Lawrence George Durrell
In conversation with lgor Pomerantsev
Lawrence George Durrell (February 27, 1912 – November 7, 1990) was an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist, and travel writer, though he resisted affiliation with Britain and preferred to be considered cosmopolitan.
Igor Pomerantsev: Mr.Durrell, for many writers, German or Russian for example, the theme of "motherland", of patriotism, for all its painful sensitivity, a productive one. Does the rather old-fashioned word "motherland" mean anything to you?
Lawrence George Durrell: Yes, it does, and probably you recognise that the colonial is more English than the English in the sense that if brought up abroad, he's not sophisticated and he's rather shocked when he comes home by the narrowness and frigidity of the life of the so-called "motherland". But in fact from a patriotic point of view one's nationality is one's language and so long as there is English and the Elizabethans one cannot step outside it in any way, so long as one creates within that "game" as the French call it. I was born in India. I'm a colonial and really in literature I'm a sort of white Negro in a strange way. First of all I was not simply a colonial in the sense of occupier of India. My family had been there since the Revolution and there were six or seven uncles and and aunts who had never seen England. We were there for several generations and very well integrated into the life of India. All my family spoke not only Urdu, but many of the variant dialects that they needed for their work. They were of course British administrators and extremely British, but at the same time the fact that they had never seen the "motherland" cut them off a little bit like you can imagine perhaps a Roman living in Africa might have children who had never seen Rome but were extremely Roman in their attitudes to virtue, to politics, to whatever you like. So we were a little bit exaggeratedly British in an awkward way and England to us was a sort of shock because it didn't seen open-hearted, gay and fruitful. We were astonished that it had such enormous power and that it controlled such enormous areas of the land surface of the world, without having really much more than a local and parochial ethos. We didn't realise that the force of things, as in a dynamo, is condensation and of course from the condensation of the English ethos they made this enormous projection. But of course it didn't last and it can't last. But then nothing lasts.
But for instance, whereas for some German writers their feeling in what they write about Germany is such a mixture of love and hatred, in your writing about England you are very special but there is not such a high temperature of attitude, if I am not mistaken.
No, I regard myself as extremely English. I regard my job, since I am working in English, to sort of try and develop the English psyche a little bit, you know, just as Joyce makes that wonderful statement about trying to rejuvenate his race - he's in Paris after all, not in Dublin. We have the same context because the English are philistines. They need to be re-educated. We're giving them a bouncing.
Judging by your life and your books, the search for place, the awareness of what you have called a "spirit of place" is both your purpose and your central theme, but you appear to feel completely at home in that time in which you have spent your life, or does it only seem that way?
No, it's true in a sense, but it's very much, it has been very much wished on me in the sense that the war business started when I was around twenty-two. Had there been no war I would still be now in the island of Corfu, speaking excellent Greek and thoroughly integrated into Corfu. But starting from that period when I was twenty-two, 1940, I was living in suitcases, one suitcase usually, and being chased like a rat from corner to corner of Europe by warring factions. So that I have learned by Refugio. I'm a professional refugee. Even here I could pack essential things in twenty minutes and leave. I am traumatised by travel. I have an old Volkswagen camper there. I can fill that in twenty minutes and leave this place and forget it.
At the same time, as for time as an aesthetic category, I think that you have a very interesting development of this notion. I mean your stereoscopic principle of time whereby your heroes live at different levels of time. What I would like to ask you about is not the aesthetic category of time but about the fact that you write mostly about the 20th century.
Yes. You see one can only write about the little one knows and one's optic is only a very limited one. But in a sense I have an Indian heart and an English skin. I realised very late, when I was twenty-one, twenty-two, when I was writing "The Black Book" it created a sort of psychological crisis. I nearly had a nervous breakdown, which Freud would have enjoyed very much. He would have laughed very much, but it causes me much pain. I realised suddenly that I was not English really, I was not European. There was something going on underneath and I realised that is was the effect of India on my thinking. And so I became a scientist in the accepted occidental sense in order to get to the end of science in order to see where it stopped. I realised that our kind of positivist, materialist attitude, not simply to society but to the universe, was not very fruitful, and I wondered whether my old Jungian intimations form the Indians mightn't have some kind of relation and in Greece I happily found my way back to Pythagoras, who was an Indian, and through the Greeks, the ancient Greeks, Theraklitos and company, who had all studied in India, I realised the vital link between Eastern thinking and Western thinking. And now in this period of wars and difficulties and violent differences of types of society and types of thinking, one thing is very obvious. We ware all becoming East-West. With the help of information and television everybody is now coming to grips with another culture, even visually. So that Tibet is no longer far away. Within the next fifty years one world of some sort is going to be created. What sort of world will it be? Obviously the philosophies are going to have to join and make concessions. The extreme materialism and positivism of the West must be modified by the mysticism and "suplesse" of Toaism or some other system, which is really quite logical. If you do Yoga you laugh at Christian prayer. What on earth ... Christian prayer of behalf of Mr. Brown ... compared to the meditation systems of the East. And these things are now beginning to operate in the West. So there is one world coming and that one world will have to one navel. What sort?
