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James Gifford

“Lawrence Durrell’s Neo/Anti-Colonial Aesthetic”

James Gifford
University of Victoria

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     Last modified: April 17, 2007

Ranging from a “force for reconciliation” and beyond “an instrument for aesthetic pleasure of the privileged,” literature also has the sinister capacity for propaganda, division, exclusionary elitism, and inciting not only misinformation but even hate. Responses to the commonwealth author Lawrence Durrell (1912-90) have traversed this range. In 1962, Mahmoud Manzalaoui declared The Alexandria Quartet exhibited an “essential falsity of description” and compared Durrell to “Mediterranean fortune-seekers… [who] exploited, carved out their fortunes, and distorted facts to justify their position.” In stark contrast, M.G. Vassanji in 2002 located Durrell as a positive cosmopolitan influence, and Caryl Phillips notes Durrell’s “expatriate status greatly influenced his work and he openly acknowledged a ‘love-hate’ relationship with Britain.” Such conflicts are continued in the 2006 proceedings of the Durrell Society’s conference in Egypt, Durrell in Alexandria. This scope reflects ongoing debate, especially as Durrell’s nationless status was revealed in 2002—born in India yet not Indian and never holding British citizenship despite working as a British civil servant.
These panels re-examine Durrell’s place in Commonwealth literature, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of his magnum opus, The Alexandria Quartet, a work that recalls the height of the British Empire on the cusp of World War II but from the perspective of a post Suez Crisis Egypt and an empire in retreat during ENOSIS on Cyprus. This panel also takes particular interest in his autobiographical first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), which recounts his childhood in pre-partition India and traumatic return ‘home’ to Britain. Biographically, this early tension in Durrell’s life between Mother India and Father England informs his continuously problematic position as a colonial and expatriate.
At the 2004 session of the Durrell School of Corfu, Gayatri Spivak and Terry Eagleton illustrated the difficulties within Durrell’s works that have resulted in his relative exclusion from postcolonial studies of commonwealth literature: i.e. his ironic narrative voice in opposition to the kitsch exoticism of the 1950s and 60s. Drawing on the biographical complexity of his early position in Empire, these two panels discuss the conflicts between Durrell’s Orientalist exoticism, his longstanding Philhellenism, his works’ ethical examination of alterity, irony in his neocolonialism, and his critiques of Imperialist power from within its privilege. Also under consideration is the impact of his various mid-life diplomatic postings to sites of hybridity and disjunction: Yugoslavia, Cyprus, Egypt, Argentina, and Greece.
The aim of these panels is to enliven the question proposed by the conference: “Is literature a force for reconciliation and cross-cultural understanding or only an instrument for aesthetic pleasure of the privileged?” Debate surrounding this question in Durrell’s oeuvre is pressing, and as such he offers a complex conduit through which to discuss ACLALS’s theme.

Proposed panels:
Panel 1—Fifty Years After The Alexandria Quartet: Ethics + Aesthetics
o James Gifford, University of Victoria “Silence and Speaking—Politicized Irony in Durrell’s Spirit of Place”
o Isabelle Keller, Université Toulouse-le-Mirail “The Discourse of/on Faith in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet”
o Dianne Vipond, California State University Long Beach “The Politics of Durrell’s Major Fiction”

Panel 2—Durrell in Relation: Cyprus, India, Serbia, Egypt
o John Bandler, McMaster University “Durrell’s Cyprus—Tainted Observations on the Colonial and Postcolonial”
o Nabil Abdel-Al, United Nations “The Cave: A Hideout for Conciliation with the Self & the Elements in Durrell’s An Irish Faustus and White Eagles over Serbia vs. E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India”
o Peter Midgley, University of Alberta “Lawrence Durrell’s Mountolive and André Brink’s The Ambassador: The Colonizer and the Colonized’s Dialogue”

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