Lawrence Durrell discusses his new book "Nunquam"
British novelist Lawrence Durrell discusses his new book "Nunquam," the second installment in his series "The Revolt of Aphrodite." Durrell also discusses the first book in the series, "Tunc."
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Studs Terkel It's so easy to talk with Lawrence Durrell seated in his apartment here at, at Chicago for the moment. Mr. Durrell was answering the phone, and obviously the operator said, "Durrell," he says, "I beg your pardon, Durrell, of course, you're right." So you're easy to get along with, that's number one.
Lawrence Durrell Well, I'm the curse of, of the Americas with my beastly name, which God knows is a respectable Huguenot name. It's the, it's the American "R" which does us all in.
Studs Terkel Well, why is it the "R" that
Lawrence Durrell Well, as a teacher--Oh, there's some drinks.
Studs Terkel There's the drinks coming in. Time out.
Studs Terkel Time in. Time in. And we're well-equipped, Mr. Durrell and I. You're here, by the way, I want to return to the matter of "Rs" in a moment just to explain, though, that your most recent work, more recent novel, Nunquam, which we--means never?
Lawrence Durrell Never. Nevermore, quote the raven.
Studs Terkel Nevermore. Nunquam--by the way, Mr. Durrell's writings, as many of the readers who are listening well know, is provocative is one way to put it. But some may say dense, dense in a wonderful way in that you get caught in it, and this is, we'll speak of this one in a moment. Some describe it as science fiction. I describe it as frighteningly contemporary and true in a wild visionary way. Dutton are the publishers.
Lawrence Durrell Hey, thank you. Hey, I found a reader. Most splendid.
Studs Terkel Let's talk about this particular work, the most recent of your many. The hang-up Americans--you are of Irish and British, a combination, a
Lawrence Durrell But born in India, I never dared to go to Ireland because I knew I'd get a black eye, so I'm a sort of stage Irishman, do you see. I use my Irishness to tease the hell out of the English.
Studs Terkel And use the English to?
Lawrence Durrell To irritate the Irish.
Studs Terkel [Laughing] Mr. Durrell, you were talking about hangups since everything quite obviously in readers of Mr. Durrell's works, whether it be The Alexandria Quartet or The Black Book or The Bitter--is it Bitter Lemons?
Lawrence Durrell Yeah, it's about Cyprus.
Studs Terkel That's about Cyprus. We'll ask you about, about where you were on Corfu and then worked for the British Foreign Service, too. But back to this, everything in it should -- al-also language, the "R" you say is the hangup of the Americans.
Lawrence Durrell Well, you know, it's a t -- it isn't a hangup, but I once had to teach English to a lot of Greek kids, you know. I had to teach even for example Greek policemen when I was a humble teacher, and I found a bunch of 15 kids, Greek, Greek peasants' kids who were coming to America. I didn't see why the hell they shouldn't, they should come here talking Oxford English, it seemed to me absurd. So being a little bit of a phonetician, I schooled myself, it doesn't take long, there are about three phonetic symbols on which we differ. But the "R" is the capital one. You know, if there were world enough and time.
Studs Terkel Oh, so the "R" means, we're hung up on the "R."
Lawrence Durrell Well the, the point is to get these Greek kids not to say "world," if there were world enough and time, hail blithe spirit, et cetera, do you see. Bird, bird, thou never would.
Studs Terkel This may, in a sense, perhaps you can tell us a bit about your either writing, in which you have many li --you have, there are many literary allusions and mythological allusions and yet there's a, a gutsiness and earthiness, too. Is this because you, in teaching the Greek kids English, you want them to also be naturally themselves as well?
Lawrence Durrell But of course. But also accent is, is, is a basic part of learning a language well. Suppose you're going to make a life in England. Might as well learn English English, no? Or an American American? I don't see the difference. There are skillful teachers. I used to imitate a stage Englishman in Greek. I used to say [Greek], and so on. I made them imitate a stage Englishman out of comedy, and, and so they caught the accent. I later learned that Paul Verlaine, the Frenchman who had for his sins to teach girls' school in Bournemouth, he couldn't get them to get the French accent right. So what he did was to invent a "froggy type." He said, "Bon jour, comment allez-vous, et bien," and by persuading them to have a laugh and, and copy the accent, within weeks he had them having the right phonetic accent.
Studs Terkel Then it's teaching through joy in a sense.
Lawrence Durrell Well, if all teaching should be, shouldn't it? Really?
Studs Terkel Isn't this pretty much without--I'm, I'm being very general now and abstract--isn't this pretty much your credo, pretty much the nature of life itself, that learning, living, it's all connected with laughter, joy, an anti-puritanical approach?
Lawrence Durrell Well, in a sense yes, but one of, one of the things I notice now, I've just been going to universities here in the States, is enormous seriousness, and the feeling that art in some way is instruction. Of course it is, it's psychic instruction. It's a sort of psychic massage, but it also must give pleasure, and the pleasure principle is being driven out of the window.
Studs Terkel Isn't it in some of the young, though? I suppose this is so in, in England as well as in many parts of the world, certainly in many of the young, are saying, "Now, wait a minute. Wait a minute. We, we weren't born in a straightjacket. We were not conceived in sin, we were conceived in delight" is what they're saying, and they're looking for, perhaps, what, that's what--you are just--have you sensed many of your readers are young?
Lawrence Durrell Oh yes, yes. The majority, I should say. The majority, but also in a, in a, in another sense the thing that's touching about the young, and remember I have two young daughters myself of hippie age, so to speak, is their immense idealism. Which I don't remember having had myself. I mean, I, I didn't think about things. They really are tremendously idealistic. They're bothered about things like fidelity and love and so on and so forth. And I think that, as I say I think it's, I'm sad that they get such a bad press. And one of the things I think they like about my books is that I ascribe an absolute validity to love. Though I traverse all the barren field of experience which is necessary to go through before you can find love, you can't find love just in an envelope or on the counter, you know. You, you have to work for it, like you work for anything else.
