Authors: Lawrence Durrell
The Black Book
“My dear fellow, you must come down to my rooms on Tuesday and meet Gracie. I'm giving a little party for her. You must come. I'm sure you will be great friends. She spits blood.”
Just as it would be hard to visit the GaudÃ cathedral and write about stone, it's impossible for me to write an academic introduction to The Black Book. Not that it shouldn't be dissectedâsuch a rich source of literary samples, it shouldâbut I can't get off the ride long enough to do it. If I knew where the button was to stop this book, I would try it. As it is, I can only sketch you a door, really a floodgate, to the most exhilarating surge of language, style, and sordid English manners you might ever see in literature.
I hope it doesn't stain us to say, and I hope I don't speak only for myself, that if we've opened this book we're likely to have spent at least one teeming night trading starlight for squalor, or at least one romantic liaison failing badly to harmonise the truths of the flesh with songs about honey. That taste of joyful degradation is why the book you are about to enter was banned in Britain for nearly four decades; surely not helped by the glee with which Lawrence Durrell romped through such unspeakables of his time.
His time is the 1930's, a pick-and-mix of modernism, surrealism and foxtrot; but you should barely notice, I say these characters and themes have only now found their time. Degradation is rich with foibles, few human things shine so colourfully as those seen from the back rooms of the mind; and it was this lens in Durrell's hands that gave birth to his authorial voice. In 1959 he called The Black Book: â
A two-fisted attack on literature by an angry young man of the thirties
,' adding: â
With all its imperfections lying heavy on its head, I can't help being attached to it because in the writing of it I first heard the sound of my own voice, lame and halting perhaps, but nevertheless my very own
Durrell was already a poet, you will feel it in these pages, and this wasn't his first novel; but it was the novel that brought him out, and you can witness it happening first hand. The Black Book is a young work, by a twenty-four year old, that's its essence; but if I take as a point of reference my twenty-fourth, smoking hash and watching the sea, feeling it quite important to do because I had thoughts that felt like artâthen to find anyone near the subjects in this book who could write them down is remarkable in itself. As for the calibre of the work, the possible source of its energyâ¦
âIt is a fancy of mine that each of us contains many lives, potential lives. They are laid up inside us, shall we say, like so many rows of shining metalsârailway lines. Riding along one set toward the terminus, we can be aware of those other lines, alongside us, on which we might have travelledâon which we might yet travel if only we had the strength to change.'
â¦ the man also glistens through these pages, and I don't think it will hurt the reading to know where he felt he was. Lawrence Durrell had at best an ambivalent link with Britain, famously calling its drear setting and lack of perceived culture âThe English death'. Born in British India, he was sent over to school as a child, staying through his teens and eventually marrying in 1935; he left England that same year and moved to the island of Corfu, where he began to write The Black Book. The work alternates two narrative voicesâone Lawrence Lucifer on Corfu, the higher voice, a stream of lucid, poetic imagery; and one Death Gregory in London, sharing a hotel with a clique of wretched intellectuals in the grip of debauch. Between them they seem to describe Durrell's struggle to escape the emasculation he felt in Britain, his spiritual flight to the fertility of the Greek isles. However it is, Durrell here seems to play out the hope and loathing of the year he left Blighty, and we can only laugh to imagine the impact such an outburst had at the time it was written. While it took thirty-six years for The Black Book to be published in Britain, it was nonetheless published: first in Paris by the Obelisk Press in 1938, and much later in the United States, where poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth wrote in 1957: âNobody who ever read it ever quite got over it.' It wasn't until 1973, a dozen years after the successful defence of
Lady Chatterley's Lover
against charges of obscenity, that The Black Book was made available to British readers. Of the influences informing the work, we need only acknowledge the one Durrell himself might name: his friend Henry Miller, instrumental not only through his writing, which peaked at that timeâbut also in feeding Durrell some of the surrealist material woven into the work, and much later in helping to have it published.
