Lawrence Durrell: A Biography

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9780571199433: Lawrence Durrell: A Biography
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Born in India in 1912, the son of an engineer, sent 'home' to school in England (which he christened Pudding Island), Lawrence Durell left for Corfu with his first wife and his incorrigible family in 1935, from where he was driven to Egypt by the German invasion of Greece in 1941, and in time to Rhodes, Argentina, Yugoslavia and Cyprus. Eventually, with his third wife, he moved to southern France, where he lived for over thirty years. His poetry, his island books and his novels reflect his passion for congenial places and people, preferably around the shores of the Mediterranean.
As Ian MacNiven shows in this major biography, Durrell's private world was assimilated into his writing from the very beginning, and it has taken years of patient research to piece together the true narrative of his literary background and influences. The book was undertaken at Durrell's invitation, with access to his personal papers and notebooks and letters. It draws heavily on the memories of innumerable friends and contempoporaries, as well as his own family and the many women in his life, including his wives. It will engross all admirers of this mercurial and richly gifted writer whose 'investigation of modern love' in The Alexandria Quartet produced one of the masterpieces of post-war fiction.

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Lawrence Durrell, the oversexed, bad boy of mid-20th-century British letters is treated somewhat gingerly by biographer Ian S. MacNiven. He skims over the intense rivalry between Durrell and his younger brother, bestselling author, Gerald; avers that Durrell did not abuse his daughter Sappho (who, at 33, hanged herself ), despite her claims to the contrary; and even asserts that Durrell's insatiable appetite for new sexual conquests and acrobatics aside, the novelist was "in his fashion" faithful to each of his wives. MacNiven, the editor of The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-80 knows his subject well, and he fills the book with biographical detail about Durrell's lovers and friends--people such as Teresa Epstein who may have been the original model for Justine. He explores Alexandria, Egypt, the key to Durrell's best-known work, and finds that the Alexandria of the Quartet more closely resembles the city his wife Eva Cohen grew up in rather than the one he himself inhabited during the 1930s. MacNiven offers details about Durrell's friendship with Henry Miller--a closer kinship would be hard to find--that was forged during long nights of drinking, talking, and posturing, and he proffers reams of sensationally self- absorbed letter writing (scant mention of World War II is found in any of the letters from that period) that makes clear how the two fed one another's work. Most interestingly perhaps, MacNiven wonders about Durrell's ultimate position in the literary pantheon--The Alexandria Quartet, which many once believed would secure him the Nobel Prize for Literature, now seems like a relic from another age. Readers will walk away from this biography with an indelible impression of a personality that promises to endure as long as his books.

From Kirkus Reviews:

Elegant and meticulous, this authorized biography of the author of such literary works as The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quintet is a belletristic treat. If this biography existed in isolation, it would be a formidable achievement. Its fluidity and richness of detail echoes Durrell's work at its best. But MacNiven (Literary Lifelines, 1981) is up against last year's landmark Durrell biography, Into the Dark Labyrinth, by Gordon Bowker. It's a fair fight, and in the ideal world both books should be read since they cover substantially different ground. Though MacNiven has the advantage of being able to quote freely from Durrell's oeuvre, he is much better on his subject's life, while Bowker's real strength lies in his understanding and exposition of Durrell's work. These two biographies make a compelling case for his protean talents, the timelessness of his artbut they probably aren't enough to hold the ebbing tide of his popularity. Durrell was a child of the Raj, and MacNiven convincingly argues that India, in one form or another, inflected much of Durrell's writing. Sent away to Englandthe despised ``Pudding Island''for schooling, he quickly proved an indifferent student. Unable to get into university, he set out for Corfu, intent on becoming a writer. This was the start of a peripatetic life that seemed to fuel his work. Each move, to various Greek islands, to wartime Alexandria, to the south of France, brought with it a cascade of poems and at least one novel. Unlike so many expatriate writers whose work remains ineluctably homebound, Durrell was truly a poet of places. In MacNiven, he has found a gifted, sympathetic interpreter. (36 b&w photos, not seen) -- Copyright ©1998, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

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