A philosopher in search of human values
Might have seen something in the coarse
Black boots the guide wore when he led us:
Boots with cracked eyes and introspective
Laces, rich in historical error as this
Old wall we picked the moss from, reading
Into it invasions by the Dorians or Medes.
But the bearded arboreal historian
Saw nothing of it all, was nothing then,
His education had derailed the man
Until he moved, a literary reminiscence,
Through quotations only, fine as hair.
The stones spoke to him. Reflected there
In a cistern I heard you thinking: Europe
Also, the whole of our egopetal culture,
Is done for and must vanish soon.
And still we have not undergone the poet’s truth.
Could he comfort us in more than this
Blue sea and air cohering blandly
Across that haze of flats,
The smoking middens of our history –
Aware perhaps only of the two children
Asleep in the car beside a bear in cotton gloves?
There are writers – I include myself amongst them – who have a Great Inkling, but who lack the Great Gift which is needed to become a figure of literary importance. Something unnameable is missing – and it is this very unnameable which is the vital quality that differentiates: a sufficiency of harrowing experience on which to draw; physical or psychic wounds that drive and deepen; a command of language; a steadfastness of resolve or a fortitude of application. In Durrell’s case a certain frivolity of character, a flippancy even in those matters he saw as serious, appears to have been the decisive trait: style predominates over passion, drama lapses into melodrama; even Pursewarden, his greatest creation, remains in the end a clever-clever public schoolboy who never quite grew up. What might, say, Patrick White, have made of the love-affair between P and his sister, upon which Durrell hangs so much yet never probes? The fireworks are splendid, but their lives are brief, and too many are damp squibs. The brilliant superfice opens upon a hollow core. Durrell knew he needed to be Hamlet to succeed as a thinker in the twentieth century; his great friend Henry Miller knew this too, and occasionally managed it. But Durrell could not evade the destiny of being a sober Falstaff.
All writers take their influence from other writers, first impersonating, then integrating, growing the self in synthesis. To choose second-rate writers for heroes is a declaration of limits. That Durrell chose Cavafy for his poetry and Henry Miller for his prose speaks volumes, though Lawrence impinges on the early works, Freud on the later. Under Durrell’s influence I wrote my own least satisfactory novel (a pastiche of his spoof, “The Black Book”) and learned thereby the error of reflecting light from those who are less than luminaries themselves. Yet his skill with words is real enough, his ability to convey atmosphere, to create truly memorable characters, to capture the spirit of place as precisely as a painter might light. Perhaps Durrell simply wrote too many poems and relied too much on the moment of his inspiration: more re-working might not have improved them, but could have uncovered deeper seams, and richer seams, whose exploration would have reaped the dividends.
A great artist is always both the sum of his influences and the growth of his individual Self. One cannot listen to Brahms without hearing Beethoven, yet Beethoven could never have written the “Deutsches Requiem”; Picasso could not have created “Guernica” without Raphael, yet Raphael would have been incapable of “Guernica”; Beckett’s plays owe an immeasurable debt to Joyce, yet the one’s Molly is not the other’s. The proof of self-accomplishment lies in the transition from imitating to being imitated. A great artist becomes himself through the many influences he absorbs, and then transcends, ploughing other men’s furrows until he is able to harvest his own crop. For myself I followed Faulkner, Woolf, Camus, Nietzsche, Borges, Lawrence; and each ultimately proved a cul-de-sac. But this process is necessary, for no one can create in a vacuum. Despite the academic critics’ preferred view of literature as a tradition founded in linear history and aesthetic movements, it is more accurate to see its progress as a random chain of arbitrary influences, in which disciples to unknowing gurus become gurus to unknowing disciples, and in which, as Borges has described it, each of us invents his own precursors.
Will Durrell endure? Writing this in 2002, his books have already begun to vanish from the shelves of major bookstores. I suspect that, in the end, he will be read less for his own gifts and qualities than for the marvellous portrait of him by his brother Gerald, which will inspire generations of schoolchildren to seek out the original, simply from disbelief that such a protean and epicurean man could have been real. He was.
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