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Monday, February 17, 2014

Forster on Durrell

 E. M. Forster on Lawrence Durrell
by Bruce Redwine

E. M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell admired the city of Alexandria, Egypt, but mutual admiration did not foster mutual respect.[1]  The former lived in Alexandria during World War I, the latter during World War II.  Forster’s experiences resulted in Alexandria:  A History and a Guide (1922), and Durrell’s culminated in The Alexandria Quartet (1960).  When Durrell lived in the city, he used a copy of Forster’s book as a guide and would later comment that the work "contains some of Forster’s best prose, as well as felicities of touch such as only a novelist of major talent could command."[2]  The two writers never met, and P. N. Furbank’s biography, E. M. Forster:  A Life (1978), does not mention Durrell.
E. M. Forster, however, did have an opinion about Lawrence Durrell.  Awhile ago Andrew Stewart, an old friend, told me an anecdote.  Between October 1966 and May 1969, he was an undergraduate in Classics at St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge.  Forster was an honorary fellow at King’s College.  King’s was then renovating its halls and kitchens, and its fellows would eat at St. Catharine’s.  ("A Cat may look at a King," so went the adaptation of the proverb.)  On one occasion, Stewart was invited to the High Table and sat next to Forster.  This was before Forster went "gaga."  Lawrence Durrell came up in conversation, and Forster's eyes immediately lit up.  The old man unleashed a number of unkind words about Durrell.  The gist of the tirade was that Forster considered Durrell a sloppy writer and guilty of deplorable Romanticism in his depiction of Alexandria.  My friend thought Forster had written up his opinion in an essay.  I haven’t found it.  But I do recall D. J. Enright's essay, "Alexandrian Nights' Entertainments:  Lawrence Durrell’s 'Quartet,'" which says much the same thing and ends with, "[W]hen Durrell is good he is very good, and when he is bad he is horrid."[3]  Enright also graduated from Cambridge, so there may be another one of those Forsterian "connections."


[1] My thanks to Andrew Stewart for permission to relate this anecdote.  He is Nicholas C. Petris Professor of Greek Studies, University of California, Berkeley.
[2] E. M. Forster, Alexandria:  A History and a Guide, Introduction by Lawrence Durrell, Afterward and Notes by Michael Haag (London, 1986), xv.
[3] D. J. Enright, Conspirators and Poets (London, 1966), 120.

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