The Manhattan air catches and clogs Lawrence Durrell's emphysematous lungs, and so he has settled in his biographer's home, a minuscule cottage perched on the surprisingly bucolic tip of the Bronx. Manhattan rises, a smog-shrouded dream, on the horizon, and Durrell apologizes for the absence of the Empire State Building, which has vanished in the haze. Even though the novelist is only a temporary resident here, the vista from the banks of Long Island Sound has become his, a gift he, as lifelong chronicler of locale, hoped to offer his visitor.
"Isn't this marvelous?" the 74-year-old author of "The Alexandria Quartet" says as he savors the pebbly beach, the slick dark surface of the water, the lumbering barges and giddy birds. "Water changes everything."
Since Durrell crossed the English Channel as a young man, fleeing rain-sodden Britain for his beloved, sunny Continent, he has always lived on the margin between land and water. On the shores of the Aegean, the Nile, the Mediterranean, the Seine, the Pacific, he drank and talked with friends Henry Miller and Anais Nin, George Seferis and T.S. Eliot. And he wrote the Quartet, which he has called a "continuum of words," "a relativity poem." A lushly written portrait of an English writer's life amidst the inhabitants of Alexandria, Egypt, in the late '30s and early '40s, the Quartet is both an evocation of place and an exploration of "modern love," as Durrell called it. In the Quartet reality is refracted through a variety of eyes, the same incidents repeated and reflected on by a series of voices. The series was a best seller in the early '60s and continues to attract devoted readers.
In the last decade there was "The Avignon Quintet," which Durrell calls a quincunx: an arrangement of four objects in a square with one in each corner and a fifth in the middle. While writing the Quartet, Durrell said his interest was in "the ego as a series of masks." He continued on this path in the Quintet, another interwoven tale in which characters slide out of fiction and into fact, writers create characters with whom they pursue long reflective conversations, and Durrell ventures through the labyrinths of art, fascism, madness and Eastern gnostic suicide cults.
And always there was poetry, drama, translations and a classic series of "travel books" in the best sense of the phrase -- "Bitter Lemons," "Prospero's Cell" and others celebrating the sea and land of the Mediterranean and his decades spent there on Rhodes and Cyprus, Sicily and Corfu.
But now the air is a combatant, and Durrell rarely dares leave his home in a small French town outside Nimes in southern France.
"For the last two or three years I've been plagued by bad health, which has disgusted and surprised me," he says as he walks slowly along sandy paths. "I was always healthy like an athlete. Suddenly, in my old age I've toppled into emphysema and no longer can travel or stand on my head or do anything enjoyable except drink."
And so, at 10:30 in the morning, he finishes his brief progress and retires to a chair and a glass of white wine. He has been lured here by scholar Ian MacNiven, who is in the midst of a Durrell biography, a growing Lawrence Durrell Society and a biennial Durrell conference held this year at Penn State, where he heard professors profess on such subjects as "Love, Morality and Meaning in 'The Alexandria Quartet': Some East-West Perspectives" and "Myth and Daimonic Voice in 'The Avignon Quintet.' "
"They were running barefoot through my hair," he says with the self-mocking smile he rarely loses. "I felt rather shy, and thought I should swell up like a toad and be unable to fit into my overcoat. I'm interested in finding out whether the quinx is settling down in its groove. I'd always hoped the books would coalesce and merge and make one sort of work, and I'm so pleased to see at some times the characters appear to be walking in and out of their own lives in the course of the different books. In a sense I hope that all my work will be one book finally, and all my characters facets of one big character. I wanted it to be living, a sort of walking nervous breakdown."
"Bitter Lemons," 1957: Journeys, like artists, are born and not made. A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will -- whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures -- and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space, but inwards as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.
Durrell is a short gnome of a man with a stocky frame that still speaks of days spent swimming in the Aegean. The leonine face has wrinkled and the hair grayed, but the eyes are still filled with mischievous delight in wine, women and words. He can kiss a hand with a wry grace, spin stories and metaphors with an almost tactile joy. And, if his voice is edged with a wheeze, there remains the spark his brother Gerald described in his "My Family and Other Animals": "Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas on other people's minds, and then curling up with cat-like unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences."
Born in India of British colonials, Durrell began life as an expatriate and continued as one. "There's something so gloomy about English life," he says. "They seem programmed for unhappiness, those people. And everybody agrees with you if you say that. They don't smash your face. They say, 'Yes, isn't it awful, old man?' " But as he wrote to Miller in 1937, "So much of England I loved and hated so much. The language clings. I try to wipe it off my tongue but it clings."
In 1935, after failing to gain entrance to Cambridge and discovering that playing jazz piano and running a photography studio were hardly satisfying, the blond firework transported his mother and three siblings to Corfu. For the next 50 years, he lived in Crete, Athens, Rhodes, Cairo, Belgrade, Cyprus, paying for the time to write by teaching and serving diligently but unhappily in the British diplomatic corps, leaving almost everywhere with the bombs of war or revolution bursting at his heels. "Wherever there was a danger of being blown up," he says, "they sent me."
The countries surrounding the Mediterranean offered Durrell a chance for happiness, for passion. Alexandria is, for Durrell, the "capital of memory," a living palimpsest where the ghosts of Mark Antony and the poet Constantin Cavafy inhabit the dusty cafe's and teeming harbors, a city where love festers and kills and, for the lucky few, replenishes. "And then in autumn the dry, palpitant air, harsh with static electricity, inflaming the body through its light clothing," he wrote in "Justine," the first of "The Alexandria Quartet." "The flesh coming alive, trying the bars of its prison. A drunken whore walks in a dark street at night, shedding snatches of song like petals."
In the late '50s he moved to southern France, where he could live cheaply and well, nourished by "a land," as he described it in the first volume of "The Avignon Quintet," "which from ancient times had given itself up to dreaming, to fabulating, to tale-telling, with the firm belief that stories should have no ending."
He lives in a large old house surrounded by chestnut and palm trees and a tangle of wild roses. Durrell does not want the name of the town published for fear of the college English majors and literary pilgrims who wander through Europe, knocking on doors and expecting long, erudite conversations. The curious who ask at the local post office for his address are told, according to one visitor, "Ah, je ne sais pas!" by people who sais quite well but understand art's hunger for privacy and quiet.
"I always wanted to think of a great novel or a great poem as a kind of domestic appliance, something that you could use to grow up with, that the thrill it gave you really changed your personality and reoriented you towards evolving in your sensibility," he says now, a pragmatic definition of art that naturally drew him to France where, as he told The Paris Review almost 30 years ago, "one feels on a par with a good or bad cheese -- the attitude to art of a Frenchman is the attitude to what is viable -- eatable, so to speak . . . they don't treat camembert with less reverence than they treat Picasso when he comes to Arles; they are in the same genre of things."
Durrell is now writing a "notebook" about Provence and, if all goes well, will soon join the man he calls "my wicked brother" on Corfu.
"I have a charming American girlfriend who gave me a kick in the pants and a bottle of Vitamin E and I haven't had an attack since, so I may join Gerry," he says. But Corfu, like so many of the places both Durrells lived in and wrote about, "has been a bit ruined, you know -- all the European tourist trade, the beer-drinking football players. Greece is very severely menaced, and I'm afraid we are a bit responsible for doing such good propaganda for it. Henry wrote 'The Colossus of Maroussi,' which is marvelous, and 'Animals' is a bit of a classic. Now the beach in Rhodes is simply one mass of heaving football players. Mykonos felt like it was in Central Asia when we were there. Part of the charm was the feeling of isolation and exile and loneliness. In the course of 50 years, we may be grateful Qaddafi has compromised all tourism."
Letter to Henry Miller, Cyprus, 1955: I still hear the surf-thunder of your prose in memory as the biggest experience of my inner man.
Durrell first encountered Miller's "Tropic of Cancer" in a public lavatory in Corfu. "Some disgusted American tourist had left it there. I wrote him a small fan letter, never expecting a reply. And the rest is in the correspondence."
Durrell and Miller wrote to each other for nearly 50 years. In the beginning, Durrell was 23, Miller 43, and the younger writer had yet to publish a thing.
From the initial letter, Miller was taken. "You're the first Britisher who's written me an intelligent letter about the book," he wrote back. "Your letter is so vivid, so keen, that I am curious to know if you are not a writer yourself."
"I was so grateful to him," says Durrell. "He formed me. I never wanted to write like him, but his example of a free spirit was so central. He showed me what an artist could be. Such bravery! You see he did the essential thing. In Buddhism, you must go through a tremendous psychological experience, becoming totally helpless like a baby. Unless you go through your anxiety that way, you don't come to the dharmic response. The Buddhists absolutely insist on it as a point of departure. The strange thing is the minute you become utterly helpless you generate another kind of response -- your destiny comes into play, and the situation resolves itself without you having to cerebralize the whole thing. It confers on you a different kind of independence, much stronger than being dependent on the big coffer full of dough, or whatever else you need to bolster yourself -- beauty, charm, intelligence, whatever it is.
"Henry was perpetually doing that. All the violence in his writing was really therapy, not pornography. He cured himself in the process. 'Tropic of Cancer' was an account of his tremendous self-administered shock of helplessness. He conferred on me the same kind of happy liberation, which I needed very much."
The two men wrote to each other about their work, criticizing failures of imagination and then apologizing, despairing over provincial American and English tastes, recommending publishers and bemoaning the lack of money. Miller was, with Eliot and Seferis, what Durrell calls his "uncles," men in their forties who befriended the young author, championing his early "The Black Book," which many thought pornographic, and encouraging him to write more.
"The letters were full of insight, full of fun," he says. Even in Miller's last years, "he never really ceased. He was making people happy simply by existing, especially young people. He was a smile."
Letter to Henry Miller, Cyprus, 1956: By a stroke of luck a lovely young Alexandrian tumbled into my arms and gave me enough spark to settle down and demolish the book. She is French, Claude, a writer with something oddly her own. Night after night we've been working on our books, typewriters at each end of the dining-room table, sitting up over a scale map of Alexandria before a log fire tracing and re-tracing the streets with our fingers, recapturing much that I had lost, the brothels and the parks, the dawns over Lake Mareotis etc. Outside the dull desultory noise of bombs going off, or a few pistol shots, or a call from the operations people to say that there's been another ambush in the mountains.
Thirty years ago, Durrell told The Paris Review, "You see, I am not fundamentally interested in the artist. I use him to try to become a happy man, which is a good deal harder for me. I find art easy. I find life difficult."
The Quartet was a long time coming. But like Miller, Durrell had groomed himself as a connoisseur of love, a scholar of women, and it was love that he says allowed him to finish "Justine" and continue with the Quartet.
"I ran into a real woman," he says as simply as if saying, "I learned how to breathe."
"That gave me such a shock I thought I ought to do something. So I started the Quartet. I found to my great astonishment it was not my beauty nor my charm nor my eloquence which won her. It was her curiosity about the Quartet. She insisted on knowing what the hell happened."
Claude died suddenly in 1967. Durrell had been married and divorced twice before and had two children, daughters bearing names mixed of romance and practicality, luxurious style and modesty -- Penelope Berengaria, once called "Pinky," and Sappho-Jane -- as much an amalgam of Mediterranean and English as their father. Penelope now lives on Rhodes. Sappho died last year.
Letter to Henry Miller, Cyprus, 1953: The beauty of the Mediterranean -- one can't have enough of it. I insist on dying somewhere along this holy and pre-Christian shore.
For decades, the words flowed, rushing forth. He has written, translated and contributed to more than 60 books. Some critics accused Durrell of overwriting, of indulging himself with pedantic lectures on gnosticism and a rococo facility of style, but the author recognizes his tendency toward what he calls "over-efflorescence" with a predictably self-deprecating reference".
In "The Avignon Quartet," one writer warns another, "The old danger is there -- a work weighed down with theoretical considerations."
There could be no frugality of prose for Durrell, who found his natural home among the inhabitants of Greece and the Levant with their delight in bargaining, in tall tales and short tales and tales of all kinds.
"We're shanty Irish bastards about two generations back," he says to explain his word-drunk family. "One member of the family has now traced us back to the 15th century, and it's ruin all way. "
MacNiven, official guardian of fact, corrects him -- the family tree sprouted judges, military men of some honor. Durrell is not interested; the joy of conversation is better served by this version.
But while the delight in stories continues, Durrell believes his novelistic journey may be done. The Quintet behind him, he has no plans for further fiction, and refers to his Provence notebook as "a little geriatric prose."
"I'm not sure I'm not through," he says, "or I'm not sure the novel isn't through with me. The water is rather low in the well. At 74, I'm a venerable old gentleman. It takes a lot of energy and a lot of neurosis to write a novel. The career's a neurotic occupation. If you were really sensible, you would do something else."
If this saddens him, the end of the neurotic career, he remains the former British diplomat. The author may write ornate prose, but the man eschews sentimental excess, eluding the subject with a rueful smile and offhand joke that manage to make the question seem naive.
"I have to roll with the paunch," he says, and peers into his thrice-refilled wine glass until the expected laughter ripples up and he can join in, smiling at his own bad pun, the wine at delightful work.
"One day I said to old Eliot, I said, 'You must be terribly happy, T.S.E., to feel you have produced a work which has completely rerouted the course of English poetry.' He said, 'Yes, it would be wonderful to think one has done the trick, but can one ever be sure?' "
And more laughter. A marvelous man, old Eliot, and a marvelous story.