Amateurs in Eden: Nancy and Lawrence Durrell by Joanna HodgkinTuesday 13 Mar 2012
Publisher: Virago, hardback
This year marks the 100th anniversary of writer Lawrence Durrell’s birth - his dates were 1912-1990 - and there is quite a deal of activity pegged, shall we say, on the occasion. This flurry of Durrell-related material includes a new biography, a spoken-word Durrell CD from the British Library, a forthcoming opera, and various events and exhibitions. Most importantly perhaps, a new edition of the author's crowning achievement, the quartet of novels, or tetralogy known as The Alexandria Quartet, has recently been reissued by Faber & Faber, with an introduction by Jan Morris.
Everyone should read Justine, the first, relatively short novel in the sequence, which was first published in 1957. If you are drawn in by Justine, very likely you will not be able to resist the other three, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. A unique, trance-like creation, rolling around in its own amnitoic fluid, it is quite unlike any other in its effect and modus operandi. The Alexandria Quartet is a rich evocation of obsessive love, conspiratorial and diplomatic derring-do in the Egyptian city (and Greek enclave) of that name. Durrell himself lived in Alexandria during the Second World War.
The Alexandria Quartet was devoured eagerly thirty or forty years ago by a student type-readership, although Durrell's star has faded somewhat in recent decades. Nevertheless, younger readers should be seduced by its sultry atmosphere and its bold narrative experimentation (basically the same story told from four different characters' points of view.) As I write, the tetralogy is the subject of The Guardian’s Reading Group this month, chaired by Sam Jordison, amounting to a comprehensive guide to the sprawling work, with supplementary links and useful background.
Raised in Jullunder, in so-called 'British India', Durrell considered himself Irish by virtue of the fact that his mother’s family were Irish. He had a largely disdainful attitude to England, where he was sent to school, and where much of the earlier chapters in this 335-page memoir take place.
Because of his Indian birth, the novelist and poet became defined as a so-called 'non-patrial' in 1968, following the amendment to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. Thereafter, he was denied the right to enter or settle in Britain, or “pudding island” as he named it. Indeed he was obliged to apply for a visa for each entry.
Joanna Hodgkin, author of this memoir, is the daughter of Nancy Myers, Durrell’s first wife, from Nancy’s second marriage. Durrell was not her father, therefore. The book is dedicated to her step-sister Penelope.
Hodgkin (who writes crime and historical fiction under the name Joanna Hines) has researched the ten-year relationship between her artist mother and the poet and novelist. She charts the various hurdles the free-spirited Nancy was obliged to negotiate in a strait-laced England where women were supposed to know their place. Yet she studied art at Slade, was attracted to the Bohemian life-style and found her way into it.
Larry and Nancy met when they were in their early twenties, in the so-called Fitzrovia area of London with its literary pubs and artistic scene. They spent an idyllic time in an isolated cottage in Sussex, but the heart of the book is Hodgkin's account of their years in the Greek island of Corfu. They moved there in 1935 with Durrell's family (including Gerald, future author of My Family and Other Animals). It was an enrapturing, if frugal and primitive existence.
Marriage to the domineering, egoistical Durrell was not without its tempestuous aspects, despite periods of intense happiness. Durrell was jealous, and didn't want his wife getting any ideas about free love from Anaïs Nin. During time away from Corfu, in Paris, Nancy and Larry befriended his idol Henry Miller. Miller was one of a list of three "husbands" of Anaïs Nin, at the time.
Following time spent in Athens, the couple were forced to evacuate to Cairo in 1941, as the Nazis advanced. That was also the year that their daughter Penelope was born. Sadly, in 1942, the 'Eden' of the title gave in to various pressures, and the couple separated. Durrell moved to Alexandria, where he worked as press attaché with the British Information Office. He married again and had another daughter, named Sappho. Nancy ended up in Palestine with Penelope.
Perhaps Durrell’s best non-fiction work is Prospero’s Cell, which deals with those precious years in Corfu. Written in the form of a diary, it is precise in its imagery, elegant in its mode of expression. It is a vivid and charming account of customs, mores, food and people, eccentric and otherwise. Yet it has too a limpid, sea-washed quality that is hard to pin down. All the better that its mercurial charm is difficult to convey. Just read it and see.
Nancy Durrell is depicted in Prospero’s Cell as a mostly silent, sylph-like creature, simply named 'N' in the diaries. Durrell describes her diving off rocks into the Ionian Sea, repeatedly surfacing with cherries between her lips, one of the most memorable images in the Durrell oeuvre. When asked about this by her daughter, Nancy rather played it down, and even speculated whether it happened at all quite as Larry depicted it.
Reading this work gives Nancy her life back between its covers, and takes her out from under Durrell's shadow, no bad thing. She had her own shadows certainly. Her father was a dentist, but due perhaps to unwise financial speculation, the family had to move from relative prosperity in Eastbourne in the South of England, to a humbler existence in the town of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire.
Out of pride, Nancy's parents insisted on installing the impressive furniture from their first house, which sat incongruent in the smaller dwelling. Because of her own social insecurities - a thread explored incisively by the author - Nancy's mother Louise made unrealistic demands on her daughter. Such demands soured their relationship iredeemably.
Alternatively, you could let the mystery be, as Iris de Ment once sang, and leave your knowledge of Nancy as she silently hoves in and out of pleasurable diary entries in Prospero’s Cell. This is not to take issue with Joanna's memoir, which is in its own way an appealing work of social history, aside from being a rich family story.
However, Durrell's bewitching prose pictures, the sounds and sights of of the sea, the cliffs and secret bathing places, the messing around with boats, the unadulterated simple love of the place, have been somehow enough for this writer.