Matt Jakubowski in the Quarterly Conversation thinks back over Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet in consternation and rue, and Levi Stahl at his terrific blog wonders if he should take the books off his shelves and read them for the first time. I read Durrell -- I read him to be seduced -- but like anyone who's been brought up on the idea that Othering other people is Not Done, I read him wincing. He Orientalises with joy, he thinks woman are very much from Venus, and he despises grocers. He is a bully, an aesthete, he is certain, he is sure of himself; he says to the reader, "Be in my gang," and he does it rapturously, seeing the world either grand or beautifully stark -- this is the temptation he holds out to us. His tone is both lush and bracing -- lush for his sensuous interests, and bracing because he is mean.*
Durrell works with extremes, like a Romantic, like a Gothic; he deals with aristocrats and peasants, or gods and shepherds, or beauty and filth -- or kindness and cruelty; Jakubowski picks out one scene in which his narrator in the Quartet sees a pleasant Egyptian man throwing away a severed human head -- and he prefers to stay away from the middle-mundane unless he's depreciating it. He Others as a matter of course; it is part of the mode his mind works in. The Other is dramatic, the Other is mysterious, the Other provides him with material for exciting contrasts and strangenesses, sadisms, yes -- take note: the first book of the Quartet is called Justine, and the epigraph? From de Sade. So this is not going to be a kind book. We know that by the first page. Very well. Sadism reaches from the larger gestures of the plot down to fragments of background detail. On the major scale, our narrator is fooled and humiliated, and on the minor scale, an African servant at a party, who appears for perhaps a single sentence, is forced to wear small white gloves on his large black hands.** (One of the schoolgirls in Colette's Claudine books deliberately wears her gloves a size too small. They can be sexual fetish objects, gloves. They can squeeze.) The major and the minor are equally important. Together they create an atmosphere of mystic and pervasive punishment.
Durrell sat at the tail-end, I suspect, of a particular European love for the Ancient World, a Hellenism that was so ordinary in the second half of the 1800s, so little associated with it now, at least in popular memory -- the common picture is one of Victorian gentlemen upright in black, and their women repressed in skirts -- or else of industry, steam power -- but the Greeks turned up all over the place, in erotic fiction, and in the essays of the nonerotic Matthew Arnold, who, echoing the erotics, praised the long-dead ancients for their "exquisite sagacity of taste." ***
"[W]hoever wants to enjoy must take life gaily, in the sense of the ancient world," says Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Wanda in Venus in Furs (1870: translated by Fernanda Savage):
"he dare not hesitate to enjoy at the expense of others; he must never feel pity; he must be ready to harness others to his carriage or his plough as though they were animals. … That was the world of the ancients: pleasure and cruelty, liberty and slavery went hand in hand. People who want to live like the gods of Olympus must of necessity have slaves whom they can toss into their fish-ponds, and gladiators who will do battle, the while they banquet, and they must not mind if by chance a bit of blood bespatters them."****
Wilde's Happy Prince and Dorian Gray stand at the friendly end of this exquisite spectrum; Pierre Louÿs' Aphrodite, with its moments of sexual murder and torture, stands at the cruel end. The Quartet lies between the two. When you've decided that it is your duty, as an artist, as a Decadent, to toss the slaves of moral thought into your fishpond then the ideas you come up with can be -- what's the word I want here? They can have the relief of outrageousness. I laughed at the sharks in Lautreamont.
Jakubowski says that he was in a heroic frame of mind while he loved Durrell uncritically. "I thought I had found another pure and wonderful reading experience." Me too -- that yearning for the heroic, which is also a love of the simple. Sometimes I feel sad, as if I've missed a time I should have been born into (and which never existed) -- the age of the grand, the tragic, the jewelled, the gorgeous. Durrell's ideal artist is an aristocrat of the sensitive, the justified snob who won't bow, the Byronic noblility, boldly laughing. E.R. Eddison, living also in this strain, sees virtue in nothing but heroism, and his fantasies are even more snobbish than Durrell's. (That man's books are granite with a core of mould.) Durrell is a snob -- this is the larger category that contains the racism and antisemitism that Jakubowski observes in him.
