Biography Melds Durrell and His Work

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It is hard now to convey the excitement and literary stir that accompanied publication of each new volume of Lawrence Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet" in the years 1957 to 1960. Readers here and in Britain and in Durrell's adopted France waited to gorge themselves as each new volume followed the last in quick-fire succession.

The marvel seemed only magnified by word that the novelist knocked out each of the four volumes in two or three months of intense 14-hour workdays. As to their substance, it was said that Durrell was pushing fiction to a completely new level with his organizing concept of space-time in the "Quartet," actually bending time in an Einsteinian way.

The story is set in the historically resonant and highly cosmopolitan city of Alexandria, Egypt, where the novelist served as a British press officer in World War II. The prose alternates the bold coloring and fragrances of the Mediterranean with the harsh dustiness of desert places. There are extravagant love and hunting scenes and other of the set-pieces for which Durrell is famous.

The "Quartet" is filled with exotic characters from what Gordon Bowker, in "Through the Dark Labyrinth," his new biography of Durrell, calls "the dreamworld of his fiction - the magus figures, the femmes fatales, the comic officials, the omniscient, godlike writers, the menacing brothers, the good-hearted whores and the redeeming female artists."

"Justine," the first volume, tells the story of the schoolteacher Darley's love affair with the beautiful and sultry Jewish heroine. In the second, "Balthazar," Darley's cabalistic friend of that name retells events of the first volume but reveals a different truth: that Justine really was in love with Pursewarden, an English writer, and that her marriage to the wealthy Egyptian Nessim was a cover for an operation running guns to Palestine.

In the third volume, "Mountolive," an eponymous British diplomat relates the story from his own point of view and in more traditional chronological form than the two previous books' temporal skipping about. "Clea," the concluding volume, tells of that female artist's involvement with Darley, pulls the novel's cyclical odds and ends together and pushes the clock forward some years.

Durrell's reputation had been building slowly since the 1930s as a poet, novelist, comic satirist of diplomatic life and travel writer, the best-known of his travel writing being his "Bitter Lemons" (1957) about the troubles in Cyprus during his time as British information officer on the island. But by 1960, Durrell was a celebrity pursued by all (not least the attractive young women whose favors he enjoyed) and around whose work much intellectual debate roiled.

In the Yale Review, George Steiner and Martin Green went at it over the question "Durrell: charlatan or genius?" while in England, in the pages of Encounter I fancy it was, there was an extended exchange of letters between Philip Toynbee, the critic, and the poet Hilary Corke.

In fact, Durrell was more literary jackdaw than original thinker, and later in life he enjoyed the academic earnestness employed in tracking down his sources. He told David Pryce-Jones:

"Apparently I've put into the novels bits and pieces borrowed from here, there and everywhere, without knowing where it comes from. There's a word for it, cryptamnesia, I think. Now these two chaps come along and tell me what I've pinched."

One can't get worked up over the pinching, because without that we should have no Stendhal, Jorge Luis Borges or numerous other writers of the first rank. But that was the least of it, the problem people had with Durrell being that they couldn't put him into any scheme of things. After the war, for example, Durrell did not fit in at all with the domestic mood of English poetry, nor with the crabbed realism of fiction and drama being produced by the angry young men. …