You write mostly about countries or landscapes which are very rich in colours or smells, but I think that epochs, times are also very rich on this sensuous level. Does the fact that you write most about our time, nowadays, the 20th century, mean that you find that our time, the 20th century, is one of the richest in smells and colours, one of the most picturesque?
Yes, it is, because you see ... I don't know how difficult it is to describe to you what our situation was pre the war, pre 1940. Travel was not possible. Nowadays an English bank clerk can spend a fortnight in Peking if he wants. It was not possible before. When i was in Hollywood visiting Henry Miller six of the top Tibetan lamas arrived on a package tour. This was so inconceivable for myself at the age of twenty that it's a complete revolution and of course with the help of the cinema it's giving us a factious feel of the smell of many landscapes because everyone has seen them. There is nothing original left now. We have to really think of something original left now. We have to really think of something original to be original about exotic landscapes because everyone has seen them. There is nothing original to be original because everything is available. You press a button and you have it on a screen.
The critics have placed you, so to speak, in the generation of James Joyce. How accurate a placement is this? Do you feel you are isolated from the rest of contemporary English literature?
No, I'm of course much younger than Joyce. I mean Joyce made me in a sense, he was my papa, if you like, as he was the papa of all the generation to which I belong.
But at the same time, for instance, Graham Greene, who is older than you are, is not of Joyce's generation. He comes from other origins, from other sources and roots.
Yes, but he's not so very important you see. His Catholicism is pure snobbery and he is a highly competent and un-put-downable writer, raconteur, he's marvellous. But he's definitely minor league.
Yes, but my question was about your feeling of isolation. Not only Graham Greene, but if you take modern English literature, for instance Osborne or John Wain and so on and so forth, abroad, for instance in the Soviet Union, English literature is represented mostly by them.
That's not my fault.
Yes but if you take this trend of English literature, do you feel together with them or completely separated?
I feel indifferent, you know, to them. I love Graham Greene, for example, I said something nasty about him. I read him with great avidity. But when you're speaking about literature there's a sort of classical difference between the depth and vibration given off by the big thing and the medium vibration given off by the medium thing. Now theses are charming people who people their like wallpaper peoples a bed-sitter. It's a very poor epoch, wretched, wretched in poverty. They wrote beautiful English, Graham Greene writes beautiful English, so does Evelyn Waugh, but there's nothing inside, there's nothing inside. Pretension and snobbery. John Wain is a good journalist ... I'm sorry for the Russians.
We know not only John Wain. We know also for instance William Golding.
He's marvellous. He's a very good protestant novelist. Yes he's excellent. He's very old-fashioned, he's excellent.
Yes but at the same time, although he is good, I feel that your style or your origin as an author, as a a writer, is different.
Well, I'm not claiming any originality. I'm interested in other things, you know. I'm interested in another sort of thing. I feel I'm European really, but my interest. I can't claim anything for my work because until it's finished one can't tell what value it has, you know. For me it's a question of trying a recipe like cookery. Of course you've got to serve the meal and it's got to be eat able and I can't guarantee at the moment that's eat able. But the line of country that interests me is not parochialism. You see it's all terrible parochial. They might as well be Danish people writing in some small Danish island. It's nothing very enlivening. Poor old Snow and company.
Do you feel yourself somehow Irish in the sense that Joyce and Beckett are?
Well, of course I have some bastard touch there, yes, long ago. But I do feel that same sort of thing. They have every right to feel like that because, as Beckett says, on the one hand they've got the Catholics up their arse and on the other hand they've got the British. What can they do but sing?
So from that point of view "Irish" becomes more an aesthetic or literary category than a national one.
Oh yes, not national at all, because there again it's a ridiculous situation. The British specialise in these situations - Cyprus, Ireland, Palestine - wherever they go there's some idiotic situation like this. Look at the Falklands farce - mama mia! That could have turned very nasty. And here they're all going about with their chests blown out. Incredible!
Besides prose you have also published poetry. In Russian literary criticism there is a semi-scholarly definition of a specific genre: "poet's prose". Would you consider that your travel books and novels might fall under this definition of "poet's prose"?
I suppose so, yes.
I mean just the attitude towards the language and the principle of composition more associative than plot-like, for instance. Or the language as the aim of the writing.