Studs Terkel In a sense, I want to ask about your life, too, and the variety of experiences and the societies in which you've lived in one way or another, always with your curiosity, but since you say you, you have to--love is not something you find in an envelope, in a sense this is what your most recent work is all about. Nunquam, this.
Lawrence Durrell But it's us now.
Studs Terkel This is--someone described it as remarkable science fiction. I found it horrendously real, I mean wildly visionary and yet it's about someone who's in a madhouse. Our, our, our central figure, Felix. He's an inventor, and by his--the man who owns him. Who in a sense becomes a machine, Merlin, and of course Merlin isn't accidental, is it? Merlin the name isn't accidental.
Lawrence Durrell No [my dear?], not at all, not at all. Merlin is the Enchanter, but he's the black Enchanter. It's really a disguised little treatise on alchemy of black and white magic, but it's presented in terms of rather Edgar Allan Poe if you like. And of course I have borrowed some of the gimmicks of S.F. or science fiction and so on and so forth, but I've also used Freud in another sense, because instead of using them as a kind of, how shall I say, to lull one's infantile fantasies, I wanted to strike a note of concern and horror and using them, I think, the right way. The difference between the dummy and the real. At what point--
Studs Terkel We should point this out, the dummy and the real, Julian Merlin, who is strangely enough interesting, powerful yet impotent. Interesting, isn't it? But he's
Lawrence Durrell Isn't that the case? But it's, in the sense it's nothing very original, it's very good Freud, all this. It is quite good Freud in a sense, in particular the stuff about money, you see, which never brings happiness and yet everyone's after it.
Studs Terkel You speak of money here as used, if I'm, I'm trying to remember, phrases stick to my mind, we'll, we'll speak of this creation in a moment, Iolanthe, money as a sperm, and which is being used to procreate, but procreate not human--
Studs Terkel Must not love but money.
Lawrence Durrell Exactly. Hence the sterility of the affective life, as psychologists would say, you see. And hence, of course, the attrition in loving and giving and feeling, which of course is the basic concern and there you are back at your hippies. They're trying to find out how to love, and having destroyed all the models that exist now, they have nothing to model themselves on. They're frightened of the old rigid moralities, they're frightened of the institutions like marriage which they, they equate to parental authority which must be defied, which is not a bad instinct when you're 23. When you don't know what the hell you're going to do, sometimes you do break up the shop, it doesn't means that you're a criminal or anything, it just means that you've got to the end of your wits to find a way out of the impasse to start living.
Studs Terkel So if these institutions that ostensibly are for human goodness turn out to be de-human, dehumanizing, they say, "Well, the hell with the institutions."
Lawrence Durrell Well, and it's suffocating, too, you see, so I'm enormously touched by that kind of revolt because they are trying to forge values for themselves. And there's noth-nothing better than to do it yourself kit. Do you know? It's good that from time to time we should be renovated by somebody examining the values and saying, "I'll kick that one. I'll kick this one. I'll throw this one in the wastepaper basket, and now what?" But they're in the now what stage. But that's the most fruitful stage I think, and so I really I'm, I'm very exultant about these asses.
Studs Terkel Yes, this is interesting, that here's Lawrence Durrell, who is, I notice, my contemporary to the year, 1912.
Studs Terkel We're both Titanic babies.
Lawrence Durrell Yes, that's it.
Studs Terkel The Titanic went down and both of us came up.
Lawrence Durrell [Sure?].
Studs Terkel So it's interesting that, I do, I'm delighted to know you feel--I share your feelings in something. But it isn't accidental in that so many of these young, these curious and exultant young as, at times disturbing young, like your writings. They find a sense, a certain liberative quality that they are looking for, perhaps.
Lawrence Durrell Well, it's, it's only an affirmation that they're trying to forge for themselves, but it doesn't come in the form of an institutionalized affirmation. Do you see what I mean? It's, it's not a, a -- I hope at any rate it's not a rigidified form of planting another system on the world. It's an attempt to open the, all the doors but insist that the basic values that the whole civilization has fought are not [dud?] simply because you've misinterpreted them or simply because we've taken a wrong direction. But meanwhile, horrible lurking symbols are there underneath: the black and
Studs Terkel Black and white magic, we come to this, so there is magic used here. This enchanter of the late twentieth century, Julian Merlin, is also enthralled, that is, enslaved by the firm that he heads yet he becomes dehumanized by this very firm he is working for, and thus impotent.
Lawrence Durrell And thus impotent and the firm impotent. But I, I think the real tragic, the tragic element enters in the fact that the greatest banker, the greatest psychoanalyst, the least hippie, the smallest child feels the same sense of distress at the moment. And of course, when things get darkest, it's the beginning of dawn. And fundamentally if the book isn't pessimistic and if the quotation which made these two Latin words which make up the title of it--
Studs Terkel What are they, the, the quotation used is--
Lawrence Durrell The quotation is either then or never. It was either then or never. Out: tunc. Out: nunquam. And the two books are: Tunc: it was then, or it was never. Nun, nevermore. In other words, it emphasizes the necessity of choice, and so that fundamentally, underneath the horror, the horror story, the S.F. and all the brutality and everything you like, there is an emphasis doubly underlined that miracles are possible, but that we've got to apply ourselves to them.
Studs Terkel That is, man. Miracles are possible. You're saying that man rather than God, or perhaps God and -- man can evoke miracles.
Lawrence Durrell Yes, but he can't sit around waiting for God to do it, he's got to do it, do it yourself kit.
Studs Terkel So now or never, the previous novel is Tunc.
Lawrence Durrell Yes.
Studs Terkel So Nunquam, so they're both related, as your
Lawrence Durrell Oh, yes. It's two parts, are the two parts of one book, but in the quotation from Petronius which I didn't do in detail, it amounted to this. It started by saying, "Oh Lord, what a world we got into. Nobody is interested in anything except moneymaking. Nobody is busy doing anything. I remember when things got really hot in the old days. What did we do? We went up to the Acropolis, we loosened our hair, and out of sheer despair we prayed for rain. And it came."
