- Through the Dark Labyrinth: A Biography of Lawrence Durrell
Seven years after his death, Lawrence Durrell’s status in British literature remains uncertain. He rose to international prominence in the late 1950s and early 1960s as the author of the richly evocative Alexandria Quartet (1957–60), and was hailed as an English Proust. Critics have suggested Durrell returned English literature to its modernist tradition after the parochial novels that had dominated English fiction since the 1930s. His reputation plummeted, however, with the publication of the “double-decker” novels, Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970). He retained a group of ardent admirers, but many, especially in the English-speaking world, saw him as a charlatan, a burglar of others’ ideas. Durrell had been unable to sustain the artistry and control of his Daedalean precursors and had fallen, like Icarus, into the sea.
Gordon Bowker’s engaging full-length biography, the first on Durrell, sees the ambivalence among critics as due in part to Durrell’s own divided character. Charming and witty with friends and admirers, Durrell was often brutal and domineering with those he loved, tormenting them with verbal as well as physical abuse. Highly critical of capitalism, he nonetheless came to hate communism and delighted in being a millionaire. Anti-Semitic, he married two Jewish women. Durrell even wrote under two names (his given one and Charles Norden) and painted under a third, Oscar Epfs.
Born in Jullundur, India, to Kiplingesque colonials in 1912, Lawrence George Durrell was named for his father, Lawrence Samuel, and the newly crowned king. In 1918, Durrell’s father took a position as engineer on the Darjeeling-Himalayan Railroad and moved the family to Kurseong. Durrell himself was educated in Darjeeling with a view of Mount Everest looming in the distance. In 1923, he was shipped off to England to receive a proper education and train for a respectable position within the imperial bureaucracy. Durrell regretted the loss of India, and the memory of the Buddhist monks climbing the mountains with their prayer wheels would stay with him as a positive alternative to the cold, dreary, prudish, Christian England that repelled him. England became for him Pudding Island, a culture he would slice up and serve for dessert in his first major work, The Black Book (1938).
Durrell remained in England until 1935, when, after failing university entrance exams, he and his wife Nancy Myers departed for Corfu. He would later move from Egypt to Greece, going on to hold a series of government posts in Argentina, Yugoslavia, and finally Cyprus. There he would begin the two works that brought him to literary prominence, the Quartet and Bitter Lemons (1957), the latter a personal account of the English diplomatic debacle on the island and a private history of the end of empire. He was later forced by the growing tensions in Cyprus to leave the island first for England, and then on to France, accompanied by his new lover, Claude Vincendon, whom he would later marry. For the first time in his life, Durrell had everything he wanted: fame, money, love, and an invigorating place to write and work. But the idyll would not last. Claude died on 1 January 1967 of pulmonary cancer, and after this Durrell [End Page 183] would begin composing a death map recording all those who had left him behind. It was also at this point, according to Sappho Jane, Durrell’s daughter, that her father’s attitude toward her changed.
This is clearly the most explosive issue in the biography: in her diaries, published after Durrell’s death, Sappho accused her father of incest, as well as, in a lesser charge, of transforming her into Livia, the lesbian lover who commits suicide in Constance: Or, Solitary Practices (1982). 1 This would prove to be a foreshadowing of Sappho’s own suicide a little over two years later. Bowker is keenly aware of Durrell’s cruel streak, but does not credit the charge of physical incest. Instead he suggests Durrell practiced a form of...