A Durrellian Dictionary

The Harbour in AlexandriaLawrence Durrell in the OED

Lawrence Durrell was an author for readers of dictionaries par excellence. And while that may seem peculiar praise, it also shapes one way of reading the man. Dictionaries have an indexical nature, and the most labour intensive word for a reader is “See…” Durrell tells us he structures his books as siblings not sequels (a recuperation or excavation of time rather than progress) – surely these siblings are also cousins to that word ‘see…’ Durrell, see also Henry Miller, see also Elizabeth Smart, see also Anarchism, see also Colonialism, see also Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962, see also Anglo-Indian. Durrell, see also Durrellian.

Of the 264 definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) that currently draw on Durrell for quotations, my favourite is ‘Ouspenskyist’. The word means ‘A follower of the Russian mystical philosopher Ouspensky or of his ideas’, and the OED’s quotation is from the novel Balthazar, the second volume of Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. For the OED, this is currently the first source for the word – no preceding (or subsequent) use appears in the wild. In a sense, then, ‘Ouspenskyist’ was only defined retrospectively, which reminds us that Durrell’s Quartet has been a particularly fertile source of quotations for logophiles, and hence an attractive ‘word object’ for the same subspecies of humanity.

But there’s a theme in this as well. The full quotation, which is necessarily abridged in the entry, reads ‘Alexandria is a city of sects – and the shallowest inquiry would have revealed to him the existence of other groups akin to the one concerned with the hermetic philosophy which Balthazar addressed: Steinerites, Christian Scientists, Ouspenskyists, Adventists…’ In typical Durrellian fashion, the word sits provocatively amidst unlikely companions with the esoteric, the occult, the Pulitzer Prize winning, and lastly conservative Protestantism. And none are uniquely Alexandrian.

Overlooked Bestseller

These conflicting juxtapositions are perhaps the most memorable element of Durrell’s literary style and also the source of his appeal to OED contributors for quotations. Such sharp contrasts were also a part of the author himself, who remains an oxymoronically overlooked bestseller. Durrell continues to out-sell most of his literary contemporaries, at least those with literary pretensions, and his works have developed an extensive body of scholarship in literary studies. Yet he remains peculiarly outside the literary establishment and almost utterly absent from literary anthologies.

While Faber & Faber had financial success with Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies in the 1950s, only one of those texts became a mainstay of the classroom (reaching generation after generation). Durrell remains a series of complex contrasts, and that can make his works both rewarding and a challenge.

Durrell as Homonym

In addition to his doppelgänger brother, Gerald Durrell, we find in Durrell a double. We have the Durrell of the Second World War era who may have been a government agent yet published in the anarchist press and befriended pacifists. There’s Durrell who offered a nostalgic aroma of empire without any meaningful Arab characters in his 1957 Alexandrian novel Justine (notably a vision sold to a post-Suez British reading public). This is the same man who protected the Egyptian writer Albert Cossery from American intelligence and paid his way when he couldn’t make rent. In that same forgotten moment Durrell supported the translation of Cossery’s first novel Men God Forgot, a manuscript he sent from Egypt to his friend Henry Miller in California for publication in the anarchist Circle Editions imprint – the same book enjoyed support from Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Duncan in their radical San Francisco reading circle. Yet Bitter Lemons, also from 1957, presents Durrell in his working capacity for the British government in Cyprus during Enosis, a man who had been in Argentina under Perón and Yugoslavia during Tito’s break with the Cominform. An anarchistic government man – a political liaison taking sanctuary in personal landscapes.

These politics are nowhere more evident than in his Revolt of Aphrodite. This 1968 and 1970 book set made Durrell’s readers of colonial eroticism sad. It mocks sexuality in the modern industrial world and relentlessly excoriates the lateral spread of corporatism into culture itself. The books were more Marcusian critique than Marijuana culture, and those who had imagined themselves in libidinal Alexandria were not keen on the contrast. However, even here the juxtapositions are keen. For ‘personal’, the OED offers a Durrell quotation for the plural form of the noun: ‘He had invented what he called the mnemon which he insisted was a literary form… Times Personals of a slightly surrealist tinge’. The cutting edge of the juxtaposition here is the creeping growth of multinational capital into intimate human vulnerabilities through the mundanity of advertising – hence the revolt is pranksterism not uprising.

The complexities of this conflictual figure pour out in his prose. In one mood, the OED offers the following loquacious quotation from Durrell’s Justine for ‘palpitation’: ‘In autumn the female bays turn to uneasy phosphorus and after the long chafing days of dust one feels the first palpitations of the autumn, like the wings of a butterfly fluttering to unwrap themselves.’ In contrast, the poet attending to his language more tersely tells his reader in ‘Green Man’, ‘Four small nouns I put to pasture.’ The poem’s simplicity and attention to itself goes through the emotional grammar of loss that the poet surely felt in Greece in 1940 after the outbreak of war. He painfully realizes ‘the nouns are back in the bottle’ and ends with the simplicity of tense shifts, ‘I ache and she is warm, was warm, is warm.’ These two homonyms of ‘Durrell’ juxtapose keenly.

Basic English

This movement between the baroque and colloquial should come as no surprise for a poet who experimented as a language tutor with Charles Kay Ogden’s Basic English and its 850-word vocabulary. Despite providing the OED with examples for both ‘pegamoid’ and ‘pithecanthropoid’, Durrell’s poetic voice could limit itself to 850 words. Yet his ‘Two Poems in Basic English’ still provoke, for ‘This earth a dictionary is / To the root and growth of seeing’ and also more sharply ‘But ideas and language do not go.’ This last provokes us by reveling in the complexities of a basic vocabulary versus an aesthetic that resists clear definitions. In a way, we’re back to the anarchist government man… A dictionary with ambiguous definitions.

I hope this kind of conflict brings readers back to Durrell on his anniversary, though many readers have never left and new readers continuously arrive. It’s a productive conflict. By jarring us between juxtapositions, indexical page flipping, and purposeful prolixity, Durrell makes us read dictionaries like novels: as a fecund richness of language ordered by an index. In the same moment, we begin to read novels like dictionaries: an index fecundated by linguistic richness. See also ‘polysemy.

Image by: Yani papadimos (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This blog posting first appeared in Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, 7 November 2013. (Access via the Internet Archive: https://web.archive.org/web/20170807110825/http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2013/11/a-durrellian-dictionary/)