Updike and Lawrence Durrell

I love the harmonies of the Beach Boys, the rush of air on the seashore, the heave and swell of waves, the sun going down on a blushing horizon, the full moon in sail on a starry night. And I love writers who can show me all this in sensuous, gorgeous prose.

I love Updike and Lawrence Durrell who were interested in the two things that really matter: love and language.

Money matters, too. Durrell said he wrote best when financially hard pressed. We will come to that presently.

But first: what’s so great about Updike and Durrell?


John Updike
John Updike

Updike’s Rabbit saga is the best thing I have read in fiction on life in post-war America. Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom lives his life from former high-school basketball star to retired car dealer and sees social and political changes – the Eisenhower era, the Nixon administration, George Bush – and there are changes in his own life too.

I wrote yesterday about Rabbit Redux where he and his wife, Janice, break up and make up. There is a lovely bedroom scene at the end. They go to a motel where

After another while, Janice announces, “If you’re not going to make love, I might as well turn my back and get some sleep. I was up almost all night worrying about this – reunion.”

“How do you think it’s going?”


The slither of sheets as she rotates her body is a silver music, sheets of pale noise extending outward unresisted by space…. He asks her, “How do we get out of here?”

“We put on our clothes and walk out the door. But let’s have a nap first. You’re talking nonsense already.”

“It’ll be so embarrassing. The guy at the desk’ll think we’ve been up to no good.”

It’s funny that Harry is more embarrassed than Janice about being in a motel where they might be mistaken for lovers.

And this is a man who has just had an affair like his wife.

But who says life isn’t complicated? You never know with people.

This is what makes Updike so good. He is wonderful with people, especially people in love.

Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell
Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell can be even more sensuous than Updike.

He himself described his Alexandria Quartet as “an investigation of modern love”.

I have written before how much I loved the first book, Justine, set in Alexandria just before the  outbreak of the Second World War. The second book, Balthazar, describes the same events from another perspective. The narrator in Justine who wanted his memoirs checked now has his manuscript edited and emended by his friend, Balthazar.

It is complicated.

But that will not stop you from enjoying the vivid descriptions, the sensuous prose.

Here the narrator is recalling life in Alexandria while living on an Aegean island:

The city, half-imagined (yet wholly real), begins and ends in us, roots lodged in our memory. Why must I return to it night after night, writing here by the fire of carob-wood while the Aegean wind clutches at this island house, clutching and releasing it, bending back the cypresses like bows? Have I not said enough about Alexandria? Am I to be reinfected once more by the dream of it and the memory of its inhabitants? Dreams I had thought safely locked up on paper, confided to the strong-rooms of memory!

Can you see the scene before your eyes? Isn’t the writing like a dream?

In an interview with the Paris Review in France in 1959, Durrell spoke about his writing.

The interviewer asked him, “And are you like Darley in Balthazar, who finds writing so difficult?”

He replied:

Oh, no. Well, let me tell you. In the last three years, during this awful financial trouble, I wrote Bitter Lemons in six weeks, and sent it off with only the typescript corrected. It was published as it stood. Justine was held up by bombs, but she took about four months—really a year, because the whole middle period I dropped in order to deal with the Cyprus job. I finished it in Cyprus just before leaving. I wrote Balthazar in six weeks in Sommières, I wrote Mountolive in two months in Sommières, and finished Clea in about seven weeks in all. You see, the beauty of it is, that when you are really frantic and worried about money, you find that if it’s going to be a question of writing to live, why, you just damn well buckle to and do it. Now none of these manuscripts have been altered, apart from Mountolive—the construction gave me some trouble, and I let in a hemstitch here, a gusset there—but apart from them, the bloody things have gone out of the house to the printer—apart from typing errors.

“I write at a terrific speed,” he said. “I’m writing for a living.”

Yes, he was a pro. And you marvel at his style.


Bitter Lemons was about Durrell’s life in Cyprus at the time of the conflict between the Greeks and the Turks while the island was still under British rule. Bitter Lemons and Justine were both published in 1957. Balthazar was the second book in the Alexandria Quartet, followed by Mountolive and Clea.

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