“Guardian Books Podcast: Lawrence Durrell at 100″ features presenter Claire Armitstead in conversation with travel writer Jan Morris, Amateurs in Eden author Joanna Hodgkin, and Guardian Books blogger Sam Jordison. The podcast was produced by Tim Maby.
The podcast includes a sampling of audio clips – interviews with Lawrence Durrell from different moments in his career; recordings of Durrell’s early jazz lyrics; and readings by Durrell and others from his works – all backed by a lush, percussive soundtrack which attempts to convey the atmosphere of the writer’s life and works.
Durrell 2012 readers will perhaps be most interested to hear Jan Morris speaking about her encounters with Lawrence Durrell – in life, and on the page.
Morris candidly shares the story of her evolving appreciation of Durrell’s achievement in The Alexandria Quartet. After recalling her meeting with the writer on 1950s Cyprus, Morris admits that nothing about her first impressions of Durrell the Man prepared her for her appreciation of his achievement today. She confesses: “I didn’t think of him then as being a sort of visionary – which, I do see now, he must have been.”
Morris then goes on to make some further elaborations upon her introductory remarks for the 2012 Faber reissue of The Alexandria Quartet.
While pondering how The Alexandria Quartet achieves its uniquely “fascinating” effect by means of its experimental form, atmospheric sketches of the Alexandrian cityscape, heady metaphysical speculation, and shifting plots of romantic betrayal and espionage, Morris emphasizes the importance of taking in all of the tetralogy — Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea — as unfolding parts of Durrell’s “most extraordinary achievement“:
Clearly it is a masterpiece, of some sort or another – and a very unusual one – but the whole of it is a most extraordinary achievement. It’s full of the most beautiful things, and full – to my mind – of rather silly things. But the whole of it is what counts, really. You can read a bit of it – even one of these books, I suppose – and come away thinking the whole thing was nonsense, and pretentious nonsense at that. But if you read the whole work, you can hardly leave it without thinking that you’ve come across something rather great in the history of literature.
Morris extends these insights by insisting that it is Durrell’s evocation of “Spirit of Place”– his ability to use words to communicate the abiding sensuality of Alexandria between the wars – that makes his work stand out from the work of other novelists of the 1950s and 1960s:
That is what I think Durrell does so brilliantly in these books. It is the intangible, indefinable spell of this particular city, on the cusp between Europe and Asia and Africa – and on the cusp between a historical Past and a very remarkable Present – that makes the City – that made the City – unique among cities. It was one of a kind. And The Alexandria Quartet is one of a kind.
In closing, Morris makes clear her sense that The Alexandria Quartet has secured a permanent place within world literature:
At the basic level, I think that it has lasted very well, and it will always be read, I feel sure[. . . .] The work itself is really such a great idea, and is executed, really, with such remarkable technical skill and imagination, that I feel sure that people will still be reading them one hundred years from now.
Following up on Jan Morris’s insights into Durrell the Novelist, Joanna Hodgkin – daughter of Nancy Durrell Hodgkin, by a second marriage – turns the conversation to Durrell the Man.
Podcast listeners following the recent reviews of Amateurs in Eden will take special note when Hodgkin offers an explanation of the different goals she had in writing the biography of Nancy Durrell:
My mother, when she realized she was going to be written about [. . .] wanted her side of the story to be told. So that is what I have tried to do. I have tried to do it as honestly as I could[. . . .]
In a way, it gives a portrait of [Lawrence Durrell] as a young husband not doing very well, and not being a terribly good young husband. But I hope that it also gives an idea of him as a passionate writer, and someone who put his writing first.
Finally, Sam Jordison makes a passionate case for why the “strange magic” of The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quintet are ripe for rediscovery by a new generation of readers in the twenty-first century.
Durrell 2012: The Lawrence Durrell Centenary looks forward to March 2012, when the Guardian Books Online Reading Group of The Alexandria Quartet will take place.
Read Sam Jordison’s 2009 appraisal of Lawrence Durrell’s The Avignon Quintet – “A Different Kind of Durrell.”
On Thursday, 14 June 2012, Joanna Hodgkin will give a keynote address at Durrell 2012: The Lawrence Durrell Centenary.
For this and other events and exhibitions related to the Durrell Centenary, please see the draft schedule.