Bag of tricks;Books

8th May 1998 at 01:00
LAWRENCE DURRELL: A Biography. By Ian MacNiven. Faber. pound;25.

Denyse Lyon Presley reads a life of Lawrence Durrell I am the supreme trickster." So says Lawrence Durrell in MacNiven's preface. This observation is borne out by the rather Rabelaisian man represented in the book. He's a chameleon: a title that not only defines his life but his work, both on and off the page.

Rebellious at boarding school in England, he refused to succumb to the discipline required to buckle under and toil to get to university. Despite his father's deep disappointment, Durrell recalls that he did not lecture him on school visits but "he took me out and fed me buns". Perhaps not the best way to encourage the academic skills of an imaginative youth who dreams of Everest and desperately wants to escape the unwelcome confines of an educational establishment to be a writer.

In 1953 one of Durrell's British Council teaching assignments took him to Cyprus. It represents a significant period in his life and career with which MacNiven deals cogently and sympathetically. Although respected as a teacher, his British nationality meant that he encountered hostility from radical Greek students at the Pancypriot Gymnasium, despite the fact that he was clearly a loose canon himself. Promoted to director of information services, friendships he had nurtured, cooled. He became editor of the Cypriot Review. In love with Cyprus and an admirer of Greek culture, he re-invented the journal, his own chameleon personality invested in the project.

Envisaging a new Cypriot identity, he attempted to combine Cypriot and British culture despite the opposition of his British masters. But it was not enough to convince his good friend Seferis that he was on their side, and Seferis accused Durrell of selling out over Cyprus. In Bitter Lemons, his account of that time, Durrell was to attack the gunboat diplomacy which prevailed in British policy in Cyprus.

After the publication of Justine and Collected Poems his new fame led Durrell to exercise his PR skills from the other side of the fence. Tricking press and public alike, he interwove fact and fiction in a complex fabric. One such incident illustrates both Lawrence's playfulness and his sibling rivalry with his zoologist brother, Gerald (who bounds in and out of the narrative, infrequently it has to be said, like an exuberant spaniel). When an air stewardess asked Lawrence to sign a copy of My Family and Other Animals he duly did: "Signed, in the absence of the author, by his brother, a better writer". His fiction, too, was an alchemical blend of fact and fiction. Countless women are cited in the book as the model for the eponymous heroine in Justine. Although Eve, the so-called prototype and his second wife, averred: "she was . . . a composite of many people and of course there must be something of him too, since he wrote it!" Perhaps MacNiven indulges our and his own rather prurient fascination with Durrell's womanising, but it was an inescapable and necessary facet of the man. Yet this thorough narrative is also apparently a just and engaging account of a warm and passionate doyen of English literature which lucidly reflects the prismatic nature of Durrell's life and work. Although do heed this health warning, at 700 pages it can't be described as portable.

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