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Lawrence Durrell: The Dark Labyrinth

This book was first published as Cefalù, the name of the fictitious town in Crete where this book is partially set. (The real Cefalù is in Sicily.) It tells the story of a small party of British tourists on a cruise in June 1947, who visit a labyrinth in Cefalù in Crete. The labyrinth allegedly had been discovered by a distinguished archeologist, Juan Angelos though, as we later learn had been known to the locals for some time. During their visit, there was a rock fall and the party was separated. It seems that only one managed to get out – Lord Graecen. The others – Captain John Baird, a painter called Campion (he only used his surname), Mr and Mrs Truman, Olaf Fearmax, Virginia Dale and Miss Dombey – were trapped. The novel tells their stories, how they came to be on the cruise, what happened on the cruise and what happened afterwards. Several of them knew one another before. The reference to the Minotaur’s labyrinth is, of course, clear.

We start with Lord Graecen talking to Sir Juan Angelos and a US reporter, immediately afterwards. Graecen seems quite casual about the whole business. We learn that he is a poet and very concerned about his reputation as a poet, particularly as his poetry is not fashionably modern. However, though we follow Graecen with his desultory affairs, his poetry and his time at the British Museum, from which he resigned shortly before the cruise, the initial part of the book focuses more on John Baird who, we learn early on, did not go into the labyrinth. Baird was the only son of a member of the landed gentry, whose fortune is fading away. The small Hertfordshire town where the family lives is also home to Miss Dombey, another member of the cruise party. Baird is able to live a life without working and plans to write. He then meets a woman wittily named Alice Liddell. Alice is a painter (they meet in the Tate Gallery). They get married and live a cottage but, after a while, both feel that nothing is happening in their respective lives. They try travelling but Alice meets a painter, Couréze, and they start an affair. John is fairly indifferent and leaves. They get back together in Paris and even when Alice finds that she is pregnant, it cannot help the marriage. John is friendly with another painter, Campion, also on the cruise and Alice somehow lands up with Campion, while John continues his travels, visiting, like his creator, Greece and the Middle East. He joins the army and, during the war, he is parachuted into occupied Crete, where he works with a Cretan resistance group based in the caves where the labyrinth is located. It is there that he has a traumatic experience and, after the war, he consults a psychiatrist, Hogarth, who is also key to the plot, as it is he who encourages John to take the cruise for his mental health and who knows some of the others. The other character who we learn much about before the cruise is Olaf Fearmax. Fearmax was brought up in an orphanage and, when thirteen, apprenticed to a bookseller. He reads voraciously and gradually becomes interested in spiritualism. He sets up as a spiritualist with the help of a spirit medium, French Marie. When French Marie gradually deserts him, he tries a bit of trickery but he is caught and exposed but has nevertheless continued to write about spiritualism and becomes something of an occult guru. Some of the main characters seem to be familiar with his work.

The book subsequently follows the cruise and the events leading up to the expedition to the labyrinth. The British consul warns them that it is dangerous and strongly discourages them from going. They all ignore him. One man does drop out but that is because he has been very seasick, not because of any dangers. The expedition goes well and though the going is difficult, the participants seem to enjoy it, till the disaster strikes. They are separated which gives Durrell the opportunity to allocate different fates to them, which certainly makes the story more interesting. We know from the beginning that Lord Graecen got out (though not how) and that John Baird did not go in (but not why) but the fate of the others is somewhat varied and also somewhat unexpected.

Whether you want to read this book as an allegory on the Minotaur tale or simply as a story, it is very enjoyable on both counts. Durrell drops several hints about Ariadne and the Minotaur and, indeed, there had been a rumour that a minotaur-like creature lives in the caves, with various prosaic and poetic explanations for this. But it also works well as a story, as the group, presumably fairly representative of the well-to-do middle class of England of the time, all have their stories and, of course, all have their own fates. In the afterword, Durrell says he was inspired by an account of a labyrinth in Henry Fanshawe Tozer’s Islands of the Aegean, published in 1875.

Publishing history

First published as Cefalù 1947 by Editions Poetry; first published as The Dark Labyrinth 1958 by Faber and Faber