Studs Terkel "Out
Lawrence Durrell I mean, that is our position.
Studs Terkel We also loosened our hair. Time out, as the mechanical equipment for the moment takes over. Just for the moment! We're back in action again. It's interesting, the same mechanical contrivance, the phone, interrupted our conversation. We continue, though, with a tape recorder, so we are of this age, aren't we?
Lawrence Durrell We'll still praying for rain.
Studs Terkel We're still praying for rain. And loosen you said, they loosened their hair and prayed for rain.
Lawrence Durrell Well, that's of course what you do in the presence of a god or a goddess, you see, or nowadays in the presence of a doctor you take off your clothes and the stethoscope roams over you, listening to your heartbeats, judging the ten, tensile qualities of your abdomen and so on
Studs Terkel He for a moment becomes the god.
Lawrence Durrell Well, he's our, of course the technological god nowadays is that.
Studs Terkel Well, on this matter of the technological god or technology, in this, in Nunquam, there is the central figure, there are several, the one Felix, the inventor who is--appears to be in an asylum and he's released by his, through the offices of his boss Merlin, Julian Merlin, to create. Now, there was an actress who died. I take it she was a sex goddess, this actress who died.
Lawrence Durrell And obviously she was Greta Garbo or she was something like that, and she was loved in the way that one can only love a film star. You can't imagine going to bed with a film star, but you can love her. And she was made for bankers to love because bankers invented her.
Studs Terkel And so she's dead.
Lawrence Durrell She's
Studs Terkel And now Merlin says, as in assignment to Felix and his colleague,
Lawrence Durrell Well, he says that there is only one possibility in our civilization's borders we are with it. We've come, really, back to the position where unless we have an aesthetic of beauty, the thing is not going to take over anymore. Obviously beauty has got to carry the day, not self-interest, not this, that or the other. But where do we start? And how does he start? He decides to fabricate it. Now, you can't do this. This is black magic. Beauty has to be lived, felt, thought and inhaled. It's got to be created. Creation is not invention. And this brings Felix, who is an inventor, to this sort of point of his career where it's Luciferian in the sense of "Paradise Lost" or something. And, and Merlin's firm and so on plays a bit the role, and Julian certainly, of the sort of devil's comforter, do you see. But Felix gets entrained into this thing. So the girl is dead, but the banker loves her. "I think we can do as well with nylon, can't we? We can do as well with this and that, we can make her." So they do. That's the full horror of
Studs Terkel And now they create her. Her name is Iolanthe. Iolanthe. Here, too, the name. What a quality of the name.
Lawrence Durrell Well, it's a Greek word. Iolanthe. Iolanthe. Io, Io, it's the tragic heroine of the Aeschylus play.
Studs Terkel And so Io in this case, a dead movie star is now rebuilt mechanically out of nylon, some electrical contraptions and as he's working on it with his colleague, Felix, she is becoming seemingly alive. That is, she's going through the gestures. She can flirt. Her eyes--her eyes are created. She can kiss, you can embrace her. She can sigh. But--
Lawrence Durrell She is too perfect, like the modern woman. But what he can't build into her is an affective life, which on the biological side can contain so to speak the health, the inherited, inherited health of the race. And this, of course, I think is very dark magic indeed. And while it's presented in terms of Edgar Allan Poe and so on so forth, the actual--well, the actual proposition I think conveys the sinister point to which we've got.
Studs Terkel So therefore, we right now, many of us are practicing or are victims of black magic at this moment. That is, the symbol, the seeming human is there. You can say Iolanthe, this girl, is alive and well and living in all television commercials at this moment. We see her on all the TV commercials.
Lawrence Durrell Of course. And the point is, we do not know how to detect her from an original. We do not know that she isn't real. This I think, the attrition of the human spirit, is the point now which is really facing us and it's, it's against which the young are reacting with their violent affirmations that love is true, that things are true, that passion exists, that fidelity, joy, happiness and everything else exists. Blow everything up. Let's start again. But you can't. We must tame what we have, reorder it and let's see out of their young values what they can possibly bring us.
Studs Terkel You said something about tame it and reorder it, it occurred to me as you were talking, Mr. Durrell, since all your works deal with almost every aspect of life, past, present, a fusion of reality, fantasy, since all of it is with us at this moment, black magic and whatever--
Lawrence Durrell But it's us, no?
Studs Terkel It's us -- I'm just wondering: would you have written the way you write were not the atom split? Let me explain, and ask you this further. If the atom, the smallest element in nature, weren't split and thus fragmented, thus every aspect of life is fragmented--we think of fragmented man, fragmented political blocs, suddenly we're thinking [unintelligible]--who is inside the very thing? And so the very young also are asking why am I here? You know. If, if with the explosion that took place, what is called for now is a reordering of all the energies that the atom has unleashed, not for the bomb, for destruction, but for some code of light.
Lawrence Durrell I mean, the bomb is, is secondary. I mean, population bulge or pollution, choose any, any number of subjects which are going to face us within ten years. The bomb is a question of some idiot pressing a button somewhere and usually the idiots are craven if they're not mad like Caligula or Nero. It's always hysterics and cowards who will draw their swords, do you see? No, that isn't quite the problem at all. I'm extremely hopeful in a sense, but only because in terms of this logic in terms of black and white magic, unless we have a terrific despair, we'll never grow a hope.
Studs Terkel You see the hope out of despair.
Lawrence Durrell They belong together. They're two sides of the same coin. Otherwise you get lazy, and to a certain extent our civilization has come out of laziness and plentitude. Do you see? We've had it too easy.
Studs Terkel In a way the plenitude of a, our civilization, speak of Western civilization, with its valleys of poverty as against, of course, another two-thirds of a world that is wholly different, that is, has no plenitude.