Yes. But then you are in competition so much with bad prose writing about landscape that you have to jazz it up a little bit to make it a little bit more "pigmente" than ordinary things, and also to render things you have to give yourself a little bit, you run away with yourself. I'm aware sometimes that it's a little bit too juicy, but what can I do to describe it to somebody who has never seen it? You have to exaggerate a little bit to hold their attention. I'm thinking Lawrence, for example, who's marvellous. "Twilight in Italy" I re-read the other day, and "Mornings in Mexico" - it's so fresh. The paint is still not dry on it. And it's full of grammatical mistakes. It doesn't matter.
You know, there is a German word "Dichter" and under Dostoevsky, although he has never written poetry, but he is a "Dichter" for Germans. But what I am asking about is not this poetical or poetical power, but something very professional, the attitude towards language, and from that point of view the Russian definition of the poet's prose; for instance Maria Tsvetaeva's prose or Osip Mandelshtam's prose. They could be treated as poets' prose.
Yes, because you're transcribing insight, and when you're transcribing insight you can't help but write poetry.
But at the same time I find that the plot is quite important, it does play a role in your prose and from that point of view it's purely or merely prosaic.Perhaps the feeling of being isolated a little bit, and I don't mean now in France, I mean a feeling a little bit colonial made me more sympathetic to the roots of English - I'm mad about the Elizabethans, I'm still learning from them - and I regarded writing now as a way of defending, because we are now beginning to write like barbarians, Americans.
But among Americans there are not only barbarians. America is the motherland of William Faulkner for instance.
Yes all the Americans brought up in Canada write beautiful English.
You mean Saul Bellow.
He was brought up in Canada. He writes beautiful English.
In your travel sketches you have written penetratingly about all sorts of people, Cypriots, Greeks and so on. Was your experience in the colonies, your upbringing in India a help in this respect?
No because when I was in India I didn't question either our right to be there or anything else. I mean I thought God had sent us there to help them, you know, like the Russians in Afghanistan. We thought we had just been sent there to show them civilisation and morally educate them. It was only with a shock that we discovered that they had a religion superior to ours and that this huge subcontinent had something quite different. And then we made the one honest political decision that the English have ever made - we go out, and thank God we won India that way. I mean we won the soul of India by that thing. Now in Greece we did the same thing in Corfu. We got out of those seven islands. When you go there now you will be embraced if you say you're English, automatically, but if you got Cyprus, they'll spit.
But for you, being in India was a life, not the material for a travel book. I mean you met a lot of people there and you have been accustomed to try to understand people as personalities.
When you're twelve years old, and I left India when I was twelve years old, you are not very sophisticated intellectually. My father was a poor engineer. We went all over India, we went to Burmah, he built railways in Burmah, he built the Bengal-Nangpoor railway and we were in the bush all the time. We lived very rough, you know. It was very hard to find books, periodicals - how could one? It was just like living on the moon. It would be too sophisticated to imagine that we had any notion about ... If there was any trouble with the Indians we stopped it. But we didn't worry about whether Queen Victoria had the right to be there or not, you know. It eas God for us and we were the instruments. You can analyse it politically. Once we got to London, of course, were told how wrong we were, but we were not told by the English. We were told by the French, the Russians ...
Critics have sometimes accused you of creating artificial, cardboard heroes, whose lives are theatrical as though their lives move on a stage amongst scenery. Do you feel there are any grounds for such accusations, and if the answer is 'Yes', do you consider such two-dimensionality, theatricality, a defect, a short-coming?
No, it's deliberate, and it's part of my working creed, so to speak, because as I'm dealing with the disintegration of the the discreet personality, - you remember Lawrence saying the old discreet character is vanishing and I'm trying to find allotropic states for characters in his letters, his early letters, speaking of Dostoevsky. As I see now the East-West junction coming, the big battle is not between various capitalist forces trying to eat each other, the bit battle is between the notion of the ego and the notion of the non-ego, and a hundred or two thousand years after all this, when the sort of world gets on its feet homogeneously where human beings decide to start thinking, the real problem will be, can we go on in a positivist, materialist way, or can we go on in a mystical way, in other words a non-ego way. So I chose the pantomime form, which is the most vulgar old Indian/English imagination, for Christmas, you understand, and my characters are really fancy-dress characters and I would prefer people not to ask "Are they real" but ask if they are true, because this is a shadow play. The whole thing is a shadow play. And the whole Indian notion is that reality as such is not very solid and our categories: time, space etc. are lucubrations which really don't hold any water. They disappear under investigation, do you see? And as I think the world is coming together very rapidly, in other words India let's say, and Europe, are becoming the same thing and the artists are now beginning to react to these two things, I think the sort of books I want to write reflect - a. the split, but also the joining. So the "Quartet" you see, based in Alexandria, which was the base of our science, the basis of our entire scientific attitudes, and now the "Quintet", the "Qunix" which I have nearly finished, I'm hoping to finish this year, is the Indian version of the thing, and everything - the syncronicity and the time factor of the "Quinx", is happening, so to speak, in the next room to the "Quartet" and some of the characters of the "Quartet" are coming in to camera and coming into "Quinx" but you don't know their names but you recognise them, at least you should, from the "Quartet". So you will realise that all that is happening now is happening parallel to the "Quartet". So I hope to have two collections of books, rather like a cordon mobile, you know, free-floating on the Indian side and anchored in relativity on the Western side. It's a bit ambitious and I shall probably make a mess of it, but it's worth trying to see if I cant the first universal novel from the point of view of the philosophic precepts with which we are warring at the moment ... Is it badly expressed?
