From Lawrence Durrell in conversation with Igor Pomerantsev. The full interview can be read here.
Open Road Integrated Media have published an excerpt from Lawrence Durrell’s Judith as their extract of the week.
As we couldn’t agree more with The New York Times in that “Durrell remains an irreplaceable master of English and European literature,” we’re delighted to share an excerpt from Judith, a breathtaking, never-before-published novel of passion and politics, set in the hotbed of Palestine in the 1940s.
As ORIM explains, the book was originally conceived as a screenplay for a 1966 film starring Sophia Loren. I wrote a previous post about it here, which includes a screen shot of a newspaper article from the time the movie was shot.
A few more snippets about Nancy Myers, Lawrence Durrell‘s first wife, ahead of the publication of a new biography about her by her daughter, Joanna Hodgkin.
According to Durrell’s friend Alan G Thomas, Durrell met Nancy after he moved to London from Dorset in the 1930s; the young Durrell wanted to live a ‘Bohemian life’ and had a number of odd jobs in London including as a pianist in a jazz club called the Blue Peter. Nancy was an art student at the Slade, and for a while the young couple ran a photography studio together.
In a 1962 memoir (cited in Spirit of Place), Durrell had this to say about his early life with Nancy:
I had moved to London at the behest of my mother who, tired of my antics, said one day: “You can be as Bohemian as you like, but not in the house. I think you had better go somewhere where it doesn’t show as much.” So I left Bournemouth to study Bohemianism at first hand. I had some help in my researches from a young and beautiful student at the Slade School whom I married, but while we weren’t actually starving money was short, so she went on the stage as a temporary measure.
According to Thomas, Nancy was indeed a beautiful and striking young woman:
>Nancy was a striking and beautiful girl, very tall and slim, with a clear white complexion and light blonde hair; more than once I have heard people in the street call out as we passed: “Look – Garbo.”
But Nancy did not get to tell her own story; she is merely ‘N’ in Durrell’s Corfu memoir Prospero’s Cell – as poet Derrek Hines so beautifully puts it in his 1996 poem Van Norden, written after a week’s sojourn at the White House in Kalami (with Joanna Hodgkin and her half-sister Penelope, Durrell’s daughter with Nancy):
Because she never brought herself free of the island with her own version of their stay, Nancy remains, trapped in the strong sun of those years, casting no shadow.
Van Norden was the name of the boat that nancy bought on Corfu for Lawrence, and which the couple sailed frequently. Hines uses the boat as a metaphor for the Durrells’ marriage. Like the couple, it was moored at the White House, and was a symbol of freedom, yet by the time war was declared and Durrell and Nancy fled Corfu, the marriage was on the rocks. The Van Norden was scuppered when the Germans invaded the island, and Nancy left Durrell, taking her small daughter Penelope with her.
Take this, Van Norden's mooring, the iron wedding ring that joined sea to garrigue. Salt jealousies, wordless divorces of rust, have gnawed away the marriage to a stain....
At this time he had already begun to experience that great cycle of historical dreams which now replaced the dreams of his childhood in his mind, and into which the City now threw itself… He would wake to see the towers and minarets printed on the exhausted, dust-powdered sky, and see as if en montage on them the giant footprints of the historical memory which lies behind the recollections of individual personality, its mentor and guide; indeed its inventor, since man is only an extension of the spirit of place.
Durrell wrote Justine, the first novel in his Alexandria Quartet, in Cyprus. He had arrived in Alexandria in 1942, about a year after he and his wife Nancy had fled to Cairo from Greece. By 1942, Durrell and Nancy had separated, and Durrell settled in Alexandria. Three years later, he was on Rhodes, “liberated from [his] Egyptian prison,” and “free at last to return to Greece.” Durrell did not like Alexandria. The “whore among cities” he created in the Alexandria Quartet years after his sojourn there is an imagined city. “Durrell’s Alexandria is not in any way a direct expression of the real Alexandria, past or present,” writes Mona Anis in the al-Ahram Weekly.