Lawrence Durrell I wasn't, I wasn't quite talking about full belly because you know you can be unhap -- as unhappy in Chicago on a full belly as you can be in Hong Kong on an empty. And as you must have remarked, in times of crisis, in times let's say of a war, people who are selfish in normal life and who have much more than they really need, etc., who won't give anything away are capable of enormous sacrifices. We really don't need much more than a bowl of rice to get by, provided our convictions irradiate us.
Studs Terkel We come to this again. Before we ask Mr. Durrell about his very life, his growth and the place he's been to and the accretion of his experiences and his creativity and his friendship with Henry Miller, the book, Nunquam, E.P. Dutton the publishers. The ending seems so inevitable. And yet it's there and yet powerful. As you say, even though it's tragic there is this element of hope. The woman, the creation, the thing, she feels--but she also wants, she wanted to be free.
Lawrence Durrell I know. But that's the hope, isn't it? That's the key to the whole matter. Thank you, sir. You are a real reader. I'll send you my next book.
Studs Terkel [Laughing] She wants to be free, so she runs off. She disappears. And then Felix sees her he thinks on two separate occasions. Once he sees her as a little Cockney prostitute and then finds a dead, a dead sailor whom she was with, so in a sense she was death there. But then comes the finale that is inevitable with her and Merlin.
Lawrence Durrell In American you call it the payoff.
Studs Terkel The payoff. And the payoff ends with--
Lawrence Durrell The fall of Lucifer.
Studs Terkel Yeah, it was a -- as they see her, who has run away, this thing they created. Who wants to be human. Something, it's sort of Galatea in a, in a way.
Lawrence Durrell Exactly. Exactly. Or a computer with a number neurosis.
Studs Terkel And so as this man, Merlin, the black magician, seeks to say that which he's created, they fall. There's a situation here. And from balustrade of a hou -- of a tall ceiling cathedral.
Lawrence Durrell The whispering gallery.
Studs Terkel The whispering gallery.
Lawrence Durrell In St. Paul's Cathedral. And of course what is the whispering gallery but our subconscious, which has built all these terrors around us?
Studs Terkel So this is a work of many dimensions, of many, many, many ways of looking
Lawrence Durrell Well, I'm a burglar. I've tried, I've tried to make it as contemporary as possible, and inevitably not being, not being a sage like Leonardo, I've used everybody who's informed me the least degree about what the, what the hell's going on, you know, whether it's Spengler or [Geisling?] or, or whatever.
Studs Terkel Isn't it true, though, about all creative men, that the nature of borrowing is very essential to the creation? That no one is an original as such?
Lawrence Durrell There's no such thing, of course. It's Father Christmas to imagine there is such a thing, for example, as genius. A, a genius arrives at a point where a man suddenly realizes that four fields of inquiry are matching, and it needs one act of imagination to match four disparate fields. Einstein did only that; I mean, there was information pouring in from the electromagnetic field which didn't correspond to the astronomical field. It needed a new concept, but it was only an act of making harmonious disparate things.
Studs Terkel And a making of harmonious disparate things. Now we come to the similarity-- variety in similarities or similarity in different things. It's finding that, making harmonious that which may seem to be disconnected.
Lawrence Durrell Yes. It's the act of joining and the genetic blueprint is love.
Studs Terkel That's love. And we come to Lawrence Durrell now. This book is one of a number of course, of--I say they, they hold you, they catch you. Sometime you become a little confused, and yet that confusion attracts you. There's an illusion there you want to know about. And later on as you read further you see it come and fall into place again. So, this is making our harmonious whole out of seemingly disconnected, disjointed.
Lawrence Durrell To join, to join, not to sunder.
Studs Terkel Not to sunder. Who is Lawrence Durrell? We come to beginnings, you yourself, you know. We think of The Al-Alexandria Quartet, the first of which was Justine, that brought you to the attention of many people who should've known you before, and then The Black Book, and of course, you're interested in Tibet and interested in Zen, your, your interests are as varied as any man's could be today, aren't they?
Lawrence Durrell I, I'm not, I'm not sure, really that everybody cultivated who reads most of the stuff that's available today wouldn't, wouldn't have the same general line of interest. It, it seems disperse simply because our interests, our attention is dispersed. Do you see? And as there isn't a unifoi -- a uniform fiction, a uniform metaphor into which we can put it all, but we're digging the ground. Do you know it takes 30,000 bad artists to dung up the ground so that one good artist can come and sweep the whole thing into a net and declare an age. Proust or something. In one big metaphor they, they announce a whole epoch, and this is the job we're doing, we, we're dunging up the ground with our
Studs Terkel Maybe we live in the age of "Durr-Realism." Someone called it "Durr-Realism."
Lawrence Durrell Too much to hope for, sir.
Studs Terkel [Laughing] We come to,
Lawrence Durrell Of course. He's one of your great men. And how long it's taken you to realize that. It's, it's largely due to, to the puritanical outlook and all, you see. And in fact, the rude words were a terrific shock. Now they're perfectly banal compared to some things the young are getting up to. But I remember when Henry was being attacked about his, his brutality and his use of bad words, he addressed a young man and he said very dryly, he said, "Sir, you've completely misconceived my idea. My books are not about sex at all, they're about self-liberation, but I use every means possible to preach self-liberation, and I'm trying to do it in my own life, and the books are simply a by-product. I don't care if they put them in the ashcan." So you -- the, the ploy was a different one.
Studs Terkel And so it was in reading, you had written--of course, one of your works is a correspondence between yourself and--
Lawrence Durrell Yes, of course, I had the great luck to have him as a sort of grandpa, an honorary grandpa when I was a boy of 25. And one of course, it--it's, isn't it typical, great lesson he gave me, which I didn't take for nearly 40 years. He said, "Jump." I couldn't.