Your prose is rich in smells, colours, sensations as well as in thoughts and ideas. If you had, suppose, to make a choice between colour and smell and thoughts as such, which would you prefer? In other words, what is the writer's true field of wisdom?
It's a huge question. It's a religious question. I mean a writer can't go any further than his intuition and can't go any faster than his souls develops. This is my Indian side speaking now. And you have to put up with the awful limitation. You might see wonderful things to be, but you have to wait until you can become them and when you become them you shut up. Now you see, St. Augustine said that and he was on our side, but it was a very Indian remark. There was a time in history where India and Europe shared the same common, scientific perceptions of reality. How they got separated I really don't know, but they did, and now they are coming back again. Perhaps it's the old "sisto deastoli sistol" of Plato, the breathing of the lungs, the cosmic lungs. But at any rate I can only see from my point in time, 1983. I'm seventy-one years of age. If I can finish this thing, even it's not terribly good itself it'll give a pointer and somebody else will come along and do it much better.
Going back to the questions about one side, of course it's a kind of convincing question, a convincing situation - this gap, barrier between thoughts and ideas on one side and smells from another. I think that as for philosophers any idea even the most clever one, it seems to me could be repeated and if you don't say it could be said by somebody else, certainly. But as for the most deep feelings, the sensations even I think that if there is not a poet around nobody els e will be able to express his metaphors.
You are right. That's well said. It's because those are embedded in time, in historic continuity. They are pointers to his lief. They are parts of his biography, really, in a way.
As with any writer, you have not only your admires, you also have your critical detractors. But it seems to me that your English critics in contrast to the French or the German suffer from a certain exaggerated irritability. They are more inclined to transfer their irritation from the book to the personality of the author. How do you account for such a feverish reaction the part of your readers, among the way, many of them are your fellow writers?
It's a very good sign. I'm always delighted.It proves that the stuff is falling on the style. It's hitting where they need to be hit. And it's one of the most fruitful things when you irritate people. I'm old enough now to remember that poor D.H. Lawrence could not open his mouth without sixteen incompetent and really not very fruitful minor writers tearing him apart. So I always took it as a very good sign and I take it as a compliment when I'm torn apart. I think it's a function of anything that's giving off creative stuff, it irritates you because it distracts your attention. And so you brush it away like a fly but the accusation of that thing stands so it really is a good indication to the author that you're hitting exactly where ... it's a sign that it's creative and not just banal. They're used to sleeping the British, you know, they don't like to be wakened. And of course when you try to wake them up they get irritated - it's normal, they should be excused.
But what most irritates the kind of reader you are talking about? The brightness of colour, the sharpness of the smell - I mean what they lack in their life, on their island?
Yes, I think they feel rather acutely but not consciously that their lives are deficient in something which is being pointed out as a possible way of improving it in richness and as they are lazy-boneses (we're all lazy/boneses) they resent the feeling that they're not perfect and it's terribly irritating to be told that you're not perfect and to be told, for example, that the rhythm of your life moves to the rhythm of an autopsy or that you are madly romantic like a stick-insect.
Does it mean that your life to a certain extent could be called the alternative life of a Briton?
Yes, truthfully, yes.
But at the same time many Britons go abroad, to Greece, to Italy. They like the Mediterranean.
The British are good exiles and good travellers, yes and probably the nicest tourists, the most honest tourists and the most sensitive campers. There's no doubt about that. But we're talking really about a degree of understanding. Can I tell you an anecdote which impressed me tremendously. When I went to see Miller these six Tibetan lamas - they'd taken their first package tour after seeing a Hollywood film - the lost horizon. And when they arrived in Hollywood nobody knew quite what to do with them, what they would like to see. They said they wanted to go and kneel and pray on the tomb of the actor Coburn who took the role of the priest in the film. They had been very impressed by his sentiments. They felt that he was a great sage and so they were all taken to Forest Hills where they knelt and said a prayer on Charles Coburn's tomb. Well now when you think of the cynicism of Hollywood - the bad art and the money grubbing and all the disagreeable things, the materialism - to have the six of the holiest men in Tibet coming to pay tribute to it, you realise the kind of judgement that is possible to make. And I've often said that if, for example, young Chinese kept getting off the plane and going to Sartre and saying, 'this New Testament, this guy Jesus, he's is quite something' Sartre would have got very irritated. He would have said 'What the hell are you doing reading the New Testament in Peking instead of reading a new manifesto. So this kind of misunderstanding between East and West and Eastern and Western values is a perfectly normal thing and it's probably going to go on for sometime. And the people who are irritated with my work are irritated because they feel there's an accusation in it and they're reacting like Christians.
