Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ian Mac Niven's "Lawrence Durrell: A Biography": Book Review

I read this immediately after another biography, also published in 1998, Gordon Bowker's "Through the Dark Labyrinth." Bowker, although constrained by Mac Niven's authorized version from quoting from Durrell's correspondence let alone his novels, nonetheless managed to provide insight into the troubled, determined talent who juggled a manic pace when creating intricate texts, a heavy work load earlier in his checkered career working for the British foreign service, and many, many women.

Starting with India as the key to Durrell's mentality, part of but apart from his British origins, searching for belonging beyond the usual borders, seeking hidden patterns in arcana, Mac Niven takes us through his years growing up in an Anglo-Indian, as Durrell preferred to label his downscale (by comparison at least with some British lording over the Jewel of the Crown) background, his schooling in London, his failure to summon up the effort to get into Cambridge, and his bohemianism. Already, via Hamlet's predicament, Durrell contemplated his "heraldic" theory, that two Hamlets existed, one bound in the here and now and another in a sort of Platonic (to me if not him) realm of forms and symbols. Henry Miller and Anais Nin encouraged him in this pursuit.

His arrival as a poet preceded his departure in 1938 with his first wife for Corfu, and his Greek ties grew strong. But his marital ones could slacken. His second wife, Eve or Yvette Cohen, daughter of a Tunisian Jewish father and a Ladino-Sephardic Turkish mother, with her ideal beauty, stimulated what would become Justine. Although he never thought he'd wind up in Egypt, a flight from the invading Nazis found him in first Cairo and then Alexandria. Mac Niven sums up its crossroads appeal well, while noting that Durrell's depiction of the port as a lascivious landscape takes much more from its WWII brothels than its pre-war, more Greek and Italian, sedate character for what was then a compact city of 750,000. Certainly, in the Alexandria Quartet the city turned its own symbolic terrain, brought to life, if a dusky and detached, aesthetic and literary, form of its own. Mac Niven emphasizes how this novel was written in the mid-1950s, on insurgent Cyprus (after diplomatic assignments to postwar Rhodes, Argentina, and Yugoslavia), while his marriage to Justine crumbled.

But, Mac Niven offers very little coverage of the novels themselves that made his fame, or their critical reception. His details about the writer provide the data, and this data, as said before, can answer probably many questions readers have, but still this book, aiming not at a critique of his texts but a presentation of their author, serves its purpose, leaving explication and reader reception to others. We do get nods to the four-dimensional quality and its purported application of relativity, its time-based and space-based novel arrangement, and its ties to letting go of the ego and welcoming death. This facet, a turn from Christian-based or earlier European fiction, may portend the drift, in his later Avignon Quintet, to a more Buddhist-based approach, where characters appear and revive, freer of chronological convention or indeed, verisimilitude. This enchanted some and maddened other readers. Durrell tried to leap past material limitations in his work, but it seems to stay blurred and off-kilter. While Mac Niven does not take on the issue of if his novels will last, he looks at Durrell's travel writing and poems, and provides at least an overview of the works, if again, no real analyses.

Mac Niven provides about five times, it often seems, the information on any incident discussed by Bowker. For instance, Durrell's teaching stint at Caltech gains by a description of where he stayed, what he lectured upon, and what car he even drove on Los Angeles' freeways. Some may, however, wonder if such depth is necessary for a reader curious but not determined to find out every detail. Such biographies, full of documentation, as Mac Niven offers serve a scholarly purpose, as the go-to work to be consulted by students of his subject. But for general readers, Bowker, at a few hundred fewer pages, with his own array of sources, may suffice. The value of both works, to me, is evident.

The issue of his conflicted daughter, Sappho, her claims of incest by her father, and her eventual suicide, receives a judgment of relying on the discredited "recovered memories" treatment once in vogue, in Mac Niven's estimation. He shows in a poignant scene his own day spent looking at photos of her in the company of the grieving father, and he laments his failure to help his daughter more.

Durrell, in conclusion, does wonder as an aside if his work will endure. Late in his life, he seems to wonder, in his South of France retreat, if any one will listen to his admonitions that appeal in his final works to "selflessness and non-possession" and with this, one closes this in-depth study of this author.
(Amazon US 5-14-14)

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