Tag Archives: Lawrence Durrell

Gehenna on Earth

Exceptionally endowed with those qualities which make for great gastronomic achievement she had, under the direction of the king of gourmets, the lord of perfect eating, lavished upon them the rarest of sensations, the most thrilling experiences; she exalted them, blissful souls, to the highest peaks of cloudless joy (17).
– Marcel Rouff, The Passionate Epicure

The nature of a perfect doughnut is one whose center of satiation is everywhere, its circumference nowhere,

The nature of a perfect doughnut is one whose center of satiation is everywhere, its circumference nowhere,

Who is this “lord of perfect eating” ? the fantastic, if fanatic,  M. Dodin-Bouffant whose brilliant chef, has suddenly died, much to his distress. He is thrown, at the start of the novel, into a search for a replacement, to restore meaning to his life.

We have learned by bitter experience that there is no crisis, no illness, even no death that can equal in suffering and horror the weeks imposed upon us by those sawbones, those abominable “cures” which leave you weak, sick, and breathless. Whatever may lie in store for us, we are henceforth fully enlightened upon the worthless deceit of diets (159).

Okay, so perhaps an out-of-print book (Actually, Ruth Reichl did reissue it as part of the Delectable Modern Library Food Series, so the novel based very loosely on Anthelme Brillat-Savarin had a second life) on the reverence of French cookery is solely my kind of summer reading, but, well, it meets the requirements – fun and delightful. Not  unlike a doughnut made to near perfection (not difficult, but you’d never know that by the travesty of doughnut shops not worth my breath…oh but my latest batch!…when I presented my creation to my daughter, well – we nearly wept with joy – they were sublime, ahhh cloudless joys!…but I digress…happily, but still). M. Dodin-Bouffant’s search, discovery, and philosophy is, in my opinion,  the very stuff of sumptuous summer nights.

When confronted with a choice between a luscious young female candidate, to replace the late Eugenie Chatagne, but who is, tragically, of uninspiring ability compared to another candidate, the  luscious chef, Adèle, who is, regrettably, of uninspiring physicality. A moment of weakness overcomes the hero– but just a moment:

To possess this girl was to sign an irrevocable contract, it was the abandonment of his reputation to the unschooled hands and uninspired soul of an apprentice incapable, alas, of any improvement. 

A man of priorities, indeed! I came across this book amongst the rare book collection of one of my workplaces and was taken in by Lawrence Durrell who wrote the forward. At once frivolous and excessive, it is also beautiful in its purity and fidelity to the importance of reaching for greatness within one of the pleasures afforded us humans – cuisine.

Adèle Pidou could not restrain herself; she began, for no reason at all save the pleasure of touching them, to seize the handles of frying-pans and skillets, of copper saucepans, to stroke the rounded flanks of the earthenware pots, to feel the bottles of spices, the boxes of ingredients, to open them, sniff them, examine the stove, inspect the spits and the fish-kettles. Dobin, throbbing with hope, allowed her to pleasure herself (78).

Needless to say, she gets the job. What’s more, when a more lucrative one tempts her away, Dodin immediately and hilariously propose marriage. Ah, love!

The joys of the senses are well represented in the visuals of art, the sound of music, the touch of physical love, but the smell and taste of culinary pleasures are sadly relegated to a lower, greedy order. Certainly, as Dodin discovers, moderation is necessary, gout hurts! still, it is my firm belief that while less is more, the less need never be compromised. Compromise is truly the only Gehenna on earth.

Cuisine is still victim of low and deplorable prejudice. Its most noble geniuses have not yet conquered their rights to sit between Raphael and Beethoven, and before some modest learning could be recognized in this humble collection of stories, we should have to write a fat book to maintain in theses, antithesis, and synthesis the view that the gastronomic art, like all other arts, comprise a philosophy, a psychology and an ethic, that it is an integral part of universal thought, that it is bound to the civilization of our earth, to the cultivation of our taste, and thereby to the superior essence of humanity (161).

* title inspired from pg 155: The afternoon seemed delicious to the epicure emerging from his Germanic Gehenna. – In other words – Dunkin Donuts.

 

 

 

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The Great Maniacs of Love

When I say “health” I mean optimism, to be truthful. Incurably optimistic! Still have one foot in the nineteenth century. I’m a bit retarded, like most Americans – Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer (49).