Lawrence Durrell Yes, he said, "The deep end is not deep at all. The act of jumping is essential. You can swim as deep as you want to. Jump!" I couldn't jump. And he at that time had jumped, and it fulfilled him. The act of starving, of deciding that all he really wanted to do in life was to write, and he was prepared to die for that, to starve for that, to be humiliated and beg for that. But he had found his vocation, filled him with a kind of radiance, marvelous, which for a young man was impressive to see. And there I always had an excuse. Oh yes, alimony, two children, wives, you know the kind of excuses one builds. I couldn't jump 'til very late when I found a French girl who forced me, she pushed me into the deep end.
Studs Terkel And you were able to swim.
Lawrence Durrell Oh, I had no idea I was such a good swimmer.
Studs Terkel [Laughing] Lawrence Durrell. I, I'm his guest at the moment. His new novel, his newest work is Nunquam, E.P. Dutton, we've been talking about that slightly and I say slightly, in a very cursory way because it's, it's powerful and grips you and your poet--we haven't talked about your poetry, too. Some say you're more of a poet than you are a novelist.
Lawrence Durrell I don't know, I've been going over this in the universities at the moment on this little trip. I think the distinction is a bit artificial, do you know? Most of the great poets have committed poetry and vice versa. The, the trouble with me, as the trouble with, strangely enough so many other people, is that I'm not dead, because the minute you die all your work falls into a significant wholeness, whether it's good, bad, indifferent, secondary, it's you. People who like you will, will pardon you a bad book because it has your tone of voice.
Studs Terkel There's something you just said, before I ask you about beginnings. If a man is a writer and he's obviously a creative man, and some may find one of his books not as good as prior ones, immediately say he's had it, instead of saying this man has a creative spirit, it doesn't matter. But we cannot accept failure, can we? And that's a terrible thing, isn't it, the one?
Lawrence Durrell Well, it is, it is in a sense. It's also, I think to a certain extent in the Americans, a, a bit weaker on that source of--of course the British, too, but essentially here a story is no story unless it's a success story. I mean, there is that predisposition always. But reading through now of an old French writer whom I admired very much, I find that [phone ringing] in his feature journalism--
Studs Terkel Just before the phone rang, Mr. Durrell, Lawrence Durrell, our guest and the conversation brought about by his visit to Chicago in connection with the publication of his most recent novel Nunquam, "Nevermore", E.P. Dutton, a very gripping and enthralling work, enthralling because it is magical. You were saying, this French writer who you admired.
Lawrence Durrell Well, I was talking really of a writer called Stendhal, you know, who did these huge novels The Rouge et Noir in about six weeks, you know, faster than Balzac. Well, they've just reissued a bundle of absolute features that he wrote for a local magazine. The strange thing is that out of my affection for him I found the same little touches, the same irony, the turn of voice, the subject matter wasn't much [call?], it was limited, and also I can give you another example nearer I think and perhaps dearer to the American heart. Have you ever read the articles and the reviews that Oscar Wilde wrote for The Ladies Home Journal? It includes a review of Lao Tse, the first Zen Buddhist book ever published in England of great insight. And when I read it, my hair stood on end because I wondered wheher Oscar, Oscar's frivolity didn't disguise a profound, a profound knowledge of some sort. I re-I, I, I, I re-looked at his aphorisms and so on and so forth in the light of this trivial little article, it was just a review of 400 words in the back of the women's Home Journal, but it was absolutely pervaded by Oscar's impudent spirit.
Studs Terkel So we come back again to this matter of finding the hallmark of a certain creative person, doesn't matter in what medium it may appear, in what guise it appears, it is there. Doesn't matter either whether it is a critical success or not. You're saying something of that man is in there and may cast light on something else.
Lawrence Durrell I mean, there's no doubt that the biggest boys have written often the worst books. I mean, all, all the big sinners for lousy work are the biggest chaps, whether it's Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, and so on and so forth. And Henry is no exception. He's written some appalling things, but rereading them after five or six years you'll find that impudent and in, ineradicable touch of his precise mode of thinking, his precise genius, good or bad, which endears you to him.
Studs Terkel This flop is the great flop because the height is a greater height to fall from. So if someone is a mediocre writer, here he really has no great flop, does he, if he hasn't fallen from much of a height.
Lawrence Durrell Oh, the mediocre boys play safe. They play safe with their dictionaries. Blast them.
Studs Terkel [Laughing] Lawrence Durrell, who obviously if he has a fall, what a fall, and a rise, what a rise, and so we come to, how, yourself, beginnings. There was at Corfu figures in your life, you worked as--for the British Foreign Service in Alexandria and Cairo and Belgrade, beginnings. Yourself and beginnings.
Lawrence Durrell Born in India, my father a civil engineer. Our roots, I suppose shanty Irish, but we'd been two generations there. We were not administrators of India, we learned all the languages. I mean, all my family spoke five or six of the Indian dialects. We were really beautifully integrated into the thing. [Before long?] I was sent at twelve to, to England to a public school. At 18, being such an idiot I couldn't get into university, I'm now conferring doctorates everywhere. This makes me grey. I couldn't get into Cambridge.
Studs Terkel You didn't, you didn't go to university then.
Lawrence Durrell No, I couldn't get into the damn university because of mathematics. In those days the exams were very much harder. You had to have both Latin and mathematics, and I had little Latin, and not enough math. I tried numberous times, and now as I say, I'm conferring doctorates on, on people right and left. It's horrid, it's black magic.
Studs Terkel [Laughing] They always were something of a magician then, one way or another magic was involved. How did you wind up--you were, I believe, on the island of Corfu twice in your life. Two different occasions.
Lawrence Durrell Oh, I've lived about eight years not continuously in Greece. The other day on the back of a postcard someone asked me, "Where have you lived most?" I had never thought about it, and so I drew up a list of countries, do you see, of which England came about third, eight years. But I have lived a longer time than that in France now, I have lived 12 years, do you see, and so on so
Lawrence Durrell In Provence. So I am a deracinated man, I hav -- I'm a rootless man, do you see. But that, that in a sense, gives you the whole world, because I can identify with everybody's.
