Archive for April 11th, 2011

April 11, 2011

Lawrence Durrell, Stiff Upper Lip

My Left of Cool piece this week discussed Lawrence Durrell’s very silly Antrobus stories, collected in Stiff Upper Lip. I discovered these stories only recently, when my best friend came across a lovely old edition of the collection.
The column is at the newspaper’s website, here, or can be read below (including the footnote I carelessly left out of the website version. Despite what the headline on the site implies, I do not think Durrell’s Big Books are in any way pretentious.

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Most reasonably bookish Indians discover Gerald Durrell reasonably early in life. It’s only later that Lawrence Durrell appears on the radar. I’m not sure how many of them ever really discover Lawrence; books that look as if they’d take an effort to read are never going to be that widespread. But everyone knows that he exists, and it’s something of a shock to realise that the author of the Alexandria Quartet and the Avignon Quintet is the “Larry” of My Family and Other Animals.

The reader of My Family and Other Animals knows that (Lawrence) Durrell lived for some time in Corfu. During the Second World War he worked for the British embassies in Egypt and later for the British government in Yugoslavia. His stint in Egypt led to the writing of the Alexandria Quartet. His stint in Yugoslavia led to something very different: the Antrobus stories, of which Stiff Upper Lip is the second collection.

For a person who has not read them the defining characteristic of the Alexandria and Avignon books is that they are long. They are also complex and interlinked (Durrell preferred to use the term “quincunx” instead of “quintet” to describe the Avignon books, since the former term indicates a more linear progression).

Against these vast, rich works for which Durrell is known Stiff Upper Lip rather stands out. This is a slim volume of stories about life in the diplomatic corps, ably illustrated by Nicolas Bently. They are populated with people whose names range from the Dickensian (Dovebasket, Bolster, Wormwood*) to the Wodehousean (Polk-Mowbray, Butch Benbow, Mungo Piers-Foley). All the stories are narrated by Antrobus, a character who, like the Oldest Member of Wodehouse’s golf stories, seems to do very little but tell stories chronicling the follies of those surrounding him.
And such follies they are. That I have invoked Wodehouse twice already is a clue to the sheer silliness of Stiff Upper Lip. The English diplomatic corps faces multiple murder attempts (perpetrated by one jealous lover and one disgruntled writer), culinary adventures (the accidental consumption of both horsemeat and garlic – of which garlic is considered the more generally horrifying), Dutch poetry and jewel thieves. A diplomatic dog show goes horribly wrong when a villainous attaché blows a dog whistle for a prank. Of particular interest to the readers of this paper, perhaps, will be “The Swami’s Secret”, featuring the suave Anaconda Veranda who gives reincarnation lessons by post.
Not every story in the book focuses on these Eton-educated diplomats. Durrell democratically includes an account of the sufferings of Percy, the second-footman at the embassy in “The Iron Hand”. In “The Game’s the Thing” there is an attempt to appease the Italian Mission by inviting them to a football match and losing. In our modern, post-match-fixing-scandal times we have a tendency to assume that every match is fixed, an assumption that is perhaps born out of a belief that fixing a match is easy. It is not, we learn, even though “we British know how to lose gamely. Prefer it, in fact. We had all taken on that frightfully decent look as we puffed about, showing ourselves plucky but inept – in fact in character”. Unfortunately not everyone on the team possesses the sporting spirit and, predictably, things do not go quite as planned.
In the hands of a different writer, Stiff Upper Lip would not be quite so strange. Had Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh written it one might have shrugged, reflected that it was not entirely in their usual style, and moved on. Silly and funny as it may be, its weirdness stems mainly from the incongruity of this author and these stories. This isn’t the Lawrence Durrell we know; but it is certainly recognisable as Gerald’s “Larry”.

*”Wormwood” is also a character in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. This character forms the inspiration for the name of the school teacher in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes series. This is one of those things people who quiz are very pleased about knowing. But that’s beside the point and doesn’t make the name any less Dickensian.

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I must get myself a nice copy of the Alexandria Quartet soon. Does anyone have any recommendations as to which edition?