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Ray Morrison. A Smile in His Mind’s Eye: A Study of the Early Works of Lawrence Durrell. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2005. xii + 529 pp.

Like Walt Whitman, Lawrence Durrell (1912–1990) contained multitudes, an expansiveness reflected by the body of his work. For starters, his fiction contains the Egyptian world of The Alexandria Quartet with which many readers are familiar, the French world of the Avignon Quintet that fewer have visited, plus the largely forgotten [End Page 912] worlds of his early poetry, his minor works, and three pre-World War II novels that range in setting from Bangladesh and Greece to London. It is chiefly to the third group, the often forgotten work, that Ray Morrison limits his immense study. In its roughly 275,000 words, his book similarly contains worlds—or at least the materials for four monographs.

Even though the size of Morrison's investigation may dictate that it will most often be used as a reference work read one large chapter at a time as students of Durrell investigate individual novels or groups of poems, the various parts do develop a unified vision of the poet-novelist as he evolved from a neophyte symbolist into a post-World War II master novelist who embraced the vision of Taoist thinkers Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu. In fact, Morrison's title plays on Durrell's own brief Taoist-informed autobiography, A Smile in the Mind's Eye (1982).

Morrison's argument runs as follows: that all Durrell's work was one single "book" (21) and that "during the first part of his literary career" (38–39), his apprenticeship, his "major influence" was French symbolism (63). Like Paul Verlaine, Durrell, in the early poems, privately printed as Quaint Fragment: Poems Written between the Age of Sixteen and Nineteen (1931), seems to reject any naturalistic grounding as "all that garlic from the lowly kitchen" (52). The poems pursue the loftiness of music, symbols and dreams (52–53) and are less metrical than musical. But theirs is an elusive music to "convey the hidden spirit of the world" (66–67). Morrison's suggestions will help any reader who has struggled to find in these verses a clear setting, character, action or even theme to pin them down and render them accessible.

Morrison's symbolist approach appears less helpful when he turns to Durrell's apprentice fiction, Pied Piper of Lovers. Here he quotes, then ignores, symbolist critic Anna Balakian's warning, in Critical Appraisal, "that 'the symbolist novel is a contradiction in terms' . . . for the symbolists rejected all narrative forms." Morrison, nonetheless, goes in quest of what Balakian termed "certain vestigial aspects of symbolist technique in the novel" (79), a search that produces a 40,000 word decoding of Durrell's largely autobiographical novel into ideas found in the works of Remy de Gourmont and Arthur Schopenhauer. One problem with this approach is that, since all words are symbols, a novel unlike a poem contains far too many possible signs for interpretation. Another difficulty is that because the key symbols of a novel are its characters, settings, action, structure, and recurring images, an analysis has to focus primarily on these naturalist dimensions. One could argue that Morrison spends too few words on the latter elements and too many on possible allusions to the ideas of Gourmont and Schopenhauer, especially since he must later admit [End Page 913] that Durrell both "remains strangely quiet about the influence of Gourmont on his own work" and maintains his "silence on the impact of Schopenhauer" (439). Consequently, Morrison's book remains less an influence study than a collection of parallel readings of Durrell, Gourmont, Schopenhauer and the Taoists in the form of an influence study. In defense of Morrison, we must remember that Durrell later disowned his first two novels and that he was famously playful in his treatment of ideas and that having played, he moved on. Gourmont and Schopenhauer may have become tools and toys he left behind.

Despite the limitations of Morrison's method, it produces numerous helpful insights. In discussing Pied Piper of Lovers, for example, he stresses Gourmont's influence on both...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 912-915
Launched on MUSE
2008-01-08
Open Access
No
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