Studs Terkel So being rootless in this sense could also be many-rooted. If the paradox could work here, too, in a very beautiful way.
Lawrence Durrell Certainly, and the ideal would be to be totally rooted in the whole damn world, to feel at home in Asia and in Peking, London, Washington, wherever.
Studs Terkel And so in a sense this is what your books are about to some extent, the fact you've been these, certain of these places to us here in the Midwest, in America, seemingly exotic places. So you've been, you've worked in Alexandria and you worked at Cairo.
Lawrence Durrell Yes, I have, I have almost every three or four years I've had to, I've had to transfer to some other place, do you see, that only la -- gives variety. Another language perhaps, and so on and so forth. But I, I, I think the basic thing is that, on the one hand the loneliness of not belonging to anywhere is enormously useful if you're a writer, because you would like to fundamentally feel absolutely like you perhaps feel here, rooted here, anchored solidly, and not needing anywhere else, do you see, whereas the feeling of homelessness, I, I, I Freudianize a little bit, because I psychoanalyze my own books as I write them. Not while I'm writing them, I write them blind, but afterwards I have a look and chuckle. And I always notice that my tendency at starting a new book is to start in a hotel because of a chap alone in a hotel with a notebook, do you see, or a violin rather Oscar Wilde. And I think that's because when the, when the ordinary sedate structure, not unlike Middle West that we lived in in India, the big rambling country house, not -- we were not rich people, you understand, but we lived hunting, shooting, and fishing all the time. We were surrounded by panthers, leopards, and all that stuff, and a move of five, six miles meant absolutely nothing. We had tents, we had equipment, you could go off for a year and camp in some dreadful swamp which had to be drained so that a railway could pass that way, not an un-American pattern I, I, I suspect, do you see. Well, that all got bitched up when we were all sent to England, separated, and the homogeneousness of the family life left and from then on it was hotels or it was boarding houses or just being lodged with Aunt Agatha.
Studs Terkel So in a non-romantic or not non, a non-homelike place is where your creative juices ferment most, most powerfully. In a hotel room seemingly--I say this not that hotels are bleak but seemingly bleak, spiritually bleak, or where you lived in India, so therefore that--out of that--like James Cameron, the British journalist, spoke of the smokestacks where he was--
Lawrence Durrell Friend of mine.
Studs Terkel You know James Cameron?
Lawrence Durrell Oh, I love Jimmy, yes.
Studs Terkel In Point of Departure he speaks of beginnings, his writings, and it was the industrial slum summer where he'd went, worked as a newspaper man. That was the beginning of it, rather than something green.
Lawrence Durrell Yes, and so many of your great writers have sprung from that misery. I think all good creative people, on whatever--I'm not talking about magnitude now, but I'm talking of a tribe. Specialists in loneliness. Specialists
Studs Terkel You mean Nelson Algren here in Chicago. Nelson is that way of course. That same principle applies. So we come back to --you worked--so as you were writing, thoughts come to you, in these rootless places, in these transient places. You also found yourself doing other work other than writing, for livelihood. You worked the British Foreign Service, that
Lawrence Durrell Yes, I was a teacher. I worked as a diplomat, I did all kinds of things. Nothing terribly interesting, you know, run of the mill stuff.
Studs Terkel Jazz pianist, too?
Lawrence Durrell Yes, I did play, I did play the piano when I was young in, briefly to make a living in the Blue Peter nightclub in London. Which unfortunately got raided, and if there hadn't been a, a window to the third floor lavatory, I think I would have probably been, got six months in prison. I didn't know they were taking drugs on the premises, I was only the pianist. They never tell the pianist.
Studs Terkel [Laughing] And they didn't shoot the piano player.
Lawrence Durrell Well, you may live to regret that.
Studs Terkel [Laughing] So that open window in that lavatory may have been the open window to literature, too, for many readers, too.
Lawrence Durrell Yes, I think it was. Certainly I met my first wife at the bottom of the, of the drainpipe where I arrived in the street.
Studs Terkel Then it's your rootlessness, your travels, your wanderings, in a sense there are factors, all factors here in your--
Lawrence Durrell Yes, I think it's, essentially all these things are fabricated out of loneliness, because you wouldn't want to join, would you, unless you were lonely. Or to join things, I mean.
Studs Terkel You are of a Western, now we come to something, you are of a Western culture. Your background is Western European. You lived in the Middle East. You escaped the Nazi flow when you left Corfu I believe to come to Europe again. Yet you're also drawn to the Far East, too, in some of your writings. I mean, as young, you know, some of the young are drawn to the East wondering what the thoughts are
Lawrence Durrell Yes, I think the great appeal of Buddhism, of course is, is the appeal of its calm, its passivity, and its disciplines, which are not rationalized disciplines, you know, not hysterical disciplines like, say, the Catholic disciplines and so on so forth. I mean, let's say Christian if you like. I don't know to what extent one tends to, to fabricate afterwards, you know, if you are a romancer, and particularly if you have a dose of Irish--
Studs Terkel Romancer or necromancer?
Lawrence Durrell Necroman -- both, both. You, but I do feel that by osmosis I contracted, because after all through the ch--through this playground of this big school in which I was, passed the lamas with their prayer wheels, days
Lawrence Durrell In Darjeeling. I mean, my life was much the life that Kipling describes in Kim, do you know, and I do suppose that I was in, a sort of influence a little bit, but there I'm a bit stuck, you see, you can't be an Irishman and be a Buddhist.
Studs Terkel Why can't you be an Irish and be a Buddhist?
Lawrence Durrell Because Irishmen are always fighting with something, and Buddhists are fighting with nothing. I mean, you could, ideally, but I mean I, you know--if, if I had to say which religion was, was perhaps possibly the one I would like to adopt, it would be something like that, do you see?
Studs Terkel Who ever, who heard of a non-combative Irishman is what you're saying.