Borges wrote his beautiful poem Benares in 1923 in Buenos Aires, about an imagined city the writer has never seen. Even though he “plays with doubtful images”, he says that there is a real city somewhere else, that persist – even though it is “peopled like a dream”. Borges’ image of old men with rotten teeth in a city of muezzins is temptingly reminiscent of Durrell’s Alexandria.
False and impenetrable
like a garden traced on a mirror,
the imagined city
which my eyes have never seen
and repeats its unreachable houses.
The sudden sun
shatters the complex obscurity
of temples, dunghills, prisons, patios
and will scale walls
and blaze on to a sacred river.
the city which a foliage of stars oppressed
pours over the horizon
and in a morning
full of steps and of sleep
light is opening the streets like branches.
At the same time dawn breaks
on all shutters looking east
and the voice of a muezzin
from its high tower
saddens the air of day
and announces to the city of many gods
the solitude of God.
(And to think that while I play with doubtful images
the city I sing persists
in a predestined place of the world,
with its precise topography
peopled like a dream,
with hospitals and barracks
and slow avenues of poplars
and men with rotten lips
who feel the cold in their teeth.)
- Whatever happened to Nancy? (whitemetropolis.wordpress.com)
I recently rewatched the 1987 BBC version of My Family and Other Animals, a wonderfully indulgent adaptation of a wonderfully indulgent book. I was an avid viewer of the series when it first came out, which was my introduction to Gerald Durrell‘s books as a child.
Gerald wrote three books in total about the magical five childhood years he spent with his family on Corfu – and experience which according to his elder brother Lawrence helped shape his future path as an animal collector, zoo owner and conservationist. Gerald’s first and most famous Corfu book, My Family and Other Animals, was written in about two weeks in 1956; he returned to his childhood in Birds, Beasts and Relatives in 1969 and again in Garden of the Gods in 1978. All the books follow a similar pattern – tales of Gerald’s encounters with the local flora and fauna of Corfu interspersed with amusing incidents with his various family members and family friends, particularly Theodore Stephanides.
(1959 Penguin edition of My Family and Other Animals)
The books were very successful – particularly My Family, which has not lost its charm even half a century after it was written. (There were negative consequences to this success though; when Corfu became a popular tourist destination in the 1980s, and thus lost much of its unspoiled charm, Gerald fell into depression, railing in a 1987 newspaper article against what he called the ‘disease of tourism’.)
The BBC series, which also came out in 1987 (perhaps Durrell’s article was written on the back of it?) is excellently done in many ways; the casting and acting are spot on, particularly the young Darren Redmayne as Gerry. The BBC took great pains to incorporate some of the book’s memorable animal scenes into the filming. The photography shows Corfu as an unspoiled idyll, with plenty of lingering shots of beautiful blue seas, olive groves and crumbling villas. (Quite an achievement in itself.)
The screenplay, interestingly enough, incorporates material from all three of Durrell’s Corfu books, including a dialog from Garden of the Gods in which ‘Mother’ reminisces about the glory days of her life in India, where all four of the Durrell children were born.
In following the books, the screenplay also includes Gerald’s liberal use of artistic license. Lawrence Durrell is depicted as a bachelor (he does not have even a hint of a relationship), who lives with the rest of his family. In reality, he was married to a painter, Nancy Myers, and most of the time lived separately in a villa in Kalami, rather a distance from his mother and siblings.
Though the Durrell family were Anglo Indians who did not really feel a great connection with England, the TV series portrays them as unswervingly English: the single dialog about Mother’s past in India notwithstanding, the family describe themselves as being ‘from Bournemouth’. While young Gerald is shown learning Greek and befriending locals, the others maintain their aloof Englishness throughout – although according to Gerald’s biographer, Douglas Botting, the whole family joined in enthusiastically with life on the island.
