Notes on Durrell and the Symbolists

In 1958, a year after Durrell published Justine, Frey A. Stark published a review of his latest nonfiction work, Bitter Lemons, in the New York Times.

“One of the best English poets of our time, Lawrence Durrell, presents us, in his latest book, with a very notable achievement,” Stark writes. “It is not often that a topical subject gains by the handling of a poet. The emotional climate, to which poets are so sensitive, is damaging to the balance of reason.”

Durrell, the poet, published what is now his best-known book, Justine, as a novel – an odd state of affairs because in many ways it is a book of poems. John Press came close to recognizing this phenomenon when he wrote that the “best introduction to the Alexandria Quartet is the collected poems, just as the best gloss on his poems is the Alexandria Quartet”. In fact, large parts of Justine are not just prosified poetry, but read better as poems.

Take this quote from page 19 of my Faber paperback for example:

This is the hour least easy to bear, when from my balcony I catch an unexpected glimpse of her walking idly toward town in her white sandals, still half asleep. The city unwrinkles itself like an old tortoise and peers about it. For a moment it relinquishes the torn rags of the flesh, while from some hidden alley by the slaughter house, above the moans and screams of the cattle, comes the nasal chipping of a Damascus love-song.

Now read it like this and you will see what I mean (you can experiment with other passages, or change the line-breaks and punctuation about a bit):

This is the hour least easy to bear…

When from my balcony I catch an unexpected glimpse of her

Walking idly toward town

In her white sandals, still half asleep.

The city unwrinkles itself like an old tortoise and peers about it.

For a moment –

It relinquishes –

The torn rags of the flesh

While from some hidden alley by the slaughter house,

Above the moans and screams of cattle,

Comes the nasal chipping of a Damascus love-song.

One of the images or themes that appears in or runs through Justine is that of being followed, and watched. Melissa’s lover, Cohen, “the old furrier”, “haunts” Darley, following him “about the streets with a pistol sagging in the pocket of his overcoat”, while Nessim, Justine’s husband, “had her watched”.

The idea of being watched is linked to another key image in Justine, that of seeing people including a woman which the narrator imagines as ideal beauty, reflected in mirrors and windows and which it is impossible for me to read without being reminded of Alexander Blok‘s Neznakomka (the word literally means ‘a woman with whom one is not acquainted’ in Russian – it’s usually translated as ‘the unknown woman’, but I don’t think that fully captures the meaning of the word).

Photo: Alexander Blok (1880-1921)

I don’t know how familiar Durrell was with Blok’s poetry, although I think that it is likely he was (if anyone knows anything about that, please do leave a comment and let me know!) Poems by both Durrell and Blok appeared side by side in the Spring 1945 edition of Chimera quarterly literary journal, and one imagines it is likely that Durrell would have read the translation of Blok’s work.

It is Durrell’s poem Byron that appears in Chimera. The poem by Blok’s is listed simply as ‘Poem’ and which appears to be a mistranslation of the Russian Поэма (‘poema’, which means ‘narrative poetry’), but according to this document the work is listed as ‘My Friend’s Life’, (Жизнь моего приятеля/ Zhizn’ moego priyatelya – the Russian word for ‘friend’ here is better translated into English as ‘acquaintance’) translated by Gareth Endor. If you read Russian, then here is a copy of that cycle, which was written between 1912-1915 and is from Blok’s Strashnyy Mir (‘Terrible World’).

If Durrell was unaware of Blok – and I think that is unlikely – he was definitely aware of and influenced by Arthur Rimbaud, who himself influenced the Russian Symbolist movement of which Blok was a leader. Durrell’s 1942 poem Je est un autre** is a direct reference to Rimbaud, whom he depicts as a sort of doppelganger, ‘an observer in a black hat’.

Anyway, here is Blok’s Neznakomka in English translation* and for those who read Russian the original poem is at the foot of the page.

In the evenings, over the restaurants
The heated atmosphere is savage, dense,
And the pernicious springtime air
Is driven by the shouts of drunks.

Far away over dusty lanes
Over the boredom of country dachas
A baker’s shop-sign just glints gold
And children’s cries are heard.

And every evening, beyond the barriers,
Tilting their bowler hats,
The practiced wits
Stroll with the ladies among drainage ditches.

Out on the lake oar locks squeak
And a woman’s shriek rings out
While in the sky, inured to it all,
The crescent moon mindlessly leers.

And every evening, my only friend
Is reflected in my glass,
Made meek and senseless, as am I,
By the sour, mysterious liquid.

At the neighboring tables
Sleepy lackeys lounge
While drunks with eyes like rabbits
Yell “in vino veritas!”

And every evening, at an appointed hour
(Or am I only dreaming it?)
A girllike form, silk-swathed,
Moves across the window in a fog.

Slowly, passing by the drunks,
Always unpartnered, alone,
Breathing perfume and mist
She sits by the window.

Her tough silks
Waft ancient tales,
Her hat with its funeral feathers,
And her narrow, ringed hands.

Drawn by this strange nearness
I look through the dark veil,
And see an enchanted shore
And an enchanted horizon.

Deep secrets are entrusted to me.
I am delivered of someone’s sun
And the twists and turns of my soul
And pierced by the sour wine.

The drooping ostrich plumes
Sway in my brain
Fathomless blue eyes
Blossom on the distant shore.

My soul contains a treasure.
The key is mine alone.
You’re right, you drunken monster.
I know- there’s truth in wine.

