Monday, August 31, 2009

Tepid Appreciation: Durrell's Dark Labyrinth

Packing to ship out for the Mediterranean, we did a quick readaloud of Lawrence Durrell's Dark Labyrinth. It's a trifle, really, with a promise of high mysteries that it doesn't begin to deliver. On this evidence, you would have to conclude something he read somewhere told him how to start a novel but nobody gave him a hint of how to carry one through. He does sketch a bunch of plausible and engaging characters--you really do want to know more about them--but then (caution, spoiler) more or less dumps them with little or (sometimes) no notion of what becomes of them or why. I can see why it seems to have fallen by the wayside.

And yet I have to grant--for all his deficiencies, Durrell is a smooth and polished narrative stylist who can keep you moving from page to page even when you sense that he no longer has much to say. And a bit more: in an ungenerous mood I'd say he was a downmarket Evelyn Waugh, trained (but without the talent) in the same school of cultivated urbanity. In a more accepting mood, I'd have to say that Durrell does have a remarkable talent for the evocation of place. His Alexandria Quartet (if I remember right, from many years ago) really does convey the stink and fragrance of Alexandria; his Sicilian Carousel is an amiable trifle, but it does carrry the ring of authenticity. For all my whining, I think I might still take a flutter on Bitter Lemons (about Cyprus) or Prospero's Cell (about Corfu)--maybe even the Avignon books, where (it is said) he tries to replay his Alexandrine success.

On this standard, Labyrinth is actually pretty good. Crete's a fascinating place with (as someone once said) more history than it can consume locally. Durrell does a convincing job of capturing some of its flavor, and also the flavor of a certain type of British traveller who seemed to wind up there. Not a major writer, then, nor a truly memorable experience. But taken for what he is worth, and without too many expectations, he is a distinctive and engaging voice.

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