Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Lawrence Durrel / Amateurs in Eden: the Story of a Bohemian Marriage by Joanna Hodgkin.

Biography in http://www.lawrencedurrell.org/bio.htm

 Lawrence George Durrell was born on February 27, 1912, in Jullundur in northern India, near Tibet. His English father, Lawrence Samuel Durrell, and his Irish-English mother, Louisa Florence Dixie, had also been born in India. This mix of nationalities marked Durrell's creative imagination. He would claim in later years that he had "a Tibetan mentality."

 Durrell's "nursery-rhyme happiness" came to an end when he was shipped to England at age eleven to be formally educated. The immediate discomfort he felt in England he attributed to its lifestyle, which he termed "the English death." He explains: "English life is really like an autopsy. It is so, so dreary." Deeply alienated, he refused to adjust himself to England and resisted the regimentation of school life, failing to pass university exams.

 Instead, he resolved to be a writer. At first he had difficulty finding his voice in words, both in verse and in fiction. After publishing his first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), he invented a pseudonym, Charles Norden, and wrote his second novel, Panic Spring (1937), for the mass market.

 Two fortunate events occurred in 1935 that changed the course of his career. First, he persuaded his mother, siblings, and wife, Nancy Myers, to move to Corfu, Greece, to live more economically and to escape the English winter. Life in Greece was a revelation; Durrell felt it reconnected him to India. While in Greece, he wrote a plan for The Book of the Dead, which was an ancestor--though it bore little resemblance--to what may be his greatest literary accomplishment, The Alexandria Quartet. Second, Durrell chanced upon Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer (1934) and wrote Miller a fan letter. Thus began a forty-five-year friendship and correspondence based on their love of literature, their fascination with the Far East, and their comradeship in the face of personal and artistic setbacks. In their early letters, Miller praised Durrell and urged him not to accede to Faber's suggestion that he expurgate portions of The Black Book (1938), the work on which Durrell was then focused. Durrell followed Miller's advice and stood firm.

 After six years in Corfu and Athens, Durrell and his wife were forced to flee Greece in 1941, just ahead of the advancing Nazi army. They settled together in Cairo, along with their baby daughter Penelope Berengaria, who had been born in 1940. In 1942, separated from his wife, Durrell moved to Alexandria, Egypt, and became press attaché in the British Information Office. Ostensibly working, Durrell was in reality closely observing the assortment of sights, sensations, and people that wartime Alexandria, a crossroads of the East and West, had to offer. He also met Eve Cohen, a Jewish woman from Alexandria, who was to become his model for Justine. Durrell married her (his second wife) in 1947, after his divorce from Nancy Myers. In 1951, their daughter Sappho Jane was born.

 In 1945, "liberated from [his] Egyptian prison," Durrell was "free at last to return to Greece." He spent two years in Rhodes as director of public relations for the Dodocanese Islands. He left Rhodes to become the director of the British Council Institute in Cordoba, Argentina, from 1947-48. He then moved to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, where he was press attaché from 1949-52.

 Durrell returned to the Mediterranean in 1952, hoping to find the serenity in which to write. He bought a stone house in Cyprus and earned a living teaching English literature. During that time period, peace proved elusive. War broke out among the Cypriot Greeks who desired union with Greece, the British (who were still attempting to control Cyprus as a crown colony), and the Turkish Cypriots (who favored partition). Durrell, by this time, had left teaching and was working as the British public relations officer in Nicosia. He found himself caught between the warring factions and even became a target for terrorists. Bitter Lemons (1957) is Durrell's account of these troubled years.

 While in Cyprus, Durrell began writing Justine, the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet. He would eventually complete the four books in France. The Quartet was published between 1957 and 1960 and was a critical and commercial success. Durrell received recognition as an author of international stature.

 After being forced out of Cyprus, Durrell finally settled in Sommières, in the south of France. In the next thirty-five years, he produced two more cycles of novels: The Revolt of Aphrodite, comprising Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970), and The Avignon Quintet (1974-1985). Neither of these cycles achieved the critical and popular success of The Alexandria Quartet. Durrell continued writing poetry, and his Collected Poetry appeared in 1980.

Durrell married two more times. He wed his third wife, Claude-Marie Vincendon, in 1961. He was devastated when she died of cancer in 1967. His fourth marriage, to Ghislaine de Boysson, began in 1973 and ended in 1979. His later years were darkened by the suicide of his daughter, Sappho-Jane, in 1985.

