Perfect Goose

Patricia Storace is the author of "Heredity," a book of poems, and "Dinner With Persephone," a travel memoir about Greece. She recently was honored with the Runciman Award

"My thinking is colored by the fact that I am a colonial," Lawrence Durrell, the British expatriate, civil servant and writer fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s for his travel books about Greece and his novels set in Egypt, Greece and France, once remarked. It seems poignantly clear after reading "Lawrence Durrell," the work of Durrell's personally selected biographer, that Durrell missed his chance at what should have been his best subject: a portrait of the British colonial mentality in all its social, political, cultural and sexual facets, the almost mechanical precision with which the empire's representatives helped radicalize the politics of the countries England administered and the lives they created and destroyed.

But Durrell, as Ian MacNiven's new biography shows, following his trajectory from birth in India to death in France, was too perfect a colonial to do it, an illustration of the Randall Jarrell proverb: "Said the goose to her daughter, 'You are a perfect goose.' " A BBC interviewer, quoted in "Through the Dark Labyrinth" by Gordon Bowker, saw Durrell as "an old-fashioned English reactionary." That book is more lucidly written than MacNiven's, more detailed in some instances, such as in its treatment of Durrell's marriages and relations with his tortured daughter, Sappho, but less full in its account of Durrell's periods of life in Greece and Cyprus.

MacNiven's is an affectionate, obese, coarsely written, viscous, poorly edited and gallant attempt at a biography. It has a tendency to drown us in detail, telling us about Durrell's swimming pool and his preferred medicine for "gippy tummy," even his exchange of a rental Volkswagen for a Mustang. MacNiven also slices the ham indigestibly thick--of the island of Corfu, he writes, "Had Corcyra not been courtesan to Tiberius, to Pompey, to Caesar, to Byron, to Gladstone . . . here was Homer on the Durrell doorstep!" "Egypt," he reports breathlessly, "seared Larry to the very soul." On a number of points, both small and large, the books disagree, but it cannot have been easy in either case to write the life of a man who even as a boy was characterized in a school report as a "mine of disinformation," one who freely and compulsively distorted facts of his and other's lives from youth to death.

MacNiven is candid in his admission that Durrell chose an official biographer as a "shield" and says he can write of Durrell only on a first-name basis. But he is resolute, if at times flinchingly so, in recording episodes like Durrell's fabrication of a political murder in "Bitter Lemons" and his habit of lifting passages verbatim from other writers' books.

Durrell was born in India in 1912 into a family whose relations with its mother country were in some ways as tenuous as its relations with their host country. Durrell grew up in a world in which his mere shadow crossing a plate of food contaminated his Indian ayah's meal, while his own caste was as rigidly determined in the British hierarchy. His family lacked the correct public school and university education, obstacles to their chances at employment in the Indian Civil Service, whose members were known as the "Heaven-born," or the commissioned ranks of the army. His Indian-educated father was an engineer employed by the railway and, later, a partner in a construction firm. Durrell's own anxieties about his class are evident in his urgent insistence that his family were not merchants, "unthinkable . . . we had no box-wallahs in our family." Durrell's father was determined that his son should acquire an English degree, transformed from a petit bourgeois into a "great man with a dinner jacket," so Durrell sailed off to England, bitter about the disruption of his life but "pleased as a Jew belonging to the chosen race."

In the end, he thwarted his father's ambition by failing his university entrance exams. "Intellectually I was brilliant," he would say defensively, but "I deliberately failed the exams, because of a subconscious resentment." Durrell found another way of securing social distinction, through establishing himself as an artist, in his view an exalted status, "a unique private gift, vouchsafed only to the chosen ones," uncannily like the Indian Civil Service. Throughout his life, Durrell clung to a sense of having been aristocratized by art, a sense that being a writer made him superior. (He also retained an insecurity about academia; Durrell specifically took up pipe-smoking in preparation for a teaching stint at Caltech in the 1980s because "one has to look ridiculously and hypocritically solemn at universities. It's part of the job.") He placed the writer at the center of an imaginary creative hierarchy; when his first wife wanted to help Anais Nin aid refugees from the Spanish Civil War, Durrell objected, saying, "They are just a lot of bohemians."

Even Durrell's notion of the "Heraldic Universe," the artist's re-imagination of the world in symbolic terms, is tellingly described in terms of heraldry, a feudal craft that records and illustrates genealogies and social rank. He and his lifelong friend Henry Miller saw the artist as a god, a view that ironically emphasizes Durrell's lack of the kind of classical background he might have been introduced to at an English university, where he would surely have encountered the story of Apollo and Marsyas, in which the god of music flays alive a pretentious flutist, one of a number of Greek stories that would have given him a clearer idea of the gulf between gods and artists.

