A life of Lawrence Durrell, author of the Alexandria Quartet.
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By MIRANDA SEYMOUR
By Ian S. MacNiven.
Illustrated. 801 pp. Boston:
Faber & Faber. $36.95.
Sex was Durrell's recipe for keeping boredom at bay. The question that Ian S. MacNiven confronts in this fine, thoughtful and prudently detached biography is whether Durrell's legacy -- the Alexandria Quartet, the Avignon Quintet, the travel books and the poems -- justifies the price his family and lovers paid for it.
Durrell's early life was more conventional than he liked to remember when he talked about his Irish antecedents. He was born in India in 1912, first son of a highly competent engineer and his tiny, exuberant wife. Drawing on Durrell's first and intensely autobiographical novel, ''Pied Piper of Lovers,'' MacNiven, the editor of ''The Durrell-Miller Letters, 1935-80,'' paints a vivid picture of an Anglo-Indian childhood. This, he suggests, was when Durrell acquired his sense of color, sensuousness, heat; an early awareness of the Tibetan cult of death would mark his work and find its most enduring form in the last chapter of ''Mountolive,'' which describes the mourning of Naronz:
''Until morning now it would be kept up, the strange circling dances, the ripple and shiver of tambourines, the tongue-trilling screams and the slow pulse of the dirges with their magnificent plumage of metaphor and image --poetry of the deathhouse.''
The family moved to England after the premature death of Durrell's father in 1928. Anybody who has spent time on the south coast of England might sympathize with the aspiring young writer for preferring London to life at Bournemouth with his mother and siblings. By 1932, Durrell had dropped a dull apprenticeship as a real-estate agent for a hand-to-mouth life as a photographer and nightclub pianist with Nancy Hodgkin, the girlfriend who became his first wife. The truth was lively enough; presenting himself to Henry Miller a few years later, Durrell added a touch of exotic squalor: ''broken bottles, sputum, tinned food, rancid meat, urinals, the smell of the lock-up hospitals. And so -- we did a bit of drinking and dying.''
Durrell was living with Nancy on Corfu, writing poems and starting work on his novel ''The Black Book,'' when he read a smuggled copy of ''Tropic of Capricorn'' and wrote the fan letter that began a lifetime of correspondence between the two apostles of promiscuous sex. In 1937, Durrell and Miller joined forces with Anais Nin in Paris. The letters continued, while Nin's diary became a spectral fourth guest at the nights of drink, swagger and talk. They egged one another on. ''My job is to throw myself over precipices,'' Durrell wrote to T. S. Eliot, his avuncular editor in London. Teresa Epstein, a darkly handsome Jewish woman living in Paris, was the first of many such plunges and, perhaps, the first incarnation of Durrell's Justine.
''The world situation kept intruding,'' MacNiven notes with the irony that allows him to maintain a skeptic's distance from Durrell's exaggerations. You would hardly know that a world situation existed from the Miller-Durrell letters, but by 1941 Durrell was on his way from Greece to Egypt as an official refugee.
Nancy, her patience exhausted by a faithless spouse, left with their young daughter. Durrell, nose-deep in ''the winepress of love,'' met and eventually married Eve Cohen, while his imagination went to work on converting dusty, seedy Alexandria into the sensual polyglot world of the Quartet. Much of it was based on Eve's descriptions of a childhood that became part of Durrell's own re-created existence.
Time was the grand theme of the Alexandrian novels, but time has not been kind in return. Thirty years ago, nobody doubted that the Quartet was Durrell's most remarkable achievement, eminently deserving of the Nobel Prize it failed to win him. In the austere climate of postwar fiction, Durrell's novels seemed as intoxicating and sensuous as a bathtub of gardenia petals; now, the Quartet seems antiquated and over-written, a literary curiosity, the British Empire's last gasp.
Durrell started writing ''Justine'' on Cyprus in 1953, against an unhappy background. Alienated from the islanders by his role as British Government press officer, he had also become estranged from Eve and their young daughter, Sappho. The Quartet's completion and international celebrity came a decade later, when he was living in France with his third wife, Claude-Marie. One of the first signs of fame was a call from Hollywood: Lawrence Durrell was judged the only man able to write the script for a new film -- ''Cleopatra.'' (Flattered but apprehensive, he turned the offer down.)
An experienced press officer, Durrell charmed his way through countless interviews, articles and conferences with scant regard for truth. MacNiven is not fooled by Durrell's evasions and elaborations, but he is a lenient chronicler of the last and most inglorious period of his subject's life. The rivalry between Durrell and his best-selling younger brother, Gerald, is lightly touched on; we are told that Lawrence was as bereft as his siblings by the death of Louisa, a mother he rarely saw and constantly mocked. It is hard to share MacNiven's certainty that Sappho, the daughter who hanged herself in 1985 at the age of 33, was misguided in believing that her father abused her. MacNiven discounts the charge because Sappho's comments were made ''years later'' and were based on a ''largely discredited'' psychiatric technique. But Sappho would hardly have publicized such revelations as a young girl, and she sought psychiatric help because of what she already believed.
''My brother destroys women,'' Gerald Durrell once said. It is a comment that the final chapters of this biography appear to endorse. We see Durrell, small, grinning, eczema-ridden, boasting to friends of his newest mistress, his latest technique (he was an ardent devotee of the Kama Sutra). Challenged about his antics, he smilingly claimed the excuse of being an eternal child. It won't wash. MacNiven puts his tongue tightly in his cheek before suggesting that Durrell was faithful to all of his wives ''in his fashion.'' Anyone who has ever heard Peggy Lee singing Cole Porter's song from ''Kiss Me Kate'' will know just what he means by that.
We are unlikely to be given a more thorough biography. Rich in anecdote, magisterial in scope, it supersedes an earlier life by Gordon Bowker. What is needed now is a livelier, less respectful assessment of the man and his work. Was Durrell, as Henry Miller once wrote, ''a stinking genius''? Or should we put the novels away and enjoy a handful of memorable poems and three marvelous travel books about Greek islands? Ian MacNiven's biography raises the question while offering no final judgment.
Miranda Seymour is working on a life of Mary Shelley.