 His final work, Caesar's Vast Ghost, was published in 1990. Lawrence Durrell died on November 7, 1990."Lawrence Durrell" by Anna Lillios, reproduced from Magill's Survey of World Literature, volume 7, pages 2334-2342. Copyright © 1995, Salem Press, Inc. Reprinted by permission of the copyright holder. Revised 1997.

Olivia Laing
The Observer, Sunday 5 February 2012 / http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/feb/05/amateurs-eden-nancy-durrell-review

 Amateurs in Eden: the Story of a Bohemian Marriage by Joanna Hodgkin – review

Lawrence Durrell's wife Nancy, an artist, was silenced by his bullying. Their daughter finally tells her story

 Anyone who spent their formative years reading My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell's magnificently funny account of his childhood in 1930s Corfu, is disadvantaged when it comes to the adult contemplation of Lawrence Durrell. It's hard to take The Alexandria Quartet, Prospero's Cell and The Black Book: An Agon with the requisite seriousness when one's strongest impression of the man is as a bossy, opinionated know-it-all who once ended up almost drowning in a quagmire while shooting snipe, an activity for which he possessed no aptitude whatsoever, despite a good deal of boasting to the contrary. In a work overendowed with comic creations, Larry is the most gleefully memorable of the lot.

As it turns out, Gerald Durrell wasn't a very reliable witness. Though he presents Larry as living en famille, producing his deathless prose while masterminding the activities of his scatty siblings, in fact he lived nearby with his wife, Nancy Myers. History has not been entirely kind to Nancy. In addition to being erased from the Corfu cast, she appears in memoirs and novels of the interwar period as a silent beauty, a kind of Greta Garbo-cum-wild animal. Her friend Anaïs Nin described her as a puma and wrote: "I think often of Nancy talking with her eyes, her fingers, her hair, her cheeks, a wonderful gift." It's understandable that Joanna Hodgkin, her daughter by her second marriage, might want to restore to her the function of speech, redrawing these bohemian configurations from the perspective of the puma herself.

 Nancy was born in Eastbourne in 1912, and though the first five years of her life were comfortably genteel, her family suffered a mysterious downturn in fortune, necessitating a move to a factory town in Lincolnshire, where they entered that malignantly English drama of keeping up appearances. This experience, combined with a miserable spell at boarding school, left her with a lasting disdain for bourgeois convention. She escaped to art school in London, made friends with a rackety array of male students and reinvented herself as a beauty, with the help of a blunt-cut bob and borrowed lipstick.

 It's almost 100 pages before Larry toddles on to the scene, a small blond man who disguises what would later prove a ferocious tongue under an endearing – to Nancy, at least – fondness for baby talk. After a spell in one of those underfurnished Sussex cottages so irresistible to 1930s bohemians, they lit out for Corfu for an Edenic period of swimming, sailing and creative work. The fall came in 1937, when they joined Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin in Paris. The couple had always rowed, but now Larry's bullying slid into cruelty ("Nothing but a dirty Jew" was a favourite insult). Nancy's apparently charming silence is revealed to be the product of a sustained campaign on the part of her husband to keep her isolated behind what Miller later described as a "wall of ice". By the time war began, the marriage was over, although the couple had by then produced a child. After an impossibly dramatic escape from Greece to Cairo aboard various boats and lorries, she left him for good, spending the rest of the war in Palestine.

 It's a cracking story, and Hodgkin, who writes historical and detective fiction as Joanna Hines, is a meticulous researcher. But while the externals of Nancy's life are evidently more than deserving of such scrutiny, the woman herself often seems to vanish beneath the drama of what's going on around her. There's no doubt that it takes rare courage to leave a husband in wartime, particularly when one is a refugee with a small child. The problem is that Hodgkin also very much wants to make a case for Nancy as an artist in her own right, but this only emphasises her strange knack for self-erasure.

 Little of her work survived the war and what's reproduced here is slight – a few woodcuts and stylish book covers, as well as one of the sculptures she produced during her second marriage in England. Henry Miller apparently thought a lot of one oil painting, but there were also long periods in which she produced no work at all – due, Hodgkin claims, to a crippling case of perfectionism. The argument about how hard it was for women then to make art or build independent friendships is frequently and loyally advanced. It's not untrue, the likes of Vanessa Bell and Gwen John excepted, but all the same it leaves a slightly melancholy cast to the story, since "not quite successful artist" is surely almost as unsatisfactory an epitaph as "puma" or "handmaiden to genius".