Lawrence Durrell That's
Studs Terkel The very nature. So when, not battling someone else, battling the elements in one way or another.
Lawrence Durrell Yes but perhaps in a, in a, in a, in a better sense battling himself.
Studs Terkel Battling himself of course. And whereas the Buddhist is at peace with nature--
Lawrence Durrell And he represents a stage to which I haven't arrived, but I, it would be, 'twould be marvelous to be like
Studs Terkel It would be a fascinating fusion, Lawrence Durrell, Irish Buddhist.
Lawrence Durrell It could happen, now don't, now don't giggle.
Studs Terkel No, I'm not. It's great. You talk of, you know some have described your writings, too, as you said earlier it's an arbitrary distinction that of the poet, now the prose writers, in a sense all of Lawrence Durrell's writing is poetic. It's lyrical, of course. Landscape, too. Some describe you as a remarkable travel writer, even in landscape has always been--
Lawrence Durrell The place is enormously rich. There are places where I feel physically ill and I realize there's no reason except myself. There are places where I can't write, and if I were sent into exile there, I would never write another word. I wouldn't be unhappy. You understand, I mean, I wouldn't commit suicide or anything absurd, but I simply, I simply feel that the roots are not being nourished by the ground on which I stand. But I think this is a very common feeling, people must--you know, an ordinary traveler takes a package tour, realizes that one country is for him and another isn't. And I think he's making that sort of distinction. Spain, no and sometimes it's a country rich in treasures that you particularly want to see. But it doesn't speak to you.
Studs Terkel So the place itself could be by nature, by landscape bleak, but that very, yet very factor itself may become the catapult for your writing. Whereas a place could be lush and beautiful and that very fact could become, could deaden your creativity.
Lawrence Durrell Certainly, yes. Nourishing or not nourishing, fruitful or not fruitful. There, that's really the basic thing. There's, there's, there's really no possibility. It's a question of temperament. No possibility of, of really making a map of such a thing. I, for example, felt miserable in Argentina, so miserable that I even resigned my job there, because I felt I really couldn't, if I had to do another three years there, I would never have finished the books I was on. Now, three years later my brother went to collect kangaroos or something in Argentina. When he came back, he said, "My God, what a place. The only place in the world I would ever think of settling."
Studs Terkel Your brother said. Isn't that interesting.
Lawrence Durrell Isn't it strange?
Studs Terkel Yeah. Your brother of course a naturalist.
Lawrence Durrell Well, you know, this wretched zoologist man.
Studs Terkel [Laughing] And what was his book, My, My Family and Other Animals?
Lawrence Durrell Yes, The Swiss Family Durrell.
Studs Terkel [Laughing] Well, that's interesting, that you and he both found the reactions were the opposite as far as your individual creativity.
Lawrence Durrell Yes, because of the Argentina, they were both mad about Greece, and he, he feels like me, when he, he sheds 10 years like I do when I arrive in Greece and there's no way of explaining it. There's just champagne in the air. On the other hand, he doesn't like France. I mean he's, he, he's interested in French things, museums and wines and food and so on, but it's the delight of an epicure rather than, than something that he really feels.
Studs Terkel Artist, but you feel now, you feel rooted at the moment?
Lawrence Durrell Yes, I'm, the three countries which, really I feel absolutely at home in, Italy,
Studs Terkel It's interesting that you think of three Mediterranean or close to Mediterranean.
Lawrence Durrell Well, that's a most creative corner of Europe, really. Everybody has to come down that way once.
Studs Terkel So we come to, perhaps there are so many questions to ask Lawrence Durrell, who also has a number of engagements, but want to come back to your works. This book, Nunquam, your most recent one, Nevermore, it isn't accidental, is it, that your figure, your inventor is at the moment in a madhouse?
Lawrence Durrell No, no, it isn't accidental, because often the world seems like a bit of a madhouse. It's that we haven't found the clue, the, the key to interpreting it to ourselves. In other words, we haven't found a defense. To understand is to defend yourself and to learn to use the thing.
Studs Terkel And so at the moment, because we haven't found this defense, the defense to use what, I suppose to use the passionate nature of man, to use the possibilities of man, because since you are by your very being ev-even not just your writings, your very being is affirmative, you, you affirm as your friend Henry Miller does, life.
Lawrence Durrell You got to learn, charm to the affirmative, eliminate the negative--
Studs Terkel [Laughing] Johnny Mercer song. So we come--but at this moment you feel, you feel in this very moment we live in right now is one of those watershed moments.
Lawrence Durrell The darkest hour is before dawn.
Studs Terkel Perhaps I was thinking of a comment that is attributed to you, "I find art easy and I find life difficult."
Lawrence Durrell It's too superficial as a remark, but the idea was that one should nourish the other, and until you can make a joining action between the two, neither is any damn good!
Studs Terkel Is there a, a base or two we haven't--well, many we haven't touched, that you would like to talk about, Mr. Durrell, before we release one another, [unintelligible], is there something that, there are so many, I'm thinking about--the book, by the way. I'd point out once again, Nunquam, is connected with Tunc the, the previous one dealing with the same thing, yet it's an independent, to be read independently. E.P. Dutton are the publishers, and of course among the other books the audience well knows, The Alexandria Quartet, the four, the four novels that comprise that woule be The Black Book, Bitter Lemons--Bitter Lemons is travel writing, itself, to a great extent.
Lawrence Durrell Yes. There are three books about Greek islands.
Studs Terkel Prospero's Sol----Prospero's Soldiers what? Does this deal with--
Lawrence Durrell That's Corfu. The Rhodes book is the Venus book, The Marine Venus, and the Cyprus book is Bitter Lemons. They they make a little trilogy of travel notes, you know.
Studs Terkel Correspondence of you, Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller, and [center?] you notice about the correspondence, a fascinating collection, most letters interesting for what they tell us of Durrell and his growth as a man and a writer, more readable than most novels. As you can guess, these letters are a source book of our recent times, surely one of the books of the year and, thus, I think audiences are aware of the acclaim of the other works of Mr. Durrell.
