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Perfect Goose

LAWRENCE DURRELL.\o7 By Ian MacNiven (Faber and Faber: 802 pp., $36.95)\f7

June 21, 1998|PATRICIA STORACE | Patricia Storace is the author of "Heredity," a book of poems, and "Dinner With Persephone," a travel memoir about Greece. She recently was honored with the Runciman Award

"My thinking is colored by the fact that I am a colonial," Lawrence Durrell, the British expatriate, civil servant and writer fashionable in the 1950s and 1960s for his travel books about Greece and his novels set in Egypt, Greece and France, once remarked. It seems poignantly clear after reading "Lawrence Durrell," the work of Durrell's personally selected biographer, that Durrell missed his chance at what should have been his best subject: a portrait of the British colonial mentality in all its social, political, cultural and sexual facets, the almost mechanical precision with which the empire's representatives helped radicalize the politics of the countries England administered and the lives they created and destroyed.

But Durrell, as Ian MacNiven's new biography shows, following his trajectory from birth in India to death in France, was too perfect a colonial to do it, an illustration of the Randall Jarrell proverb: "Said the goose to her daughter, 'You are a perfect goose.' " A BBC interviewer, quoted in "Through the Dark Labyrinth" by Gordon Bowker, saw Durrell as "an old-fashioned English reactionary." That book is more lucidly written than MacNiven's, more detailed in some instances, such as in its treatment of Durrell's marriages and relations with his tortured daughter, Sappho, but less full in its account of Durrell's periods of life in Greece and Cyprus.

MacNiven's is an affectionate, obese, coarsely written, viscous, poorly edited and gallant attempt at a biography. It has a tendency to drown us in detail, telling us about Durrell's swimming pool and his preferred medicine for "gippy tummy," even his exchange of a rental Volkswagen for a Mustang. MacNiven also slices the ham indigestibly thick--of the island of Corfu, he writes, "Had Corcyra not been courtesan to Tiberius, to Pompey, to Caesar, to Byron, to Gladstone . . . here was Homer on the Durrell doorstep!" "Egypt," he reports breathlessly, "seared Larry to the very soul." On a number of points, both small and large, the books disagree, but it cannot have been easy in either case to write the life of a man who even as a boy was characterized in a school report as a "mine of disinformation," one who freely and compulsively distorted facts of his and other's lives from youth to death.

MacNiven is candid in his admission that Durrell chose an official biographer as a "shield" and says he can write of Durrell only on a first-name basis. But he is resolute, if at times flinchingly so, in recording episodes like Durrell's fabrication of a political murder in "Bitter Lemons" and his habit of lifting passages verbatim from other writers' books.

Durrell was born in India in 1912 into a family whose relations with its mother country were in some ways as tenuous as its relations with their host country. Durrell grew up in a world in which his mere shadow crossing a plate of food contaminated his Indian ayah's meal, while his own caste was as rigidly determined in the British hierarchy. His family lacked the correct public school and university education, obstacles to their chances at employment in the Indian Civil Service, whose members were known as the "Heaven-born," or the commissioned ranks of the army. His Indian-educated father was an engineer employed by the railway and, later, a partner in a construction firm. Durrell's own anxieties about his class are evident in his urgent insistence that his family were not merchants, "unthinkable . . . we had no box-wallahs in our family." Durrell's father was determined that his son should acquire an English degree, transformed from a petit bourgeois into a "great man with a dinner jacket," so Durrell sailed off to England, bitter about the disruption of his life but "pleased as a Jew belonging to the chosen race."

In the end, he thwarted his father's ambition by failing his university entrance exams. "Intellectually I was brilliant," he would say defensively, but "I deliberately failed the exams, because of a subconscious resentment." Durrell found another way of securing social distinction, through establishing himself as an artist, in his view an exalted status, "a unique private gift, vouchsafed only to the chosen ones," uncannily like the Indian Civil Service. Throughout his life, Durrell clung to a sense of having been aristocratized by art, a sense that being a writer made him superior. (He also retained an insecurity about academia; Durrell specifically took up pipe-smoking in preparation for a teaching stint at Caltech in the 1980s because "one has to look ridiculously and hypocritically solemn at universities. It's part of the job.") He placed the writer at the center of an imaginary creative hierarchy; when his first wife wanted to help Anais Nin aid refugees from the Spanish Civil War, Durrell objected, saying, "They are just a lot of bohemians."

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