Sunday, 30 November 2014

Emile Zola and Lawrence Durrell: Elegant, Dead and Erotic in Upper Norwood

The Crystal Palace was home to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park, London.
I mentioned in an earlier post that while flying over London recently my attention was caught by the site of the long vanished Crystal Palace exhibition building, though its imprint is still clear and the spot is marked by a high BBC television transmission tower. The 1851 Great Exhibition was the first world's fair and a showcase for the technical and cultural achievements of the Industrial Revolution which were brilliantly represented by the Crystal Palace itself.

Emile Zola's photograph of Crystal Palace in Upper Norwood.
When the Crystal Palace was moved to South London in 1854 it continued to attract great numbers of visitors who were served by a specially constructed railway station and several hotels.  The grandest accommodation was provided by the Queens Hotel in Church Road, Upper Norwood.  The Queens Hotel is a short walk from the site of the Crystal Palace.

Even today the hotel stands out and can readily be identified from the air.

The white blob above the wing of the aircraft is the Queens Hotel, and close by to the right is the Crystal Palace site.

The Queens Hotel (left) and Crystal Palace site (right) are visible to the left of the wing of the aircraft.
What is curious about the Queens Hotel is that it should have been the unlikely home to two great writers, Lawrence Durrell and Emile Zola.  Durrell lived here briefly in his teens in the late 1920s with his mother and brothers and sister a few years before they all decamped to Corfu. There in Corfu, in a fisherman's house overlooking the sea at Kalami, Durrell wrote The Black Book, what he called 'my first real book', an assault on what he saw as the English Death, the cultural and intellectual stultification of Britain that he epitomised in his descriptions of life in the Queens Hotel, or what he calls in his novel the Regina Hotel, in Upper Norwood.
This is the day I have chosen to begin this writing, because today we are dead among the dead. ... It is today at breakfast, while the yachts hound across the water, tear-stained and anxious, towards port, that I am dying again the little death which broods forever in the Regina Hotel: along the mouldering corridors, the geological strata of potted ferns, the mouse-chawed wainscoting which the deathwatch ticks.  Do not ask me why, at this time, on a remote Greek headland in a storm, I should choose, for my first real book, a theatre which is not Mediterranean.
The streets and parks and cemeteries and buildings and people of this part of South London fill the pages of The Black Book.
From Peckham where the children sail their boats, where the lovers play with each other and go mad on the dark common after dark, away to the lairs of Lee Green, where you can smell Blackheath stalking upward into the darkness, leperlike, eaten by roads and villas. From the fag end of Anerly where the tram lines thin away into a wilderness of falling tombstones; Elmer's End, a locality of white stumps in the snow; to the Crystal Palace stuck against the sky, dribbling softly, pricked with lamps. Lawrence knew this world. Look up suddenly into the night. O ponderous phalloi, you have impregnated the world, you are the hostage of these delicate girls whose virginities are hard as the iron rails of the beds on which they toss!
The 'ponderous phalloi' in Durrell's text is a reference to the two huge water towers that stood at either end of the Crystal Palace - one of which is seen in this photograph by Emile Zola.

The Durrells had a service flat at the Queens Hotel and to a young man like Lawrence Durrell, mad on jazz and girls and poetry in the late 1920s, the hotel and all that part of London round the transposed Crystal Palace could seem nightmarishly comfortable and staid. The 1923 edition of Baedeker's London explains that Crystal Palace was now used for exhibitions of flowers, dogs and poultry, and for 'admirable concerts'. For Durrell in The Black Book, 'The heavy signature of the mist glazes the dumb domes of the Crystal Palace: the final assured vulgar mark of Ruskin's word on history'.  Like English culture the Queens Hotel was the repository of the living dead: 'The hotel is crowded with ghosts. Since Edwardian times no one has dusted this statuary, these carpets, these indestructible potted plants'.

But to Emile Zola who lived in the Queens Hotel in 1898-1899 it was paradise.

The Queens Hotel in 1899, photographed by Emile Zola.
Zola had written J'Accuse, an open letter to the president of the French Republic which was published on the front page of Georges Clemenceau's liberal newspaper L'Aurore in which he accused the highest levels of the French military of an antisemitic conspiracy against Alfred Dreyfus who had been set up on a charge of treason, convicted of handing over secrets to the Germans, and sent to almost certain death in Devil's Island.  For this Zola was in turn brought to trial and fled to England.

The story began so far as Zola was concerned in November 1897 when the details of the Dreyfus Affair were outlined to him.  'It's gripping', Zola would say from time to time.  'It's thrilling!  It's horrible!  It's a frightful drama!  But it's also a drama on a grand scale!' Zola told his friends that their legal efforts to overturn the verdict would get nowhere and instead a campaign had to be launched in the press against the antisemitic conspirators in the French military who had connived at Dreyfus' conviction.

