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Lawrence Durrell: Biography and Quick Facts For Fans

Like Gerald Durrell, elder brother Lawrence Durrell also wrote about Corfu, though his lyrical novel Prospero’s Cell about their life in Corfu has been less remembered than My Family and Other Animals. But that doesn’t diminish his popularity. His fame came through The Alexandria Quartet, a tetralogy published between 1957 and 1960. Another novel, Monsieur, or the Prince of Darkness, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1974. Constance, or Solitary Practices, was nominated for the 1982 Booker Prize. He became a bestselling author and one of the most celebrated writers in England.

Bio And Quick Facts About Lawrence Durrell

Who is Lawrence Durrell?

Lawrence Durrell or Lawrence George Durrell was born on Feb. 27, 1912, Jullundur, Punjab in India. An English novelist, poet, and writer of topographical books, verse plays, and farcical short stories, Lawrence is best known as the author of The Alexandria Quartet, a series of four interconnected novels.

What are some of Lawrence Durrell’s books?

  • Pied Piper of Lovers (1935)
  • Panic Spring, under the pseudonym Charles Norden (1937)
  • The Black Book (1938; republished in the UK on 1 January 1977 by Faber and Faber)
  • Cefalu (1947; republished as The Dark Labyrinth in 1958)
  • White Eagles Over Serbia (1957)
  • The Alexandria Quartet (1962)
    • Justine (1957)
    • Balthazar (1958)
    • Mountolive (1958)
    • Clea (1960)
  • The Revolt of Aphrodite (1974)
    • Tunc (1968)
    • Nunquam (1970)
  • The Avignon Quintet (1992)
    • Monsieur: or, The Prince of Darkness (1974)
    • Livia: or, Buried Alive (1978)
    • Constance: or, Solitary Practices (1982)
    • Sebastian: or, Ruling Passions (1983)
    • Quinx: or, The Ripper’s Tale (1985)
  • Judith (2012, written 1962-c. 1966)
  • Prospero’s Cell: A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra [Corfu] (1945; republished 2000) 
  • Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953)
  • Bitter Lemons (1957; republished as Bitter Lemons of Cyprus 2001)
  • Blue Thirst (1975)
  • Sicilian Carousel (1977)
  • The Greek Islands (1978)
  • Caesar’s Vast Ghost (1990)

His first collection, Quaint Fragments, was published in 1931, when he was 19. In 1935, Durrell’s first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, was published. Around this time he saw a copy of Henry Miller’s 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer. After reading it, he wrote to Miller, expressing intense admiration for his novel. Durrell’s letter sparked an enduring friendship and mutually critical relationship that spanned 45 years. Lawrence Durrell’s next novel, Panic Spring, was heavily influenced by Miller’s work. 

In other nonfiction works Prospero’s Cell (1945), Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953), and Bitter Lemons (1957), Durrell describes the Greek islands of Corfu, where he lived with his first wife in 1937–38 during world war 2; Rhodes, where in 1945–46 he acted as press officer to the Allied government; and Cyprus, his home from 1952 to 1956. 

Durrell’s first novel of note, The Black Book: An Agon, was also strongly influenced by Henry; it was published in Paris in 1938. The mildly pornographic work was not published in Great Britain until 1973. The story follows the main character Lawrence Lucifer who struggles to escape the spiritual sterility of dying England and finds Greece to be a warm and fertile environment.

His most famous work is The Alexandria Quartet, a four series tetralogy published between 1957 and 1960.

Durrell’s later novels, Tunc (1968) and its sequel, Nunquam (1970), were less favourable than his earlier fiction. 

His reputation was established by Cities, Plains and People (1946), The Tree of Idleness (1953), and The Ikons (1966). 

The Avignon Quintet: consisting of Monsieur; or, The Prince of Darkness (1974), Livia; or, Buried Alive (1978), Constance; or, Solitary Practices (1982), Sebastian; or, Ruling Passions (1983), and Quinx; or, The Ripper’s Tale (1985)—received high acclaim and bad reviews.

During his years on Corfu, Lawrence Durrell had made notes for a book about the island. He did not write it fully until he was in Egypt towards the end of the war. In the book Prospero’s Cell, Lawrence described Corfu as “this brilliant little speck of an island in the Ionian,” with waters “like the heartbeat of the world itself”. 

Lawrence Durrell’s works of humour, Esprit de Corps and Stiff Upper Lip, are about life in the diplomatic corps, particularly in Serbia. His last book, Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence, got published in 1990. 

Lawrence Durrell Quotes:

There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.

A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.

Like all young men I set out to be a genius, but mercifully laughter intervened.

Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection. 

Music is only love looking for words. 

The richest love is that which submits to the arbitration of time. 

It is not love that is blind, but jealousy. 

A woman’s best love letters are always written to the man she is betraying. 

No one can go on being a rebel too long without turning into an autocrat.

