Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Lawrence Durrell

It was fifteen years ago or so that I discovered the "Alexandria Quartet," Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, by Lawrence Durrell. I remember luxuriating in my recliner (no pretensions to classiness please!), having some wine and that layered cheese, you know, cheddar with creamy stuff alternating, and listening to Gorecki, it was, and reading these dreamy, worldly, intricate novels, soaking in the atmosphere Durrell creates. Everything here is ambiguous and wonderful, and the love of a lifetime is identical to a city and a moment. The novels are famous as an evocation of Alexandria, but the reader is out on the water, riding across the desert, off to Greece. And in Greece a whole lot more of Mr. Durrell, a former British diplomat, awaits the reader fortunate enough to discover him today. His "Sketches from Diplomatic Life," Esprit de Corps, Stiff Upper Lip, and Suave Qui Peut are a masterpiece of English humor, and I would hope to find people high up in the State Department familiar with them, there must be someone, and that's who I would want to talk to. But my personal favorite, a little book (and none of these are over long), is Reflections on a Marine Venus, a more earnest treatment of diplomatic life in provincial Greece after the war, also very funny to be sure, but packed with insights, historical, political, archeological, classical: one simply couldn't find a better host to visit this forgotten world. There is more, notably the novels Tunc and Nunquam (also published together as The Revolt of Aphrodite) and The Dark Labyrinth. It's striking when someone's life experience and someone's skill as a writer are both so considerable and so well-suited to each other. Compare the optimism of Durrell to the cynicism so common to "travel" writers such as Theroux. Which is more inherently insightful, and makes for better company?

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