One of your heroes, Pursewaden, says at one point "Marxism is the revenge of the Irish and the Jews.' Are we to understand this remark literally - that is as anti-Irish or anti-Semitic or is it metaphorical - the oppressed take their revenge?
That's it - it's metaphorical and of course the dynamo force of Marxism and of the theoretical side of it is Jewish and Irish.
But for instance in Kampuchea or Cuba they get everything without any Irish or Jewish leaders.
I'm not talking about Jewish or Irish leaders but the documentation I'm talking about the philosophic thing because after all this is just ... Cuba, I mean they're un-alphabetic - I mean what does it matter what they do in Cuba. Do we have to bother about them? They could choose anything in order to cut each other's throats - they could choose Christian Science an do the job just as well. As you can see the destruction caused to their economy by this idiocy is really not the fault of the Irish or the Jews.
So this phrase is solely a diagnosis, but not an accusation.
Not an accusation, no. But everyone stands accused - the author himself first of all.
Let's try and come back to that question and try somehow to cancel you, for sometimes you are reproached in England either for your reactionary views or right wing ones or for some racial prejudices ...
You mean anti-Semitism?
Oh yes, but listen I have a right to be anti everything. I'm anti-Semitic, I have every right. I've got a Jewish daughter. Do you realise the terrible thing it it. She's causing me so much trouble. Three Jewish wives. No, it's no good. I'm anti Irish, I'm certainly anti British. I started there. So naturally, they're perfectly right.
In the appendix to your latest novel, Constance, you published the will of Peter the Great, the plan for the national and geographical expansion of Russia. How seriously do you treat this document and if so, do you identify Russia with communism?
Russia with communism? I should think not. I should certainly think the Russian people are no more formulated in their way of thinking politically than I am. The document, by the way, I got it from a newspaper and it's been checked from a sort of official life of Peter the Great and I believe the text is perfectly correct but in my novel of course it's the kind o briefing that Goebbels would give to his generals, you see, on the one hand to fix them about the Jews on the other hand to fix them about the Russians - the two people they were attacking. And I made this up, I mean I don't think ever saw that thing but if he had seen it he might easily have done that. So in my novel that's what take place but I didn't regard that as serious contribution to modern history. But when I sent it back to Fabers I put the text which I got from the newspaper with it and said I think this would be all right as a briefing for a Nazi general and they said 'Yes, but it's incorrect - it's a bad translation' and they checked the translation and got the correct one and they got it from a biography so I believe it's true, I mean that I believe the document is correct.
But at the same time it evidently expresses some expansionism. Do you make the parallel between Peter the Great for instance and the Soviet regime or the Soviet expansion?
Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. That's what French say about it. In other words, yes, yes. The key word is Afghanistan, but of course it could be Hungary too - I mean it is expansion, yes of course. But they're telling us that they're saving us from ourselves.
Yes, but at the same time communism which was born out of Russia also has this expansionist charge in itself so it could be a kind of coincidence because other communist countries they are also aggressive ones although in past they couldn't be obligatorily aggressive or expansionist.
It's a belief in the ego - it's logical positivism and the belief in the ego which causes theis expansionist policy. If you don't believe in a discreet human individual ego and you believe in meditation and an attempt to coordinate your feelings with the the feelings of the universe you do not expand, you collapse like China, like India.
During the twenties and thirties certain major European writers like Maxim Gorky, Bernard Shaw and so on took upon themselves the function of the nation's conscience, defender of humanist ideals. Are you ever tempted to be not just a writer but to be become a public figure.
I couldn't possible do that. No, no - I'm not that sort of writer. My intention is to disappear from the world. After I've finished now the Quinx I'm going to turn myself out to grass and write nothing but poetry and not publish it and I shall live in Sicily.
But do you have any attitude towards such another point of view or another style of life?
No, those people are very honourable people, but without realising it the fact that they were wedded to our egocentric and positivist view they thought there was a solution in terms of politics. There isn't. You cannot resolve things in terms of politics. You can only resolve things in terms of yourself. And that needs a bit of quiet work on yourself. And once you've resolved anything, if you realise anything you don't want to convince anybody else of it because you can't. Everybody's rhythm, everybody's truth is absolutely individual and separate. An the time of their awakening is entirely separate. You can't make a dogma out of it.
