Saturday, December 2, 2017

Lawrence Durrell: Spirit of Place

Lawrence Durrell
Spirit of Place:  Letters and Essays on Travel
426 pages
Alan G. Thomas, Editor

I am now embarked upon a project of reading and rereading everything I have and can find that Lawrence Durrell has written.  One of those works which I have is Spirit of Place:  Letters and Essays on Travel, which is slightly misleading because it also includes excerpts from some of his early novels. Normally I don't read letters written by and received by authors.  I don't know why I don't find them interesting, but that's a fact. However, I must say that I'm finding these letters to be engrossing, probably because Durrell frequently refers to the place where he is writing this letter and also to whatever he's working on at that time.  In addition, I'm also picking up references and clues to a number of the themes that permeate his works.  One of them, and an important one, is  what he calls "Spirit of Place." 

The following quotation is from his essay, "Landscape and Character," first published in the New York Times magazine section, (June 12, 1960).

"'You write,' says a friendly critic in Ohio, 'as if the landscape were more important than the characters.'  If not exactly true, this is near enough the mark, for I have evolved a private notion about the importance of landscape, and I willingly admit to seeing 'characters' almost as functions of a landscape.  This has only come about in recent years after a good deal of travel--though here again I doubt if this is quite the word, for I am not really a 'travel-writer' so much as a 'residence-writer.'    My books are always about living in places, not just rushing through them.  But as you get to know Europe slowly, tasting the wines, cheeses and characters of the different countries you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all--the spirit of place.   Just as one particular vineyard will always give you a special wine with discernible characteristics so a Spain, an Italy, a Greece will always give you the same type of culture--will express itself through the human being just as it does through its wild flowers.  We tend to see 'culture' as a sort of historic pattern dictated by the human will, but for me this is no longer absolutely true.  I don't believe the British character, for example, or the German has changed a jot since Tacitus first described it; and so long as people keep getting born Greek or French or Italian their culture-productions will bear the unmistakable signature of the place. "

Durrell, later in the essay,  makes this point even more clearly and emphatically.

"I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the country with Tartars, and within two generations discover, to your astonishment, that the national characteristics were back at norm--the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and the passionate individualism: even though their noses were now flat."

The significance of the place and its control over the inhabitants occurs in several of Durrell's works.  For example, in Justine, we read

I return link by link along the iron chains of memory to the city which we inhabited so briefly together:  the city which use us as its flora--precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!.  .  . I see at last that none of us is properly to be judged for what happened in the past.  It is the city which should be judged though we, its children, must pay the price.

The human residents in essence were puppets acting out Alexandria's conflicts, deluded into thinking they were responsible, that they were in control.  It is the spirit of the place which controls them.  I can't help but think of the following quatrain from the Rubaiyat of  Omar Khayyam:

Quatrain XLIX

'Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
   Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays.
And one by one back in the Closet lays.  

I find this a fascinating concept, one that intrigues me, but I wonder if Durrell hasn't gone a bit too far.  Would the second generation of Tartars exhibit those same national characteristics-- "the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and the passionate individualism: even though their noses were now flat"?

I believe the environment does play a role in our lives, making some things possible and others impossible or at least highly unlikely, influencing our behavior to some extent, but just how much is the question.


  1. Fred, I understand your fascination with the letters of one author rather than those of others; only Flannery O’Connor’s letters draw me in like that though I’ve tried to get through letters by a Tennessee Williams and a Samuel Beckett.

    And the environment and past/present question is fascinating. But defining scope of environment is the challenge, isn’t it?

    Moreover, I applaud your commitment to Durrell. I wonder why we become intensive readers in certain cases. What about the author or reader compels such intensity when otherwise reading is extensive. Hmm.

  2. Fascinating post. I also think that Durrell goes too far here. Of course environment plays a big part in how cultures develop. However it is just one factor. It also takes a long time for these cultures to develop. Have you read Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel? It really delves into how geography and climate effect culture.

    1. R.T., And I've tried reading the letters of Jane Austen, one of my favorite all-time authors, and I just couldn't get interested in them. Why one and not the other?

      Yes, the environment does affect us, but to what extent, I have no answer.

      Why some authors and not others? I wonder, in my case, if it is that those few authors seem to share their humanity with their characters, their creations. Even the bad guys are human with some good aspects to them. I get the feeling that Durrell, Austen, Dostoyevsky, van Tilburg Clark, and a few others really like all of their characters.

      I think the great authors whom I don't like view their characters ironically, satirically, and coldly.

    2. Brian, I agree. I think Durrell has gone too far here. I had read GG&S long ago. I don't remember much from it, but I do remember being impressed by his scholarship.