Zola selfie.
Antisemitism disgusted Zola, but it was rife in France.  Already in May 1896 he had written an article in Le Figaro called For the Jews: 'For several years I have followed, with growing surprise and revulsion, the campaign against Jews in France.  I see it as a monstrosity, by which I mean something outside the pale of common sense, of truth and justice, a blind, fatuous thing that would put us back centuries, a thing that would lead to the worst of abominations, religious persectuion, with blood shed over all countries'.

On 25 November 1897 Zola published his first article on the Dreyfus Affair in Le Figaro.  A week letter he followed with another, in which he blamed the xenophobic popular press and behind it the Ministry of War for creating a scapegoat to explain away all France's ills, not least its defeat in 1870-71 in which it lost Alsace-Lorraine to the Germans.  In his third article Zola wrote against anti-Dreyfus student demonstrations in the Latin Quarter: 'So there exist fresh young brains and souls that this idiotic poison has already deranged? How very sad, and how ominous for he coming twentieth century'.

 In France they have antisemitism,
in England potted plants.
Then on 13 January 1898 Zola published J'Accuse in L'Aurore.  He was at the height of his literary fame and could not be ignored.  'I accuse', went the litany of his indictment, as Zola accused the war ministry and accused each of the military conspirators by name and accused a court martial of deliberately clearing one of the known conspirators on orders from above. For this last remark the French cabinet drafted a complaint against Zola who was brought to trial in February during which he received numerous death threats and met with shouts of 'Death to the Jews', while all over France there were antisemitic demonstrations and Jews' homes and shops and synagogues were attacked.

On 23 February 1898 Zola was found guilty.

In April the appeal court overturned Zola's conviction on technical grounds, but in July he was brought to trial again, this time by the military for slander.  On this occasion his friends, including Georges Clemenceau, bundled Zola into a cab and drove him to the Gard du Nord and put him on the boat-train to England where he arrived incognito.  For the next several months he stayed under various false names at Wimbledon, Weybridge, Walton and Addlestone until October when needing to be closer to city life he moved to Upper Norwood and the Queens Hotel where he lived as M Richard.

Crystal Palace by Zola.  Notice the woman on the bicycle.
'Never had I seen an autumn more clement or luminous', Zola wrote to his wife from England, this towards the end of a long visit by his mistress. After lunch, always taken in his rooms at the Queens Hotel, Zola would go for walks round Upper Norwood until teatime.  His walks would often take him to the Crystal Palace or he would go the other way, past Beulah Spa towards Streatham Common.

Elegant and erotic; Zola works the shutter atop Sylvan Hill.
Throughout his time at Upper Norward Zola would take photographs.  He photographed the Queens Hotel and the Crystal Palace - and he was especially impressed with English women, particularly women cyclists in their dresses, finding them elegant and erotic.

Zola's view along Church Road from the Queens Hotel to the Crystal Palace.
Zola remained at the Queens Hotel until June 1899 when following a change of government in France the conviction of Dreyfus was annuled and Zola returned to Paris - where he died from carbon monoxide poisoning, thought to be murder, three years later.

The Queens Hotel is still there.  If you want to book a room, here you go. 

But the Crystal Palace is no longer there.  It burnt down in November 1936 just as Durrell was finishing The Black Book.
A small fire in 1936 burnt out of control and within hours the glass and iron and wood structure of the Crystal Palace was destroyed.

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.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Lawrence Durrell's London from the Air

Looking northwards over London from Crystal Palace to Hampstead Heath.
I was flying into London last week, and looking out the window I noticed that Crystal Palace was passing just under the wing.  I have walked round that part of London and down through Dulwich and all the way to the Thames as part of my explorations of the city of Lawrence Durrell's youth, and so I was quickly able to pick out some relevant and otherwise interesting sights which I have marked in red.

1. Bottom left: Queen's Hotel (Hotel Regina in Lawrence Durrell's The Black Book). Emile Zola also lived in the Queen's Hotel when he fled France after publishing his J'accuse letter about the Dreyfus case.
2. Bottom right: Crystal Palace.
3. Above Crystal Palace: Hillsboro Road in Dulwich (where Durrell lived while going to school at St Olave’s in Bermondsey).
4. Farther up, long oblong, from left to right: Hyde Park, Green Park, St James’ Park, running into one another.
5. Yet farther up: Regent’s Park and Primrose Hill.
6. To the right of 4 and 5: Fitzrovia (Durrell’s haunts, eg Charlotte Street, Fitzroy Tavern, British Museum).
7. Top: Hampstead Heath.

I have also walked from Hampstead Heath to the Thames.  So I have walked from the top of that photograph to the bottom. London is a wonderful city for walking and making associations.  And you can do much of it walking through parks.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

All Hallows

The west door of the Basilica at San Juan Capistrano.

Jesus Saves.  Limited offer.