And going back to the Russian question. Does Russia interest you as more than just a political phenomenon?
Well yes. I am a Russian baby,born from "The Notes from Underground" of Dostoevsky. The temperament that wrote is an absolutely Russian temperament. You would not have been surprised to find him in Chekhov or somebody else, though his predisposition has all the conformity and so on and so forth for the British ethos. What he has to say, the despair and so on is tremendously Russian. The Russians gave us despair.
Yes as for the closeness and similarity of spirit, I think that's right. But I find that you have more connections and you have more in common not with Dostoevsky, although spiritually yes, but as for your attitude to colour, to language - well it's from another tradition - it comes more from Gogol who himself was from the Ukraine, so he was more sensuous than Petersburg or Moscow writers. And there is a tradition of writing from Gogol and it concerns not only the plots, the fantasy, but the perception of language as a sensual fabric.
Yes. I can't judge that because I can't read the original. You see the terrible thing. I was amazed the other day when someone told me that Dostoevsky was a journalist as far as writing was concerned and that Tolstoy was an artist. Only he gave me two examples. He said you must compare prose Richard Burton with prose of Georges - ordinary journalistic prose. I couldn't believe that Dostoevsky which is so profound could be written sloppily. He said he was a sloppy writer. He didn't write very good Russian, he told me - this Russian.
You see he wrote that Russian which he needed. It's another thing if philologists say it's irregular or below standard, but he knew what he needed. That is why one can't say he wrote bad Russian.
It's like Henry Miller, you see, who often wrote bad (English) but he never wrote bad Whitman. His English was really marvellous American unlike the sort of shop-soiled American of the big cities, of the people not brought up in Canada.
But once again about Russia ... have you read any Russian books or writers or do you have a complete image of Russian literature - or what is your image of Russian literature?
Well, it stops like the Russians themselves. It stops with Tolstoy I find it unreadable, the modern Russian. I don't come across them at all because they are censored. You see finally when have complete censorship like you have there you lose interest and you realise that when the Russian Embassy send you their latest bulletin of genius you don't look at it, because you know it's full of town surveys.
But at the beginning of the twentieth century there was the so-called Silver Age of Russian literature, and culture - art music.
Yes - it's a great country ...
... but this was already after Tolstoy.
Yes, but I think the obstruction caused by political considerations has prevented us from knowing the truth about it. And so when I see one of these fat big officially sponsored productions, I think 'Ah, it's Arts Council again, it's the cultural genius of Britain.'
Yes, but have you ever read the writers of the beginning of this century who were brought up before the Revolution, for instance, Pasternak or Mandelstam or Andrei Bely.
Yes, they're great, they're great but where did I find them? In Paris. I wouldn't have found them if I'd been in Petersburg.
I'd like to ask you a question about some metaphors of your prose. While reading it, different things - it could be travel books, it could be novels - I have the feeling that at the back of your prose there is a woman and as for the colour of your prose - it is the colour of red wine and as for its taste it is also the taste of the grape. Do you find my interpretation too free?
Mediterranean -? No, it's of course the Mediterranean. It's the most marvellous holy sea with the grape of course. My goodness life is so short ans as we make a mess of it all the time we have to make lots of messes to arrive at a decent gold age and with some grapes.
And we spoke before the interview about Pasternak - if I'm not mistaken you played an active part or at least your position was quite definite. The Nobel prize situation, I mean.
Yes, because it seemed to me very disgraceful and it was just at that moment that my publishers received a request from the Soviet authorities to the Quartet and since I thought Pasternak was badly treated and I didn't want to give the English an excuse to treat me badly, which they might easily have, I thought no we'll suspend this so I wrote apologising but saying I really couldn't do it and I held up the Quartet for a while. But is was a Russian act - it was an act of solidarity with the Russian genius and I was so pleased to do that because one has no power finally to do but we produce these things and some bureaucrat decided whether the people will eat it or not and it's a scandal- the people should be free to eat whatever they feel like.
For years you have lived abroad and now you've been living for 20 years in France. Do you feel committed to the political or cultural life of France?
No, no. I'm more interested in a humanity as a whole, really. You see the French are marvellous because they don't exigent, they don't demand any kind of adherence - they say, 'Do you like the wine?' And if you don't like it, they say 'Well, give um some more ideas', 'What would you like more whisky in it'? They're completely open to anything - you're not obliged to adore France - they don't care - they like it.
Leaving Greece, I remember you wrote in one of your letters: "I need some de-barbarisation". Did you find the de-barbarisation in France?
Yes. France is a completely anarchic country. But the fact of its apparent superficial anarchy conceals quite an intelligent manipulation of the intellectual forces there and the feeling that finally one can't decide in ten minutes the fate of the universe. In other words there is, apart from the solecism of the French, very good intelligence and complete mess because human beings are in a nursery and it is a mess. The English tidy up the nursery and their children are so well drilled and so on that they have difficulty making love - not French children.
