Lawrence Durrell

(1912 – 1990)

'[The Alexandria Quartet’s] unique flavour, lingers in the mind long after its labyrinthine plots have been forgotten'

Jan Morris

'The English Death'

Lawrence Durrell was born in Jallandhar, India (near the border with Tibet). His parents were both Indian-born colonials and he spent his childhood in 'nursery-rhyme happiness' in the hill stations and British schools of the Raj. This came to an abrupt end when he was sent to school in England aged 11, seeing his native land for the first time. He attended a number of grammar schools there and began seriously to write poetry at the age of fifteen.

After finishing school he applied for Cambridge University, but was turned down. After this setback he earned a living by playing piano at a nightclub and as an estate agent in Leytonstone. He found the gloomy weather and class-bound attitudes of England stifling, referring to the general atmosphere as ‘The English Death’.

After the death of his father in 1928 his family returned from India moving to London and in 1935 he married Nancy Isobel Myers, his first wife. It was at this time that he persuaded his family to leave England and move to Corfu, Greece - where the weather was more suitable and they could live more economically. The time the family spent on the picturesque Greek island were immortalised by Durrell’s brother Gerald (later to become a world famous naturalist) in his book My Family and Other Animals. Lawrence Durrell would also write about this period in his book Prospero’s Cell, though the two accounts overlap very little – Durrell doesn’t mention his little brother at all (or his mother for that matter) and Gerald’s account doesn’t mention Nancy or the fact that the couple lived in a separate house.

In the same year as their move to Greece, the first Lawrence Durrell book Pied Piper of Lovers was published. Like many of Durrell’s works, it was largely autobiographical focusing on his childhood in India.

Turbulent times on the Mediterranean

With the coming of the Second World War in 1939 Durrell's mother and siblings returned to London, however he and Nancy remained in Corfu, due to the birth of their daughter Penelope. With the German invasion of 1941 the family were able to escape to Crete and then Alexandria, Egypt. In Egypt Nancy and Durrell separated, with Nancy taking Penelope to Jerusalem. Durrell remained in Alexandria and worked as a press attaché for the British authorities. Durrell absorbed the sights and sensations of the city, a crossroad between east and west. He would later immortalise the place and time in his greatest work – The Alexandria Quartet. Whilst in the city he met and fell in love with Eve Cohen, who would become the model for 'Justine' in the first book of the Quartet.

With the end of the war Durrell was able to return to Greece with Eve, moving to Rhodes to work for the British administration on the island. Greece had changed in the war years and was in the throes of a vicious civil war. Durrell wrote the book Reflections on a Marine Venus about his period on the island, but it deals very little with the turbulent times, focusing on the poetic landscape and people. While on Rhodes Durrell’s divorce from Nancy was confirmed and he was free to marry Eve.

After a period in Argentina as director of the British Council in Cordoba, Durrell and Eve were sent to Belgrade in newly Communist Yugoslavia. His experiences of life under Communism affected him to the point where he would refer to himself as a fascist and an anti-Semite, however, seeing as he married two Jewish women in his life and had very little interest in politics, this was largely to shock people – something he greatly enjoyed. During his time in Belgrade Eve had a daughter, Sappho.

In 1952 Eve had a nervous breakdown and returned to England for treatment. Wanting to return to his beloved Mediterranean and find a quiet place to write, Durrell and Sappho moved to Cyprus. There Durrell taught at a local school and began to write what would become the Alexandria Quartet. However, his hopes for a quiet life were dashed by the inter-communal violence in Cyprus and the British administration’s inability to cope with it. In 1956 he and Sappho left the island, after it was revealed that Durrell's association with the British administration had made him a target for assassination. He wrote about his time on Cyprus in Bitter Lemons, making reference to the troubles but very rarely mentioning Sappho, who lived with him throughout. She would tragically commit suicide thirty years later in 1985.

The Alexandria Quartet

A year after leaving Cyprus he published ‘Justine’, the first in The Alexandria Quartet. A hugely original work it would become the most famous Lawrence Durrell book, creating not only a great cast of characters, but the impression of an entire city at a moment in time. The rest of the quartet Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958) and Clea (1960) brought him international regard and success.

With the success of Justine, Durrell returned to England and eventually settled in southern France in the village of Sommières in Languedoc. He would live in the village for the rest of his life. Having separated from Eve in 1955, he married another Jewish Alexandrian, Claude-Marie Vincendon in 1961. After her death in 1967 (which devastated Durrell) he married a French woman, Ghislaine de Boysson, in 1973, but this marriage again ended in divorce in 1979.Though he continued to publish novels until his death he never was able to replicate the inventiveness and power of the Alexandria Quartet. Nonetheless he was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982 for his novel Constance and won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1974 for the novel Monsieur.

He died of a stroke on 7 November 1990 and was buried in Sommières, beside the Mediterranean around whose shores he had spent so much of his life.

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