April 24, 1906

In Justine, Darley sees Cohen – who is following him around Alexandria, apparently – glimpsed “in one of the long mirrors, his head bowed as he stared into his wineglass” – Cohen is like Blok in Neznakomka, staring at the reflections in his glass and dreaming of the ideal woman, for him Melissa.

Ivan Kramskoi, Neznakomka, 1833

Nessim, who has had Justine “watched”, first met his wife “where I had first seen her, in the gaunt vestibule of the Cecil, in a mirror”. After describing this place, where people gather to experience “a few grains of drunkenness before bedtime”, Darley says he has “been thinking about the girl I met last night in the mirror: dark on marble-ivory white, glossy black hair, deep suspiring eyes in which one’s glances sink because they are nervous, curious, turned to sexual curiosity” (perhaps like those of another famous Russian Neznakomka, Ivan Kramskoi’s 1883 portrait of an unknown lady).

Blok’s Neznakomka is a prostitute, and we never find out anything about her, we are left with just the poet’s romantic image of her as some sort of mysterious embodiment of Divine Wisdom (actually Blok frequently visited prostitutes, and likely died of complications arising from VD), since Blok never speaks to his mysterious woman. Whereas Justine – who also first appears as a reflection in a bar-cafe mirror (“I…saw her leaning down at me from the mirrors on three sides of the room”), enters reality and speaks.

(More later on depictions of St Petersburg and Alexandria.)

In this eternal city nothing is accidental, everything has a deep meaning…


*The translation is mine and I  translated the poem literally so you can get a sense of the words that Blok actually used even though of course the other important elements of the poem, the sounds of the Russian words themselves, their unique meanings, internal rhymes, echoes, etc are obviously missing from any translation. I found a couple of English translations on the net, but either there were some aspects of them I did not like (word choices that were not a translation of the Russian word Blok used, e.g. ‘sultry’ for ‘goriachij’ in the first stanza), or – a more serious crime – the translators had twisted and wrung the neck of the meaning of the poem just in order to make it rhyme in English. I just cannot see the reason why translators do this as it can only serve to completely put off the reader. The worst example I’ve seen is an absolutely dreadful Penguin edition of Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin that renders the poem actually unreadable.


По вечерам над ресторанами
Горячий воздух дик и глух,
И правит окриками пьяными
Весенний и тлетворный дух.

Вдали, над пылью переулочной,
Над скукой загородных дач,
Чуть золотится крендель булочной,
И раздается детский плач.

И каждый вечер, за шлагбаумами,
Заламывая котелки,
Среди канав гуляют с дамами
Испытанные остряки.

Над озером скрипят уключины,
И раздается женский визг,
А в небе, ко всему приученный,
Бессмысленно кривится диск.

И каждый вечер друг единственный
В моем стакане отражен
И влагой терпкой и таинственной,
Как я, смирен и оглушен.

А рядом у соседних столиков
Лакеи сонные торчат,
И пьяницы с глазами кроликов
«In vino veritas!»* кричат.

И каждый вечер, в час назначенный,

(Иль это только снится мне?)
Девичий стан, шелками схваченный,
В туманном движется окне.

И медленно, пройдя меж пьяными,
Всегда без спутников, одна,
Дыша духами и туманами,
Она садится у окна.

И веют древними поверьями
Ее упругие шелка,
И шляпа с траурными перьями,
И в кольцах узкая рука.

И странной близостью закованный,
Смотрю за темную вуаль,
И вижу берег очарованный
И очарованную даль.

Глухие тайны мне поручены,
Мне чье-то солнце вручено,
И все души моей излучины
Пронзило терпкое вино.

И перья страуса склоненные
В моем качаются мозгу,
И очи синие бездонные
Цветут на дальнем берегу.

В моей душе лежит сокровище,
И ключ поручен только мне!
Ты право, пьяное чудовище!
Я знаю: истина в вине.

24 апреля 1906


“Je est un autre.” Rimbaud

He is the man who makes notes,
The observer in the tall black hat
Face hidden in the brim:
He has watched me watching him.

The street-corner in Buda and after
By the post-office a glimpse
Of the disappearing tails of his coat,
Gave the same illumination, spied upon,
The tightness in the throat.

Once too meeting by the Seine
The waters a moving floor of stars,
He had vanished when I reached the door,
But there on the pavement burning
Lay one of his familiar black cigars.

The meeting on the stairway
Where the tide ran clean as a loom:
The betrayal of her, her kisses
He has witnessed them all: often
I hear him laughing in the other room.

He watched me now, working late,
Bringing a poem to life, his eyes
Reflect the malady of De Nerval:
O useless in this old house to question
The mirrors, his impenetrable disguise.

4 thoughts on “Notes on Durrell and the Symbolists

  1. ‘Durrell pasta salad’ | Durrelliana: a scrapbook

  2. Durrell in Russian | Durrelliana: a scrapbook

  3. ‘In the world of animals’ – Durrell in Russia part 1 | Durrelliana: a scrapbook

  4. Hi Durrelliana

    Thanks for posting this: Durrell was always a favorite of my mom’s, who was born in Alexandria and raised in Egypt among some of the (often penniless) ex-pats he portrays. Since the world is small — mir tesen, as they say — I have a translation of Blok’s Neznakomka on my own site which you might enjoy. I don’t anticipate reviewing any of the Alexandria Quartet on Deeblog at this time, but you never know what passions will move us (although I will never forget the image, I think in “Justine,” of a “question twanging like a dart”).


    p.s. I do hope I am not one of the offenders who “wrung” or “twisted” that poor girl’s neck.

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