One notices, reading your letters and essays that there is a through and through image or metaphor, as least it seems like that to me as a reader, that all the time you are always transporting your library, your books. You're waiting for your books - where are they? It's like a mania. How do you feel about books? Have you got them?
Yes, I've always travelled with a complete encyclopaedia Britannica and it's caused me terrible trouble. Sometimes in war places it was very difficult I had to get the infantry to bring out my encyclopaedias. When I arrived in Rhodes my books were missing. I always travel with books. I feel naked without them, because at any time I might have to write an essay on Balzac and of course without books you can't.
Sometimes the Press calls you a right-winger even a strong reactionary as regards your politics. What do you understand in fact by being right-wing-reactionary in the modern political climate of Western Europe?
I think that in the climate of our time to be a reactionary is defensive. It doesn't mean a fascist. It means being a liberal and it means keeping a lively sense of the dangers of illiberality, the dangers of fanaticism and the desire to keep all questions open and subject to argument and temperate argument and a majority decision. Surely - it's old-fashioned but it's really what one should be doing.
But don't you are risking being dropped out of literary readers' interest because if you are considered reactionary by the mass media you could be from literature because it's important for a writer to correspond with the atmosphere, with the spiritual climate and weather of the time.
The question is political in the way you have phrased it. I'm not paid by the Arts Council. I have a perfect right to be against them.
Mr. Durrell there are some great or major European writers, who were very important and who are still very important for literature and even politically. I'm thinking of writers like Heinrich Böll from West Germany or Friedrich Dürrenmatt from Switzerland. They have written brilliant books but the last decade it seems to me, that whatever they wrote was very far from their best books. Don't you feel the risk of writing from inertia?
Yes, it is true. But then writing is a job of dedication. One is born to it like one is born with a defect of some kind. One is stuck with it. It's like a marriage. A marriage goes through long, long periods of inertia. Sometimes it picks up, sometimes it's better, sometimes a new child comes along to revive it. It's a chance you take. But once a being author has declared himself as existing like a Dürrenmatt, like a Böll one must go to the end with them in full confidence that it will come back.
I see among your books on the shelf a copy of 'The Fallen Leaves' by Vasili Rozanov, a Russian writer and philosopher. Is that by chance?
No, I've carried him with me like the Bible. He is my arch Russian in the sense that everything I got out of Dostoevsky I also got condensed in a much more mystical form through Rozanov and I regretted I did not know Russian to read him. There was a refugee Russian living in London called Koteliansky. In the letters he's called Kot - Kot's coming, Kot's going, Kot has sent some books. And he was translating Rozanov and Lawrence felt him getting published in London about 1925. Wishart published two volumes - Fallen Leaves, it was called and the second volume was called Solitaria. I think the two were in the same group because they were aphoristic, groups of aphorisms.
The Russian was 'Uyedinyonniya'.
Yes. But the interesting thing from a literary point of view was that he was trying to capture thoughts without literary address as they broke on the surface like champagne bubbles. And after each thought he wrote down where he had the thought, on order to fix it. It was very eccentric, most extraordinary and the value of thoughts was not aesthetic, in other words they were not thoughts about God, life, love etc. - they were simply impressions that were hitting him - sunlight too hot today, sunlight to weak yesterday. The thought given its full value without any context. When I came across Zen Buddhism I realised what he was trying to do. He was trying to think purely.
But at the same time Rozanov was trying to formulate some quite intellectual or ideological ideas. Do you find that his impressions are more important than the ideas themselves.
I have not read the ideas because you see there's nothing available in English or French about his polemical work. I knew for example that he wrote ecclesiastical, religious polemical things but we have never seen them.
But even in Fallen Leaves or in Uyedinnyonia there are some of his very political views and so they are formulated to a certain extent. As far as I understand for you the atmosphere of ego is more important than all the ideas.
Yes. I had the impression that they were like the asketiki of that modern Greek poet. They were ascetic exercises. He was trying to explode his own mystical notion. He was trying realise himself and that this was his way of doing it.
You write in your letters about Yugoslavia where you worked just after World War II. You write quite soberly about the regime about the repressions ans you sum up that although capitalism is bad it's worth defending by contrast to the dictatorship of socialist countries. And at that time the feeling amongst intelligentsia in Western Europe as far as I understand and from reports in the Press was just the opposite. How do you explain this?