Lawrence Durrell Alexandria:

The Alexandria Quartet is a series of four novels by Lawrence Durrell. The lush and sensuous tetralogy, set in Alexandria, Egypt, during the 1940s.

Composed of Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960), The Alexandria Quartet demonstrates one of its main themes: the relativity of truth. More important is the implied theme: that sexual experience, the practice of art, and love are all ways of learning to understand and finally to pass beyond successive phases of development toward ultimate truth and reality.

Critics praised the ‘Quartet’ for its richness of style, the variety and vividness of its characters, its movement between the personal and the political, and its locations in and around the ancient Egyptian city which Durrell portrays as the chief protagonist: “The city which used us as its flora—precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!” 

The Times Literary Supplement review of the Quartet stated: “If ever a work bore an instantly recognizable signature on every sentence, this is it.”

The first three books (written in first person) tell essentially the same story and series of events, but from the varying perspectives of different characters. It narrates a series of events in Alexandria before World War II; the fourth carries the story forward into the war years. Lawrence Durrell described this technique in his introductory note in Balthazar as “relativistic.” Only in the final novel, Clea, does the story advance in time and reach a conclusion. 

In 2012, when the Nobel Records were opened after 50 years, it was revealed that Durrell had been on a shortlist of authors considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature, along with American John Steinbeck (winner), British poet Robert Graves, French writer Jean Anouilh, and the Danish Karen Blixen. 

The Academy decided that “Durrell was not to be given preference this year”, and wanted to keep him under an observational eye for more work. They also noted that he “gives a dubious aftertaste … because of [his] monomaniacal preoccupation with erotic complications.” He had been considered in 1961 but did not make the shortlist.

Lawrence Durrell Justine:

The Alexandria Quartet, a tetralogy published between 1957 and 1960, had the best-known novel in the series: Justine. In 1957 Justine was the first novel of what was to become his most famous work. 

To readers and reviewers in 1957, Justine has and still inspires what has been called “an almost religious devotion among readers and critics alike.” It was adapted into the film of the same name in 1969.

The scene for the story Durrell’s narrator tells is the dusty, modern Alexandria of the 1930s, “an exotic city of constant interactions between cultures and religions” and with a cultural milieu that mixes exceptional sophistication with equally remarkable sordidness.

Justine is portrayed by Durrell which ‘mirrors’ Alexandria with its mixture of elegance and extreme poverty, and its ancient Arab ways co-mingled with modern European customs. Durrell’s Alexandria is a city where Europeans exist alongside Egyptians, and Jews and Christians exist alongside Muslims, and his characters, especially his lovely protagonist, she of the “somber brow-dark gaze,” mirrors the city. 

According to Durrell, his protagonist Justine is the essence of Alexandria, its “true child…neither Greek, Syrian, nor Egyptian, but a hybrid.”

The narrator and Justine embark on a secretive, torrid love affair. As the adulterous lovers attempt to conceal their growing passions from Justine’s husband Nessim, who is also a friend of the narrator, the resulting love triangle grows increasingly desperate and dangerous, with the narrator fearing at the book’s climax that Nessim is trying to arrange to have him killed.

Who’s the actor that played Lawrence Durrell? 

Josh O’Connor is the English actor known for his portrayal of Lawrence Durrell in the ITV series The Durrells.

Lawrence Durrell Spirit Of Place:

After Larry Durrell’s death, his lifelong friend Alan Thomas donated a collection of books and periodicals associated with Durrell to the British Library, maintained as the distinct Lawrence Durrell Collection.

Thomas had earlier edited an anthology of writings, letters and poetry by Durrell, published as Spirit Of Place (1969). It contained material related to Lawrence Durrell’s own published works. Important documentary resource is at Bibliothèque Lawrence Durrell at the Université Paris Ouest in Nanterre.

Lawrence Durrell Poems:

  • Quaint Fragments: Poems Written between the Ages of Sixteen and Nineteen (1931)
  • Ten Poems (1932)
  • Transition: Poems (1934)
  • A Private Country (1943)
  • Cities, Plains and People (1946)
  • On Seeming to Presume (1948)
  • The Poetry of Lawrence Durrell (1962)
  • Selected Poems: 1953–1963 Edited by Alan Ross (1964)
  • The Ikons (1966)
  • The Suchness of the Old Boy (1972)
  • Collected Poems: 1931–1974 Edited by James A. Brigham (1980)
  • Selected Poems of Lawrence Durrell Edited by Peter Porter (2006)

Lawrence did not like formal education, but started writing poetry at age 15. Many critics regarded his poetry and nonfiction books as his most enduring achievements. 

He first gained recognition as a poet with A Private Country (1943). Larry Durrell’s poetry has been overshadowed by his novels, but Peter Porter, in his introduction to a Selected Poems, calls Durrell “One of the best [poets] of the past hundred years. And one of the most enjoyable.” Porter describes Durrell’s poetry: “Always beautiful as sound and syntax. Its innovation lies in its refusal to be more high-minded than the things it records, together with its handling of the whole lexicon of language.”  

