by Bruce Redwine
I: Haag and I
Michael Haag was born in Manhattan in 1943 and died in London on 5 January 2020. I knew him from 2006 until 2010; during which time we exchanged hundreds of emails related to Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) and other literary matters. Haag wrote many books on various historical subjects, but he intended his biography of the British poet to be his major achievement. He worked many years doing his research on Durrell, possibly as many as twenty or more, but he never finished his biography, and that sad fact has to be considered a great loss. I have not read any parts of his incomplete manuscript, but I believe our extensive exchanges provide a rough map of how he read and interpreted Durrell, both man and poet.
This memoir attempts to sketch some of Haag’s important ideas as I understand them. In a small way, it attempts to compensate for the loss of Haag’s unfinished biography. It also treats some aspects of Haag’s personality as they pertain to his biographical and literary methodology. Furthermore, I want to make my method plain and upfront, even at the expense of obviousness. All memoirs are subject to the vagaries of memory, and mine is certainly no exception. I do not claim to be factually accurate all the time. This is especially true in recalling conversations and the places where they occurred, but I try to be fair and just to those distant circumstances as best I can. I indulge in a small amount of invention — under the assumption or misconception that sometimes a faulty memory has to be enhanced. And by that I mean that a dim recollection lends itself to repair and touch-up. As Haag himself suggested about Durrell’s approach to life and art, invention is not necessarily a bad thing.
II: The Meetings in Canada and Egypt
Haag and I met on four occasions: twice in 2006 at Victoria, British Columbia and twice in 2007 at Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt. The meetings in Victoria and Alexandria occurred during literary conferences on Lawrence Durrell. At the one in Canada, I had flown up from my home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Our introductory meeting was brief, but it became the basis for our future correspondence and eventual reunion in Egypt.
“Michael”, I said, “I enjoyed your talk on the Quartet.” We were at one of those wine and cheese gatherings. The room was crowded, and he was standing alone and off to the side. He was startled and jerked around. “Sorry, I didn’t catch your name”, he replied. He expected a formal introduction; that expectation was an essential part of his British formality.
He was tall and wore a sports jacket, a tieless shirt underneath. His English accent was rich and upper class, his diction quaint. He referred to the restroom as the “loo”. I assumed he was British and educated at an Oxbridge university. At that time, I didn’t know his origin was American. He had an odd way of looking at you, not directly but slightly askance, at an angle. His eyes looked down a lot and focussed on the floor.
On another occasion at the same conference, he signed my copy of his Alexandria Illustrated (2004). He used his own fountain pen and added a warm inscription. The ink was green, like Darley’s “green ink” in Justine,1 and his handwriting flowed easily, much as Durrell’s did when he signed his books. Now, looking back, the two artistic hands seem to resemble one another.
In Egypt, Haag was very generous with his time and hospitality, but our meetings were memorable because of their settings, not because of what was spoken. In person, he was curiously quiet, subdued, retiring, and perhaps even secretive. He was always an exemplar of British courtesy and restraint. I can recall, however, only odd fragments of our conversations. What I vividly remember are the situations, the places where we spoke.
Egypt was the backdrop. Haag’s beautiful wife came from a wealthy Alexandrian family, perhaps members of the elite of their society. Like Haag, his wife and her family were paragons of courtesy. Her first language was French; she also spoke Arabic, English, and Italian. Her mother had a spacious flat not far from the harbour and the Corniche; it was inside an old Art Deco building with an elevator cage similar to the one in the Cecil Hotel where my wife and I were then staying. The Cecil of Alexandria figures prominently in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet.
The apartment building could have provided a baroque scene in the Quartet. One night at the flat, we had an elegant dinner with Haag, his Egyptian wife, and her mother, a most gracious hostess, who was also a native Alexandrian. Others, whose identities I’ve regretfully forgotten, were also at the dinner table. In deference to my monolingualism, our conversation was carried on in English, but it could have been in French, the language of choice.
I only remember the ambience of antique furnishings and some large brass vessels, which struck me as Islamic, spare like the interior of a mosque. No animate images, just geometric designs and arabesques. I stood in the living room admiring the oriental rugs; some hung on the walls like paintings. I was afraid to step on the ones on the floor. “That’s all right,” Haag explained. “These are meant to be walked on. The rugs on the walls are rare, mostly Turkoman and Persian. The Persian are very old, from Kerman and Isfahan.” Aside from that comment, I recall very little of the conversation.
Another vivid occasion occurred in Cairo. It was night. Haag and I were standing on a balcony overlooking the dark Nile and the twinkling lights of Cairo in the distance. Again, my wife and I were attending a late dinner hosted by Haag’s charming mother-in-law, who also owned an upper-storey flat in the Zamalek district of Gezira island. Zamalek and its residences also had an Art Deco appeal. The interior of the flat was like the one in Alexandria: dark antique furniture; no artwork other than shiny brass objects, rugs on walls and floor; books in bookcases with glass doors. All the titles were in French and Arabic. The tile floor had geometric patterns.
We were on the balcony. A cool night, a breeze off the river. The Pleiades a bright necklace. The refuge of Zamalek was quiet and fresh and very different from our hotel near the Egyptian Museum. During the day, the centre of Cairo was overwhelming — noisy, chaotic, and dusty. Now the night was calm and peaceful.
Haag had recently located Durrell’s residence in Zamalek during August of 1941. He was pleased and remarked, “Durrell always chose the best places to live.” Indeed. Haag seemed to be living in one of Durrell’s Alexandrian novels, and he later reported that his Egyptian wife told him, in effect, that he really belonged in that lost Alexandrian world. That too pleased him. Not having his sense of nostalgia, she seemed to find his benign obsession amusing. She knew better; she was raised in Egypt. How can you be nostalgic about something you never experienced as a child? That vanished past was Haag’s true habitat, and one might even say that he adapted the modern world to accommodate the vanished.
Houses and their furnishings reflect their owners’ personalities. This universal commonplace was especially true of Haag’s home in London. It was a small ground-floor flat located at Belsize Park, Hampstead Heath. He made many references to it in our correspondence and seemed most proud of its backyard: a small, unkept garden with geraniums and an olive tree. I later confirmed that the ambience was Mediterranean, the associations clearly Durrellian. Durrell also had an unruly garden at his Gothic mansion outside the medieval village of Sommières, in the south of France. The village is situated in what was once a Roman province (Gallia Narbonensis). Its roots remain Roman. An ancient Roman bridge still crosses the Vidourle River near Durrell’s home.
I never visited Haag’s residence, but I’ve seen photographs taken by an Australian friend who described the place. Against a brick garden wall, amidst vines and creepers, Haag had propped a tall antique mirror set in what looked like an ornate frame of Ionic columns and acanthus leaves. Its design and location evoke Roman ruins in a pastoral scene. Within the frame’s pediment was a small androgynous face staring at the viewer as the viewer stared back.
Mirrors proliferate throughout Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (AQ 25, 28, 32, et passim); they have symbolic importance and suggest various possibilities such as multiple perspectives or the self-referential gaze. Velasquez’s Las Meninas (1656) comes to mind with its mirror, reflections, and multiple perspectives. Had Durrell visited Haag, he might have said that the classical face above the mirror represented the deus loci, the spirit of place, the term which Durrell made famous. Haag might have enjoyed that comparison. One warm afternoon, many years ago, Haag and my Australian friend relaxed in the shade of his Roman garden and shared refreshments of olives and wine. They discussed the virtues of grapes from various locations. My friend advocated Australian Chardonnay. Haag declared that he only drank wine from “the Roman Empire”.
I believe that Haag felt at home in the Roman Empire and wouldn’t have minded living in one of the cities of the eastern provinces, from Antiochia to Alexandrea ad Aegyptum. As Shakespeare’s Mark Antony says, “In the East my pleasure lies.”
III: Haag’s Worldliness
Haag got around. HHHe seemed to have been everywhere and to have read everything. He knew Egypt historically, sociologically, and geographically. His Timeline History of Egypt (2003) is a very handy compendium of useful facts and observations. Well connected and with many contacts, he knew important people in Egypt: Jean-Yves Emperneur and Harry Tzalas, authors and marine archaeologists, Mohamed Awad, lecturer and prominent architect, and Hisham Kassem, publisher and activist for democracy. He also knew the heads of institutes, local writers, and many others of note. To know these people and to call at least one of them “a very good friend” (as he did Kassem) was to be at their level of discourse and standing. In 2007, Hisham Kassem was the recipient of the Democracy Award, an American honour given by the National Endowment for Democracy.
Haag was like Darley in the Quartet — he toohad numerous connections to the elite of Egyptian society, to many of its intelligentsia. Of course he met Lawrence Durrell at his home in Sommières, France. And, when he met Durrell, he said “Thank you”, and by that he probably meant that he thanked the man who had opened his eyes to a new world.
Haag’s historical knowledge of the Middle East was vast. He could comment authoritatively on the Trojans and their relationship to the Hittites (they were not siblings, maybe distant cousins), or he could explain what happened to the Great Library at Alexandria (it was neither burned by the Romans nor pillaged by the Arabs, rather it simply “fell apart”). He was also a film critic. He severely criticised Ridley Scott’s The Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a film about the Crusades. He was horrified at Scott’s portrayal of Guy de Lusignan and Raynald of Châtillon, supposed Templar Knights, and said that they were not Templars and that the film was historically inaccurate.2 True, his criticisms were valid, but what does that matter when creating a work of fiction?
Haag had strong opinions, sometimes contradictory opinions. At times, the meticulous historian got in the way of the perceptive literary critic. He stumbled over his own feet. What he abhorred in Ridley Scott, he admired in Lawrence Durrell. But he was not unaware of his own prejudices. He admitted that some of his judgments had the effect of turning on a “blowtorch.”
I once had a question about an ancient Egyptian exhibit in London’s British Museum. Haag didn’t know the answer; instead, he asked, “Did you ask a curator behind one of those doors leading to the back offices?” I said no. I was too timid. “Well, you should knock on doors — you’d be surprised.” Well, Haag knocked on doors, and they opened to him. That was a source of his impressive knowledge. But Haag’s worldliness also betrayed a weakness. He occasionally made sweeping pronouncements — simultaneously pompous, acute, and witty. I think he enjoyed being wicked. It was part of his act. He had an Oscar Wilde quality.
In an early letter to Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell remarked, “In order to destroy time I use the historic present a great deal — not to mention the gnomic aorist.”3 The gnomic aorist is a past tense in ancient Greek; it is used to express, as Herbert Weir Smyth comments, “a general truth”.4 Whatever his rationale for the gnomic aorist, Durrell was fond of maxims and aphorisms. They added spice. He admired the aphorist François de La Rochefoucauld and even titled one of his poems “La Rochefoucauld”. In Mountolive, Durrell speaks through Pursewarden, another of his alter egos, and equates “gnomic phrases” to “oracular thoughts” (AQ 524-25).
Similarly, Haag had a penchant for formulating maxims or cultural aphorisms, which are a species of Durrell’s “gnomic” utterances. So, a Coptic patriarch in Mountolive proclaims, “Gins Pharoony. Yes, we are genus Pharaonicus — the true descendants of the ancients, the true marrow of Egypt. We call ourselves Gypt — ancient Egyptians” (AQ 421-22). Haag echoes this sentiment in his pronouncement: “Nobody can out-Arab an Arab, out-Muslim a Muslim, or out-Egyptian an Egyptian more than a Copt.”
Another species of these gnomic tendencies is a concise observation on character, a cryptic image, what Durrell calls “Character-Squeezes” in Justine (AQ 197), such as, “Justine Hosnani: arrow in darkness” or “Clea Montis: still waters of pain”. So, I once asked Haag if Durrell had ever visited the Siwa Oasis in the western desert. I was curious about Durrell’s vanity — if he had deliberately followed in the footsteps of Alexander, whose hubris had led him to seek the advice of the famous oracle of Ammon. Haag’s pithy response: “Durrell never got as far as Siwa. He was auto-oracular.” In some ways, Haag’s pithy prose also has an “auto-oracular” tone.
IV: The Correspondence
Aside from his remark on that balcony in Cairo overlooking the Nile, telling in its reference to Lawrence Durrell and his preferred habitat, what I find most memorable about Haag is his correspondence, not only as it relates to Durrell but also as it is indicative of Haag’s own personality.
Undoubtedly, Haag’s public and authorial personae differed greatly. Nevertheless, Michael Haag was a gifted writer of eloquent, authoritative, and compelling prose. He resembles Henry Miller’s depiction of the Greek writer George Katsimbalis as the “Colossus of Maroussi”. In his writings, published and epistolary, Haag was a giant, and like a giant he had the attributes and bad habits of giants. He could tower over a literary landscape, and he could also trample on peoples’ toes. What he said as opposed to how he said it — content versus form — are both important in talking about Haag. I have some things to say about the latter, but I shall focus on his main quality — his ideas.
Our correspondence was extensive and comprised over hundreds of emails. I have copies of these exchanges in print and digital formats. I take all my direct quotations either from that correspondence or from his publications. I will occasionally date an important email, but it is inconvenient to date or cite every one of his comments.
What I primarily rely upon is what he told me in our written exchanges. I accept his statements as true, and I make no attempt at the verification of facts, nor do I have dates for many of the events I will be discussing. As we all do, Haag was fully aware that his ideas would change over time as he acquired new information. As he said about his important article, “Only the City Is Real: Lawrence Durrell’s Journey to Alexandria”:5 “I will have to read it again to be sure what I said, and furthermore to see if I agree with it.” I do not have his subsequent response, but the article still holds true. I am not attempting to present Haag’s ideas as he might have finalized them—rather, I shall discuss his ideas as how they strike me as true and important.
V: Haag’s Background
Haag led an extraordinary life. He was born and raised in America but chose to reside in London, where he also received his university education. Although he held three passports — American, British, and Irish — he identified himself as British.6 He called London his “paradise” and lived for much of his life in Belsize Park, which is within the London Borough of Camden. Belsize Park is close to the natural areas of Hampstead Heath, replete with greens, woods, and ponds. Haag was an avid and frequent walker. Walking was a way for him to collected his thoughts and solve problems. His visitors, so I’m told, were sometimes treated to arduous walks around the Heath. Those long excursions were not to everyone’s liking.
Although London was his home and base, the Mediterranean was his field of study. He travelled throughout Israel and Syria, but Greece and Egypt were his special areas of interest, Alexandria in particular. The city was his special love, and he called himself a “one-man unfunded industry for the recording of Alexandria’s past.” And he proved himself worthy of that task by writing two superb books: Alexandria: City of Memory (2004) and Vintage Alexandria: Photographs of the City, 1860-1960 (2008).7 His unfinished biography of Lawrence Durrell would have been his magnum opus.
I say “field of study” deliberately, for Haag obtained a degree in anthropology from University College London (UCL). His “tutor” was the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1921-2007), who was known for her work on symbolism in such works as Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concept of Pollution and Taboo (1966). Another of his professors was Phyllis Kaberry (1910-1977), a specialist in Aboriginal kinship and author of Aboriginal Women: Sacred and Profane (1939). Haag worked closely with these two famous anthropologists. They seemed to serve as his role models. He admired them for what they did — they went into the field, underwent hardships, and endured difficult circumstances. Douglas was known for her “fieldwork” in the jungles of the Congo, Kaberry for hers in the outback of Australia. At UCL, Haag specialised in “West Africa as region” and the “Nuer of the Sudan.” He did not go into the field to study these peoples. Rather, his chosen fields lay elsewhere.
Like Durrell, who was a skilled painter, Haag was an excellent photographer. While at UCL, he studied film at the Slade School of Fine Art. In the field, not only did he record his findings and observations in notebooks, he also photographed the places he visited and the people he encountered (the cover of Alexandria: City Memory has one of his photographs).
VI: Haag’s Methodology
Haag’s methodology owes much to cultural anthropology. Some of its methods and issues were also Haag’s in his approach to research and biography. Three such anthropological issues include:
(1) the necessity of working in the field,
(2) the need to consolidate facts into principles, and
(3) the problem of the relationship between the observer and the subject.
I shall emphasise the first two issues and make only passing remarks towards the third. I discuss Haag’s “fieldwork” below. The second issue I discuss in the section on Durrell’s plagiarisms.
Anthropology is closely affiliated with archaeology, and Haag told me that he once wanted to be an “archaeologist”. “Fieldwork” defines both cultural anthropology and archaeology. Anthropologists and archaeologists teach in colleges and universities, and they write their articles and books in the comfort of modern cities. But any archaeologist worth his or her salt has a “dig”, an excavation closely identified with the archaeologist’s particular field of expertise. I do not recall that Haag paid much attention to current theoretical issues related to the writing of ethnographies, that is, to what extent an anthropologist can objectively study an alien society.8 He was interested in “fieldwork” per se, as praxis.
Haag’s emphasis on proving something in the field had a direct bearing on his opposition to the Academy and its so-called ivory tower. He was especially opposed to the Academy’s theoretical approaches to the study of literature. He saw himself as an outsider, as someone outside the traditional academic domain of literary criticism. I think he also relished his role as outsider (or “heretic” in his advocacy of biographical criticism, to be discussed later). It gave him the opportunity to turn on his “blowtorch” to full force.
Metaphorically speaking, Haag’s main historical “dig” was Egypt, in particular the city of Alexandria. His primary literary “dig” was the study of Lawrence Durrell, and he frequently described his literary and biographical analyses as forms of “archaeology”. Like archaeologists, anthropologists are also well known for their fieldwork in far-off places, and that professional requirement determined how Haag approached his study of history, literature, and Lawrence Durrell. He went into the field to study places firsthand and to interview people relevant to his purpose. Archaeologists follow a rigorous methodology: they record and chart their findings. As Haag said on another occasion, “I am trying to chart [Durrell’s] inner and creative life.”
Haag related a story which illustrates his methodology. He did not intend the story as an illustration of his method of fieldwork. He told the story as something interesting in its own right. I find it, however, instructive and will paraphrase and excerpt his account, which is too long to quote in full.
Haag met the famous writer Patrick Leigh Fermor (1915-2011) at his home in Kardamyli in the northern Mani. The town is near the wild and rugged region of the Peloponnese. Haag called that region “one of the wildest places in Europe” and noted that “Durrell did not like the Mani and told me it was ‘Methodist Greece.’” The year is unspecified, but it was probably two decades after the publication of Leigh Fermor’s Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese (1958).
Haag read Mani closely. He was intrigued by Leigh Fermor’s account of a traverse across a particularly treacherous mountain gorge and the neighbouring terrain. Based on his own knowledge of the Mani, Haag did not believe the account was accurate. He found it too “vague”. So in typical Haag-like fashion, he decided to retrace Leigh Fermor’s journey on foot. A friend accompanied him, presumably because of the dangers involved. The trek was long and arduous. It apparently lasted many, unspecified days and turned out to be, in Haag’s words, “about the most stupid thing I have ever done.” On the summit of Mount Taygetus, “the highest mountain in the Peloponnese”, they found a “dead body”, confirming the prudence of travelling with a companion. They encountered further difficulties and hardships. Then, at the end of the traverse, “we were later told by locals that nobody had ever accomplished such a daring and stupid feat before.” In 2007, Haag concluded that “Paddy Leigh Fermor was a cissy. He made his traverse sound so hard, but it could not have been a patch on ours.”
Haag’s telling of the story is dramatic, full of danger, and worthy of Durrell’s descriptions of the mountainous regions of Yugoslavia in his adventure novel, White Eagles over Serbia (1957). The Durrellian correspondences are prominent and revealing. Durrell did not like the Mani but Haag clearly does. Durrell knew Leigh Fermor, and so Haag meets him. Leigh Fermor was also very famous. His commando exploits on Crete during the Second World War were heroic and legendary, and he has been called the greatest British travel writer of his generation.9 Durrell too was famous and a great writer of the Mediterranean landscape, although he was not an adventurer.
Among its various meanings, Greek agon (ἀγών) denotes a contest or some personal struggle or trial. A primary example of the agon was the athletic competition,10 ultimately resulting in the Olympic Games. There, on the field of athletics, the contest between rivals determined who was the best, the ἄριστος. On the field of combat, Achilles supposes himself “the best of the Achaeans” (Il. 1.244) and later proves it by killing Hector, the Trojan champion, in personal combat (Il. 22.325-66). This struggle for supremacy exemplifies Haag’s traverse across the Mani. In a metaphorical sense, Haag engages Leigh Fermor in a physical contest. He finds Leigh Fermor’s work and exploits a personal challenge, and he then goes out to beat the famous writer and adventurer at his own game. In the end, he wins the contest and proclaims that his “patch”, his badge of distinction, has earned him — figuratively and most probably unconsciously — the laurel of victory.
Lawrence Durrell’s presence hangs like a ghost behind Haag’s exploit on the Mani. I wonder if Durrell was not, in some strange way, also part of the contest, and Durrell’s spectre may illustrate Haag’s close identification with his subject, his lack of objectivity. Thus, we have before us the third anthropological issue that questions the degree to which an observer can accurately describe what he or she observes.11
Whatever the case, Haag is not modest in his accomplishment. True, he is self-deprecating — he twice refers to his own stupidity — but he is not so stupid as to hike in the Mani alone. His self-criticism is a rhetorical flourish, a kind of paralipsis — the art of saying something by denying to say anything. Haag’s self-deprecation serves to highlight his own boldness and audacity. Immodesty aside, the story illustrates well the extent to which Haag would go to prove a point. His method was to do “fieldwork”, no matter what the costs, no matter how difficult the endeavour. His mentors Mary Douglas and Phyllis Kaberry would have been proud of him.
Fieldwork serves as an introduction to Haag’s unfinished biography of Lawrence Durrell. Haag found his inspiration for undertaking the biography out in the field — while sitting in the White House on the island of Corfu. Durrell made the house famous in Prospero’s Cell, where he describes it as “a white house set like a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water.”12 In that same paragraph, Durrell calls the “bare promontory” of “metamorphic stone” a “mons pubis”. The description of the promontory has obvious sexual connotations. For both Durrell and Haag, the image probably connotes Kalami as a womb,13 as the matrix of an important beginning.
Haag was never precise about his dates (just as Durrell wasn’t), but I understand the occasion at Kalami to have occurred sometime in the early 1990s or possibly earlier. (Lawrence Durrell died on 7 November 1990 in Sommières, France.) In 2006, Haag described to me his revelation on Corfu:
At Kalami in March (good time to be there, bad winter, therefore no people, so it seemed something like 1935) I spent several days wandering in and out of the White House where Durrell and Nancy lived. The family gave me the keys and I would go day and night, just sitting there sometimes, or looking out the windows, or listening to the waves, watching storms — The Black Book begins with a lightening [sic] storm: I could never have started this book in the summer, Durrell says at the start of The Black Book. (email 8 September 2006; my italics)
Haag is describing the moment of inspiration when he decides to undertake his biography. The year 1935 is when Lawrence Durrell started writing his first major novel, The Black Book. Its famous opening sentences are — “The agon, then. It begins.”14
The agon can also include a literary struggle.15 Writing The Black Book became Durrell’s agon in the sense that the undertaking became the first truly important accomplishment of his early career. T. S. Eliot, Durrell’s mentor at Faber and Faber, recognised the novel’s importance with his famous encomium, quoted on the book’s dust jacket: “Lawrence Durrell’s Black Book is the first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction.”
Durrell’s agon, then, is The Black Book, and its opening section sets the scene for the author’s forthcoming struggle. The opening is rich in imagery associated with death and winter, the physical and psychological context of the author’s trial. But it does not describe a dramatic “lightening storm”. There is a storm with “thunder” but no “lightening”, and Durrell’s sentence actually reads, “I could not have begun this act in the summer.”16 Close but not accurate. Haag’s use of never occurs several times elsewhere and will have eventual repercussions.
Haag is quoting from memory, and his slips reveal something about himself. His I seems to conflate with Durrell’s I. Haag replicates Durrell’s experience. He wanders around the empty house at Kalami seemingly lost and distraught, as though he were summoning up ghosts. My impression of this description is that Durrell’s “agon” or “act” becomes Haag’s future “book”, his biography of Lawrence Durrell.Biographers occasionally do this kind of thing.17 They identify closely with their subjects, and this is especially true of Michael Haag. He decides to undertake his own agon, as he too sits in the White House and watches a storm gather over the Ionian Sea. Only his description is more dramatic than Durrell’s. The turbulent setting was memorable for both writers, but Durrell completed his agon — and Haag never completed his.
Haag’s favourite novel in the Quartet was Justine. He had a provocative interpretation of Durrell’s use of French jamais (never). In Justine, the word recurs in the names of a French song and perfume, jamais de la vie (idiomatically, “not on your life”; literally, “never of life”) (AQ 94, 155). Haag interpreted the reference as “a running joke with Durrell” and then commented:
Durrell’s motif of jamais de la vie is a variation on Nevermore: Alexandria: City of Impotence — it is not a fruitful or productive place in Durrell’s terms, which is why the artists, the would be artists, Darley and Clea have to get away. (email 2 September 2007)
Haag alludes to Edgar Allan Poe’s famous (and notorious) poem, “The Raven” (1845). But Durrell’s references are not a joke — impotence is no joke — and “The Raven” is a long poem which goes nowhere. Its diction is archaic and obsessive. The Raven “croak[s]” and “quoth.” And the all-too-insistent refrain — “Quoth the Raven ‘Nevermore’” — connotes death and loss as much as impotence, which is a common but speculative gloss on Poe’s “Nevermore”. Poe was another obsessive and tormented genius, much as Durrell was.
Perhaps these traits are what caught Haag’s eye and caused him to make the connection between jamais and nevermore, which is just an echo of the earlier phrase in the poem — “nothing more.” On another occasion, Haag wrote: “Durrell’s greatest demon, I suspect, is not darkness but emptiness — that there is nothing there.” Emptiness lies at the heart of Durrell’s epigraph for one of his best collection of poems, The Tree of Idleness (1955): “The notion of emptiness engenders compassion. Mila Repa.” Milarepa (1025-1135) was a Buddhist and Tibetan sage, but the Buddhist notion of emptiness (Sanskrit shūnyatā) as ultimate understanding is not what Haag had in mind. Despite the epigraph, Haag interpreted Durrell’s notion of emptiness as pure nihilism. On Durrell’s creativity, he remarked, “Creation is continuous activity whose essence is flux — until you arrive at nothingness.”
Haag too was a writer of “continuous activity.” He wrote many books, and he never stopped moving. His long walks in the Mani and on Hampstead Heath were part of his ceaseless activity. Haag’s readings of Durrell were always original and provocative, but, like the croaking of Poe’s Raven of one note, they have a dark and obsessive ring. At times Haag seemed to speak through Durrell and to say something about himself.
VII: Durrell’s “World”
Near the beginning of Prospero’s Cell Durrell says, “Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder — the discovery of yourself” (PC 11). Durrell’s claim is a big one, and he does not directly explain or justify it later in his book, although I believe the reader intuits his meaning as correct. Durrell’s assertion about obtaining self-knowledge, however, is not new. Goethe says something similar near the beginning of his Italian Journey (1816-1817): “My purpose in making this wonderful journey is not to delude myself but to discover myself in the objects I see.” Goethe supports his claim with many subsequent references to discoveries related to his own being.18 At the very least, by the time of the London publication of Sicilian Carousel (1976), Durrell had read Goethe’s Italian Journey.19
So, what does Durrell mean by “the discovery of yourself?” I suggest — and I believe Haag would concur — that Durrell was referring to the creation of his “own world”. I believe that this creation is felt or intuited by many readers who find the book captivating. This kind of reading experience is not a matter of an author explaining himself or herself in the manner of someone undergoing a journey of psychoanalytic self-discovery. It is far more subtle and mysterious. It is almost mystical, for Haag saw another aspect of Durrell’s private world, his world of writing. Through his writings, Durrell could influence reality and make things happen. As Haag wrote, “There are times I think Durrell writes himself into his life, his writing makes things happen, makes things real.”
This idea is really just an extension of Durrell’s perennial theme that dream and reality are indistinguishable. We see this near the beginning of Prospero’s Cell when Durrell says, “It is a sophism to imagine that there is any strict dividing line between the waking world and the world of dreams” (PC 11); the theme recurs during the pool scene at the shrine of Saint Arsenius (PC 16); and it reappears with the primacy of “the kingdom of your imagination” at the end of Clea (AQ 877). The theme appears once again in Sicilian Carousel: “We have been brought up to believe that facts are not dreams — and of course they are” (SC 36).
In this context, also near the beginning of Prospero’s Cell, Durrell calls his experiences on Corfu a “world”: “This is become our unregretted home. A world. Corcyra” (PC 12). He later describes his world poetically: “World of black cherries, sails, dust, arbutus, fishes and letters from home” (PC 20). Then at the end of his book, Durrell reflects on the ravages of the Second World War and speaks of his Greek friends as “recovering […] into a small private universe: a Greek universe. Inside that world, where the islands lie buried in smoke, where the cypresses spring from the tombs, they know that there is nothing to be said” (PC 132). “The Greek universe” is surely Durrell’s “private universe”, his “world”. Only now the enclosed world differs. The devastation of the war has taken its toll. Instead of lively images and homely words, Durrell’s world also contains burial imagery and empty silence, which will eventually become as prophetic and portentous as Hamlet’s last words, “The rest is silence.”
Hamlet was one of Durrell’s favourite plays; he identified closely with the troubled prince. In 1936, when he was young and optimistic, Durrell told Miller that Hamlet’s final words were “a brief but witty epitaph”20 The comment was lighthearted, almost jocular. But that attitude would later change, as his sad epilogue to Prospero’s Cell shows.
That Durrell had his “own world” has long been noted, undoubtedly many times. In 1978, Carol Marshall Peirce attended a lecture given by John Wain of Brasenose College and summarised it in her article, “A Reading of Durrell’s Map: John Wain’s Oxford Lecture”. At the time, Wain was Oxford Professor of Poetry. According to Peirce, Wain said that Durrell “has a place and a world”.21 On 5 July 2007, Anna Lillios, former president of the International Lawrence Durrell Society, posted an inquiry on the ILDS listserv: “Why are so many men interested in Durrell studies, i.e., most of the respondents in the discussion group are male? Is it because they are fascinated by Durrell’s fantasy women and the world he creates around them?22
As Wain, Lillios, and others have observed, Lawrence Durrell clearly had his “own world”, but what exactly was it? Michael Haag had an answer which extends far beyond Wain’s comments on Durrell’s Mediterranean landscape and Lillios’s idea of a male world of sexual fantasy.
Haag considered Durrell’s “best books” to be Prospero’s Cell (1945), Bitter Lemons (1957), and The Alexandria Quartet (1960), with an emphasis on Justine (1957). He also believed in 2007 that after 1960 “[Durrell] lost it. His hold on the real was never very secure, and that included [his fictional] characters, while his ideas were eclectic, entertaining, and also inconsistent and undeveloped.” To say that Durrell reached his peak with the publication of the Quartet presents a big problem for his biographer. Durrell lived, wrote, and published for another thirty years. What does a biographer say about those years other than to map out a course of dismal decline? That was Haag’s problem, both as biographer and as person. We did not discuss it, but some problem — or perhaps something like it — prevented him from completing his biography.
Nevertheless, of the three “best books”, Haag took Prospero’s Cell to hold a position of crucial importance because it created a “world” in which Durrell found a haven, a “small private universe”, and one in which he could freely exercise his imagination and could possibly influence the real world.
VIII: Durrell’s Plagiarisms
One aspect of this creative process was Durrell’s habit of plagiarisation. Haag took it as a given that Durrell, when writing Prospero’s Cell, plagiarised a substantial amount of material from Sophie Atkinson’s An Artist in Corfu (1911).23 Haag saw no need to excuse Durrell’s theft as a matter of “sources” or “borrowings”, the usual literary interpretation.24 Instead, he saw Durrell as deliberately stealing Atkinson’s words and her scenes of Corfiot life. He saw these plagiarisms as essential to his biography (“the stuff of my biography of Durrell”) and part of a pattern that needed to be explained (“I need to make my case about Durrell, explaining how all [h]is peculiarities added up to the writer he was”).
In other words, like a good anthropologist, Haag felt he had to account for the many instances of personal phenomena — separate and divergent, the “stuff” of personality — and to find the organising principle behind them. In a cultural context, this is the approach that Bronisław Malinowski advocates: “Only laws and generalizations are scientific facts, and field work consists only and exclusively in the interpretation of the chaotic social reality, in subordinating it to general rules.”25 So, Haag looked for first causes, for generalisations. He looked for the One over the Many:“I follow strands and notice patterns and I link them to events, and I begin to see what made Durrell as man and writer, what made his genius what it was. Again things arise and coalesce.” When “things arise and coalesce”, they cohere, they form a unity, they become a first cause, a principle, a generalisation. Haag’s search for unity over diversity also appears in his last book, The Durrells of Corfu (2017). The book purports to be about the whole family of Durrells on Corfu, but its underlying subject is really Lawrence Durrell.26
Haag offered the tentative “hypothesis” that Durrell was prone to plagiarisation during periods of severe stress and “self doubt”. The writing of Prospero’s Cell in Egypt and Caesar’s Vast Ghost in Provence coincided with such times. Egypt during the Second World War was one of those situations where Durrell suffered the loss of Greece, a broken marriage to Nancy Myers, and a separation from his daughter Penelope Berengaria. A second such situation occurred near the end of his life when his daughter Sappho Jane committed suicide in London. These two periods resulted in either depression or alcoholism.
Plagiarism, however, indicated something much more than momentary weakness brought on by acute distress. For Haag interpreted plagiarism as no small flaw in Durrell’s personality; rather, it also connected to his role as an artist. So Haag further elaborated:
All writers are magpies, but this goes a step further [Durrell plagiarising Sophie Atkinson]. It seems to me part of Durrell’s general project of taking apart and reconstructing the world because he needs to do so, because for him there is something fundamentally wrong with the world from the outset — and even though he is enjoyed precisely for his celebration of life and those parts of the world where fortune brings him. (email 13 July 2007)
Thus, Haag links Durrell’s plagiarisation to the creation of his “world”.
The theft, however, could have been disastrous. Had Durrell’s publisher Faber and Faber discovered his plagiarism, Haag believed Durrell’s career at Faber would have dramatically ended. He based this opinion on a meeting with a friend, who was a retired editor at Faber. They had dinner one evening at Haag’s flat in Belsize Park, and he reported his friend as saying, “The entire edition of Prospero’s Cell would have been pulped and Durrell would never have signed a contract again [with Faber]. His writing career would have been over.” Whatever the case for Faber’s hypothetical discovery, Haag was interested in two issues about Durrell’s risky behaviour: what it said about his “world” and how to account for it in terms of his personality.
The latter is the easier to discuss. Plagiarisation follows from Haag’s basic premise about Durrell’s behaviour as he expressed it in 2007: “My Basic Theory About Durrell is that he invented everything.” Examples of plagiarism recur in Durrell’s oeuvre. They have a pathological consistency. Another example occurs in Balthazar when he lifts a passage from R. Talbot Kelly’s Egypt: Painted and Described (1902). And another occurs in his last work, Caesar’s Vast Ghost (1990), when Durrell lifts a passage from Haag’s own note to his edition of E. M. Forster’s original Alexandria: A History and a Guide (1922).27
A possible corollary to the “Basic Theory” is Haag’s previously quoted contention that Durrell had a tenuous “hold on the real”. Haag may have later developed a more sophisticated explanation for Durrell’s plagiarisms, but his “Basic Theory” of 2007 has one troubling implication: Durrell plagiarised because he had difficulty distinguishing his private world from reality. But did he?
Haag was a meticulous critic and researcher. He also believed that Durrell attempted to conceal his indebtedness to Sophie Atkinson. In his “Brief Bibliography” to Prospero’s Cell, Durrell listed Atkinson’s name as “S. Atkinson” (PC 140). He gives the full names of two other sources — but not Atkinson’s, whose full name appears on the title page of her book.28 So, Haag argued that the “S.” for Sophie is a “clear” and deliberate “omission”. If this is the case, then Durrell knew what he was doing — committing plagiarism and trying to hide the fact — and the matter then becomes one of ethics. That leaves unanswered one big question about Durrell — was he unethical? I do not know how Haag answered that question. My response is that Durrell was occasionally unethical and probably more often than he should have been.
Haag also saw Durrell’s plagiarism as providing one major benefit in assessing his abilities. It demonstrated the great superiority of Durrell’s artistic abilities over Atkinson’s. Plagiarism, then, became Haag’s key into Durrell’s “world”. It enabled him to compare a great writer to one of lesser abilities. So he comments on the quality of Durrell’s and Atkinson’s writings:
An important quality of Durrell’s writing, to my mind, is the way he draws the reader into his world. It is a world he creates by dismantling this world and building another in which he feels better — feels unburdened, playful, free or whatever. As I have said before, I think Durrell finds it necessary for his own well being to create such a world and to have it validated by readers. Prospero’s Cell achieves that beautifully; and he used Sophie’s text in a way that gives it that dreamworld quality it did not have in her hands. She writes about the world; he writes about his world, and in making the world his he appropriates of it what he likes, including what she has written. (email of 7 August 2007; my italics)
Here, Haag’s use of “dismantling” and creating another world is crucial. I do not think he would equate this process to Durrell’s idea of the “Heraldic Universe”, which, I believe, is some realm analogous to Platonic Forms. That is to say, the “Heraldic Universe” is a dimension beyond the mundane world we live in. Moreover, “dismantling” as a form of creationeraH”D” is a part of Haag’s “Basic Theory” that Durrell “invented everything”. He argued that Durrell’s use of the initial “S.” (for Sophie Atkinson) corresponds to the initial “N.” (for Nancy Myers) in Prospero’s Cell (PC 11) and the initial “E” (for Eve Cohen) in Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953).29 All these shorthand references to real women, in Haag’s analysis, are examples of Durrell’s deliberate truncation of personal names — in the sense of altering reality itself — in order to create a world of his own.
Not all of these references are to women; if they had been, then Durrell would have been open to the charge of misogyny. One important male appears. Following Haag’s line of reasoning, the ultimate truncation would be “Count D.” in Prospero’s Cell, who is first mentioned in the book’s dedication and later developed in full. Ignoring his advanced age, the Count resembles Durrell in physical appearance: “The old Count, a man of about sixty, was stocky and heavily built; he possessed a pair of remarkable eyes set in a head which was a little too big for his body” (PC 75). He also sounds like Durrell delivering one of his maxims: “Philosophy […] is a doubt which lives in one like hookworm, causing pallor and lack of appetite” (PC 77). Haag saw the Count as being Lawrence Durrell in disguise, recreated as an aristocrat living on Corfu.30 Count D., then, may serve as the final proof of Haag’s argument — QED.
What Haag hints at in this passage, but does not fully explain, is the nature of Durrell’s private world. Haag calls it a “dreamworld”, but I would further specify that it is a world of loss and memory ensconced within a dream. It has a very Proustian quality. All of Durrell’s “best books” — to which I largely concur with Haag — along with his best poetry — have that characteristic.
Although Haag considered Lawrence Durrell the superior artist by far, that did not mean he disparaged Atkinson’s work. He was just and fair. And he made that clear when he said, in the context of discussing Atkinson, “I do think that people should be remembered for what they have contributed.” He wanted to give Sophie Atkinson her proper due. He even went so far as to create a biographical entry for her on Wikipedia. I suspect that Haag believed that Durrell had wronged Atkinson by not giving her full credit for her work. He may have also wanted to make amends on Durrell’s behalf. This suspicion, however, harbours one troubling possibility. If true, not only does Michael Haag seem to be speaking for Lawrence Durrell, he seems to be Lawrence Durrell.
IX: Enigma Machines
When discussing Durrell’s poetry, codebreaking was one of Haag’s favourite tropes. One of our exchanges on the German “Enigma Machine” brought up the topic. During the Second World War, the Germans used that intricate device for encoding messages transmitted within the upper echelons of military units. The encrypted traffic was almost unbreakable, were it not for the work of British cryptologists, Alan M. Turing in particular. The breaking of the Enigma code is one of the great stories of British Intelligence.
As Haag pointed out, however, the Enigma Machine was not part of the spy story related to British Intelligence in Egypt, rather it was the discovery of the use of Daphne du Maurier’s famous novel, Rebecca (1938). The British captured a German Morse code operator in the western desert and found in his possession a copy of the novel. The radio operator didn’t understand English; he was using Rebecca as an encryption pad for passing radio traffic. The low-level code, a form of simple substitution, was based on du Maurier’s text.
As Haag briefly mentions in his Alexandria: City of Memory, Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989) wrote Rebecca in Alexandria out of sheer boredom. She was “bored […] stiff” because of her social obligations as the wife of a British lieutenant colonel stationed in the city.31 Her husband later became Lieutenant General Frederick Browning, who was famous for his comment about the failed assault on a bridge in Arnhem, Holland (“a bridge too far”). In Alexandria, the couple lived in a rented bungalow near Ramleh and the Corniche. Their living conditions were undoubtedly posh and exclusive.
In her biography of the English author, Margaret Forster mentions that du Maurier saw herself as a sexual “half-breed”.32 In other words, she was bisexual but reluctant to admit her sexuality. Her marriage was complicated. Browning had mistresses; du Maurier had an alleged affair with the actress Gertrude Lawrence. These facts Haag did not mention, but he was probably aware of them. The unusual couple could have easily joined the ranks of Durrell’s exotic Alexandrians, those “inquisitors of pleasure and pain” (AQ 350). But that didn’t happen. Whatever her experiences in Egypt, a bored du Maurier, living in a historic city with all its oriental allure, took refuge in writing a mystery set faraway on her native Cornish coast and whose plot resembles Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). She completely rejected the city made famous by Cavafy and Forster and later memorialised by Durrell and Haag.
Haag found the complementary stories of Daphne du Maurier in Alexandria and German espionage in Egypt as just too weird and compelling to ignore — or too much, in Othello’s words, “passing strange” (Oth. 1.3.161). The stories seemed to bewitch Haag just as Othello’s storytelling had bewitched Desdemona. Taken as a pair, they were ironic, fantastic, and prophetic. Rebecca as decryption key then became his metaphor for understanding Lawrence Durrell. Du Maurier’s life and fiction had coincidences as they pertained to Durrell’s own life and fiction. The city of Alexandria is an obvious connection; another is sexual promiscuity. I would also suggest that du Maurier’s bisexuality was reflective of Durrell’s idea of Alexandria as “the great winepress of love” (AQ 18), where bisexuality or the “bisexual psyche” is a major theme.33 As Haag said, “Durrell’s Rebecca is his life story.” That is to say, Durrell’s biography is the basis for breaking the “code” of his poetry. As Haag further explained, “It is not Rebecca that is Durrell’s life story. But the role played by Rebecca in the war is the role played by Durrell’s life story in decoding his poems.”
Poetry as encryption, then, served as a way for Durrell to deal with his deepest problems and — paradoxically — as a way to conceal them. Haag was not referring to all of Durrell’s poetry, of course, but to many of his important poems. So he argued:
LD’s more painful memories being idiosyncratically buried in poetry where they serve a dual function. Firstly, as a compressed trigger to release the emotive memories associated with the poem[’]s theme and secondly as a means to efficiently encrypt his most intimate experiences … this is selfish art at its best and double the fun for LD as his innermost is exposed, and thereby ventilated, without being readily available to prying eyes which have not the benefit of his decoding subjectivity. (email 22 July 2007)
The immediate objective of this exercise appears as an italicised refrain in “At the Long Bar” (1955): “The sickness of the oyster is the pearl.” The ultimate objective is to render this exercise unnecessary, as expressed in italicised lines from “Conon in Alexandria” (1945), where a man is “engaged in bitterly waiting / For the day when art should become unnecessary.”
But Haag’s emphasis on biographical interpretation created problems, for this critical approach was anathema to American Formalism or “New Criticism” of the 1940s and 1950s, which treats poetry as a “verbal icon”. It considers the text alone as sufficient for interpretation. New Criticism eschews biography,34 and to indulge in it becomes the “biographical heresy”.35 As Harry Levin of Harvard explained as late as 1984, “It is no longer acceptable to identify the author’s personality with his vicarious persona.”36 Haag broke decisively with this tradition; he became a “heretic”. He saw Lawrence Durrell himself as the ultimate “Enigma Machine” and his life story as essential for understanding some of his most important and intimate poetry. Haag’s approach has major consequences, for his emphasis on biography contrasts sharply with the Formalist rejection of biography. This opposition can lead to radically different interpretations of Durrell’s poetry.
