Years ago I read a book of stories about the British Foreign Office in Eastern Europe during the pre-war years. Each chapter is a self-contained humorous short story, with a memorable cast of recurring characters, poking fun at the foibles of diplomatic life. I’ve often–very often–thought about this book, and wondered what happened to it, but I couldn’t remember either the title or author. It’s one of the few books I’ve read that I’d classify as real literature that I’ve never–not once–heard or seen any other reference to.
Two days ago I scanned my bookshelf, looking for a light read to skim just a familiar portion of while grilling steaks and spotted a book by Lawrence Durrell. I’m not a Durrell fan. I tried and failed multiple times to get through his ground-breaking The Black Book, of which T.S. Elliot said it was “the first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction” (although the best line comes from Gerald Sykes’ introduction, writing of Durrell’s “woodenness” with obscenities that when he wrote the book at age 24, he “was still too young to be naughty with style”). The paperback copy I bought at a used book store in San Francisco was barely holding together, and my several attempts to get through it have rent it into four pieces. That’s a lot of abuse for a book I’ve never finished. The Black Book has a special, memorable, infuriating, place in my life–the first novel that truly and unequivocally defeated me.
Unwilling to give up completely, I bought the first book (Justine) of his Alexandria Quartet. By force of will I made it through. But I have no memory of the content, only the memory of having made it through, and I decided that 25% of his quarter was enough for me. But both books still sit on my shelf, and I have a faint, slightly desperate, hope that someday I’ll come back to them, and this time I’ll be able to appreciate them.
That’s not the kind of book I was looking for, to skim an enjoyable familiar passage (like visiting with an old and close friend) while my steaks sizzled on the grill. But the Durrell book I spotted was neither of those; it was Antrobus Complete. I had only the vaguest awareness of this book, consisting of a faint hint of familiarity with the title, resulting, no doubt, from having seen it time and time again as I scanned my bookshelf looking for something to read. Realizing I had strong memories of reading (or trying to) The Black Book and Justine, but no memories of this book, I felt a sudden curiosity about what it was doing on my shelf and picked it up.
And there it was, the book I’d been thinking about for over a decade, the series of stories of diplomatic life anchored around the stiff-upper-lip character, Antrobus. How strange that I should have vivid associations with two books I didn’t like and who content I can’t remember, and no mental association at all with a book who content I vividly remembered. But the writing style is so radically, fundamentally, different from those other books that I think I just hadn’t been able to associate it with Durrell.
The Black Book and Justine are serious novels, the first one self-consciously so, an overbearingly serious attempt at being serious. Antrobus Complete is light, witty, and smoothly urbane. Or as the sole reviewer on Amazon says, “Durrell’s writing is wry, dry, and quintessentially British.” Just so. It’s wholly unserious, and yet still wholly literary. Durrell employs a technique of using initial capitalization for all the unavoidable but banal phrases of polite and official conversation. For example, “Smith-Cromwell thought this might, though Effective, seem Questionable…”, or, “Which illustrates another little contention of mine: namely that Everybody Is Somebody’s Cup of Tea.”
Durrell has a marvelous talent for combining an over-the-top sendup with understated phrasing (which is to say, again, he’s “quintessentially British”). For example, in a story detailing the slow loss of a senior diplomat’s British soul, by way of speech and writing becoming ever more Americanized, Durrell writes;
Finally, and this is highly significant, he sent out a staff cirucular saying that any of the secretaries caught using phrases like quid pro quo, sine qua non, ad hoc, ab initio, ab ovo and status quo would be transferred. This was a bombshell. We were deprived at a blow of practically our whole official vocabulary.
And then there’s his description of a train built by Yugoslav Heavy Industry:
I’m not saying it was gaudy. It was absolutely breathtaking. The three long coaches were made of painted and carved timber; flowers, birds, liberation heroes, cache-sexes, emblematic devices, post-horns–everything you could imagine, all carved and painted according to the peasant fancy. The general effect was that of a Sicilian market-cart…or the poop of some seventeenth century galleon. Every blacksmith, wheelwright and cartwright in Servia must have had a hand in it…
Two things were immediately obvious. All this elaborate woodwork squeaked and groaned calamitously, ear-splittingly. How were we to get any sleep at all? Bur more serious still was the angle of inclination of the second coach with the Heads of Mission in it. It was about thirty degrees out of centre and was only, it seemed, held upright by the one immediately before and behind it. It was clear that Yugoslav heavy industry had mislaid its spirit-level while it was under construction. People who looked out the windows on the one side had the illusion that the ground was coming up to hit them. I paid Polk-Mowbray a visit to see if he was all right and found him looking rather pale and drawn up on the higher elevation of the coach like someone on a sinking ship. The noise was so great that we couldn’t speak–we had to shout. “My God,” I heard him cry out, “what is to become of us all?
There are also sly reference to diplomatic postings in “Vulgaria,” and a Yugoslav soldier who envisions himself receiving the “Titotalitarian Medal of Honour.” This book is absolutely charming, in the most sophisticated sense of charm, and I’m Absolutely Delighted to have Reconnected with This Old Friend. Buy it. The price for new is ridiculous for a slender paperback, but there are reasonably priced used ones. Mine, picked up at only God now remembers which bookshop in which city, was used, and has amused me nonetheless.
And on this, my third reading. It’s still in one piece.