Knute Skinner The Cold Irish Earth Analysis Essay

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Book Title:
From the Elephant’s Back: collected essays and travel writings


Lawrence Durrell

University of Alberta Press

Guideline Price:

I am writing this in Corfu, the island that was Lawrence Durrell’s first European home, a compensation for his lost childhood in India. In Corfu, where he lived from 1935 to 1939, Durrell said, “Greece offers you the discovery of yourself.” It was here that he completed The Black Book (1937) and conceived the blueprint for his entire life’s work: The Alexandria Quartet (1957-59), Tunc and Nunquam (1968-70) and The Avignon Quintet (1974-85). The Quartet is the work by which his reputation as an experimental novelist will live or die.

Corfu provided him with the elements of a Greek drama: agon (Black Book), pathos (the Quartet), sparagmos (Tunc and Nunquam) and anagnorisis (the Quintet). He married the Greek idea with Indian and Chinese philosophies in his determination to fuse the western narrative tradition with the eastern spirit, but his roots were always in Greece, where East meets West.

The title essay – perhaps the most important in this collection – celebrates Durrell’s Indian childhood. One of his lifelong motifs was that “whoever sees the world from the back of an elephant learns the secrets of the jungle, and becomes a seer”. Rudyard Kipling’s Kim was his bedside book, from which he learned that the twin narrative techniques are “the game” and “the quest”, whether in love story, political thriller or verse drama: a mixture of “boy meets girl” and the secret service that achieves a compelling storyline.

Durrell was also a very accomplished travel writer, and his short pieces here on Corfu, Rhodes, Dublin and Egypt demonstrate his ability to create atmosphere in a few words that immediately bring the reader into the context, as in his sniffing the air on Moore Street in Dublin, where “fruit and vegetables are sold to a background of scabrous backchat worthy of Aristophanes”. We relish Durrell in all genres because of this capacity to turn a baroque pen to even the most trivial subject. You can taste the writing.

The gems in this volume are the title essay, his highly personal interpretation of Wordsworth, his two essays on Shakespeare, and the introduction to the psychoanalyst Georg Groddeck.

Durrell was a misogynist in private life, but even though it sometimes shows in his fiction he created the memorable characters of Justine, Clea and Melissa in the Quartet and the central figure of The Avignon Quintet, Constance, who he told me was his ideal woman. This collection would have benefitted from the inclusion of his essays on Harems, and the unpublished Gynococracy: they would have made a fine copula.

There are several essays on modern literature (Henry Miller, Cavafy, Dylan Thomas, TS Eliot), but where is the introduction to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, published eight years after he had expressed his willingness to give evidence in the 1960 trial of the novel in Britain?

But the greatest missed opportunity is Minor Mythologies, in which Durrell argued against literary snobbery and insisted that the heroes of popular literature (such as Sherlock Holmes, Bulldog Drummond or Jeeves) represent mythic archetypes as relevant as their counterparts in the canon of “major” or “highbrow” novels.

There are many other pieces – forewords, essays, film scripts and unpublished fiction – that cry out for a second elephant, but it would be foolish to entrust it to an academic as dull as the present editor.

Anyone who gives credence to James Gifford’s apparent fixation with proving (in his introduction and copious endnotes) that Durrell was an “anarchist” would do well to consider Durrell’s self-description as a “Selfist” – not a surrealist but a “Durrealist”. As a colonial functionary for much of his life he was too aware of the inevitability of an ordered society to ever espouse anarchism. One might as well humour an earnest scholar who believes that Queen Elizabeth I wrote Shakespeare.

This insistence on Gifford’s part is indicative of his lack of humour: how can one write about Durrell without relishing his humour? At one point Gifford believes that a sheaf of hoax “letters to the author”, that Durrell left lying around are genuine. To appreciate Durrell one needs a sense of humour, a taste for the bizarre and the joy of literary sprezzatura. Gifford lacks all three. One could never tire of reading Durrell. One tires immediately on encountering Gifford.

And anyone who thinks that we need endnotes to explain who Huxley, Woolf, Gauguin, Sartre, Einstein, DH Lawrence and Nelson were must be immune to the intelligence of the general reader. There are also many errors of both fact and judgment: the geography of Dublin and Corfu, the statement that Durrell spoke “fluent Greek” (he did not), the belief that two quite different essays on Shakespeare are one and the same.

I am glad I belong to the Durrell school of “necessary uncertainty”, the delicious ambiguity that no amount of critical apparatus can diminish. Gifford’s editorial comments are heavy handed and inelegant, often unnecessary or irrelevant, sometimes blatantly incorrect and always tedious. But buy the book for Durrell’s wit, elegance, philosophy, joie de vivre and flaming intelligence.

Richard Pine is the author of Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape; his new book is Greece Through Irish Eyes (Liffey Press)

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