Monday, January 15, 2007

Lawrence Durrell

Post-modern approach to Durrell's Tetralogy...

The tetralogy of Alexandria from Larry Durrell has worked for me as few others books managed to do. Why is so? Well, there one has a question to consider at a leisurely pace in the few decades ahead of one. Meanwhile I keep enriching my Bibliotheca Durrelliana..

The latest opus from the BritLit crowd is this "Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet in Its Egyptian Contexts" by a Dr. Michael V. Diboll, an Arabist and a scholar. Not being exactly a mainstream book it cost me a hefty 78 Pounds sterling to amazon it my way. It had better given me some value for money, you might say. Amazingly enough it did.

Diboll was in Cairo, learning Arabic, despairing of not quite feeling the appeal for any of the traditional jobs it entails. He was not interested in any of these " career options open to the professional Arabist - 'intelligence', the military, the diplomatic service, the arms trade, or the oil industry”. Happy with some serious political-literary comparative literature research in his spare time, doing Maphouz versus Durrell, in the framework of post-British pre-Nasser Egypt, our future author went for a Ph.D. instead. Yes, on Durrell's oeuvre, you guessed it right.

It must have been a shock for him (as indeed for me, a die-hard durrellista if ever there was one) to read the reference to Uncle Lawrence in the "Rough Guide" dealing with Egypt. Yes, the very same guide that youngish clever travellers identify with, talks about The Quartet in these terms: "Endless sexual and metaphysical ramblings by one of the twentieth century's most over-rated writers, occasionally relieved by dollops of Alex atmosphere". This is not a bad review of a book - this is book-character assassination!

So, Dr. Diboll embarks on a mission. To rescue the tetralogy from obsolescence. To save from oblivion the living souls of Nessim Hosnani, Justine, Darley, Pombal, Pursewarden, Ambassador Mountolive, Melissa, Narouz, Clea, Dr. Balthazar and innumerable other inhabitants of the Alexandrinian novel.

How does he go about in his quixotesque endeavours? By teasing us, reticent readers of dead white guru-esque writers, about the relevance of Durrell's book to very contemporary trends.

He makes us contemplate the accuracy of post-colonial and post-Imperial narrative (last gasp of Imperial Britannia); throw at us Edward Said's paradigm of "Orientalism" as a bone to our destructive gnawing; elaborates on middle-eastern alterity, an Otherness with a hint of "darkness", invoking Conrad/Copolla in the process, to unbalance us; cleverly alludes to Zionism, Pan-Arabism, Wafdism and other such politically-charged concepts to keep us guessing. And I don't even mention the "New Age" exoteric stuff, with Gnostic neo-Plotinuses at every corner and for every taste.

All that is quite impressive. In my case, he was preaching to a convert, so, I've no way to tell if his highly dignified attempt of making us run to the shops and buy the damned Box Set of Justine+ Balthazar+ Mountolive+ Clea is really successful.

Personally, I always thought that the resistance of the literary establishment in the Britishy Isles towards Durrell's magnum opus had to do with the excesses of his imagery, his over-writing, the lack of tight-assed decorum of his prose. Brits used to say of a plate that actually tasted of something like "it's quite rich, isn't it?" (Excusing themselves for the lack of gastronomical decorum, for the audacity to break the rule of wholesome insipidity).

No Dr. Diboll, you are on a dead end if you try to wrap Uncle Larry's over-the-top writing (warts and all) with intellectual onion-peel layers of post-modern significance. You are in fact betraying our common hero. Durrell was a giant because he rejected stiff-upper lipping his language when describing a place where sun and war-intoxication demanded un-harnessed half-delirious words-magic.

It might be a literary flop, as "Apocalypse Now" is indeed a cinematic one, but what a glorious way to stumble! Even the mambo-jumbo of claiming Einstein’s space-time four-dimensional physics is a wonderful piece of structural kitsch.

We were all gasping with feverish awe when we first read about people being "wounded in their sex" in Alexandria. There. That's how you will get late teenagers and early twenty-something’s to read the Quartet.

Just choose a couple of juicy bits and stick it in the in-flight magazine of every easyJet plane doing London to Marrakech.

No comments: