It was only 10:30 that April morning but Lawrence Durrell began with wine. He said the cold, sharp liquid had medicinal purposes -- somehow it helped the emphysema -- but smiled as he said it. There was some small celebration in that glass of wine, which he would have been the last to deny. He was already old in 1986 and short of breath, bewildered by the poor health that had descended upon him, but sitting in a small cottage in the Bronx he was still speaking in words both witty and elegant, still flirting, still appreciating the sensual pleasures that were left to him.
Durrell died on Wednesday. He was 78 and died at his home in the south of France where he had lived for nearly 30 years. A prolific novelist, poet, travel writer and correspondent, he has been and will be best remembered for his "Alexandria Quartet," a cycle of books about love and death and the challenges of knowing another person.
In "Justine," "Balthazar," "Mountolive" and "Clea," stories intertwined, characters were revealed again and again, changing with each new vision of them. He was in debt to Joyce and Proust and called the four books a "continuum of words," "a relativity poem." With its part-Eastern, part-Einsteinian mysticism and almost erotically rich language, the series was tremendously popular in the early '60s, and young readers continue to discover and sink delightedly into Durrell's lush and mysterious Alexandria.
His style was baroque and his inclination toward the deeply theoretical. Many of those young readers who loved the "Quartet" grew older, returned to Durrell and saw something florid and excessive where before they had seen genius. His later books were often criticized as self-indulgent and overwrought, labels he himself did not necessarily reject. But even those who grew more skeptical over the years saw him as an often beautiful and compelling writer of the English language and a master at evoking place.
It was generally agreed that the true hero of the "Quartet" was the ancient and decaying Alexandria, and throughout his life cities and landscapes shaped Durrell's work. He wrote this of the Egyptian city in "Justine":
In summer the sea-damp lightly varnished the air. Everything lay under a coat of gum. And then in autumn the dry, palpitant air, harsh with static and electricity, inflaming the body through its light clothing. 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. Was it in this that Anthony heard the heart-numbing strains of the great music which persuaded him to surrender for ever to the city he loved?
Durrell was born in the Himalayas in 1912, the oldest son of a British colonial couple, lived until he was 10 in India and then returned to England, where he languished into his twenties. As a young man, he fled that wet and convention-ridden country and lived in Crete, Athens, Rhodes, Cairo, Belgrade and Cyprus before settling finally in France. His last book will be published next week. Fittingly, it is a portrait of Provence.
Even a modest site could entrance him, as a quiet section of the Bronx did during a 1986 interview. He could not walk far, but a slow stroll took him through the lanes of an old artists colony that overlooked the water. Passing under a flowering tree, he pulled a branch down and invited his interviewer to join him under the small garden of blooms. That tree, the Throgs Neck Bridge across the water, Manhattan hazy in the distance, the barges and birds, it all delighted him. "Isn't this marvelous?" he said. "Water changes everything."
He was an entertaining presence, telling stories and enjoying the telling of them. His conversation was airy with exaggerations and punctured with self-deprecation. "At 74, I'm a venerable old gentleman," he said as he explained that he was done with novel writing. "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."
In his tart autobiography, "My Family and Other Animals," Durrell's younger brother, Gerald, a naturalist and equally prolific author, described his brother as "designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas in other people's minds, and then curling up with cat-like unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences."
According to Gerald Durrell, it was "Larry" who said, "I can't be expected to produce deathless prose in an atmosphere of gloom and eucalyptus" and thus persuaded his family to relocate to Corfu.
"Journeys, like artists, are born and not made," the adult Larry wrote years later in "Bitter Lemons," a book about Cyprus. "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 chronicled his wanderings in books and letters, and two volumes of his correspondence with his friend Henry Miller were eventually published. T.S. Eliot, the poet George Seferis and the diarist Anais Nin were all friends, but it was of Miller that Durrell said, "I was so grateful to him. He formed me."
They were in a way made for each other -- proto-hippies, expatriates who celebrated and chronicled sex and other mind-altering experiences. "He never really ceased," Durrell said of the aging Miller. "He was making people happy simply by existing, especially young people."
Durrell himself drew and was drawn to the young. They came to a cocktail party held for him in New York four years ago, towering over the stocky, once-athletic man, pressing manuscripts and requests for attention on him. When interviewers asked the name of the Provencal town he lived in -- it was Sommieres -- he begged them to keep it out of the paper for fear of being assaulted by vacationing college students seeking heartfelt communion with the author.
For decades he taught school and served unhappily in the British diplomatic corps to support his writing. He was married four times, had two daughters. There was one great love he spoke about in his old age, a Frenchwoman named Claude who goaded him to finish the "Quartet" and died suddenly. To the end, he remained a connoisseur of women and continued to write, eventually following the "Quartet" with the "Avignon Quintet," set in Provence.
As the "Quintet" books were published, they were greeted with disappointment by some critics who found Durrell's writing lost in the complexities of gnostic mysticism and his style finally out of control. He knew he was given to "over-efflorescence," as he called it, and mocked his own love of "theoretical considerations," but there was no cure. He could as soon stop kissing the hand of every woman he met.
But if the charm and delight in words lasted, over the years the traveling faded and eventually ended. The empty Greek islands he helped introduce to the world were no longer empty. The body was no longer able. He settled down in France and began his final project.
In 1953 he had written to Henry Miller, "The beauty of the Mediterranean -- one can't have enough of it. I insist on dying somewhere along this holy and pre-Christian shore."
And so he did.