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?

13 comments:

  1. Spare your readers the four-letter words. Your description of Sappho Durrell is anything but kind. What she insinuates is, after all, imaginable. Durrell himself has Justine be raped by a family member the character refuses to name. What the heck was he thinking anyway, naming the poor kid after a lesbian poet who killed herself? And is he more trustworthy, in his eternally drunken taedium vitae?

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  2. When I'm writing about exceptional individuals I once encountered, I would never think of making an effort to be "kind". In one of his letters to Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell evoked the technique, adopted up until recently by book publishers in France, that consisted of leaving the edges of the pages uncut. So, before you could start to read a newly-purchased book, you had to take out a bladed device (often referred to, these days, as an envelope opener) and slice open the pages. This task always frustrated me, but Durrell spoke enthusiastically of this obligation in the case of his novels. "I'm always reassured by the idea that future readers, when they set out to discover my books, are armed with a knife."

    I agree with you that Sappho's insinuations are perfectly imaginable… even though I end up doubting their veracity.

    Concerning the rape of Justine, I feel that incidents in Durrell's novels should not be exploited too literally in the hope of determining what might or might not have happened in the real life of the author.

    Your final rhetorical question about the questionable trustworthiness of Lawrence Durrell is perfectly pertinent. I like your expression "eternally drunken taedium vitae", which surely corresponds to the style of his final years at Sommières.

    On the other hand, your allusion to Sappho of Lesbos as "a lesbian poet who killed herself" is a little cursory and superficial. Let me propose simply, as a reaction to your harsh comment, these fabulous lines from Rainer Maria Rilke, of a most Durrellian nature:

    The woman who loves always transcends the man she loves, because life is greater than fate. Her gift of herself she wants to make immeasurable; that is her happiness. And the nameless suffering of her love has always been this: that she is asked to limit her giving. No other plaint have women ever raised. The two first letters of Heloïse contain that only, and five hundred years later it rises from the letters of the Portuguese nun; one recognises it as one does a bird-call. And suddenly through the clear field of this insight passes the very distant figure of Sappho, whom the centuries did not find because they sought her, not in life, but in fate.

    I have pursued this theme in my French-language movie script entitled Adieu, Abelone.

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  3. Sappho's later difficulties seem consistent with someone who was sexually abused as a child; one of the great difficulties for those who are is that people simply won't believe it, especially if they know or have met the one perpetrating the incest; and even more so if that person is famous.

    What a pity you didn't treat Sappho as a person, rather than as a) a reflection of the author you admired and b) something you might 'acquire' something intellectual from.

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  4. It is nice to have this come to my attention *after* this whole Sandusky scandal has broken. How is incest covered up? How do people account themselves rationalists (rationalists strolling the Alps!) while besotted with great man delusions? Well, exhibit A with pictures. As Sunday reading, grand.

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  5. I think you are most unkind to Sappho , Willie dear .
    Perhaps you have spent too long among the literally minded French ?
    To me Sappho's description of the Sommieres house as the " Addams Family house " is just a bit of typical " English " light deprecating humour .. It DOES look a bit like the house in that American TV series , which was popular at around that time .
    Far from being " shit " as you describe it ( Aussies , huh ? ) it was just a harmless little TV comedy show - granted , aimed at the lumpen mass intelligence level , but mildly amusing for all that , and widely watched as teatime by people of all sorts as harmless fun .
    Uncle Fester was probably how Larry felt , the morning after a session on the sauce .
    Children always find the foibles of their parents highly amusing , I know I did .
    Perhaps you were really just shocked to find that this person whom you had mentally elevated to the status of Literary Idol and Paragon was an ordinary human .
    Thank God she didnt Fart , hey ?

    Your Anonymous correspondent finds it perfectly imaginable that Sappho's indirect allusions to having had some sexual relationship with her father represented actual reality .
    Yes , well , Doctor Marietta Higgs was of the same mind shortly after , ruining the lives of dozens of people in several families with crackpot allegations of child abuse , and , in the inimitable words of Gregor Fisher's character Ralph.C.Nesbit , " shining a Davy Lamp up their Khybers " in accordance with her Anal Dilation Technique in an effort to prove her obsessions were reality .
    Curb your imagination unless you have direct allegations , or proof positive , say I , Inconnu love .
    The Drunken bit doesn't aid your case either . Too much sauce certainly removes inhibitions , but all too often leads to the condition known as " Brewer's droop " , you see .

    How awful to lose a child , and to suicide too , without all this subsequent speculative whispering ....

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  6. "Willie dear" replies to "Michael Vincent".

    Whatever my sins, I'm not an anonymous individual who has come out of the woodwork to crawl upon the corpses of Sappho and Larry.

    For those who insist upon the hypothesis that Lawrence Durrell screwed his daughter, there is always (for a short time) the possibility that they might obtain relevant facts by interviewing old-timers in the village of Sommières. Back at the time that the Provençal grand-parents of my wife evoked the existence of Durrell in Sommières, I had the impression that many locals must have been aware of the presence of this English alcoholic. Maybe some of these observers still exist, today. And they might be able to throw light upon the hypothesis that Larry was a daughter-fucker.

