In What is Literature? Sartre argues that whereas the poet is concerned with words rather than with things or ideas, the novelist, as a prose writer, must move beyond words to the real world, and so inevitably involve himself with questions of direction and commitment. Sartre is expressing contempt for poetry, while pretending to shield it from the harsh realities of prose. Anglo-American criticism has moved in an opposite direction by trying to treat large areas of prose literature as a form of poetry. Yet to account for my divided attitude to Lawrence Durrell’s writing Sartre’s distinction is useful: I enjoy Durrell’s poetry, which, though slight, is elegant and witty, but I find his novels, which have been widely praised for their “poetic” quality, tedious and sometimes absurd. The prose becomes mannered, whereas in the poems Durrell does not need to say much, and the little he does say can be pleasingly uttered. But in the novels, and particularly in the intricate but hollow Alexandria Quartet, he tries to say a great deal at great length, with much pretentiousness and vulgarity. At the same time, there are passages of great power, so that one cannot altogether dismiss the prose—the famous duck shoot in Clea, for example.
These passages suggest that the high praise lavished by critics on successive volumes of the Quartet, as they appeared during the past ten years, was although mistaken, not perverse. Justine, Balthazar, and the others brought color and excitement into an English literary scene dominated by the provincial brashness and drabness of the “angry young men”: here, at last, it was felt, was fiction with some life in it, color, texture, and stylish, complicated sex. The passing of time has shown how factitious most of these qualities were, and no one recently has advanced the claim for The Alexandria Quartet, made in the early Sixties, as a masterpiece of modern fiction (George Steiner predicted for it a place “just below” Wuthering Heights).
Where some of these critics seem to have gone disastrously astray was not in their relish for Durrell’s prose, for not all of it is bad (or at least the kitsch is superior kitsch), nor even in their eagerness to escape from Welfare England to an Alexandrian never-neverland, but rather in their strange willingness to take at face value Durrell’s claims to be a formal innovator. He remarked of the Quartet: “Three sides of space and one of time constitute the soup-mix recipe of a continuum. The four novels follow this pattern.” Here Durrell is doing no more than indulge in mystification, in a way that illustrates what seems to me the crippling weakness of the Quartet, the lack of an intelligence adequate to keep together its willfully complicated structure. One can write good lyrics in a fairly mindless way, but to produce a big novel one needs a reasonably powerful mind. It is here that Durrell fails most conspicuously, despite his invocation of Einstein. (If anything, he shows an unfortunate bias toward…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.