“It is always the “cross-patriates,” the hyphenated, who are drawn to Durrell,” writes Peter Pomerantsev in an article this week celebrating Lawrence Durrell’s centenary.
Pomerantsev notes that Durrell, who was born in India, educated (badly – he hated it) in “Pudding Island”, left for Corfu and never returned to his pseudo-native shores, was not highly-thought of in Britain and even now is better remembered abroad. (Pomerantsev notes that he had trouble finding a copy of the Alexandria Quartet in London: I had no problem finding multiple copies in Tel Aviv.)
The feeling, however, was mutual – Durrell disliked England and the “English death”, calling himself a “professional refugee” – a smart quip, but one which has more than a ring of truth to it.
“I have an Indian heart and an English skin,” he said. “I realized this very late, when I was twenty-one, twenty-two. It created a sort of psychological crisis. I nearly had a nervous breakdown. I realized suddenly that I was not English really, I was not European. There was something going on underneath and I realized that it was the effect of India on my thinking.”
Pomerantsev argues that Durrell, however, would have felt at home in contemporary London with its multicultural, multiracial mix and its seediness – echoes of Alexandria. Durrell was ahead of his time, this argument goes, foreseeing maybe the transformation of Britain’s capital into a postmodern melting pot:
Durrell would have been at ease in this new London, a city that has completely lost its moorings: with its wines, halal butchers, Russian oligarchs, identity crises, religious terrorists.
“We are all Alexandrians now,” he concludes, referring to Kennedy’s Berlin speech. Are we? The old Alexandria is gone, Egypt is “for the Egyptians”, modern London to me is nothing like the descriptions of Alexandria in Durrell’s work and in any case Durrell’s Quartet is far from postmodern. Pomerantsev’s description of London reminds me more of Martin Amis (but the Quartet is the “study of modern love”, and Amis’s London Fields is a modern love story, it’s anti-hero is “modern, modern”.)