Childhood & Early Years
Lawrence George Durrell was born on February 27, 1912, in Jalandhar, located in the British Indian province of Punjab. His father Lawrence Samuel Durrell, an engineer under the Raj, was of English descent; while his mother Louisa Florence Durrell (née Dixie) was of Irish ancestry. Both of them were born in India.
He was the eldest of his parents’ four surviving children. He had two younger brothers, namely Leslie Stuart Durrell (1917) and Gerald Malcolm Durrell (1925), while his younger sister was called Margaret Isabel Mabel Durrell (1920). Another sister of his, named Margery Ruth Durrell, died in infancy. Gerald grew up to be a noted naturalist.
Durrell spent the first 11 years of his life in India, beginning his education at St. Joseph's School in Darjeeling. He later recalled these years as idyllic - a time of “nursery-rhyme happiness.”
At the age of 11, he was sent to England to be groomed as a member of the ruling class. Once there, he briefly attended St. Olave's Grammar School before moving to St. Edmund's School in Canterbury. However, he refused to adjust to the new environment, comparing “English life” to “autopsy”.
After graduating from school, Durrell was expected to join the ‘University of Oxford’ but he deliberately failed entrance examination four times. He was 15 years old at that time, and had started to take poetry seriously. Around this time, he also began to work as a jazz pianist at a London nightclub called ‘The Blue Peter’.
In 1928, his father died of brain hemorrhage. Three years later, at the age of 19, he published his first poetry book, ‘Quaint Fragments: Poems Written between the Ages of Sixteen and Nineteen’. It was followed by ‘Ten Poems’ in 1932 and ‘Transition: Poems’ in 1934.
In 1932, his mother moved to England along with her other children, settling down in the coastal resort town of Bournemouth. In the following year, Durrell published his first drama 'Bromo Bombastes' under the pseudonym, Gaffer Peaslake. However, he still remained critical of the English culture.
Continue Reading Below
Corfu & World War
In March 1935, Lawrence Durrell persuaded his entire family, including his mother and siblings, to move to the Greek island of Corfu. His first novel ‘Pied Piper of Lovers’ was published later that year.
At Corfu, he led a bohemian life with his new wife, first living in Kontokali and later in Kalami. His 1945 book 'Prospero's Cell: A guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra' was based on his experiences there.
In 1937, Durrell published ‘Panic Spring’ under the pseudonym of Charles Norden. It was followed by ‘The Black Book’ (1938), one of his major works, written over a 16-month period from September 1935 to December 1936.
During the Second World War, he remained in Corfu with his wife and daughter, escaping to Egypt only after the fall of Greece. In Egypt, he served as a press attaché to the British embassies in Cairo and Alexandria. Meanwhile in 1943, he had ‘A Private Country’ published.
In 1945, as the Second World War came to an end, Lawrence Durrell was posted in the island of Rhodes. In the same year, he published 'Prospero's Cell', which was followed by 'Cities, Plains and People' in 1946, ‘Cefalu’ in 1947, 'On Seeming to Presume' in 1948 and 'Sappho: A Play in Verse' in 1950.
In 1947, he was appointed the Director of the British Council Institute in Córdoba, Argentina, where he served for 18 months. After returning to England in the summer of 1948, he was posted at the British Council, Belgrade, Yugoslavia, serving there until 1952. Eventually, he gave up government service.
In 1953, Durrell moved to Cyprus, where he accepted a teaching job while continuing to write. But in 1956, the tough political climate in that country forced him to move to Sommières, France, where he concentrated solely on writing. His 1957 autobiographical work ‘Bitter Lemons’ is based on his life in Cyprus.
In 1957, Durrell published ‘Justine’, the first book of his famous tetralogy, ‘The Alexandria Quartet’. The other books in this series are 'Balthazar' (1958), 'Mountolive' (1958) and 'Clea' (1960). Also during this period, he penned two books of comedy genre, including 'Esprit de Corps' (1957) and 'Stiff Upper Lip' (1958).
In Sommières, he began to work prolifically, producing seven novels until 1985. They were 'Tunc' (1968), 'Nunquam’ (1970), ‘Monsieur: or, The Prince of Darkness’ (1974), ‘Livia: or, Buried Alive’ (1978), ‘Constance: or, Solitary Practices’ (1982), ‘Sebastian: or, Ruling Passions’ (1983) and ‘Quinx: or, The Ripper's Tale’ (1985).
Continue Reading Below
Concurrently with writing novels, he also had several travel books published, namely 'Blue Thirst' (1975), 'Sicilian Carousel' (1977), 'The Greek Islands' (1978) and 'Caesar's Vast Ghost' (1990). Around this time, he also published several collections of poems, but they failed to attract the attention they deserved.
Awards & Achievements
In 1957, Lawrence Durrell received the Duff cooper Prize for ‘Bitter Lemon’. He was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for ‘Monsieur, or the Prince of Darkness’ in 1974. In 1986, he became the recipient of the Cholmondeley Award.
In 1982, he received nomination for Booker Prize for ‘Constance: or, Solitary Practices’.
In 1954, he was selected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, London.
Family & Personal Life
Lawrence Durrell married four times. In 1935, he married Nancy Isobel Myers, with whom he had one daughter called Penelope Berengaria Durrell. The couple divorced in 1947.
In 1947, he married Eve "Yvette" Cohen, with whom he had a daughter named Sappho Jane Durrell. This marriage ended in a divorce in 1955. Their daughter committed suicide in 1985.
In 1961, Durrell married Claude-Marie Vincendon, and remained married to her until her death in 1967.
He married Ghislaine de Boysson in 1973, but divorced her six years later, in 1979. Neither of his last two marriages produced any offspring.
Durrell suffered from emphysema for many years. On 7 November 1990, he suffered a stroke and died from it at his house in Sommières, France. He was 78 years old at that time.