His Collected Poems 1931–74 appeared in 1980. 

Interesting Facts about Lawrence Durrell or Larry: 

  • Lawrence Durrell spent most of his life outside England and had little sympathy with the English life. This could have a lot to do with his upbringing in India which didn’t look like anything like the UK upon visiting. Like many other children of the British Raj, at the age of eleven, Lawrence was sent to England for schooling, where he briefly attended St. Olave’s Grammar School before being sent to St. Edmund’s School in Canterbury. He once famously said: “We are the children of our landscape; it dictates behavior and even thought in the measure to which we are responsive to it.”
  • Lawrence mostly resisted being identified solely as British, but wanted to be considered as cosmopolitan. Since his death, there have been rumours that Durrell never even had British citizenship, but he was originally classified as a British citizen as he was born to British colonial parents living in India.
  • As The Guardian reported in 2002, Durrell in 1966 was “one of the best selling, most celebrated English novelists of the late 20th century” and “at the height of his fame.”
  • For someone so gifted, his formal education was unsuccessful, and he failed his university entrance examinations. He wrote poetry seriously at the age of fifteen. 
  • As he was always unhappy in England, he convinced his new wife Nancy, and his mother and younger siblings, to move to the Greek island of Corfu. There they could live more economically and escape both the English weather, and what Durrell considered the stultifying English culture, which he called “the English death”. His mother would agree and leave her guest house in Bournemouth which she established after their father died, to start a new life in Corfu. 
  • Durrell supported his writing by working for many years in the Foreign Service of the British government. During and after World War II (such as his time in Alexandria, Egypt) inspired much of his work. 
  • Durrell said that he had three literary uncles: his publisher T. S. Eliot, the Greek poet George Seferis, and the American writer Henry Miller.
  • He married Nancy Isobel Myers, a tall, slim, striking blonde who had dropped out of art college. In Corfu, Lawrence and Nancy lived together for the first few months, with the rest of the Durrell family in the Villa Anemoyanni at Kontokali. In early 1936, Durrell and Nancy moved to the White House, a fisherman’s cottage on the shore of Corfu’s northeastern coast at Kalami, then a tiny fishing village. 
  • For Nancy and Larry, skinny dipping and bathing naked in White House, was a common phenomenon that infuriated the locals. Lawrence used to say that being naked contact with the air and light and waters of Corfu was a sacred immersion. However, the Greeks who were vehemently against them swimming in the nude (and found nothing holy about it) couldn’t do much to stop them. 
  • ‘We were absolutely mad on taking off all our clothes,’ recalled Nancy. ‘I could never have enough. I wanted just to absolutely drown myself in the sun and the sea.’ And Larry agreed, claiming, ‘The Mediterranean is the capital, the heart, the sex organ of Europe.
  • ‘We used to go and bathe naked together,’ Nancy remembered, ‘keeping out of view of the fishermen because we didn’t want to shock them too much – at that time peasants never even took their vests off in summer.’ On one occasion a priest, sitting on his porch with a full view of the beach, rallied children nearby to pelt the bathers with stones, forcing Larry and Nancy to flee.
  • The couple escaped the German occupation of Greece, but Nancy wrote to him soon afterwards to say their marriage was over. 
  • Both he and his brother have contrasting perspectives about Corfu: Lawrence Durrell fictionalised this period of his sojourn on Corfu in the lyrical novel Prospero’s Cell and younger brother Gerald Durrell, published his own version in his memoir My Family and Other Animals (1954) and in the Corfu Trilogy. While Gerald wrote about Lawrence as living permanently with his mother and siblings (not his wife Nancy), Lawrence, in his turn, refers only briefly to his brother Leslie, and omitted that his mother and two other siblings were also living on Corfu in those years. 
  • But, both Gerald and Lawrence describe the roles played in their lives by the Corfiot taxi driver Spiro Hakiaopulos and Theodore Stephanides (Lawrence Durrell’s friend who was a Greek doctor, scientist, and poet who was a frequent guest at the White House in 1939). 
  • A longtime smoker, Durrell suffered from emphysema for many years. He died of a stroke in Sommières in November 1990. 
  • In 1966 Lawrence Durrell and other former and present British residents became “non-patrial”, as a result of an amendment to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. The law was covertly intended to reduce migration from India, Pakistan, and the West Indies, but Durrell was also penalized by it and refused citizenship. Denied normal citizenship, Durrell had to apply for a visa for each entry to Britain. Diplomats were outraged and embarrassed at these events. “Sir Patrick Reilly, the ambassador in Paris, was so incensed that he wrote to his Foreign Office superiors: ‘I venture to suggest it might be wise to ensure that ministers, both in the Foreign Office and the Home Office, are aware that one of our greatest living writers in the English language is being debarred from the citizenship of the United Kingdom to which he is entitled.’

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