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A few months ago I took one of those personality quizzes that pop up like weeds on the internet. I took a few, in fact. That is until this last one, which left me fairly flummoxed. ‘Who is your literary soulmate?’ After answering what seemed like a few benign questions I discovered that my literary soul mate is – Henry Miller.

The whole point about Bessie was that she couldn’t, or just wouldn’t, regard herself as a lay. She talked about passion, as if it were a brand new word. She was passionate about things, even a little thing like a lay. She had to put her soul into it (135).

I hadn’t even ever read him. Well, I said to myself, maybe I should. I was a little afraid. In truth I had avoided my literary soul mate’s work, after all, his reputation does precede him. And I wondered if I was past the appropriate age for his ‘dirty’ book (that was the word someone used when I told them I was reading Tropic of Cancer). In fact,  I  pretty much skipped over my naughty youthful years, what with being busy with babies and all that…still, Ms. Nin and I had our mutual admiration society of D.H. Lawrence, and my literary soul mate was pals with Lawrence Durrell…so what the hell.

It’s hard to read proof when you’re not all there. It requires more concentration to detect a missing comma than to epitomize Nietzsche’s philosophy. You can be brilliant sometimes, when you’re drunk, but brilliance is out of place in the proofreading department. Dates, fractions, semicolons – these are the things that count. And these are the things that are most difficult to track down when your mind is ablaze (175).

It just so happens that my literary soul mate and I find a certain joy in the same work. I have been archiving and proofreading these past few weeks, and who knew it could be so satisfying in its concrete exactitude? – My literary soul mate, that’s who.

I feel her body close to mine-all mine now-and I stop to rub my hands over the warm velvet. Everything around us is crumbling, crumbling and the warm body under the warm velvet is aching for me…(19).

Putting aside, momentarily, the misogyny, racism, and misanthropy, (none of which I think he actually propagates or truly is, so perhaps we ought to just put it aside altogether, and read deeper, feel the current.) the book is quite wonderful. It is very funny, thoughtful, and moving. Miller has a genius for description, or what he himself would say, “…it’s one of those little details which makes a thing psychologically real….you can’t get it out of your head afterward” (118). From each individual relentless  louse shacking up with him in the down-at-the-heels digs he stays in, to his bosom buddy louts he hangs out with – he has an instinct for the details, the perfect turn of a phrase or punctuation that brings his world, such as it is, to teeming life.

There are people in this world who cut such a grotesque figure that even death renders them ridiculous (138).

Miller makes full use of grotesque language, there is indeed a plethora of words I would not use (the ‘c’ word – wow, never read that so many times in one sitting), or ones that I would not use in the same way (the ‘f’ word -I maintain a policy of [just approaching the border of absolute] ‘exclusively for expletive use only’)  But, even his harsh language does not mask the real sympathy that he has for men and women. Especially the downtrodden, used up, broken-down type. True, most of his friends are jackasses, but at the reader’s happy distance, we can laugh with Miller over their hilarious ridiculousness.

My literary soul mate and I will have to argue (long into the night, no doubt) over our differing opinions of Hugo (194), but I suppose that’s a tussle that’s only suitable for a true literary soul mate. Where we are in perfect harmony is our desire to experience joy and live the ecstasy that is life. Where mine is an instinct, his was fully realized, for good and bad, cold nights and grimy days- but it is fully felt, and that’s the thing that binds us.

Do anything, but let it produce joy. Do anything, but let it yield ecstasy. So much crowds into my head when I say this to myself: images, gay ones, terrible ones, maddening ones, the wolf and the goat, the spider, the crab, syphilis with her wings outstretched and the door of the womb always on the latch, always open, ready like a tomb. Lust, crime, holiness: the lives of my adored ones, the failures of my adored ones, the words they left behind them, the words they left unfinished; the good they dragged after them and the evil, the sorrow, the discord, the rancor, the strife they created. But above all, the ecstasy! (252)

 

*title from pg. 181: “I understood why Paris attracts the tortured, the hallucinated, the great maniacs of love.”

Dissimulate Days

IMG_0006Bitter Lemons

In an island of bitter lemons
Where the moon’s cool fevers burn
From the dark globes of the fruit,

And the dry grass underfoot
Tortures memory and revises
Habits half a lifetime dead

Better leave the rest unsaid,
Beauty, darkness, vehemence
Let the old sea-nurse keep

Their memorials of sleep
And the Greek sea’s curly head
Keep its calms like tears unshed

Keep its calms like tears unshed.

– Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell’s non-fiction book, of the same title as his poem, Bitter Lemons, describing his time spent living in Cyprus (1953-56), is a beautiful account of one man’s attempt to assimilate himself into a culture not his own, to understand and illustrate through words what traveling does to one’s interior as well as exterior being.

How sad it is that so many of our national characteristics are misinterpreted! Our timidity and lack of imagination seem to foreigners to be churlishness, taciturnity the deepest misanthropy. But are these choking suburbanizes with which we seem infused when we are abroad any worse than the tireless dissimulation and insincerity of the Mediterranean way of life? (35)

The joy with which he describes the landscape, the people, the mood, and the air of Cyprus is wonderful. The difference between his English humor and the humor of Greek island people is some sort of beautiful mathematical equation.

His name is Frangos,’ he said, with an air of a man who explains everything in a single word. (39)

If you have read Lawrence’s brother, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, then you might find, as I did, a revisiting of a similar spirit in the first half of this book. But this is not a book told (retrospectively) from the eyes of a ten year old. As events and relations between England and Cyprus deteriorate, it takes on a much more lugubrious tone. Fear and paranoia permeate the air, but as happens, people forget to remember their grudges, especially once they have got to know and like one another. The tension within each person to toe the national line and conjure up hostilities for former friends is sad and moving, if not predictable.

My one cavil is that if I hadn’t read Amateurs in Eden (biography about the marriage between Nancy and Lawrence written by Nancy, but not Lawrence’s daughter) I never would have known that Nancy was with Lawrence for the duration of this period. In fact, if I’m not mistaken it is her simple and lovely line drawings that end each chapter, although, again I could find no credit given in Bitter Lemons that confirms the identity of the illustrator. That is strange. And unsettling. I wish I didn’t even have that piece of information because the amount of extra energy such an omission in an autobiographical piece of literature requires is so great as to perversely focus my attention where Lawrence clearly did not want it to go.

She walked about the harbor at Kyrenia with a book and with the distracted air which betokened to my inexpert eye evidence of some terrible preoccupation- perhaps one of those love-affairs which mark one for life. (97)

Durrell’s eye for subtle details and succinct suggestions of what lies beneath a look, posture, or smile is powerful.  I found the above quote haunting. Is there such a thing? To be marked for life? The sensitivity of Durrell’s observations are arresting, entertaining, and at times, simply profound.

Propaganda Deshabille

It’s a poor world where we are impartial through ignorance, prudent through impotence, and equal through mediocrity. – Freya Stark, Dust in the Lion’s Paw (271)

Eric Ryan in his Studio at Colgate University

Eric Ryan in his Studio at Colgate University

I came across an old newspaper article recently in which my father’s art was being reviewed. In the article he spoke about the conceptual aspects of his work and related it to the sort of literature which is something of a travel guide in the vein of Lawrence Durrell or Freya Stark. I have written about Durrell and his wonderful Alexandria Quartet, but I had not heard of Freya Stark, so I sought out her books and settled on Dust in the Lion’s Paw.

The fascists are bringing all their guns to bear against me. Nagi says ‘their hearts are boiling’ – long may they boil. But, dear Stewart, I do dislike this job. (28)

“This job” was her work as a propagandist for the English government throughout World War II in the Middle East. Stark was fluent in Arabic and slightly less so in Persian and so, despite her sex, was very easily employed in the seemingly unsavory line of work.

“A main obstacle was the unfortunate word propaganda itself. (64)

That’s probably more true now then it was at the time, but Stark makes an eloquent and impassioned defense of what she really considered to be persuasion. She had three rules of thumb she lived by:

1) To believe one’s own sermon.
2) To see that it must be advantageous not only to one’s own side but to that of the listeners also.
3) To influence indirectly, making one’s friends among the people of the country distribute and interpret one’s words. (65)

Number 3, was “not quite as vital,” (although led to a wonderful manifesto on words, translations, and humanity: Perhaps it is language, more than any other shackle, that circumscribes our freedom in the family of men? (48)) and barely merits a direct mention again, but 1 and 2 are rules to live by. Again and again in her dealings in Yemen, Egypt, Palestine and India she is true to her philosophy- the simplicity of which is profound and as far as I can tell, unarguable. Admittedly she and I have both been accused of naivete.

