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Lawrence Durrell: Judith

After the success of his early novels, Durrell was inevitably approached by a Hollywood producer and asked to work on a screenplay, specifically the screenplay of Cleopatra. He worked on it, on and off, for a year but then withdrew and his name does not appear on the credits. The producer, Kurt Unger, then commissioned him to write another film, which would feature Sophia Loren in the starring role. This film became Judith. In the initial version, Judith is a distinguished scientist who has been rescued from Nazi Germany by the Zionists. Sophia Loren objected to this, however, saying that she was not an intellectual and wanted Judith to be a woman of the people. The story was then rewritten by Durrell to make her a concentration camp survivor who was married to a Nazi colonel. Some time after the film was released, Durrell merged the two versions, with two characters: Judith, the scientist, and Grete, the wife of the Nazi. However, he never published this book and it was only published in 2012, thirty-two years after his death. It was originally published in a limited edition paperback by the now defunct Durrell School of Corfu and since republished by a digital publisher and multimedia content company.

Frankly, it is not a very good book. It has the resonance of a film script, with an exciting story of Jewish bravado, leading up to the creation of the state of Israel, two rather weak love stories and stereotypical characters. The Jews are all brave, clever and heroic, the Arabs are incompetent and devious, the British are incompetent but generally nice, though one or two do indulge in torture of suspects, while the lone Irish cop working for the British is both corrupt and incompetent. The story starts during the latter part of World War II and opens with Isaac Jordan who owns and runs a decrepit tramp steamer, engaged in smuggling in the Mediterranean. He has smuggled anything he can and invariably gets away with it. Lately, however, he has taken to smuggling arms for his fellow Jews into Palestine. On his latest run, smuggling from Turkey, he is told that some of the crates contain humans. On opening them up, once at sea, he finds two of the crates contain dead bodies, while two contain living people, an old man, who plays no further role in the book, and Judith Roth. All have been rescued from the Nazis. Judith is the daughter of a distinguished scientist who, it turns out, has invented a device which will assist in oil exploration and recovery (we never learn anything more). Judith is a distinguished scientist in her own right. Her father is dead but the Nazis have tried to persuade her to hand over his secrets. She did not work on the project so does not know how it works. She is taken to a kibbutz, called Ras Shamir, right on the Syrian border. At the kibbutz, she meets Aaron, who is the military commander of the kibbutz and involved with the Jewish terrorist organisation, Haganah, and they will later start an affair.

A later arrival is Grete Schiller. She had been married to a senior Nazi and they had had a son, Otto. the Nazis had found out that she was Jewish and he had been told to divorce her, which he did. She had been sent to a camp and had been rescued. However, she does not know the fate of either her son or her husband. When she finds out that, after the war, her husband might be in nearby Egypt, albeit disguised as a Swiss national, she is eager to find him and find out what happened to their son. She leaves the kibbutz, as she finds it difficult to fit in, and later starts an affair with a British officer. However, much of the book is about the build-up to the creation of Israel. The people at Ras Shamir are illegally acquiring weapons, as they know they may well be in the first line of defence, being next to the Syrian border. The British are, of course, too stupid to find them. Indeed, many of the British support the Jewish cause. We have tales of derring-do – capturing Grete’s husband, rescuing key documents relating to the work of Judith’s father and, of course, gun-running. Of course, we know what is going to happen in the end.

The book reads like the film script to a third-rate film, which is exactly what it is. The characters are wooden and the plot is predictable and unoriginal, though not without its elements of excitement, which, presumably play better on the screen than they do on the printed page. Indeed, it is clear why Durrell chose not to publish this book in his lifetime, as he must have realised, as we do, that it really is not very good.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Durrell School of Corfu