    Often, a daughter reacts strangely to her father's lovers. In the context of all that has been alleged about a possible incestuous relationship between Durrell and his daughter, we must never forget the presence of his lover Anaïs Nin: the archetype of the incestuous daughter. Sappho Durrell had surely heard a lot about this woman, her father's idol. And she might have imagined herself as a bit like Anaïs.

    The poor Sappho should rest in peace, like her father. But I persist in believing that Lawrence Durrell was never an incestuous father. That's to say, I see Sappho Durrell as an innocent make-believe artist.

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  7. Anna's comments seem very harsh here -- Sappho did not accuse her father of incest. This was a description added to her journals in the hopes of selling them (not by the family and not by her!). It was also strategically made once both of them were dead, which meant no libel suit could be filed. Terribly convenient, that.

    The anonymous comment that Sappho's "difficulties" are consistent with incest is astoundingly vague. Suicide is consistent with a great many things, such as mental illness, age, and dependency on anxiety-reducing drugs such as alcohol. Statistical correlates with suicide bear virtually no relationship with popular ideas (gender and age in particular). Incest, however, is correlated with an increased risk of later prostitution, relationship and intimacy challenges, and becoming an abuser. None of which applies to Sappho. Wild speculation does not do her nor her suffering any good, and it only rationalizes her very sad death through a confirmation bias.

    The whole matter is just very sad, but before people run to the races, look at her journals and try to find out where she claims incest. Sappho doesn't. Other people do, but she does not, and that means she's just being used after her death for some else's ideas and opinion. Too many writers, journalists, and academics have simply made up whatever suits their opinion on this topic or their need for a new publication, and for a topic like incest, that's simply unethical.

    Allegations of incest should never be simply dismissed, but for exactly the same reasons, allegations of incest shouldn't be used just to try to sell a book.

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  8. Hasn´t anybdy here read Bitter Lemons !? Durrell mentions his 2 year old daughter only once in the novel and completely out of the blue! This really shocked me and that´s how I got on this page and now I see this... Now thats the facts... My interpretation Even If he had not raped her he was surely a shitty father, no wonder that´s what happened.

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  9. Anais Nin was Lawrence Durrell's lover? I think you would be wise to check such facts first, as far as possible, since all protagonists are now deceased.

    Your reactions to both Durrell, Sappho and the comments here do nothing more than indicate your own chauvinistic, narrow-minded attempt to clutch, by over-stretched association, at the coattails of those responsible for making art.

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  10. Today, 'The Independent' U.K. has published a contrary jotting from author Jim Crace on Durrell as writer and man, denigrating one as embarassing blowsy comfort and the other as predatory and sleazy. 1st comment reply from Michael Haag, Durrell's current biographer, is worth noting.

    "It is remarkable that Jim Crace can write that Lawrence Durrell's life has been 'peeled off to reveal a predatory and sleazy man'. Being engaged in writing his biography, I can say that Durrell has been the victim of certain predatory and sleazy people out to make a buck. In due course their deceits will be exposed and they will be publicly shamed in my book. Meanwhile it would be good if Jim Crace exercised his critical faculties before reblabbing whatever blab he has picked up from the literary SEWER."

    Michael Haag's necessary exposure of the literary sewer is a long time overdue. Thank you William.

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  11. Sappho had psychiatric problems for many years. Quite possibly she inherited this from her mother, who suffered from schizophrenia. She kept journals, which she entrusted to a friend with instructions that they published after she and her father had died. Sappho committed suicide in 1985, Durrell died towards the end of 1990, and the a 30 page collection of extracts from the journals was published by Granta in 1991. Bill Buford, described the totality of the journals as "a large and largely incoherent body of work"; he also described Sappho's insinuations of incest as a "fantasy", albeit one which Sappho believed in.

    The actual journal entries as published in Granta don't actually say that Durrell committed incest with Sappho. What they do say is that Sappho felt threatened by her father's dating of women her own age; this, she wrote, was "mental incest." The entire Durrell-incest meme seems to be built on this.

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  12. Thank you, Philip Coggan, for that clear and factual summary of the Durrell father/daughter situation. I've always felt sympathy towards many of Sappho's kind-hearted admirers who defend her posthumous combat against an allegedly invasive father, and I'm particularly intrigued by the quite plausible concept of "mental incest". But we must never allow such family affairs to denigrate the fabulous literary prowess of Lawrence Durrell.

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  13. I got to know Eve in the late 1970s and she was most certainly not a schizophrenic. She was sensitive, fascinating and stimulating company, extremely kind to me but obviously not given to tolerating fools. What would she have made of you, Mr. Skyvington? Did you ever meet her, visit her and realise how wise she was? I also met Sappho at Eve's London apartment and warmed to her immediately. If they were alive today, I don't doubt they would have sued you for libel. But as they are not, you have taken the coward's way out and raped them both in your own verbal manner. I trust it gave you great pleasure to humiliate the memory of these women. Please do not visit their grave again.

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