Lawrence G. Durrell, age eighteen, passes his entrance exams on a first try and is admitted to King’s College, Cambridge. He comes to King’s knowing Latin and French. He’s assigned a tutor, Elyot S. Poundsworthy, who specializes in Roman poetry and early French literature. Poundsworthy has published articles on Catullus, Horace, Bernart de Ventadorn, and
Tutor and student have their first meeting in tutor’s book-lined study. Tutor asks pupil about his areas of interests. Pupil says he likes Latin literature but he prefers modern poetry, beginning with G. M. Hopkins. Tutors nods. He rises and pulls several books off his selves and hands them to student. He then assigns a selection of poems, all in the original Latin and French,
and includes Montaigne’s essay, “On Vanity,” also in French. Then he tells him to write an essay on vanity, to integrate all the authors in the assignment into a coherent argument, and to come back in a week. Five pages will do.
Student returns. He has composed an essay in over one thousand lines of free verse, with occasional rhymes. Tutor slowly reads the essay, nods, and compliments student on his spelling, particularly in the original languages. No mistakes. He smiles and remarks that Pope also wrote essays in verse, although in heroic couplets and with considerably more concision. Then he says, “All very interesting. I like the imagery. I especially like how you compare Catullus’s ‘fuck face’ with Montaigne’s ‘chamber pots.’ But what’s your point? I can’t find a point.” Student waves his arms and says, “How can an essay have a point when the subject matter has no point? Montaigne goes all over the place and never settles on anything. He just rambles, so you never know what he means. If he can get away with that, so can I. Montaigne’s mind skips and hops like a stone skimming over a pond, never getting below glittering surfaces.”
Tutor nods again and says, “That’s good, that’s very good. I like that. I don’t agree with it, but I like it. Now, why didn’t you say that or even suggest that in your essay? Or are you just interested in trying to be as clever as the authors you write about?”
Three years later, L. G. Durrell gets his degree from King’s, upper second-class honours, and soon leaves for Corfu. He now knows about brevity and concision and clear thinking, but he decides to use these tools sparingly and to rely on his instincts, except when talking about French thought and Einstein’s Relativity.
Lawrence G. Durrell did not keep in touch with his tutor, who did not go to Italy and broadcast speeches on behalf of Benito Mussolini. Instead, E. S. Poundsworthy stayed at King’s and eventually became master. He had a lively career, highlighted by fierce battles with Frankie Leavis over the course of English literature. F. R. L. once challenged E. S. P. to a duel, with
collier picks, the ghost of D. H. L. presiding. Elyot always remembered his star pupil, L. G. Durrell, whom he considered brilliant but incorrigible, and always bemoaned the fact the famous poet never learned the lessons of reading Montaigne’s “On Vanity.” Some people never learn, he would say, shaking his head sadly.