Durrellesque by Barbara Nadel

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When I was a child one of my favourite books was ‘My Family and Other Animals’ by the naturalist, Gerald Durrell. His account of his pre-World War 2 childhood on the Greek island of Corfu was fascinating and enchanting. I loved the fact that he was surrounded by interesting and eccentric friends and relatives as well as by a whole host of animals and birds.

I always wanted to have loads of different animals when I was a child, but because I grew up in a city, that wasn’t possible. I did have eccentric friends and relatives – some of them quite off the scale even by Gerald Durrell’s standards – but not, of course, amid the bright sunlight of a Greek island. East London in the 1960s and 70s was more of a light drizzle sort of environment.

Later, as a teenager, I discovered the work of Gerald’s older brother, the novelist, Lawrence Durrell. Right from the off, I was hooked. I think it took me less than a fortnight to read ‘The Alexandria Quartet’ and I then went on to devour everything else in Lawrence’s catalogue. The intensity of the writing, the odd and often borderline abusive relationships that he described and the lush evocations of places both familiar and unfamiliar bewitched my soul. That a girl from a working class background should be so taken by tales of louche diplomatic and artistic types having affairs and exploring literary forms in places like Cairo, Avignon and Alexandria was, I guess, unusual. But then I think that probably the nature of the characters and their locations in space were probably irrelevant. What got me was the notion of people exploring.

Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Quartet’ novels are often described as ‘flawed masterpieces’. The four-part form is applauded but the result often, some feel, falls short of the original artistic intent. I am no literary critic but my feeling on the matter is that even to attempt such a thing was an act of both bravery and genius. But then that was what Durrell and his literary friends and acquaintances did.

Not all of their ideas and explorations were influential or even quite sane. Whilst staying with Durrell and his family in Corfu the author Henry Miller decided that he wanted to rebel against the tyranny of clothes by walking around in the hot Greek summer stark naked. I can’t necessarily see why anyone would want to risk such comprehensive and catastrophic sunburn, but I do applaud his effort. Why not give that a go? Why not write a massive great tome detailing a significant parcel of time from four different points of view? This, to me, is what the progression of art is all about. Exploration! When I was a very small child I wanted to be an Egyptologist and dig around in the sands of the Valley of the Kings and discover… What? Actually it didn’t matter very much. I just wanted to discover something wonderful and amazing, something that would allow me to learn a fact that, to me, was new and shiny and told me a whole previously unknown thing about the world.

As writers, whether we plough a literary or a genre fiction furrow, it is I believe incumbent upon us never to stop exploring. There is no subject that cannot be looked at, no form that can be dismissed as irrelevant, pointless or stupid. I am just about to start on my latest Çetin İkmen book that will take my character into pastures that he has never explored before. Not only will he be working in ways he has never even dreamed about, he will be meeting people and going to places he cannot even have imagined. Both his ‘life’ and mine will, I hope, be enriched by this. I hope also, very much, that the book will be a huge success. This will be for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which will be because I will have moved Çetin, and myself, on. I may not have ever found a new and fabulous tomb underneath the sands of Egypt, I may never have eschewed the tyranny of clothes, but I’m still in there trying to do new and exciting things with my fiction. So big thanks for that, as well as hours and hours of wonderful prose, to the two late Durrell brothers, Gerald and Lawrence.

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