A woman asked if I didn’t think it time for us to give up using our lipsticks but I mean to be killed, if it comes to that, with my face in proper order. (102)

Stark is a marvelous writer. Punto.  Her sentences are gorgeous, with perfect clarity. While her oeuvre was by and large travel books, this was an autobiography full of letters and diary entries concerning the period between 1939-46.

The subtitle: The personal story of an extraordinary woman whose gift with words became a tactical weapon of war, struck me odd at first- I wondered a) who wrote it, and b) how true it would play out in the book. Still not sure about a, but on point b I can say, it’s all true. An old school humanitarian, her forthright English charm at once makes one sit up straighter in the chair, while her intellect and respect for the intellect of others disarms absolutely.

‘Most of my life is in the Man’s world,’ I find written in a rather morose note of my diary at this time. ‘Women are apt to think of it as the real one, but it is not so to me- filled with jealousies and now bloodshed. If women live more in the spirit, theirs is the real world-but I don’t know that they do.’ (51)

The heart of her book is not her struggles as a woman in unfriendly times and places. She doesn’t hesitate to mention the attempts to minimize and dismiss based on her sex, (unequal pay was a constant bother she never deigned to knowingly accept) but one feels through her words and view of the world all that is or could be good. All that really matters.

Art in objects or words- these are the markers that guide us through each other’s hearts, exciting us with fresh views in the familiar terrain of our humanity.

We have debased our words and pay for it by seeing nothing but counterfeit coins. They are forcing me to become a Press Attaché here in the north.[…] I hope to get out of it and sit quietly and move softly and love mercy and forget the atom bomb and all- and perhaps write a book or two about non-controversial matters such as the human heart. (260)

*Punto is Italian for period. Stark lived in Asolo, Italy before and after the war.

What To Do With The Ends

No, I am not at all cynical, I have merely got experience, which, however, is very much the same thing.
– Oscar Wilde, Complete Shorter Fiction, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (24)

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Swedish Cardamon Bun Twists

With a change of season/change of life momentum I made a Herculean effort to finish all of the books that are lingering on various tables, in my bag, or car. Things were a little out of control and all the loose ends were begging me, please, to come together in a completed knot before I move on.  I had amassed a haphazard mix of material: perhaps it was end of term overload, indecision or stress of the unknown future but I suddenly felt I was reading too many books. The one quality they had in common was put-down-ability. By which I mean, a book of essays or short stories which make a fine and proper reprieve from it all. It. The It of it all-  an overwhelming mountain if its crushing the soul beneath- quick, where’s my book? True, in some cases, the put-down-ability derives from lack of a compelling reason to pick-up-again-ability, if you will. I had Oscar Wilde, Vincent Scully, biographies of Jane Austen, Lawrence Durrell and his first wife Nancy, all on rotation. Books are a little like buns- some never proof, but others bake up beautifully.

In this materialistic and half brutalized age, it is still the faith of great architects that noble men can be formed and made by noble buildings.
– Vincent Scully, Modern Architecture and other Essays (63)

Scully is a wonderful writer with such an open love for his subject; the way in which I look at architecture has been so enriched by his perspective and insight, it’s truly invigorating. For him, architecture is art, philosophy and psychology. Every building he discusses has a narrative and meaning, an essential, and through his eyes, beautiful place on the path of progress. Maybe it is because everything is swarming with a verdant freshness. Maybe it is because I am simply, finally, looking up again, but a book that places you in the world is surely superior to one that offers mere temporary escape from it. It seems to me there is always an element of hope in any work of art- hope as a reason to look up and forward.

I made Swedish Buns the other day. I was meant to tie them into some sort of an effortless twisted knot. With every bun I would manage the first end with beautiful clarity and then something would go awry with the final twist. I kept finding myself in an awkward moment of holding a fast drooping twisted end without the slightest idea what to do with it. At a certain point my hand would just take over- roll, tuck, spin, hide, hope, whatever. Once I had achieved some semblance of a sphere I would put it down, having no idea how I had formed it.

Life, my outlook on life,  is a twisted knot of cynicism and, yes, I will admit-  hope.  I try not to, I really should, but sometimes a plateful of sweets presents, and a cynic can never swallow joy.

