Lawrence Durrell, 78, the British novelist and poet who was best known as author of "The Alexandria Quartet" and "Bitter Lemons," died Nov. 7 at his home in Sommieres, the village in southern France where he had lived for 33 years. He had emphysema.

Mr. Durrell, whose literary career spanned six decades, explored love, sex, self-discovery and the complexities of human relationships in his writing, much of which evoked the exotic imagery of the Mediterranean, where many of his stories were set and where he spent most of his life.

His style was lush and baroque, and sometimes was compared to that of Joseph Conrad or, more recently, Vladimir Nabokov. The best of his work was said by admirers to be on a level with such literary giants as Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Others argued his writing was just clumsy and described Mr. Durrell as "a mere word-spinner" and a "gatherer of flamboyant cliches."

Although Mr. Durrell's early writings had drawn praise from the likes of T.S. Eliot and Henry Miller, he was virtually unknown to the public until the late 1950s with the publication of the four books of "The Alexandria Quartet" and "Bitter Lemons."

Books of the quartet, "Justine," "Balthazar," "Mountolive" and "Clea," were written between 1956 and 1960, and the setting was the Egyptian city of Alexandria in the 1930s and 1940s. Mr. Durrell spent the last two years of World War II there as a press attache with the British Information Office.

He once described the work as "a four-dimensional dance, a relativity poem . . . . Ideally the four volumes should be read simultaneously, as they cover the three sides of space and one of time . . . . "

The stories explored sexual activity as a search for truth and a means of self-discovery, but they also were about political intrigue in an exotic city of the Middle East. In the four volumes the same events are seen and interpreted differently by a variety of characters.

Critical commentary in the United States and Europe ranged from swift dismissal to demands that Mr. Durrell be awarded a Nobel Prize for literature. The books were published in one volume in 1962 and became best-sellers.

The island of Cyprus, where Mr. Durrell had been a British government press officer and news correspondent in the early 1950s, provided the inspiration for "Bitter Lemons," written in 1957. The book is a many-faceted account of the island during the British-Greek-Turkish struggles there. Its publication, along with the books of "The Alexandria Quartet," inspired a renewed interest in Mr. Durrell's earlier works, which included several largely neglected novels, some Mediterranean travel books, poems and sketches of diplomatic life.

Mr. Durrell was born in northern India, where his father, an Irish Protestant engineer, had gone to help build India's rail system. He did not see England until he was almost a teenager, and he never liked it. " . . . That mean, shabby little island up there wrung my guts out of me and tried to destroy anything singular and unique in me," he once said in a letter to Miller, his friend and literary mentor.

He attended secondary school in Canterbury, but failed to gain admission to Cambridge and worked as a young man as a jazz pianist in London while beginning a novel and writing poetry.

With his wife, mother, two brothers and a sister, he moved to the Greek island of Corfu in 1935, where he continued working on his literary career. It was in this period that he read Miller's recently published "Tropic of Cancer." He admired the book greatly and wrote Miller to tell him so.

" . . . It really gets down on paper the blood and bowels of our time," he said in his letter. Miller answered that Mr. Durrell had "hit the nail on the head. I particularly prize your letter because it's the kind of letter I would have written myself had I not been the author of the book."

That exchange was the beginning of a 45-year correspondence between the authors, covering not only their literary efforts but also such subjects as travel, sex, nature, women, wives and art. A selection, "The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-80," was published in 1988.

Largely through Miller's efforts, Mr. Durrell was able to find a publisher, Obelisk Press in Paris, for his first serious novel, "The Black Book," which he described as the story of a writer trying to break out of his "cultural swaddling clothes." Published in 1937, the novel won praise from Miller and Eliot, and it encouraged Mr. Durrell in his literary career. But it was regarded by many as pornographic and was not a popular success.

Soon after the outbreak of World War II, Mr. Durrell moved to Cairo, where he worked as a press officer before moving to Alexandria. He later lived for brief periods in Yugoslavia, the Greek island of Rhodes, Argentina and England before settling in southern France in 1957.

During those years, he had a series of minor jobs with the British Foreign Service, while writing travel books celebrating the sea and land of the Mediterranean, drama and poetry. His verse was romantic, taut and often humorous, and had been published in several anthologies since 1938.

After moving to France, Mr. Durrell's main literary effort was a five-volume work called "The Avignon Quintet," completed in 1985. The books in the quintet were "Monsieur," "Livia," "Constance," "Sebastian" and "Quinx," and his interest while writing them, Mr. Durrell said, was "the ego as a series of masks."

The stories were interwoven with multiple narrators, characters moving from fiction to fact and writers creating characters with whom they have long, reflective conversations. They followed a labyrinthian path that touched fascism, madness, suicide cults, Eastern gnosticism, a search for buried 14th century Knights Templars treasure and the unfolding of complicated relationships.

Mr. Durrell's last book, "Caesar's Vast Ghost: A Portrait of Provence," will be published in London next year by Farber and Farber.

In 1935, Mr. Durrell married Nancy Myers. The marriage ended in divorce. A daughter from that marriage, Penelope Berengaria, survives.

His second marriage to Yvette Cohen also ended in divorce, and his third wife, Claude Marie Vineenden, died in 1967.


Civil Service Official

Norman R. Miller, 74, retired chief of the inspection division of the bureau of field operations of the Civil Service Commission, died Nov. 7 at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital after a heart attack.

Mr. Miller, who lived in Olney, was born in Tuxedo, N.Y.

He graduated from Iowa State University and moved to the Washington area in 1944 after having worked for the Civil Service Commission in New York. He retired in 1972.

In retirement he had worked as a self-employed tree surgeon.

Mr. Miller was a former Sunday school superintendent at Hughes United Methodist Church in Wheaton, a member of the board of directors of the Silver Spring YMCA and a swimming and lifesaving instructor for the Red Cross.

He was a violinist and had taught ice skating.

He was a member of the Williamsburg Village Civic Association.

Survivors include his wife, Evelyn Miller of Olney; four children, Timothy Miller, Katherine Miller and Linda Sherwood, all of Olney, and Christopher Miller of Burtonsville; and two grandchildren.


Personnel Specialist

Bernice Mischal Powell, 63, a retired General Services Administration personnel management specialist, died of cancer Nov. 7 at her home in Washington.

Mrs. Powell was born in Cleveland. She was an administrative clerk with the Air Force in Ohio before moving to the Washington area in 1962.

She worked here as a personnel management specialist for the Department of the Air Force and the Department of the Navy before joining the GSA staff in 1967. She retired in 1981.

She was a member of the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington and its Helping Hand Club, and she had done volunteer work at Howard University Hospital.

Survivors include her husband of 37 years, Leo F. Powell of Washington; a sister, Thelma Lockett of Cleveland; and two brothers, Miller Mischal of Cleveland and Kenneth Mischal of Oakland.