Lawrence Durrell, Sophia Loren and an Israeli kibbutz

Taken from The Calgary Herald, Jan. 19, 1966, about the filming in Israel of Durrell’s short novel Judith, which was written as a movie script. I believe Judith is republished in honour of Durrell’s centenary, if anyone has any more information please post in the comments.

It must have been quite something to have kibbutzniks and IDF national service soldiers roped in as extras to the movie. I wonder if anyone remembers filming with Loren?

(I’ll write more later, for now I just wanted to post these images!). To see the images larger, and to be able to read the text, just click on them.

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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. Continue reading

‘Remembering Lawrence Durrell’

“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)

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”.)

Whatever Happened to Margo?

Margaret Durrell, younger sister to Lawrence and older sister to Gerald, is known to the world via her depictions in Gerald’s Corfu Trilogy and in a handful of his other autobiographical stories.

There, known as ‘Margo’, she is portrayed as a rather scatterbrained young woman, prone to malaproprisms like ‘it never rains but it snows’, and with an interest in diaphanous garments, doomed romantic encounters and skin cream.

What is rather less well known is that Margo also turned her hand to writing. Apparently written sometime in the 1960s, her autobiographical book, Whatever Happened to Margo, describes her adventures as a Bournemouth landlady in 1947. Margo also includes a good splash of Gerald-style Durrell family antics, particularly mentioning Gerald several times.

Here’s the thing, though – though the book is supposed to have been written sometime in the 1960s, when both Lawrence and Gerald had become well-known writers, Whatever Happened to Margo was published only in 1995. The story goes that Margo’s manuscript was forgotten about and later discovered in an attic.

Why was Margo’s book not published at the time? It does seem that she intended her memoir for publication. Lines like this one, addressed to ‘readers’ and referencing Gerald’s popular tome do give the impression that Margo intended her book as part of the Durrell canon.

The Durrell menage had fled Bournemouth in the thirties to bask in the magic of a Greek island… the appealing account by my brother Gerald in My Family and Other Animals will surely entice any reader to do likewise.

It presumably was not meant to languish unseen in an attic for decades. What happened?

Whatever Happened was published in 1995, the year of Gerald Durrell‘s very sad death, when presumably there would have been a surge of public interest in his life. The book also contains previously unpublished photographs of Gerald, and other members of the Durrell family, which one can imagine to have been warmly received by Gerald’s many fans.

Perhaps this is why Margo’s book finally saw the light of day. Perhaps in the 1960s or whenever she  wrote it, the book was eventually deemed unworthy of publication, and shelved? Or perhaps this manuscript is a first draft that never got any further.

Whatever Happened is definitely amusing, and there are plenty of weird and wonderful characters, in the form of Margo’s lodgers and her overbearing relatives, to fill the pages.

The problem is that the end result is just not engaging. The dense and frequently disorganized prose is hard to wade through, and I found myself skipping over several pages. There are some funny dialogues, but unlike Gerald Durrell, Margo doesn’t do speech well and her comic timing is off, so the jokes are flubbed or drawn out too long.

Another issue is the characters. Gerald knew how to sacrifice veracity for literary neatness, cutting Lawrence’s wife Nancy Myers out of the Durrells’ life on Corfu for example. Margo has included everyone. As a result, there are so many characters so its hard to keep track of them all, and some of them are just not interesting. The narrative thread gets tangled in parts, too – there is no sense that each chapter has its own story to tell;

It’s a shame, because Margo’s memoir reads like a first draft that, had someone taken the time to edit ruthlessly, could have been much better. Here’s a sample:

“Gerald is always saying “gorgeous” to some animal or some female: I’m sick of him. Leslie’s quite right, a bullet would take care of either,'”  I said wickedly, feeling daringly voluble, now sustained by liquor.

Mother interrupted me nervously. “Don’t encourage Leslie to murder, please. Shooting someone between the eyes is not a matter for joking. You’d better pour me another gin. How I’ve managed to live so long with you children is a miracle….”

“Well, Gerald shouldn’t say gorgeous to everything. Last time he called something tangible gorgeous, it was that droopy blonde who sat about with her hair flowing in a silvery cascade of abandon down her neck, while we were left to do the housework. Do you remember, Mother?”

But Mother refused to take sides.

“She was a natural blonde, however dumb. That was one thing in her favour,” Leslie said reflectively.

As it is, the book appeals only to those who are looking for further tidbits about the Durrell family. It’s hardly a standalone book, the way My Family and Other Animals is – Gerald’s book is worth reading even if you did not know or care who he was. That’s not the case with Whatever Happened.

Margo does share her brother’s penchant for flights of fancy (as Gerald points out in his preface) – one does wonder how Margo managed to recall details of conversations that supposedly took place twenty years earlier).

A note on that, though – Margo’s story often strays onto the gossipy side. While Gerald did lampoon his family mercilessly, he always portrayed them with affection and good humour. Margo includes personal information about brother Leslie that he might not have wished to be made public.

On the positive side, though, Margo’s character does shine through her writing. She’s enterprising, although scatterbrained. She has a penchant for odd malapropisms. She’s interested in diaphanous garments. I believe face cream is mentioned. (She also has a crush on a man several social classes beneath her. Like the infamous Turk she dated in My Family, Margo’s new crush seems a bit of a bore.)

Especially poignant is Gerald Durrell’s preface to the book. Dated 27 November 1994, just two months before he passed away, he once again refers to his childhood memories of Corfu:

And yes, sharing again the charms of Corfu, looking for and finding the deserted olive groves and sea caves where we were all so happy.