The words in this book paint a thousand lurid pictures, some clearer than you might hope to see. As a reader you will feel the passion for yourself, as a writer I can attest to the sense of flying, of sprinting on limbs that hardly touch the ground, we can picture Durrell in that state. But let's be clear: a book like this can only succeed by being brilliant, no other place in the spectrum will save itâand The Black Book is.
I commend the ride to you with nothing more than this counsel, even starting to sound like the thing myself; and in returning from Durrell's world to ours, by way of a bridge to everything it can throw upâI leave you with The Black Book itself, knowing it speaks for today:
âEverything is plausible here, because nothing is real.'
“Mos gus yod na
Khyl so od tung.”
“Where there is veneration,
Even a dog's tooth emits light.”
This novelâafter twenty-odd yearsâstill has a special importance for me and may yet leave its mark upon the reader who can recognize it for what it is: a two-fisted attack on literature by an angry young man of the thirties.â¦ With all its imperfections lying heavy on its head, I can't help being attached to it because in the writing of it I first heard the sound of my own voice, lame and halting perhaps, but nevertheless my very own. This is an experience no artist ever forgetsâthe birth cry of a newly born baby of letters, the genuine article.
The Black Book
was truly an agon for me, a savage battle conducted in the interests of self-discovery. It built itself out of a long period of despair and frustration during which I knew that my work, though well contrived, was really derivative. It seemed to me that I would never discover myself, my private voice and vision. At the age of twenty-four things usually look black to one!
The very quality of this despair drove me to try and break the mummy wrappingsâthe cultural swaddling clothes which I symbolized here as “the English Death”; simply in order to see whether there was anything inside me worth expressing. I wanted to break free, to try my hand at a free book.â¦
I wrestled with the manuscript for over a year, until I was quite exhausted; like the youths of my time, I was able to take courage from my elders. Molly Bloom and Lady Chatterley had already opened a way toward self-explorations of a depth and honesty inconceivable to the writer of Hardy's age or Shaw's; Henry Miller's
had just come over the horizon. The reader will discern the influence of
Tropic of Cancer
in many passages of
The Black Book.
I had no thought of publication; in fact I sent the only typescript of the novel to Henry Miller, asking for his opinion on it, and telling him to pitch the text into the Seine when he had read it. This he would not do, and it was due to his encouragement that the book was later published in Paris in a private edition. To my great astonishment and delight I found that others beside myself had heard the sound of my real voice. It was a turning point in my life as a writer to receive the praise of artists who at that time seemed so remote and out of reachâEliot and Miller and Cyril Connolly. I had not hoped for such encouragement when I embarked on the adventure of writing.
Of course, the book is only a savage charcoal sketch of spiritual and sexual etiolation, but it is not lacking in a certain authority of its own despite the violence of its execution. Underneath the phantasmagoria real values are discussed, real problems of the anglo-saxon psyche articulated and canvassed. All this has nothing to do, of course, with purely literary merit, which is not for me to discuss. But
The Black Book
staked a slender claim for me and encouraged me to believe that I was perhaps a real writer, and not just a word spinner of skill.
I realized that the crudity and savagery of the book in many places would make its publication in England difficult. I did not wish for notoriety, and was content simply to have heard my own voice. I knew that a sensitive reader would find that the very excesses of the writing were an organic part of the experience described; and indeed a friendly critic of the book once wrote to me: “Yes, I admit that I was shocked and disgusted here and there, but I read it without prejudice and in the light of the central intention. The crudities match and belong. I have never understood why writers should not be regarded by the reader as enjoying much the same rights as doctors. You do not suspect indecency in a doctor who asks you to strip in order to examine you. Why shouldn't you give the writer the same benefit of the doubt? As for your novelâyou can't have a birth without a good deal of mess and blood. The labour pains, the groans, sounded quite genuine to me; I suppose because I regard art as a serious business, and spiritual birth as something like the analogy of physical. No, you are not pretending! Hence the impact of the book, I think.”