Tuesday, September 13, 2011

First encounter with Lawrence Durrell

When I left Australia for Europe in January 1962 on the Greek ship Bretagne, I was traveling light. But I had nevertheless found room in a corner of my two suitcases for The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. I had purchased the four Faber paperback editions at Clay's Bookshop in Macleay Street, near Kings Cross, and it was out of the question to abandon these precious novels in Sydney.

Besides, our ship would soon be sailing alongside Durrell's Mediterranean world of Egypt and Greece, and I had planned on rereading the Quartet during the voyage.

During my first year and a half in Europe, I lived in Paris for 8 months, and then in London for the harsh winter of 1962-63, working in both places with IBM. I carried on reading Durrell, particularly his wonderful books on the Greek islands. Finally, at the start of summer in 1963, I said goodbye to my colleagues in London and set off wandering around as a backpacker, staying in youth hostels. First, I dropped in at Canterbury, where I wanted to visit the tomb of the 14th-century archbishop Simon Mepham, whom I imagined (and still do) as a vague paternal ancestor.

I was amused to think that 14-year-old Lawrence Durrell had once arrived here, in the heart of the superb county of Kent, to study at Saint Edmund's School.

After this rapid pilgrimage, I crossed the Channel by ferry from Dover and hitchhiked from Calais down to Nantes. I then spent a fortnight staying in hostels and moving slowly from Nantes across to Tours and down to Poitiers and Beaulieu-en-Dordogne. At Saint-Brévin-les-Pins, I was fascinated by a French girl who took me out on an excursion to the local market to buy fresh fish, which she then prepared expertly in the simple kitchen of the youth hostel. I've often thought, retrospectively, that it was then that I was charmed, for the first time, by the subtle blend of simple beauty and provincial pragmatism (quite the opposite of sophistication) that characterizes so many young French women.

Meanwhile, I had heard that my hero Durrell was settled in the south of France in the vicinity of Nîmes, which I imagined naively (I was still totally uncultivated in the domain of French geography) as a Provençal village. Early on the morning of Thursday 18 July 1963, a truckdriver took me into Nîmes. I remember being dispirited, as we approached Nîmes, by the sight of clusters of dreary residential buildings, which hardly corresponded to my vision of Durrell's hometown. The truckdriver let me off at an intersection where a signpost indicated the direction of the centre ville. Twenty minutes later, coming upon a huge antique structure (the Roman arena), I realized that I had surely reached the center of Nîmes.

The streets surrounding the arena were quite busy. Most of the pedestrians seemed to be local folk: employees rushing to their jobs in offices and shops, women engaged in early-morning shopping, and adolescents obliged to spend the school vacation in their hometown. There were many tourists, too. Like me, they were clearly overwhelmed by the massive proportions of the ancient Roman structure. The local people, on the other hand, walked past quickly without ever glancing at the stones; they were far more interested in the likelihood of running into friends. For me, this busy scene was far removed from my expected idyllic image of a village square with a tiny church, a stone fountain, and a couple of bistrots whose outdoor tables were shaded by plane trees. The scale alone overpowered me. Nîmes was no village. It was a big town, if not a provincial city. Clearly, this place had nothing to do with the austere Durrellian environment I had imagined on the basis of a few photos I had come across in books and literary magazines.



Feeling somewhat lost, and a little disappointed by the dimensions of the place, I decided to stroll around the stone walls of the Roman arena in Nîmes. On the far side of the vast square, there were several large cafés, where black-uniformed waiters were organizing the rows of tables and chairs out on the pavement.

At this early hour of the morning, there were not many clients, merely a handful of old men reading newspapers. I walked towards the largest café, which was almost empty. A single customer was seated in the sun at one of the tables in the front row. He was sipping a beer and gazing out at the Roman edifice. I recognized him instantly. I had found my novelist. Without hesitating, I walked towards him.

ME: "You're Lawrence Durrell. No?"

DURRELL: "Please be seated. What can I get you to drink?"

I asked for a beer. Durrell got up and walked back up into the café to order my drink. When he returned, I was in a rather confused state of mind, and I attempted to mumble out explanations about why it was totally extraordinary that I should run into him here, of all places, less than an hour after my arrival in Nîmes.

DURRELL: "It's most unusual for me to be sitting in a café in Nîmes at this hour of the morning, but I had to bring my car in for repairs. So, I simply have to wait around until it's ready."

We spent about half an hour together, on that sunny terrasse, talking about various trivial things. I was a naive young man of 22, and that was no doubt the first time in my life that I had found myself in a face-to-face conversation with a celebrity such as Durrell. (Later, during my three or four years in the French TV world, this kind of encounter would become commonplace.) I made a conscious effort to avoid behaving like a wonderstruck fan, but I'm not sure I succeeded. Durrell told me that he had family friends down in Tasmania who had the habit of sending him a crate of home-grown apples every year. That anecdote made me feel more at ease. I sensed immediately that, in the contemporary Tasmanian domain, Durrell's awareness was probably limited, like mine, to that single item of information: they grow apples. Fortunately, I was not yet sufficiently impregnated with all the intricacies and mysteries of the Quartet to be able to raise any interesting questions. So, there was little chance of my boring Durrell at that level. On the other hand, I did make a point of telling him, quite truthfully, that one of the aspects of the masterpiece that had attracted me from the start was the four-dimensional relativity-inspired thing, since I was more-or-less familiar with modern physics. I remember having the impression that Durrell was visibly happy to hear me say this. (I've since learned that various well-intentioned critics were quick to point out that this alleged structural aspect of The Alexandria Quartet does not really stand up to any kind of rigorous scientific analysis.) Durrell spoke of a recent visit of his friend Henry Miller, who was apparently a little ill at ease with the primitive outdoor lavatory at the Mazet Michel. Finally, when Durrell left me to pick up his car, I still had trouble convincing myself that I had actually been chatting with the author of The Alexandria Quartet.

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