Books that have their origins in papers given at a conference exist in essentially two modes, the mimetic and the formalist. Mimetic proceedings try to reproduce the actuality of the conference, formalist ones treat the conference as simply a point of departure and try to make a free-standing book out of the materials presented. In general, I believe the formalist option to be the superior one because the actuality of a conference tends to be of interest just to those who were there. Lawrence Durrell was of course a formalist rather than a mimetic novelist, and On Miracle Ground is a fine (and in this sense, formalist) collection of essays formed out of a conference on Durrell held in 1986. The book now serves as a posthumous tribute to one of the most interesting and complex novelists of our time.
Durrell wrote so many different kinds of books that any collection devoted to his entire oeuvre would most likely seem diffuse. On Miracle Ground finds its focus in Durrell's fiction, his serious fiction, and aside from a good essay on Durrell's first three novels, Ian S. MacNiven's "Pied Piper of Death: Method and Theme in the Early Novels," the papers focus on Durrell's final three sequences, especially in the Alexandria Quartet and the Avignon Quintet. Although I suspect Durrell's last achievement may well be his travel literature, this focus on the sustained fiction is much more of an advantage than a restriction, giving the collection a needed definition. Durrell of course finished the Avignon Quintet in 1985, just a year before the conference. It is clear that as readers of Durrell absorb his final sequence, the earlier work will look different, and these papers provide the first sustained look at his two largest sequences in conjunction.
A second theme tying many of the papers together is Durrell's deep indebtedness to non-European cultures and religious traditions. This is announced in Durrell's own talk given at the conference which opens the volume, "Overture"; this discusses his interest in Buddhism and Taoism, which originated in his childhood in the Himalayas and Burma. The essays I found most interesting in the collection, those by Carol Peirce, David M. Woods, and Michael H. Begnal, explore Egyptian, Tibetan, and gnostic influences on Durrell's work, and Woods makes the apposite point that Durrell's fiction looks eccentric unless one has absorbed such traditions and understood Durrell's essential antagonism toward central Western attitudes concerning his master subjects, love and death. Yet therein we have a critical problem which helps to explain the decline in Durrell's reputation over the past twenty years. If we feel we need to master such intricate and esoteric systems of thought to read Durrell, we run the risk of burying the fiction under a weight of allusions and ideas, and it is not at all clear to me that Durrell escaped this problem himself. The successful work here in my judgment is not the Alexandria Quartet nor the Avignon Quintet but The Revolt of Aphrodite (or Tunc and Nunquam) that came in between and is comparatively neglected here. I do not find the essays in On Miracle Ground raising this issue or facing the issue of Durrell's self-selected marginality as forthrightly as they could, but that does not take away from the fine critical analysis and scholarly exposition contained in the essays or the good editing job performed by Michael Begnal. [End Page 309]