Thursday, February 17, 2011

Is it common knowledge that Lawrence Durrell could be funny?

Well, then, you can just hear Alice Brady reply, I won't have my child exposed to it. That bristling, bossy comedienne has served more than one generation as the Rosetta Stone of embonpoint vigilance against any species of male mischief, yea unto the middle ages of Edward Everett Horton. What a grateful ear turns later to her regurgitive inanity, of everlasting timing. At the core of the best writing for her (Kaufman and Yost in The Gay Divorcée, 1934 and Ryskind and Hatch in My Man Godfrey, 1936), a fey ribaldry hangs long after the beat, ironic in lustrous sympathy for play. In short, she's our heroine of disapproval.
A brilliant actress, made so sentimental by div-orce, who resents it in a man if he is interest-ing, rates a Day of Obligation of her own in any gentleman's calendar. By no means, our bones tell us, could she accept our assimilation of common knowledge. And who are we to quibble?

Our genius, then, for the Profoundly True Signif-icant Detail (ptsd) might owe as much to a search for something she over-looked, as it does for a lynchpin for our esteem. I grant you, to Aunt Hortense this portrait may only portray a louche way with cuffs, or an unpardonable sinecure for the hand. To us, it's a life's revelation in sel-ection of a watchband for secret swimming. It's ours to wear.

May it not seem untoward, then, to remark that if a man will be funny about one ptsd, it's incumbent upon him to be funny about them all. We can't have Durrell hurling us to the floor in stitches over Serbia - repenting for a tacky potboiler for boys - and not lifting us up on wings of hilarity over ritual circumcision. I know, I know; this page has done precious little to imply regard for the feature identified with that procedure. But it's not for lack of fellowship, may I say, but for scruple to be non-sectarian.

What a grace note of literary recovery it would therefore be, to find the diplomatic satires of Lawrence Durrell outside of common knowledge at this time, for their delectation by the innocent. To the fecklessness of diplomacy in an empire in decline, Durrell brought the succour of mirth, in the mode of Coward in Pomp and Circumstance, Farrell in The Singapore Grip, and even Saki in The Immortal Bassington. It fell to Durell, however, to exhibit the underlying juvenilia of the form. It was only fitting, then, that he'd turn his blithely errant instrument upon the ultimate Particular True and Significant Detail, give or take a warhead from Stanley Kubrick.

(Although sometimes attached to diplomatic settings, the satiric writings of Mitford, Waugh, and Greene could just as readily be set in a pharmacy. They are about human character and rules, of all things, and are therefore hope-lessly based in common knowledge. They are also intelligent, and can only embarrass diplomacy without defining it). Durrell's diplomatic satire is about the pathos of the task, itself, and the natural impression that its practitioners are suited for nothing else. Known as 'the Antrobus stories' for their primary idiot, they were published from the middle 50s into the middle 60s, until those miser-able Cantabrigians spoiled all the fun.

Having refined Ambassador Polk-Mowbray to a doddering fare-thee-well of feint and transparency at once, it must have been just crushing for Durrell to find Philby, Burgess, Maclean and later Blunt absconding with the franchise. No wonder he went off to Sicily, where such things are done more candidly. As a parting shot, then, his title story in the Sauve qui Peut collection finds Antrobus invited to the ptsd of the hour:

His Excellency Hacsmit Bey and Mme Hacsmit Bey joyfully invite you to the Joyful Circumcision of their son Hacsmit Hacsmit Abdul Hacsmit Bey. Morning dress and decorations. Refreshments will be served.

One cannot know whether to attribute this disarming of mortal horror to the sartorial specification or the promise of restoratives. But here, comedy this low is the staff of life with an English dog; and if anyone thought we might be drawn into an elevated approach to this Great Subject, we apologise for resort to this shabby excuse. We can say, without fear of contradiction by familiarity with these stories, these days, that they defy common knowledge in the endearingest way. 

And the ending? Every man for himself. 


Lawrence Durrell

White Eagles over Serbia
In England, marketed to children.
In America, marketed to adults.
Faber & Faber, 1957©
Penguin, 1980© 

Esprit de Corps
Sketches from Diplomatic Life
Faber & Faber, 1957©

Stiff Upper Lip
Faber & Faber, 1958©

Sauve qui Peut
Faber & Faber, 1961 et seq©

Source: Heywood Hill
Please see Context


  1. What a lovely touch to post the book covers.

  2. showing ample signs of snakes & snails & puppydogs' tails

  3. I had forgotten these books. I began with Lawrence Durrell's brother Gerald whose My Family and Other Animals was one of the funniest books I've ever read. Thank you for the reminder and my spring reading list!

  4. And thank you especially for reciprocating! I'm ashamed to say, I've never read the "nice" Durrell; I'm psyched ..

  5. for years i started each January with the Alexandria Quartet...

    how could one go wrong?


  6. One of the things I really love about Durrell, and will simply have to develop in another setting, is how one can keep a copy of one of his books by one's bed, for popping open to any page for elegant and involving reading before sleep. It might not sound like much of a compliment, say, to "Sicilian Carousel" (victim of last night's exploitation), to do this very thing, and drop right into a discussion entertainingly distinguishing Greek from Roman theatrical architecture on the island of Sicily. But it is, to say Durrell needs no introduction.

    People who strain to lead a cultivated life need readiness for it. Durrell was always ready.

    How could one go wrong?