Watching The Durrells in Corfu prompted me to return to the novels of Lawrence Durrell, which I enjoyed when I was in my teens (I moved on to them after devouring Gerald’s memoirs, and was surprised to find them so different; but I loved the lyricism). It was very strange to re-read books that I once knew so well, and to have a completely different perspective on them now. When I was young, I was definitely an immasculated reader: able to read in sympathy with a male narrator. Now, not so much. And now I am not only older than most of the characters but also older than the author of the Alexandria Quartet. That also changes my perspective, as does being trained as a literary critic. As a teenager, I was completely uninterested in the political intrigue of the Quartet, which distorted my understanding of the work. Now I see better what Durrell was doing, and while I admire his female characters less, I see why, as a writer, he needed them to behave in certain ways.
I am particularly skeptical about Leila, the older woman whose vanity, after smallpox ravaged her once-beautiful face, kept her veiled on her Egyptian country estates rather than moving from Alexandria to Paris or London. I think she would have said “the hell with what people think,” moved anyway, dressed exquisitely and been accepted as a jolie laide. But then, I am the product of ’70s feminism, and in my London and Paris, there are women who veil. And the novelist needed her on the scene, as both mother and former lover; she wouldn’t have been effective as an emotional force in the novel if she were in Europe living her own life.
I moved on from Durrell’s own work to biographies and to Michael Haag‘s study of literary Alexandria during/between the World Wars, where I found this quotation about the way Larry worked while living on Cyprus in the late ’40s:
“With his teaching day beginning at seven in the morning, Durrell would rise at four-thirty and over a mug of black coffee add a few more lines to his novel, writing in longhand in his ‘Caballi’ notebook so as not to disturb his sleeping household, before driving thirty miles round the shoulder of the coastal range and onto the plain of Nicosia. In those dawns and in the lengthening shadows of his return drive to Bellapaix he was composing his novel in his head; these were the passages he set down by candlelight the following morning in ‘The Caballi’. At weekends he would type out the fifteen hundred words he had written there; it was a slow process of distillation. ‘Never have I worked under such adverse conditions’, Durrell wrote to Miller in October, but also ‘I have never felt in better writing form’.” Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory, pp. 319-320.