How does the reader tolerate it? Durrell keeps us a little stupid, a little begging. There are mysteries. What are they? Our narrator is trying to work out what's going on, but he can't help us, because he doesn't know the answers himself. We're a bit persecuted and kicked around. But always we have the promise of an answer, and we keep going, with faith (or else shut the book and leave). The frisson of privilege comes off the pages, but not perfect privilege. We know some secrets, but not all, or maybe the wrong ones. Through the page Durrell establishes a bullying relationship with his readers; the proof of his control is that they continue to read.
When have I felt the Durrell spell broken? When he explains himself and the explanations are -- wrong. He likes his aphorisms Jakubowski says -- "Durrell’s greatest powers are aphorism and worldly wisdom" -- but his wordly wisdom is, when you stop and examine it, mainly flights of fantasy. (And in the Quartet it is mainly delivered through poor ignorant Darley, wrong about virtually everything.) At one point about three-fourths of the way through the Avignon Quintet he forgets to be recalcitrant and explains his ideas about gnostic sex for pages -- and suddenly he is not Lawrence Durrell any more, assured snob -- he shrivels into an old shab with a pet theory, grabbing your arm on a street corner. It's when he behaves like one of his own women-characters -- mysterious, teasing, refusing to reveal secrets -- that he maintains his hold. He is Justine, he is Darley's Alexandria, shadowy, withdrawn, making false promises. Lawrence Durrell, I thought, embarrassed, reading the Quintet, oh Lawrence Durrell, please don't be sincere. It makes you so boring.
* No one who has ever enjoyed Roald Dahl can afford to turn up their nose at an author for being mean.
** I write 'perhaps' because I don't have the books here. I can't check. They're all in storage. So the details in this post might be wrong. I can't quote. The only Durrell I have on me is a 1962 Poetry of Lawrence Durrell, which I discovered at a Mesa secondhand bookshop on, coincidentally, the same day I read Jakubowski's essay. When I talk about his love of the Greeks I'm really thinking of the poems rather than the Quartet. It's there in the Q but more obvious in the poems. His disdain for Britain comes through in the poetry too, very clearly. Britons who have escaped Britain manage to interest him, but Britain itself is "Pudding Island" where "all as poets were pariahs" and "spring … never comes to stay." (Cities, Plains, and People) When I say that he sneers at grocers I'm remembering a passage in the Quintet.
Jakubowski, discovering the words "ordinary people" in one of Durrell's sentences, identifies this as a slight, and apologises for it, suggesting that the author was an idealist, but I would argue for snob. Why? Because I have seen him, in other parts of his work, refer to "ordinary people" with a more loaded and unnecessary term, "the common," and because his tone, when he makes his jabs at grocers, and (also in the Quintet) the Cockney accent, is lazily dismissive -- not elite rage, not idealistic sorrow, but the old sneer at those who engage in what used to be called trade.
"The common" crops up in one of the poems in his Selected Poems 1935-1963. I don't remember the title, but the poet is celebrating an aristocratic and wise Roman who sits in his country villa, contemplating life, away from "the envy ... of the common."
*** "The Greeks felt, no doubt, with their exquisite sagacity of taste, that an action of present times was too near them … to form a sufficiently grand, detatched and self-substantial object for a tragic poem." (Preface to Arnold's Poems.)
**** It was in Sacher-Masoch's surname that the Austro-German sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing found the word masochism. Hannah Arendt, describing the artists of the postwar early twentieth century in her Origins of Totalitarianism, refers to their "antihumanist, antiliberal, antiindividualist, and anticultural instincts ... their brilliant and witty praise of violence, power and cruelty," and goes on to say, "They read not Darwin but the Marquis de Sade," adding, in a footnote, "In France, since 1930, the Marquis de Sade has become one of the favoured authors of the literary avant-garde." Durrell, despising literary Britain, aligned himself with the overseas avant-garde. The first book of the Quartet was published in 1957.