X: Biographical Poetry: “The Tree of Idleness”
“Biographical poetry” is my term. It is awkward, and Haag did not use it. Beyond his emphasis on biography, he never used a specific term for his idea. I don’t know if he ever formulated one. True, some may object — Durrell writes highly personal poetry — so what? Biological poetry may be simply an alternative term for lyric poetry — and a clumsy one at that. Many of Durrell’s poems are indeed lyrics: a short poem where a solitary speaker expresses some particular feeling, such as the aubade, “This Unimportant Morning” (1944). Also, the Greek poet Sappho wrote lyric poetry, and Durrell greatly admired the “Tenth Muse”.37 He named his second daughter after her. But lyric poetry was clearly not what Haag had in mind. As previously mentioned, he saw biographical poetry as the “release” and encryption of some deep anxiety, resulting in the poetic artifact, as Durrell himself expresses in “Cities, Plains and People I” (1943), “Until your pain become a literature.” Perhaps “psychic poetry” is less cumbersome and more appropriate, if not entirely satisfactory.
Durrell’s great poem, “The Tree of Idleness”, is not easy to understand. Durrell wrote the poem during his years on Cyprus (1953-1956), and it became the title of an important book: The Tree of Idleness and Other Poems (1955). I choose this poem because Haag saw Durrell’s three years on Cyprus as crucial to his development as poet and person. In those years, Durrell was very productive as a creative artist; at the same time, his private life was in turmoil and underwent substantial changes. This poem reflects outward and inward circumstances.
I will not give an extended analysis to this poem. Isabelle Keller-Privat has already provided a thorough literary analysis in her recent book on Durrell’s poetry. She has many good things to say about Durrell and his poetry; this is especially true in the way she brings in the French poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945) to illuminate her points on the “dream process”.38 She also cites to good effect French Symbolists such as Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), and Stéphane Mallarmé (1842-1898). But her close analysis of “The Tree of Idleness” is essentially in the mode of Formalism or New Criticism. She sticks primarily to the text itself and has little to say about its interaction with Durrell’s personal life and struggles beyond noting, “the outer and the inner rift, the historical and the personal.”39 In the end, her interpretation of the poem is sanguine (“Anxiety is eventually annihilated in the second half of the poem”),40 whereas Haag most probably did not see any indication of the cessation of anxiety. Just the opposite. He saw Durrell’s vision and disposition as fundamentally bleak. As previously noted, Haag rejected the Formalist approach in favour of a biographical interpretation. So, I will concentrate on a few of Durrell’s puzzling images and attempt to show how Haag treated them — or might have treated them.
I quote “The Tree of Idleness” in full. It is a fairly short poem of seven quatrains and one final line, twenty-nine lines in all. Six of the quatrains have rhymes at the end of the first and last lines, thus locking the lines of each quatrain together. This pattern seems to be broken with the last quatrain and the final line. I will argue that the last quatrain (ll. 25-28) is a deliberate deception in the sense that its arrangement on the page is misleading. The actual quatrain contains lines 26-29.
The Tree of Idleness
I shall die one day I suppose
In this old Turkish house I inhabit:
A ragged banana-leaf outside and here
On the sill in a jam-jar a rock-rose. 4
Perhaps a single pining mandolin
Throbs where cicadas have quarried
To the heart of all misgiving and there
Scratches on silence like a pet locked in. 8
Will I be more or less dead
Than the village in memory’s dispersing
Springs, or in some cloud of witness see,
Looking back, the selfsame road ahead? 12
By the moist clay of a woman’s wanting,
After the heart has stopped its fearful
Gnawing, will I descry between
This life and that another sort of haunting? 16
No: the card-players in tabs of shade
Will play on: the aerial springs
Hiss: in bed lying quiet under kisses
Without signature, with all my debts unpaid 20
I shall recall nights of squinting rain,
Like pig-iron on the hills: bruised
Landscapes of drumming cloud and everywhere
The lack of someone spreading like a stain. 24
Or where brown fingers in the darkness move,
Before the early shepherd have awoken, 26
Tap out on sleeping lips with these same
Worn typewriter keys a poem imploring
Silence of lips and minds which have not spoken. 29
The physical location of “The Tree of Idleness” is clear. Durrell’s note states: “The title of this book is taken from the name of the tree which stands outside Bellapaix Abbey in Cyprus, and which confers the gift of pure idleness on all who sit under it.”41 The “old Turkish house” refers to the house Durrell purchased and refurbished in Bellapaix, a village located in the hills above Kyrenia. In his memoir Bitter Lemons, Durrell’s description of both house and Bellapaix provides some of the imagery used in the poem: “banana-leaves”, “the mournful whining of a mandolin”, and an early morning departure “at about half past four”, when “I rose […] with the shepherds and scrambled down to the Abbey.”42
What is not clear, indeed puzzling, is Durrell’s psychic landscape as expressed in the imagery of lines such as “On the sill in a jam-jar a rock rose” (l. 4) and “Or where brown fingers in the darkness move” (l. 25). Haag gave these images a biographical reading — both as being cryptic references to Durrell’s young daughter Sappho Jane (1951-1985), who is unnamed and who was then about three or four. In 1955, the approximate time of the poem’s composition, Durrell was under considerable stress. He and his wife Eve had a stormy marriage. In August 1955, Eve leaves Durrell for London and takes her daughter with her.43 The poem suppresses or condenses a tumultuous situation into a few images.
Haag interpreted the “jam-jar” containing a “rock-rose” as the invention of a child, one who sleeps with her father and whose “brown fingers” come from playing in the sun. To prove his point, he could have further examined the poem’s structure. Line 25, which contains those “brown fingers”, is dislocated. It is not part of the poem’s overall structure of seven quatrains, for the rhymes “awoken” and “spoken” define the final quatrain, lines 26 through 29. You might call line 25 an “orphan” — it is separated from the matrix of the poem, from its family of quatrains, if you will — and it suggests two meanings: Durrell as orphan and Sappho Jane as one.
The orphan as literary trope occurs frequently in The Alexandria Quartet. The trope ranges from an association with several characters to the final comparison of turning the entire city of Alexandria into an “orphanage”.44 Becoming an orphan had traumatic consequences in Durrell’s personal history. During times of stress, as during the start of a journey, he compared himself to becoming an orphan: “All my journeys start with a kind of pang of anxious doubt — you feel yourself suddenly an orphan” (SC 21). He surely felt himself an orphan when he was forced to take the journey of leaving India at age eleven, and now his daughter will become half an orphan after she is separated from her father. Given the prevalence of this trope in Durrell’s oeuvre, Haag would have looked for a generalisation, an overriding principle, which lay behind this odd imagery and structure in “The Tree of Idleness”. He would try to explain the origin of Durrell’s impulse that “you feel yourself suddenly an orphan.”