When Gerald wrote ‘My Family‘ in 1956, he gave concerns over his education as the main reason for the family’s return to England in 1939. In the other books, he is more overt in mentioning the impending threat of World War II and the family’s growing financial issues. The series also does not mention the War – and since having the entire family remove to England ‘for Gerry’s education’ would be rather implausible, the screenplay also has Lawrence mention the family’s money troubles. Perhaps a discussion of the war would be too depressing a note on which to end such a delightfully escapist series. In any case, the final episode has the entire family leaving together. (Actually, Margo, depicted by Gerald as a rather scatterbrained young woman, and in the series as a demure and rather insipid young lady, was by all accounts considerably more independent and Bohemian. When Gerald, Leslie and Mother left Corfu in 1939, she had already departed for England alone, but returned a few months later to live with a Greek peasant family; she looked after Henry Miller during his visit to the island, before departing Corfu with a British airforce pilot, Jack Breeze, whom she later married.)
One problem the series has is in depicting the length of time the family live on Corfu; since the young actor playing Gerald appears to be the same age throughout, it is hard to determine the series’ timeframe. It seems that the family spends just a few months on Corfu rather than five years.
- Whatever happened to Nancy? (whitemetropolis.wordpress.com)
Virago will publish a new biography of Nancy Isobel Myers Durrell, Lawrence Durrell’s first wife, next February, to coincide with the centenary of Lawrence Durrell’s birth. The biography, titled Amateurs in Eden, is written by Joanna Hodgkin, Nancy’s daughter by her second husband, Edward Hodgkin, whom Nancy met and married in Jerusalem in 1948. Hodgkin, who has written several novels under a different name, received a grant from the UK’s Arts Council to write the biography.
Lawrence and Nancy, an artist, married in London in January 1935, and a couple of months later, they left for Corfu, closely followed by the rest of Lawrence’s family.
When war broke out, the Durrell family left for England, but Lawrence and Nancy stayed behind. They escaped Corfu for Alexandria, Egypt in 1940. The marriage broke down, and the pair split up in 1942. In 1947, Lawrence remarried an Alexandrian woman, Eve (Yvette) Cohen.
Remarkably little is known about Nancy, who must have been such an important figure in the lives of the Durrells on Corfu and presumably influenced Lawrence Durrell during the most important years of his development as a writer. Durrell does mention Nancy in his travel memoir about Corfu, Prospero’s Cell. Henry Miller, who visited the Durrells on Corfu in 1939, makes several mentions of Nancy in The Colossus of Maroussi, his record of that trip.
Who was Nancy? Anais Nin described her as a woman of silences, “I think often of Nancy’s most eloquent silences, Nancy talking with her fingers, her hair, her cheeks, a wonderful gift. Music again.'”
According to Lawrence’s sister Margaret Durrell, Nancy was a gentle and quiet woman loved by the family. In a conversation with Ian and Sue MacNiven, Margaret says of Nancy that “We used to stay with her and Larry in the White House at Kalami and we all loved her very much; she was very gentle, a lovely person.”1
Nancy, however, is omitted entirely from Gerald Durrell’s famous memoir of the family’s Corfu years, My Family and Other Animals. Perhaps this is for narrative simplicity, since much of the book’s humour comes from the interactions between “brother Larry”, whom Gerald portrays as living with the rest of the family for the duration of their sojourn on the island.
Hodgkin’s new biography of her mother purports to shed light onto Nancy’s life, including of course what happened to her after her split from Durrell, when she lived in Jerusalem.
1 Margaret mentions Nancy again in her own memoir, Whatever Happened to Margo?, written about her adventures as a landlady in the late 1940s; but it seems she confuses Nancy with Lawrence’s second wife, Eve Cohen. Margo refers to a risque painting that ‘Lawrence and Nancy left behind [in Margo’s house in Bournemouth], you know, the one Nancy did an embroidery from when she was here and expecting?’. Nancy’s only daughter with Lawrence was born in 1940 in Greece; the couple later split up in 1942, and did not visit the Durrells in England.