Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Back in touch with Durrell

In my earlier post entitled First encounter with Lawrence Durrell [display], I think I made it perfectly clear that this British novelist was truly a hero, for me, when I ran into him in the summer of 1963, in Nîmes, by an amazing stroke of luck. Once upon a time (not so long ago), before my enlightenment by great 21st-century scientists such as David Deutsch and Richard Dawkins, I even used to designate my chance encounter with Lawrence Durrell as an obvious manifestation of the mysterious phenomenon referred to as synchronicity. That's to say, I was convinced that some kind of yet-unexplained convergence of our respective destinies had caused our paths to cross, for an instant, on a sunny morning in Nîmes. With a small additional dose of imagination, I might have even concluded that the magnificent blocks of stone in the ancient Roman arena had surely contributed—in ways yet unknown to science—to the focalization of our itineraries upon that particular point in Alexandria-Quartet space-time: Nîmes, 18 July 1963. It all sounds so nice, in a fuzzy way (of which Durrell himself might well have approved), that I'm a little sad to admit that I no longer believe an iota about so-called synchronicity. Be that as it may, I'm relieved to realize today that there are infinitely many mysteries in the Cosmos that are infinitely more astounding than the silly synchronicity idea... and I take pleasure in deliberately spicing up my sentiments with the "infinitely" adverb.

Immediately after that encounter with Durrell, three major events took place in my life.

(1) I worked for a while as a seaman on a Greek cargo ship [display].

(2) I returned to Paris and started work as an English teacher at the Lycée Henri IV [display].

(3) I met up with my future wife.

Curiously, an indirect but undeniable outcome of these three events was that I totally abandoned my fascination for Durrell and his formerly-exhilarating Alexandria Quartet. Instead of dreaming romantically about the inhabitants of a make-believe city in Egypt, or trying to imagine Durrell's life in places such as Corfu, Rhodes or Cyprus, I became more interested in the realities of modern Greece. In particular, I fell in love with the island of Tinos [display]. But I was rapidly convinced that there was one outstanding nation on the shores of the Mediterranean, and it was neither Greece, Egypt, Spain nor Italy. That nation was France. Its capital was Paris, where I would be spending the next three decades. And its Mediterranean port was the ancient Greek settlement of Massalia (designated by my friend Natacha as Marseille)... the official European capital of culture in 2013.

At this point, if my story is to be meaningful, readers need to know that, in 1965, I married a French girl, Christine, whose maternal ancestors were essentially Provençal. In the summer of 1968, with our 18-month-old daughter Emmanuelle, we drove down to meet up with Christine's grandparents at their home in the village of Saint Sériès, in the Mediterranean département of the Hérault, not far from Nîmes.

This was an excursion of immense joy: my discovery of Christine's marvelous maternal grandparents, and of their Languedoc province.

One day, Christine's grandparents happened to speak to me of a certain British writer who lived nearby, in Sommières. They told me that he had a reputation of spending most of his time as a boisterous drunkard in local taverns. I soon gathered that they were speaking of my former literary hero, Lawrence Durell, whom I had encountered 5 years earlier in Nîmes, when he was living in a stone cabin up in the vicinity, north of Nîmes, indicated by a green bubble in the above map. Needless to say, I set off immediately, to see if I could meet up once again with Durrell in Sommières. I located the property, but Durrell himself was not there. So, I missed him.

Meanwhile, for years, I had started to realize to what extent the mythical novelist of my late teenage years in Sydney had ceased to concern me directly, if at all. Today, retrospectively, I can understand perfectly why this was the case. Durrell had fascinated me at a time, back in Australia, when I still believed in romantic Mediterranean legends. But I had grown up since then, and I realized that Durrell was merely an adept story-teller: no more, no less. But certainly not an authority on authentic present-day Mediterranean society… which was better described to me—devoid of the romantic trappings of literature—by Christine's splendid grandparents. Her grandfather had worked for the French military as a specialist in explosives.

Christine's ancestors were real Provençal individuals, with authentic Mediterranean genealogies, not mere figments of the fuzzy imagination of a British novelist. Consequently, by "the force of things" (a splendid existentialist expression that I've always admired), I ceased to be a dyed-in-the-wool Durrellian (if ever I were). I became, modestly, the Australian-born husband of a lovely Breton girl (born, in fact, in Cognac) whose mother was Arlesian. Besides, incidentally, Christine told me she loved the French translations of Durrell's novels.

Meanwhile, my second face-to-face encounter with Lawrence Durrell took place in the Latin Quarter of Paris, in the early 1970s, when the novelist was exhibiting his talents as a painter, identified as Oscar Epf.

On that evening, I was thrilled to meet up with the 20-something daughter of the writer/painter, Sappho Durrell. Back at the time of my initial encounter with Lawrence Durrell, in Nîmes in 1963, Sappho was a child.

That evening, in Paris, she was an elegant young woman, sporting a magic name: Sappho Durrell. While her father chatted diplomatically with visitors, I preferred to enter in contact with Sappho. I told her, of course, that I had met up with her father for the first at Nîmes in 1963. Then I explained how I had come upon their family mansion in Sommières, in 1968. I half-expected that I would hear the profound reflections of the writer's daughter concerning life in a small Provençal town such as Sommières. Instead, at that instant, I was utterly stupefied by the spontaneous reaction of Sappho Durrell, who replied casually in the style of a mindless suburban brat:

SAPPHO DURRELL: "We refer to my father's place in Sommières as the House of the Addams Family."

I had no idea who might be designated by Sappho's "we", but I was immediately shocked (the term is true) by the fact that this young woman, daughter of a great British novelist, with the privilege of living with her illustrious father in the heart of Provence, might dare to allude to such cheap foreign shit as an American TV series. I concluded immediately (maybe wrongly, but first impressions count) that, intellectually, there was little to be acquired from Sappho… who may or may not have inherited significant genes from her Alexandrian mother Eve Cohen, a victim of depressive schizophrenia.

Years later, Christine's brother Lan Mafart, aware of my interest in Durrell, happened to be traveling around in the south of France, and he sent me a lovely photo of the entrance to Durrell's house in Sommières:

Lan also sent me a postcard from Sommières, with an image of the ancient rectangular keep on a hill above the capricious Vidourle:

Here, on the other side, is the text (in French) of Lan's postcard, written from the Café du Commerce:

Lan wrote: "A pale lightbulb shines upon the entrance to the house of Lawrence Durrell. The flakes of paint are like dead leaves forgotten by the gardener." In a cynical vein, Lan notes the absence of "camping-cars in the driveway", meaning that Durrell's home is no longer, apparently, a place of pilgrimage (if ever it were).

The most striking aspect of Lan's postcard is the date: 17 February 1990. On that day, if I understand correctly, Lawrence Durrell was in fact working inside his great bourgeois home on the manuscript of his final masterpiece: Caesar's Vast Ghost — Aspects of Provence. And the writer himself would be dead before the end of that year.

Today, when I learn that Sappho Durrell hung herself in London in 1985, and that she left papers suggesting (in terribly indirect terms) that her father might have straddled her incestuously, my immediate reaction is: crazy Addams-family talk!

I simply cannot, for a moment, imagine why Larry—surrounded constantly by hordes of seductive females—might have suddenly decided to fornicate with his 15-year-old daughter. Inversely, I can well imagine why Sappho might have decided, later on, that it would be nice if she were to make herself interesting (Durrell's daughter was a budding writer) by injecting make-believe sex into the alleged relationship with her father. After all, wasn't that a bit like what her old man had been doing, for ages, to add spice to his stories?

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