Larry and Gerry and Me: Michael Haag on Finding the Durrells
'I have increasingly realised the importance of those Corfu years, an idyll yes, but arrived at by tragedy and necessity; these were years of healing for the family who almost accidentally had found themselves in one of the most remarkable islands of the Mediterranean'
Our Non-Fiction Book of the Month for May, Michael Haag’s illuminating new book The Durrells of Corfu looks beyond the fictionalised idyll to the real experience of a family in crisis who found sanctuary on an island in the Mediterranean. Here, exclusively for Waterstones, Haag introduces the Durrell's he knew and explains how, but for a chance encounter in a dusty bookshop, he might never have been drawn into their fascinating circle.
It started accidentally and has continued accidentally ever since. I mean following in the footsteps of the Durrells and writing about them. It began in Cairo just before I was about to catch the train for my first visit to Alexandria. I went into the Anglo-Egyptian bookshop which had been run since 1928 by an old Copt called Sobhi Greis; business was not what it used to be and his books were piled in heaps and covered in dust. I was looking for a guidebook to Alexandria but there was no such thing, but I did pull out from the bottom of a pile a paperback copy of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet which I had read ages ago. It was the Faber edition, the one with the red cover and the handprint like you see on walls throughout Egypt, a child’s hand to avert the evil eye.
I thumbed through the book and picked out the familiar names of people and streets and places; Justine sitting among the dusty palms in the vestibule of the Hotel Cecil on the Corniche; Nessim in a delirium of historical dreams at Pastroudis on the Rue Fuad; old Scobie, the transvestite police inspector, at home among the broken and unlimbered houses off Tatwig Street; Balthazar addressing the Cabal amidst the excavations around Pompey’s Pillar; honey-gold Clea painting in her studio at the Atelier in the Rue St Saba; the litany of tram journeys with Melissa: Chatby, Camp de César, Laurens, Mazarita, Glymenopoulos, Sidi Bishr. As I walked and rode the trams about the city and met people from the old days I began to sense that this first volume of the Quartet was not some invention of Durrell’s imagination, rather that the entire four volumes can lay some claim to being about the real Alexandria of the 1930s, sophisticated and cosmopolitan then, stimulating and decadent too, a city known to Durrell when he worked there for the British Information Office during the Second World War, a city overwhelmed and forgotten now.
I also realised that for his metaphysics of Alexandria, all that talk about the gnostics and the cabal, about approaches to God and approaches to love, Durrell had drawn on Alexandria: A History and a Guide, which E M Forster had begun writing when he worked for the Red Cross in the city during the First World War. Forster’s book had been published in Alexandria in 1922 but never in Britain; I was a one-man publisher at that time and published the first British edition in 1982, to which I added an afterword and notes tracing the lives in the city of Durrell, Forster and Forster’s friend the Greek poet of the city Constantine Cavafy. Larry kindly agreed to write the introduction, one of the finest short pieces he ever wrote.
I came to know Larry after that, especially when he asked me to get his correspondence with Henry Miller into print; it was eventually copublished by Faber and Faber and Michael Haag. I met Gerry and Margo too, and numbers of friends and others of his family, and also Larry’s second wife Eve Cohen, the model for Justine.
I returned to Alexandria again and again, searching for that real city, those real people and circumstances behind Larry’s fiction. I met a man who was one of the two models for Balthazar; I was told all about Clea (whose name really was Clea) by her friends and collected some of her drawings; and also I met the family of Larry’s third wife Claude, the family whose Zionist activities gave rise to Larry’s idea of a Palestine conspiracy which lies at the heart of the Quartet.
My search for the underlying reality of Alexandria in the writings of Cavafy, Forster and Durrell led to me write Alexandria: City of Memory, published by Yale University Press, who have commissioned me to write a biography of Larry as well.
Now I am in the midst of writing that biography. But along the way I have increasingly realised the importance of those Corfu years, an idyll yes, but arrived at by tragedy and necessity; these were years of healing for the family who almost accidentally had found themselves in one of the most remarkable islands of the Mediterranean, a sort of Florence, Larry called it, where their talents were stimulated, especially those of Larry and Gerry. It is no accident that two of the best books set in Greece were owed to that special time, Gerry’s My Family and Other Animals and The Colossus of Maroussi by Larry’s friend and guest on the island, Henry Miller, to which Larry himself added his own lyrical Prospero’s Cell, a deceptively simple book which he wrote when war drove him from Corfu to Alexandria but in which you can already find all the dimensions of the Quartet.
No matter how much you bring on parents and wives and siblings and children and friends and lovers, a standard biography traces only a narrow line; it sees the subject as a figure alone. But the chance given me by Profile Books to write a family biography, The Durrells of Corfu, and the kindness of Yale to allow me the diversion, has opened up new dimensions of Larry, exploring him not just as Larry but as a Durrell; a young man inseparable from his family circumstances, to a considerable degree formed by his role in propping up his mother, a woman who saw ghosts, suffered a breakdown and relied on the bottle; who educated Gerry, his youngest brother, and ensured the originality of his mind; and generally kept his anarchic family, as well as himself, on the rails.
At the end of The Durrells of Corfu I invite readers to seat themselves at the taverna built alongside the White House at Kalami along the northeast coast of Corfu with beautiful views across the straits towards Albania. The house is where Larry Durrell and his wife Nancy lived for much of their time on the island. The taverna stands on the black ledge of rock where early every morning Larry would write and Nancy would paint; where Gerry and Margo would bathe when they came to stay; where Leslie would land his sailing boat, conveying Mother and the rest to a family picnic in the far north; where Spiro Americanos would descend the goat path from where he left his old Dodge on the road above; where Theodore observed the stars and comets in the night sky; where the naked ballerinas danced; where Henry Miller did something he had never done in Paris and stripped off and immersed himself in the sea. Almost all the characters in my book were here on this rock once upon a time.
And I am here too, looking out across the waters of amazing blue, and astonished at how many of these people I have come to know, not just inventions in the pages of books, since stepping into that bookshop in Cairo and failing to find what I was looking for.