Friday, June 27, 2014

Gordon Bowker's "Through the Dark Labyrinth": Book Review

Having finished this biographer's 2012 study of James Joyce, I was curious if Lawrence Durrell, less heralded now than half a century ago, certainly, merited the same steady if detailed life survey Bowker applied to the Irish innovator. Durrell's contribution, as attempting to integrate an Einstein-derived, relativistic series of levels from which to examine what, in the start of his most famous novel, Justine, Freud avers are the four people present when a couple couples, seems to me at a distance rather musty, and The Alexandria Quartet appears more of series of hothouse flowers, in characters and sultry ambiance. Arguably, the author's wanderings, writings, and self-importance make him a worthwhile subject for Bowker's scrutiny.

Hobbled as Ian Mac Niven's even longer authorized biography then in the making prevented Bowker from citing from Durrell's correspondence let alone his works, Through the Dark Labyrinth--similar to his Joyce take--breaks little new ground. But Bowker despite his handicap tackles the remarkably self-involved Durrell with sympathy if not forgiveness, although the biographer to me remains largely polite and well-behaved when describing the affairs, abandonments, and amours of this dedicated lothario. His preference, given if not romanticized "Tibetan" origins given some general proximity to the Himalayas from his Indian birthplace to an English father and Irish-descended mother, for the warmer climes and the less restrictive mores they supposedly engender, is clear. "Pudding Island" as his ancestral homeland and the place where he is sent for school as a boy remains detested, although he repaired there often over his career. A bohemian, he failed to master the math to get him into Cambridge. He chose to hang out in London, befriend Henry Miller, and cultivate connections, as a poet and then novelist, in the 1930s. As war loomed, Greece appealed, and it was off to Corfu.

The Nazi invasion barely avoided, he fled to Alexandria, to cobble together a career as a sort-of spy, information officer, propagandist, and British diplomatic such-and-such, there and in postwar Greece and Cyprus. In the latter, he found himself entangled as the colonial power Britain exerted weakened under the pressure for ties to Greece, and Durrell had to flee, again, as violence over land broke out.

Bowker shows how Alexandria provided, as well as Durrell's beloved and adopted Greek nation, the setting that inspired him. Then more Greek-British-Jewish and much smaller than today's Egyptian sprawl, the city served as a natural crossroads and an erotic cauldron. Modernism meets Freud, as spirals rather than linear narrative arrive to plunge a reader into breakdown--the one aspect Durrell complained to T.S. Eliot that he wished he'd have experienced (as he had with his first if lesser success, The Black Book) to add verisimilitude. But his failed second marriage to Eve Cohen, the Sephardic beauty who provoked the novel, provided his own anxieties, although never for long. He seems selfish, letting go as he outgrows his wives and a little daughter, she twice set aside. Bowker does not editorialize much, but he mentions how Henry Miller saw women as an "aperture" and later alludes to Durrell's take on women as less than persons and more general laws or biological urges.

The Atlantic complained how his "characters embraced with the cool click of algebraic equations." The haste in which he wrote the three installments to come shows he worked out his Quartet as he went, rather than starting in the first novel with a solid structure. Balthazar in six weeks, finds Durrell "feeling his way forward." Mountolive took two months, Clea eight weeks, he attested. This looseness may however have worked to his favor, for what Bowker sums up in the insighful, valedictory, final chapter of this biography as an achievement where we care less about the fates of the characters (his friend Diana Gould Mehunin complained of their coldness even and especially when sex was asserted as the main energy in these novels, and his others, after all) but we learn about the role destiny plays, and how we may reinvent ourselves, remaking our reality and our perceptions.

For all his indulgences as an intellectual, Durrell appears rather lightweight, preferring the effusions of what the nascent counterculture might cotton onto as gurus, seers, New Age exponents, or what some call today life coaches, for his nebulous or scattered musings. Granted, his main diversions in these years were sex and sunbathing, but he did manage fourteen-hour days often, parallel to careers on and off, working away on the next book. Certainly his knack for Greek, his fluency in French, his ability for sussing out the natives around the Mediterranean, speak to his skill at depicting his setting.

This setting shifted to Languedoc, after the success of the Quartet brought him fame and many more women to woo. The nature of his relationship with his troubled daughter Sappho, and her claims (Bowker weighing them decides innocent until proven guilty on Durrell's behalf) of incest clouded his later years; she eventually hanged herself. His third marriage appeared his happiest; his fourth demonstrated his brutality. Bowker alludes to Durrell's admiration for Sade (whom he refers to as de Sade; he also misspells MacNiven's name and makes a few minor errors throughout in proper nouns), and the appeal Durrell exerted over women up to his death in 1990 must prove the triumph of a certain charm, given his short stature, increasing portliness, and large nose. He turned his friends into fiction, and many complained. The women he seduced rarely returned for more. He tends to be a cad.

However, he softened as yoga and Buddhism--when a Tibetan monastery was established near his rural retreat--taught him the value of patience. He avers how reincarnation made more sense, living a life over and over until it was perfect, and the monks claim he has been reborn as a vineyard keeper in Burgundy. Bowker, in spite of the limits under which this was written, provides a thoughtful overview of Durrell. It can bog down in minutiae even as some parts skim; for instance, he goes to Israel and visits a kibbutz, but that's all we learn, while other times we find out what he had for dinner with such-and-such, time and time again. This may be due to the archival access he was granted, and in the end, Bowker does the best he can, digging into many sources, interviewing many, about Durrell
(Amazon US 5-13-14)

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