I can't explain it. It's a historical fact. But I can't defend it anyway much as I respect the French, the cowardice of the French left is something of great singularity in the history of our time. In fact I found it distasteful because they were comprising a free society with their propaganda in praise of society which was not liberal, which was hopelessly illiberal and which would have compromised the freedom of the French public as such. So I took against it and I am a reactionary in that sense in the liberal sense. The same thing has happened nearly everywhere in the world. I think really that these French intellectuals are taking out fire insurance. They're frightened of the Russian army and they managed to acquaint themselves with the Nazis on much the same principle. I remember when the war broke out all the whores in Paris started taking German lessons. They knew was going to happen.
But there was a French resistance and Jean Paul Sartre, who was later pro-Soviet for a long period. He was among those who resisted the Nazis.
In what sense?
For instance, Jean Paul Sartre, Louis Aragon weren't cowards during the war. They were among those who resisted in their way.
Well, I dont't think that was really very much to be commended, because the intellectual slant of their thinking had always been left so they had to apologise for their intellectual position in that way. I don't know whether it was really an act of heroism, I don't think anybody was particularly menaced. The French folded up like a pocket-knife and were excessively obliging to the incoming Germans. I don't think the Germans had any trouble at all. The trouble really came from the French who started disposing of the Jews on a very large scale. And French public opinion took a hand. It was not the intellectuals. The French intellectuals did nothing, nothing at all. The French public in general has always remained human and violent and honest and capable of a reaction but I should think French intellectuals would find the nearest hole.
I'm afraid that the problem is a bit more complicated. We have the examples of some communists - one for instance - Dimitrov, a Bulgarian communist, who conducted very courageously at the trial in Germany but when he was in Moscow he in fact betrayed his close friends and associates who were killed by Stalin. So the phenomena of human courage is sometimes very relative. In one situation one is very courageous, in another one is a conformist. As for the French situation I think Sartre, for instance, was quite courageous during the war. He was in the underground and later he became a conformist and so it's a kind of intellectual temptation. It's very difficult to express it in such black and white terms - cowardice and that's all. Sartre was not a coward during the war. After I fell he became a conformist.
I don't know what you expect me to say about this, but all I can say is I think the posture of Montherlant is much more honourable because he was a volunteer, an individual volunteer in both wars and in between the wars when he demobbed he went away and wrote his work. He was not involved in a political mess and he was not in charge of a word bazaar, but Sartre was. All that left hand sector was permanently occupied with agitation and of course thy got the results they desired. They were agents without knowing it.
But don't you think it was a great mistake of intelligentsia in West Europe to confuse, to mix up the politic with the aesthetic. So they thought that if what they were doing was avant-garde in poetry they should be in the avant-garde in politics. And they chose the wrong card because as I see it communism was a reactionary theory, not an avant-garde one. So it was an aesthetic simplification of life to choose communism as a kind of political avant-garde.
No - it's too general your question. I don't quite know how to answer it. But you know your views are modified by your circumstances. If you've been in a country where people are living in terrible misery you are likely out of pure humanity and sympathy to adopt something like communism which promises a short-term alleviation of the problems. This is not necessarily an aesthetic decision - it's a political one really and that perhaps might be justified if you've been in a country where conditions are really horrible, like Cuba. You might possible take an hysterical decision to do something radical about it which may be wrong in the long-run and possibly all alleviate the problem in the short-run - it's like an operation which is chancy but has to be attempted. How can you judge? I can't judge. I can only say from the places I've seen. I've spent four and a half years in a communist country where the people were just unhappy - it might have been more just than the system before I don't know. But all the oxygen went out of the air.
Mr. Durrell concerning your writing, your letters, your books you are perceiving your life, your friendship, personal attitudes and relations as a kind of genre of the literature. Moreover you did realise this in your books. Do you think this is a kind of new genre of literature and how was it born and was this a kind of problem of your life? A kind of opposition to life?
No, it was a reaction to a friendship I had with a remarkable American writer, Henry Miller. While I often didn't admire some of the things Henry wrote what struck me so forcibly was that for the fist time I had met a writer for whom life was more important than writing. I was surrounded by people for whom writing was a kind of vested interest, like banking or like astronomy or science. But in that case of Miller writing he was using to clear his perceptions of living and he really very indifferent to the fate of the work itself. It was secondary. He became impatient if you wanted to discuss it. 'What's the point,' he said, 'I didn't sell it, or I did sell it.' But the fact was that each book was like a snake shedding its skin and with each book he advanced a little bit on himself. This is what I wanted to imitate in my work and in my life. An so I learned how to shed skins and not worry about what happened to them.
And do you feel, for instance, that you were expanding or breaking through the limitations of the genre while writing or rather by publishing your books?
I was not conscious of that as such. I was only conscious that I was coming out of an egg each time and leaving the shell behind me. The shell is the book. I was enchanted to discover the books were still alive after five years. And now that I'm practically posthumous I can't believe it any more.
©Igor Pomerantsev, Provence 1983
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