The degree of his tone deafness toward classical culture can be gauged by some of the lyrics of his unfinished musical based on the "Odyssey," "Ulysses Come Back": "Every hero has a silver lining / Every hero's soul is caviar / that is what keeps all the ladies pining / Even when he buggers off afar." It seems likely that part of what drew Durrell to Greece, a place and culture so possessively prized by the British academy, was an idea that Greece itself could be his university--learning Greece would give him a master of arts equivalent to that precious missing credential. He lived on Corfu intermittently from 1935 until the outbreak of World War II, gathering the material for "Prospero's Cell," the story of his island idyll, and making friendships with Greek writers such as the poet George Seferis, friendships that would be permanently damaged after Durrell's work as a spokesman for the British government on Cyprus during its struggle for independence in the 1950s.

Durrell was one of the pioneers of the pattern of travel books later put to such fruitful use by Peter Mayle, the building of a house as metaphor for learning a culture. But the roots of his own travel writing seem to be in the illustrated journals kept by so many British colonials in their host countries, of which some exquisite examples are displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum, that were often valuable works of social history. Durrell's are not, although his marvelous landscape descriptions have some of the color and detail of the botanical drawings often found in those journals, but the Greeks he describes come off as a private theater troupe, utterly unrelated to the Corfiotes described by an important Greek realist, the Corfu novelist Constantine Theotokis, (whom Durrell seems not to have read, although he died only 10 years before Durrell arrived on the island).

Theotokis' portraits of life on Corfu, like the Hitchcockian short story "Akoma," an account of the relentless pursuit and murder of a supposedly unfaithful wife, make Durrell's whimsical peasants seem folkloric and Durrell naively credulous, confident that the local people's relations to him were exactly what he thought they were. The colonial's feeling of exemption from the life of the place he has settled in plagues the soap operatic "Alexandria Quartet"--"Justine," "Balthazar," "Mountolive," "Clea"--that Durrell conceived ("a sort of spiritual butcher's shop with girls on slabs") in Egypt when the German invasion of Greece drove him across the sea. There he encountered "the whole toy box of Egyptian life . . . street sprinkler, mourner, harlot, clerk, priest--untouched it seemed to me by time or war." Durrell fell victim to the oldest of emotional tourist traps, the illusion of timelessness that unfamiliarity with a place gives an outsider, the dangerous sense that he is a real person for whom time passes among archetypes for whom it does not. Durrell's toys, "apes in nightshirts" as he called Egyptian men, untouched by time or war, were plotting to rid themselves of British rule, and Durrell himself reported to his superiors the names of shops with "Welcome Rommel" and "Advance Rommel" signs posted when it seemed that the Germans would take Egypt.

In Alexandria, Durrell's first wife, Nancy, left him, as would all his subsequent wives, except one, Claude-Marie, who died. There he became better acquainted with the work of the Greek-Alexandrian poet, Cavafy, and met his second wife, Yvette, who had "an ass from Algiers, lashes from Malta, nails and toes from Smyrna . . . nose from Andros . . . and breasts from Fiume," a sexual duty-free shopping mall, who became a kind of model for his sexually ravenous panther-like heroine, Justine. As Midas was to gold, so was Durrell to erotic cliche. It was with Yvette that he would have the daughter he named Sappho, who described his intense psychological tormenting of her and of his wives in her journal and hanged herself in 1985.

After his fourth wife, Ghislaine, whom he had threatened with a revolver and publicly described as "the French whore I live with," walked out, Durrell commented, "What hell other people are." Durrell was an inveterate wife beater whose motive toward women seemed largely a struggle to achieve an elusive feeling of superiority over them. Alexandria gave him a bad case of jungle fever, a feeling that he had at last arrived at a place where sex was "madly violent but not weak or romantic or obscure, like anglo-saxon women" but "fierce and glaring, vulture and eagle work with beak and claws."

Durrell's final years were spent in France, working, traveling, pursuing intermittent affairs, struggling with alcoholism. Late in his life he told a friend that his life had been a disappointment, that he hadn't "pulled off a sufficiently large trick."

For all the beauty and exoticism of its settings, Durrell's life was a monotonous one, a melancholy tale of obsessive cruelty to others, alcoholism and the betrayal of friendships. He seemed almost hypnotically unable to derive any meaning from his experiences--it seems characteristic of Durrell that he translated Cavafy's poem, "The City" (here in Edmund Keeley's more precise version), but seems not to have read it : "You won't find a new country, won't find another shore. . . / You'll always end up in this city. . . / Now that you've wasted your life here, in this small corner, / you've destroyed it everywhere in the world."

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