Durrell at Cambridge: A Thought Experiment
by Bruce Redwine
"I think the first breath of Europe I got was when I went on a reading party for one final cram or something — I think it was for Cambridge again, which I must have tried about eight times [and failed], I suppose."
— "Lawrence Durrell: An Interview," Paris Review, Autumn-Winter 1960
Lawrence George Durrell, age eighteen, passed his entrance exams on first try and was admitted to King's College, Cambridge. He went to King's knowing Latin and French and was assigned a tutor, Elyot S. Poundsworthy, who specialized in Roman poetry and early French literature. Poundsworthy had published articles on Catullus, Virgil, Horace, Bernart de Ventadorn, and Montaigne.
Tutor and student had their first meeting and enjoyed a cup of tea together. Tutor asked pupil what his areas of interests were, and pupil said he liked the classics but he especially liked modern poetry, beginning with G. M. Hopkins. Tutor nodded and assigned student a selection of poems, all in the original Latin and French, and included Montaigne's essay, "On Vanity," also in French. Then he told him to write an essay on vanity, to integrate all the authors in the assignment into a coherent argument, and to come back in a week. Five pages would do.
Student returns. He has written an essay in over one thousand lines of free verse, with occasional rhymes. The pair enjoy another cup of tea. Then Tutor slowly reads the essay, nods, and compliments student on his spelling, particularly in the original languages. No mistakes. He smiles and remarks that Pope also wrote essays in verse, although in heroic couplets and with considerably more concision. Then he says, "All very interesting, yet a bit prolix, epic, if you will. It's longer than any book in the Aeneid, if that was your intent. I like the images, however, in particular how you compare Catullus's 'fuck face' with Montaigne's 'chamber pots.' But what's your point? I can't find a point." Student waves his arms and says, "How can an essay have a point when the subject matter has no point? Montaigne goes all over the place and never settles on anything. He just rambles, so you never know what he means. If he can get away with that — so can I. Montaigne's mind skips and hops like a stone skimming over a pond, never getting below glittering surfaces." Tutor nods again and says, "That's very good. I like that. I don't agree with it, but I like it. Now, why didn't you say that or even suggest that in your essay? Or are you just interested in trying to be as clever as the authors you write about?"
Three years later, L. G. Durrell obtains his degree from King's, upper second, and soon leaves for the island of Corfu. He now knows about brevity and concision and clear thinking, but he decides to use these tools sparingly and to rely on his instincts, except when talking about French thought and Einstein's Relativity.
Elyot S. Poundsworthy did not go to Italy and broadcast speeches on behalf of Benito Mussolini. Instead, he stayed at King's and eventually became Master. He had a lively career, highlighted by fierce battles with Frankie Leavis over the course of English literature. F. R. L. once challenged E. S. P. to a duel, with collier picks, the ghost of D. H. L. presiding. Elyot always remembered his star pupil, L. G. Durrell, whom he considered brilliant but incorrigible, and always bemoaned the fact the famous poet never learned the lessons of reading Montaigne's "On Vanity." Some people never learn, he would say, shaking his head sadly.