Lawrence Durrell: The Black Book
This was Durrell’s first novel, published when he was twenty-four but written when he was twenty-two. He had sent the manuscript to Henry Miller, suggesting that he should read it and then throw it in the Seine but Miller thought it showed promise. T S Eliot had considered publishing it for Faber & Faber but only in an expurgated edition so Durrell finally had it published in Paris. Though relatively tame by our standards, it was clearly not considered acceptable for publication in Britain and, indeed, was not published in Britain till 1973. To us it seems somewhat schoolboyish, with its use of swear words and anatomical descriptions, though Durrell claimed he was exposing his characters in the same way a doctor might examine his patients naked. Durrell, in his foreword, is quite proud of his achievement and while it certainly is an interesting work in his oeuvre, and not at all bad for a twenty-two year old, it is decidedly immature, with its use of flowery language, larger than life characters and stereotypes, from the whore with the heart of the gold to the melancholic intellectual.
The structure of the novel consists of Lawrence Durrell’s alter ego, Lawrence Lucifer, an intellectual living, like Durrell, in Corfu, telling his own tale though he has also discovered the diary of Herbert Gregory, who calls himself Death Gregory. Gregory lives in a residential hotel, the Regina, a somewhat sordid hotel in South-East London. He is an intellectual with a collection of books in fine coverings. He had wanted to be a writer but had abandoned that idea and now leaves only this diary/memoir. He had met Gracie, a young woman essentially abandoned by her family who works as a prostitute but is really looking for love. When Gregory takes her in, she is dirty and seems to have TB. Gregory cares for her and eventually marries her. Even when she goes dancing with Clare, one of the other residents, with his approval, and then has sex with him and tells Gregory that she is falling in love with her, he sticks with her, till she finally dies. He then goes off to marry an ordinary woman, a widowed barmaid. This relationship is paralleled by Lawrence’s relationship with the somewhat larger whore, Hilda. Other characters are portrayed in the hotel, including Tarquin, the homosexual who is in love with Clare, Morgan, the caretaker, Lobo, the Peruvian student who is particularly interested in the tweed Englishwomen who wear padlocks between their legs, Chamberlain and his wife (with whom Lucifer will have a quick fling) and Mrs Juniper, widow of a military man who served in India, whose only interest in life…has been to twist the knackers of everyone in sight.
But Gregory has died and Lucifer is in Corfu, thinking of the people in the Regina. When I am in the Regina, I am dead again, he says. But he also thinks of other parts of his life, particularly when teaching at a girl’s crammer, with its strange cast of characters, including, in particular, Mme About, the French teacher, who is dying of cancer. But he also realises that he has little left, that even Greece is dull. From today’s perspective, Durrell’s is too ornate and flowery. He does get away with it in the Alexandria Quartet, as that is such a fine book but, here, his language is awkward, immature and in the way. It is an interesting first novel but certainly not a great work.
First published 1938 by Obelisk Press, Paris