Editor’s Note: Book Review received half a dozen letters taking issue with Patricia Storace’s recent review of Ian MacNiven’s biography of Lawrence Durrell. Space constraints prevent us from publishing all of them.
To the Editor:
Patricia Storace’s review of Ian MacNiven’s recent biography, “Lawrence Durrell” (Book Review, June 21), is an unremitting pan of Lawrence Durrell, the man and the writer, not to mention MacNiven’s biography. It should not be allowed to stand without comment.
Her first paragraph, which suggests that Durrell missed his chance at colonialist critique, immediately alerts any serious reader of Durrell that this reviewer doesn’t know what she is talking about. If Storace ever read “The Black Book,” Durrell’s first serious novel published in 1938 and described by T.S. Eliot as “the first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction,” she could not have missed his scathing critique of British imperialism. Similarly, her dismissal of “The Alexandria Quartet” as “soap operatic” ignores its importance as experimental fiction that bridges the modern with the postmodern novel, let alone its historiographic and political significance. No mention is made of “The Revolt of Aphrodite,” which is clearly an indictment of capitalism, to say nothing of Durrell’s condemnation of nazism in “The Avignon Quintet.” All of these thematic concerns in Durrell’s major works of fiction reveal and condemn the imperialist mind set.
Her review of MacNiven’s biography of Durrell is as uninformed and superficial as her understanding of Durrell’s work. Her description of the biography as “obese, coarsely written, viscous, poorly edited and a gallant attempt” betrays her probable skimming of this scholarly work. Use of the phrase “personally selected biographer” is obviously chosen to undercut the fact that this is the authorized biography, written by an internationally renowned Durrell critic, something on the order of Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce. Her focus on Durrell’s marriages and his daughter Sappho suggest that her interest is “soap operatic” rather than literary. It is as if she has read Durrell superficially and partially and skimmed the biographies for sensational biographical details rather than a whole picture of the artist and his work. This ultimately results in irresponsible literary journalism. Even Storace’s perception of Durrell’s Heraldic Universe is simplistic and flawed; this may be the truest indication of her inability to deal with him as a subject. She may be a fine poet and travel memoirist but should leave reviewing to those who know their subjects.
Dianne L. Vipond, Long Beach
To the Editor:
Patricia Storace’s review contains a great deal of Storace and not a whole lot of MacNiven. She devotes the first few hundred words to a rushed judgment of the book in question, dismissing it in a spasm of collectively oxymoronic adjectives, such as “obese,” “coarsely written,” “poorly edited"--with the patronizing “affectionate” and “gallant” thrown in, lest we should think she is doing a hatchet job on the book. Her haste is due to a desire to dispense with the book review as quickly as possible so that she may get to what turns out to be her real subject--an undocumented and essentially ad hominem attack on Lawrence Durrell, the man.
She calls him “an inveterate wife beater,” “an alcoholic,” “tone deaf to classical culture,” among other things, summing up his life as “a monotonous . . . tale of obsessive cruelty to others and the betrayal of friendships.” None of these accusations, apparently, is to be found in MacNiven’s book. So one must wonder if this is a book review or, rather, some sort of literary reglement des comptes.
The personal attacks just got me mad. But when she characterized “The Alexandria Quartet” as “soap operatic,” I really started to lose it. Perhaps this acclaimed four-volume masterpiece doesn’t measure up to Storace’s own oeuvre, but it isn’t exactly chopped liver.
The innocent victim in all this, however, is not just poor Larry Durrell, dead and unable to respond, but MacNiven, who not only gets short shrift for a review but who winds up, by association, with a little of Durrell’s blood on his own hands.
Peter Lefcourt, Los Angeles
Patricia Storace responds:
Given Lawrence Durrell’s cult status, it is not surprising that several correspondents have objected to my review. Some have taken me to task for writing about the biography itself, the presumption seeming to be that any biography would somehow obscure Durrell’s genius. Instead, I have come to learn, I should have undertaken, in however limited the space, an essay about Durrell’s novels, letters and poems, works of lasting literary value, as I’ve been instructed. In any event, a bevy of correspondents has judged me as incompetent because I do not share their estimation of this author.
Dianne L. Vipond, in particular, is disturbed because I have written that this authorized biography is the work of the subject’s friend and personal biographer. MacNiven is aware of the complications of stance and judgment these present, if Vipond is not; I admire his valiant struggle to resolve them, even if I do not think he succeeds. MacNiven’s book, I do not enjoy saying, is poorly constructed, laden with extraneous detail and often painfully crude prose. It reads like a diffuse series of anecdotes, demonstrating little engagement and searching dialogue with Durrell’s work, not at all “on the order of Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce.” An example that illustrates MacNiven’s face-value presentation of many of Durrell’s windiest aesthetic pronouncements, which also serves as one of many examples of inattentive or perhaps “heraldic” editing, is this passage: “The womb . . . was a central symbol for Larry . . . the poet must strive to experience birth and death, Larry would say much later.” That these experiences are optional comes as a delightful surprise.
Great novelists who have written books that examine the meaning and experience of erotic love--Choderlos De Laclos, Nabokov, Joyce, Musil, for example--invent ways to grapple with the problem that novels about love are equally novels about convention. Aphrodite may be anarchic, but she is also the supreme goddess of convention, as both the history of art and the changing language of love show. The failure to explore his themes, characters and style in relation to the conventions they are part of is one reason Durrell’s novels have come so rapidly to read like period pieces, with their grandiose archetypes and a musty mannered prose style uncritically devising sentences such as, “They behaved birdfully, like birds, which have no arms to grab hold with; they spread their wings, so to speak, and whispered each other’s names with humble rapture.” Stories about love, perhaps like love itself, are the easiest stories to draw a reader into, and like love itself, the most difficult stories to make last.
As evidence of Durrell’s enduring achievement, Vipond unfortunately quotes T.S. Eliot’s description of Durrell’s novel, “The Black Book,” as “the first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction.” This comment is drawn from a “special blurb” that Eliot wrote for the flyleaf of “The Black Book,” “offering to ‘try again’ if it did not meet with Larry’s approval,” according to MacNiven’s account. Eliot was an editor at Faber & Faber, which had previously published Durrell’s novel, “Panic Spring” and had given him a three-novel contract on the strength of it, according to Durrell’s letters. After reading “The Black Book,” Eliot wrote to Durrell that he would like to publish the novel subject to revisions that would make the book publishable in England. If not, (Durrell’s and Henry Miller’s letters about the issue of expurgating the book make interesting reading, with Durrell willing at first, and Miller adamantly against) Faber made it clear that they wanted to publish Durrell’s next books, after this nearly accidental detour to another house. Durrell returned to Faber for his next book, a volume of poems called “A Private Country.” So, in fact, Faber editor wrote a blurb for Faber author, an efficient arrangement that more editors might want to emulate, along with the happy proviso of author approval of the comment.
Eliot’s measured response to the book rendered in pre-blurb idiom makes an instructive contrast: “I am very much impressed indeed by ‘The Black Book.’ It seems to me to have both promise and performance. . . . [T]his is a book which ought to be published but also . . . I think you ought to proceed from it to something still better.”