like Harriet was doing reading this book by the unknown Lawrence Durrell.  I discovered one other book recorded as having been owned and stamped by Harriet and Eric; it is in the library at Wake Forest University and is called Unholy Memories of the Holy Land by the English lawyer Horace Samuel and published in London in 1930 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf of the Hogarth Press.  The book is a condemnation of British attitudes and policy towards the Jews during the Palestine mandate. 

A little bit of research revealed that seven months before Harriet read Panic Spring her father Samuel Bienstock died.  Born in Russia, he came to America and founded a drug company and a chain of drug stores; he also served as treasurer of the Jewish Telegraph Agency in the 1920s.  Samuel had two sons and three daughters; one of his daughters, Ida, married Jacob Landau, founder of the Jewish Telegraph Agency for which Ida became a correspondent during the Second World War; while one of his sons was Victor Bienstock, a journalist who worked for the Herald Tribune and then, when Hitler came to power in 1933, joined the Jewish Telegraph Agency for which he too covered the war and later supervised such writers as Theodore H White and the Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.  The Jewish Telegraph Agency became intimately linked with the Jewish Agency, which acted as a kind of autonomous Jewish government for Palestine during the Mandate period, and continues to this day as an international news agency serving Jewish community newspapers and media.

A curiosity - an association of no significance, if there is such a thing - is that the Landaus were close to Albert Einstein, author of the theory of relativity.  In 1933 Einstein became godfather to Ida and Jacob Landau's son, and in the late 1940s, as the Landaus were working for the creation of the State of Israel, they drew on the public support of their friend.

Correspondence between Albert Einstein and Jacob Laundau, Harriet Bienstock's brother in law.
So Durrell wrote Panic Spring while living in Corfu before the war.  Perhaps the exotic location in the Eastern Mediterranean attracted Harriet to his book, though her family also had an interest elsewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean; they were Zionists who were actively involved in promoting Palestine as a Jewish state.  The war drove Durrell from Corfu; fleeing from the advancing Germans as they invaded Greece he escaped to Egypt where he spent most of the rest of the war working for the British Information Office in Alexandria.  There he met Eve Cohen who became his second wife; he also met the Zionist family of the woman who would become his third wife, Claude Vincendon; and when it came to writing what he described as the Einsteinian four-dimensional Alexandria Quartet Durrell would place at its heart a Palestine conspiracy, an attempt to create the State of Israel in the teeth of British policy.  Harriet probably read the Quartet too; she and Durrell had arrived at the same story, but the name Lawrence Durrell would have thrown her off making any connection with Charles Norden, the author of Panic Spring.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Nudism in Alexandria

'Ah! All will be truly exquisite when Alexandria is converted to nudism.'  So went the song in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1931.

The occasion was the annual review put on at the Alhambra Theatre at the bottom of Rue Safiya Zaghloul in aid of one or another Jewish welfare organisations; in 1931 it was La Société de Bienfaisance Israélite.

A prime mover behind the reviews was Claire Vincendon.  She designed the costumes and the sets and also illustrated the programme shown here.  And she sang and danced in the sketches as well as acted as compère, or rather commère as the programme describes her.

Claire Vincendon's father was Baron Felix de Menasce, a financier and one of the wealthiest men in Egypt.  Her brother was Jean de Menasce who converted from Judaism to Catholicism and became a priest and was in the words of T S Eliot 'my best translator': among other things he did The Waste Land into French.  Claire's half brother George de Menasce was also a financier and a collector of Greek island tapestries, Chinese jade and many other things; some of his collections are now in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. The story of the Menasce family is included in Michael Haag's Alexandria: City of Memory.

During the Second World War George gave open house piano concerts in his home in Moharrem Bey attended especially by British servicemen and for which he was awarded an OBE.  Lawrence Durrell also went to the concerts and mixed socially with many people who moved in the same circles as the Menasce family.  But he did not meet Claire's daughter Claude who was only in her late teens.

Claire Vincendon, standing centre, with her husband Jacques at a Finney carnival party in Alexandria. This is a detail of a photograph in Michael Haag's book Vintage Alexandria.
Instead Durrell met Claude Vincendon in Cyprus in 1955 while he was writing Justine, the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet.  She later became his third wife.  By 1960 when Durrell completed the Quartet the mixed communities of Alexandria's cosmopolitan society had left or been thrown out of Egypt.

In the event, nudism never came to Alexandria.