 Olivia Laing's To the River is published by Canongate

Remembering Lawrence Durrell, Predictor of our Postmodern World

Jun 25, 2012 1  by  Peter Pomerantsev / http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/06/24/remembering-lawrence-durrell-predictor-of-our-postmodern-world.html

 Lawrence Durrell envisioned our postmodern world.

 Not Joyce, not Kafka, not Proust, not Pasternak, not Garcia Marquez, not Bellow. The most important 20th-century novelist for a 21st-century reader could well be Lawrence Durrell. This year celebrates the centenary of his birth. Next to nothing is taking place to celebrate it. But Durrell, whose best work came in the late 1950s and early 1960s, was the first to explore the poetry and puzzles of life in an era of globalization (a clunky term Durrell would have improved on), hyphenated identities, perpetual movement. “I think the world is coming together very rapidly,” he said in an interview in 1983, “so that within the next fifty years one world of some sort is going to be created. What sort of world will it be? It’s worth trying to see if I can’t find the first universal novel. I shall probably make a mess of it—but we shall see.”

The city at the center of his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet, is the prototype of the global village, of the smudged meta-city we increasingly inhabit. Published between 1957 and 1960, the Quartet is a series of interlinked novels set in Alexandria preceding and during World War II, but it’s uncanny how its political disorder anticipates our own. The Alexandria of the Quartet is run with an ever-weaker hand by Western powers losing their will to rule, and is ever-more dominated by ambitious but corrupt emerging nations, influenced by deracinated tycoon financiers, stirred on the streets by Islamic “nightmare-mystics, shooting out the thunderbolts of hypnotic personal-ity.” The state of Israel, off-stage but central to the plot, divides loyalties to the point of death and tragedy. The Quartet is an exceptional political thriller: imagine John Grisham rewritten by Joyce.

“Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbor bar,” writes Durrell. “Turks with Jews, Arabs and Copts and Syrians with Armenians and Italians and Greeks. The shudders of monetary transactions ripple through them like wind in a wheat-field ... this anarchy of flesh and fever, money-love and mysticism. Where on earth will you find such a mixture!”

The prophetic Quartet is a way to look at something fundamental: love and identity in a world that is, on the one hand, unified to an unrivaled degree (all those races, creeds, and languages stuffed together in one space), but as a consequence utterly fractured: how can you have a single truth when, to quote the Quartet, “there are as many realities as you care to imagine”? Durrell’s way to find a form that reflects this world is what he called his “stereoscopic” approach: instead of a linear narrative, the same story is revisited again and again through different characters, utterly changed every time from their perspectives, which are themselves broken up in the prism of their multiple personalities. “A series of novels with sliding panels, like some medieval palimpsest where different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other, the one oblit-erating or perhaps supplementing the other,” says a character in the novel, describing the work itself. But this is no postmodern pastiche. Durrell’s characters suffer as they try to negotiate their multiverse, twisting themselves painfully to reconcile the impossible and dying in the contortions. It’s a crisis Durrell went through himself, growing up a third-generation Anglo-Irish colonial in India.

Lawrence Durrell, 1912–90, explored the poetry of globalized living. (Elliott Erwitt / Magnum Photos)

“I have an Indian heart and an English skin,” he said. “I realized this very late, when I was twenty-one, twenty-two. It created a sort of psychological crisis. I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I realized suddenly that I was not English really, I was not European. There was something going on underneath and I realized that it was the effect of India on my thinking.”

Though “a patriot of the English language,” he was turned off by the “long toothache of English life” and moved constantly, drawn toward the Mediterranean: “I’m a professional refugee. Even here I could pack essential things in twenty minutes and leave. I am traumatized by travel.”

Nor did England think very highly of him. While at first a commercial hit, The Alexandria Quartet was damned for being “experimental”: that most caustic term in Anglo-Saxon criticism. Until the Quartet was republished this year, I struggled to find a copy in London. Durrell would often suffer the ignominy of being mistaken for his better-known brother, Gerald Durrell, who wrote bestsellers about animals. Even the interview quoted from earlier in this article was not given to some august Anglo-Saxon journal but was first published, in Russian, in Syntaksis: a Cold War–era Russian refugee magazine based in Paris; the interview appeared in English three years ago in Zeitzug, an online literary magazine created by an Austrian poet living in Prague. It is always the “cross-patriates,” the hyphenated, who are drawn to Durrell.

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