A dear man sent me this wonderful poem. “What blame to us if the heart live on.” The heart is the mother of all yeasts.

Chaplinesque

We will make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

Harold Hart Crane


Animate

dead dragonfly

“Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  The White Queen – Through the Looking Glass*

While I finished reading the excellent Clea of the Alexandrian Quartets by Lawrence Durrell, I coincidentally began reading a book to my youngest son written by Lawrence’s brother, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.

It is a wonderful book of the true adventures of the ten year old Gerald on the island of Corfu where he and his family, three siblings and his mother, moved to recover from the gray rain of England that oppressed them (mostly Larry).

“Well, we didn’t get as selfish as this without some guidance,” said Larry

My son loves hearing about the myriad creatures on the island, but I confess that what I find highly amusing is to peek into the family dynamic of the Durrell family. Lawrence may have become a literary genius, but here, he remains always an older brother and son – bossy, petulant, and endearing.

” Really,  Larry, you do make me cross,”  she said at last.
“I think it’s rather unfair that you should blame me because your organization breaks down with the arrival of a few guests,” said Larry austerely.
“A few guests!” squeaked Mother. “I’m glad you think eight people are a few guests.”
“I think you are adopting a most unreasonable attitude.”
“I suppose there’s nothing unreasonable in inviting people and not letting me know?”
Larry gave her an injured look, and picked up his book.
“Well, I’ve done all I can,” he said; “I can’t do any more.”

Oh children. There must be some chemical reason why we mothers don’t throttle them regularly.

Gerald tells the stories somehow having maintained his ten year old’s earnest delight and simple reporting of the facts and funny conversations that he heard or was a part of, which makes it wonderful to read. His enthusiasm for the natural world almost makes me reach for a magnifying glass and net. Instead I hand them to my intrepid and incorrigibly curious ten year old so I can read my own book in a moment’s peace.

*opening quote of My Family and Other Animals

Heart of Desuetude

“He had heard and read of passion, but had regarded it as something which would never impinge on him, and now here it was…”  Mountolive – Lawrence Durrell

In the third of the Alexandria Quartet series by Lawrence Durrell, (you may recall my earlier posts on the first book Justine, and the second, BalthazarMountolive, the focus of the familiar story is now set upon the idea of power. As the story is seemingly repeated through each new eponymous character the genius of Durrell is really exposed. One begins to reassess the simplest assumptions: what looked like love was mere deception, what looked like an impossible twisted dark corner is true love, true friendship, and affection. Are life and truth so slippery as that? Yes, I suppose it is so.

“Truth is so bitter that the knowledge of it confers a kind of luxury.”  Mountolive

The love of power, the passionate ardor with which it is sought and wielded is examined with some intensity in this story, but it is backlit by a touching friendship and love affair between Mountolive and the mother of Nessim, Leila.  A tragic sort of love crushed by fate and weakness of feeling perhaps… The grunting displays of power  as well as the equally strong attempts to avoid dealing with a position of power, whether that position was sought for or not are shown through personal, national, and vocational relationships. Many people, maybe most, do not actually want to be in charge or deal with the ancillary pressure that a position of power brings; especially as power often devolves into paper pushing bureaucratic horrors.

In the gear up to a writer’s conference that I am participating in starting today (I’m a little nervous, if I focus on Mountolive maybe it will go away, maybe I’ll go away…) but I digress, there were a series of essays that we had to read, each others as well as published works; the one that I loved the most and which reminds me of the themes of Mountolive in many ways, is the one written by George Orwell: Shooting an Elephant. The final line in the story: ” I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”  struck me hard. Sometimes it really is that simple- that pathetic. The acts committed by people in power, acts that wouldn’t have or shouldn’t have occurred and yet somehow seem unavoidable, are so complex. We humans are so strange.

Truth naked and unashamed. That’s a splendid phrase. But we always see her as she seems, never as she is. Each man has his own interpretation.”  Mountolive

The last and final book in this series is Clea. She has been in and out of the first three and I am very curious about her. Durrell is never obvious in which character he will focus on or which perspective. Even from book to book a single character’s life can be revealed and obfuscated in the most interesting and authentic way.

“When you are in love you know that love is a beggar, shameless as a beggar; and the responses of merely human pity can console one where love is absent by a false travesty of an imagined happiness.”  Mountolive – Lawrence Durrell

Sculpture by Eric Ryan, my father.