Lawrence Durrell Well, I mean we try to do a decent job, for Christ's sake. [laughing] Life is so short.
Studs Terkel What is--anything, any, any--
Lawrence Durrell Well, I have absolutely nothing to preach at all. I haven't, I haven't yet found myself. That's why, perhaps, I'm an interesting writer, because in a certain sense you project your own anxieties. It's a question of selecting which anxieties are valid, and which are futile or silly or don't bear fruit. I'm hoping, I'm praying that the ones I've selected to torment my readers which, with are fruitful, are useful, so we can mutually grow, as growth is all, as Master Shakespeare remarks,
Studs Terkel So you, this is fantastic. Lawrence Durrell, considered by some the most distinguished English novelist today, living today, says at the age of 58 he has still not found himself, and so you grow then, there's a mutual growth involved here. You are growing with your reader.
Lawrence Durrell I, well, if I have a good reader, he shares my anxieties, he reads me as a chart, and we, we do a double act in the sense in, in projecting my anxieties onto him, I cure some of his. And also in the act, the cathartic act of liberating myself by putting them on paper, I cure some of mine. It's 50/50.
Studs Terkel So there's a, both, there's a rapport, there has to be a rapport naturally between--so there's liberation involved here. The write--the reader feels liberated. Something hits him. My God, this man Durrell. This writer's saying what I have been thinking of. Not really, I wasn't aware I was thinking of it, and Durrell himself was saying in the act of writing, I'm much free, I'm more free than I was before I put it down.
Lawrence Durrell Of course. You only read to verify your intuitions.
Studs Terkel So you read to verify your intuitions.
Lawrence Durrell Sure. That's the only reason you read. Nobody would ever open a book if they weren't anxious. A book is a great symbol of knowledge.
Studs Terkel A moment ago, this is interesting, you read to verify intuition, you said you psychoanalyze your anx--not while you're doing it but after you finished, you see, and then you laugh at what you--so then at the moment of the writing, this is done by intuition. This is done by impulse. This is done by whatever it is drives you, but then, now you look at it
Lawrence Durrell Then you look at it and say "Oh, my God, that old thing again, are we still at that?" I, I never cease to harp on that marvelous remark of Darwin's, you know, probably the greatest scientist of that epoch. He said, "It is fatal to reason while observing, but how useful afterwards."
Studs Terkel In the sense that's what you're doing, you are, you are following a Darwinian precept in what you're doing here. You are observing after you have finished it. So the passion goes into it, the hunch, whatever you want to call it goes into it, when you finish it. Then as, as you're doing this, do you do much re-writing after you
Lawrence Durrell Not much. Not much. I throw away blocks, rather. I had awful trouble with this particular job, I had to throw away about 150 pages, but that's never happened to me before. I reached the watershed, you know, in a sense. I suppose something to do with age, something to do with uncertainty. You know, success creates awful uncertainty, do you know, about your real powers and so on, so the general sort of feeling is, there must be something wrong with it, they like it.
Studs Terkel [Laughing] But then coming back to this point, there are several things, you threw away more than you usually do. You say success creates its own anxiety. The success you're talking about now is not the question is, I must top my previous work, that isn't what you mean.
Lawrence Durrell No, it isn't, it isn't that in terms of success, but there is a great danger which we're all in danger of. All artists are in danger of becoming mannerisms. It's very easy to carbon copy yourself.
Studs Terkel So you being aware of this, always looking--
Lawrence Durrell Well, you want to grow, you don't want, you don't want to solidify, rigidify into a mannerism.
Studs Terkel Well, I think what's clear, I think, to people who read Durrell, this is my initiation. I must admit and I'm caught in reading Nunquam now, I have to catch up. I think there's little danger here of, of mannerism to Durrell, since he's so open to life itself, as you and your, or as your colleague to whom we pay tribute, Henry Miller, is, didn't we. You're saying there's a film documentary of his life now being made in England.
Lawrence Durrell Yes, well made, made in California, in fact.
Studs Terkel California.
Lawrence Durrell Yes, yes. Two parts are finished now, it's going into six parts, but it, he's really talking on film and it's made by Bob Schneider with all the color of Paris of that epoch and so on so forth, it's coming back, it's, so to speak, Henry Miller revisited. And of course Henry is the central figure, and he's, he's loosing off, he's in splendid voice. He's elucidating many of the things of that, of, of his own books, and recreating and remembering, re-remembering other stories which are not in the
Studs Terkel And improv-improvisation plays a role in the making of this, there is no set script.
Lawrence Durrell No, it's good as film, too, you know, it's very interesting to see him wandering about Paris, you see, with his new wife showing her the old hotels and so on so forth where we all lived.
Studs Terkel Will there be Durrell film shown? Shoon? Soon?
Lawrence Durrell No, I don't think so. I, I don't know yet. I don't know. I don't, I shouldn't think so. He comes to visit me. There's a brief patch of Durrell looking rather too fat and talking rather too pompously with an English voice but, I mean, that's a minimal thing. Anais Nin is su-superb in beauty and in dignity and in, in laughter, too. For the first time she's, they, they've captured on tape that extraordinary mellifluous laugh like a nightingale that she has, she is really splendid. It is a good movie. I do hope it'll be released soon.
Studs Terkel But aside from the film that we look forward to seeing, the writings of Lawrence Durrell at the moment is our theme and, perhaps from here on, I, I suppose it's premature to ask you what you are thinking of now in writing, something in your mind.
Lawrence Durrell I'm too superstitious to tell anyone. I have a cloud in my head, but I must wait. I must pray for rain.
Studs Terkel Pray for--so let's do that. We'll both of us then, we'll pray for rain. Loosen our hair and pray for rain in front of our own Acropolis. Lawrence Durrell, Nunquam his new book, Dutton the publishers. Thank you very much.