So, as he might have argued, the childish imagery conceals a “pining” (l. 5) for the innocence of childhood. This accounts for the references to “banana-leaves” and a “pining mandolin”, both of which evoke Durrell’s childhood in India. At his first visit to the house in Bellapaix, Durrell describes a storm which suggests the stirring of early memories of India. Then he was “stirred by a vague interior premonition which I could not put exactly into words.”45
The “idleness” of the title also evokes childhood innocence. Durrell’s poem “Cities, Plains and People I” begins with the line “Once in idleness was my beginning.” Idleness is also a familiar Romantic and Victorian trope of childhood, along with, incidentally, the pleasure of eating jam. So, in “To My Sister” (1798), a grown-up Wordsworth tells Dorothy, “We’ll give to idleness”, and then they will enjoy the day like children free of “toiling reason” and constraints. And so George Eliot describes a young Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss: “Maggie didn’t know Tom was looking at her: she was seesawing on the elder bough, lost to almost everything but a vague sense of jam and idleness.”46
Identifying Sappho Jane also opens the poem to an obvious comparison with the poetry of Sappho of Lesbos (c. 630-c. 570 BC). Greek Sappho was a major influence on Durrell. His second daughter bears her name, and he wrote a play about the poet, Sappho: A Play in Verse (1950). Haag did not discuss this comparison, however. Nevertheless, “The Tree of Idleness” has similar Sapphic themes: death, love, loss, separation, remembrance. Durrell’s likely source for Sappho’s poetry was The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation (1938).47 From that collection, I emphasise “Parting” (pp. 208-09) and “Night” (p. 211). The editors and translators provide the titles of these poems. C. M. Bowra translates “Parting” and J. M. Edmonds translates “Night”.
“The Tree of Idleness” moves towards solitude and loneliness, as also seen in Sappho’s “Night” (fr. 168B) and its final line, “Alone I lie”. Durrell’s poem begins and ends in futurity (future tenses), with poetry or remembrance as the vehicle for immortality. In the second stanza of “Parting” (fr. 94), Sappho uses remembrance to similar effect: “To her I made reply: / ‘Go with good heart, but try / Not to forget our love in days gone by.’” I see Durrell’s final setting as a bed, which is also the case with Sappho’s “Night,” a poem which Durrell could have written or imitated:
The Moon is gone
And the Pleiads set,
Midnight is nigh;
Time passes on,
And passes, yet
Alone I lie.
“Night” resembles Durrell’s “Lesbos” (1953), the first poem in the collection, The Tree of Idleness. Lesbos was of course the home of Sappho, and Durrell’s “Lesbos” begins with “The Pleiades are sinking calm as paint” and ends with a speaker, presumably alone in bed and accompanied by “the dispiriting autumn moon”. Sappho Jane and Sappho of Lesbos seem to share a similar identity, in Durrell’s mind at least.
The Sapphic background of Durrell’s “Lesbos” requires further explanation and, if I may, a short excursus into paleography. Sappho’s “Night” surely appealed to Durrell because the tone is highly personal. Many scholars, however, have rejected fragment 168B as part of Sappho’s corpus.48 Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, Edgar Lobel, and Denys Page found the tone’s intimacy, among other linguistic and historical considerations, alien to the genre of Greek lyric poets.49 That rejection was in turn questioned with the discovery in 2004 of a second poem within fragment 58. Another papyrus fragment, found in the cartonnage of a Ptolemaic mummy from the Fayum Oasis southwest of Cairo, revealed the second poem, which is sometimes called “the Tithonus poem” because of the reference to the myth near its end.50 In that poem, Sappho anguishes over the hardships of old age51 and speaks in a manner previously thought unlikely. Durrell was probably unaware of the controversy over the authenticity of fragment 168B. But, since the Oxford anthology included the poem, I assume he considered it authentic and so chose to write his “Lesbos” as a contribution to the Sapphic tradition in an equally personal mode, as he may have understood her poetry.
Aside from what Haag might have said, what he did say was that the message of “The Tree of Idleness” was encoded in its last line, namely, the poem is essentially a secret which Durrell wishes or “implore[es]” to be kept secret: “[I]t is a poem, one which is asking lips and minds to be silent — to give nothing away.” In a privately printed monograph, A Writer in Corfu, Richard Pine asks the question, “What is a secret?” He answers, “A secret is a dark place that punctuates the process of transition from private ritual to public drama.”52 Durrell’s use of the secret as a form of personal therapy follows this pattern but with one major qualification: his “public drama” — to wit, his published poetry — occasionally remains “dark” and obscure. Deliberately so. Haag recognised this paradox. In discussing Durrell’s Private Drafts (1955), a collection of poems privately printed on Cyprus, Haag restated his analysis of Durrell’s intent: “It is as though it is yet another way of saying yet not saying.” “Saying yet not saying” is just another way to encrypt feelings.
Haag’s idea of Durrell’s silence at the end of this poem is radically different from Keller-Privat’s. Haag sees silence as a way for Durrell to impose some kind of equanimity; Keller-Privat sees Durrell’s use of silence as an act of liberation. Haag sees Durrell exercising tight control over his feelings; Keller-Privat sees Durrell achieving peace, the “tender complicity of brotherly souls that give birth to the poem.”53 These are very different interpretations stemming from very different critical approaches.
Poetry as encryption brings up again the story of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. The Germans used her novel as an encryption pad for passing messages through radio traffic. Haag was fascinated by this process; he studied the literature describing the incident (e.g., Ken Follett’s novel, The Key to Rebecca ). And, when he analysed “Tree of Idleness,” he duplicated (unintentionally) the sound of a radio operator tapping out Morse code:
Referring to the stanza beginning with ‘No’, Durrell (or the persona if you like) says what ‘I shall’ do. I shall lie in bed etc. I shall recall nights, etc. I shall tap out, etc. He places the word ‘or’ between the second and the third, so that it could read I shall lie in bed, I shall recall nights, or I shall tap out, so that as an alternative to lying in bed, recalling nights, instead I shall tap out. And what he taps out is a poem […]. (email 22 July 2007; my italics)
Haag refers to the tapping of “typewriter keys” mentioned in lines 27 and 28. The tapping, however, could equally apply to a telegraph key tapping out code.
It remains largely moot, however, whether or not Durrell himself was aware of this possibility. He was in Egypt at the time of the German espionage plot, but I cannot find him making any references to du Maurier’s Rebecca. On the other hand, Durrell clearly knew about cryptography and codes based on literary texts; for, in White Eagles over Serbia, also written on Cyprus around the troubled times of “The Tree of Idleness”, he describes his protagonist Methuen using Thoreau’s Walden as a “private code”.54
Methuen is a secret agent and a man of derring-do. He is a fascinating character, and White Eagles is another of Durrell’s “potboilers” written during a stressful period. It follows in the footsteps of The Dark Labyrinth (1947) and anticipates Sicilian Carousel (1976). Writing these “minor mythologies”, as Richard Pine classifies these works,55 might have enabled Durrell to indulge in a bit of escapism when he needed it most.
The spy and adventurer Methuen could have been modelled on Patrick Leigh Fermor, who, like Methuen, belonged to a Special Operations unit. Durrell and Leigh Fermor met in Egypt during the Second World War and became lifelong friends. Methuen could also be a projection of the type of bold figure Durrell wished himself to be. But this is just speculation. Whatever his motivation, Durrell knew about cryptography, he knew how it worked, and he left a small clue in a minor piece of fiction to show that he knew. As Haag commented in a different context, this is a subtle way of “saying yet not saying”.
Finally, the metaphor of “a laborious private code”, based on Durrell’s very own words, is also a handy way to characterise Michael Haag’s literary and biographical interpretation of the life of Lawrence Durrell. That “private code” Haag struggled to break, and it may have ultimately broken him. If you wrestle with the angel, you become like the angel — and you suffer the consequences.
Furthermore, as previously noted, I believe that Haag saw his traverse across the Mani as a kind of agon. He also viewed the writing of his planned biography of Lawrence Durrell as another agon, one which compares to Durrell’s writing of his breakthrough novel, The Black Book. The Greek agon, however, was not an entirely glorious experience. Long ago Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897) and recently Tobias Joho have noted that agon is directly related to agony. Joho comments on Burckhardt’s idea of the “dark side” of the agon and writes, “[W]hile bright luster and nearly superhuman glory attached themselves to victors at the great athletic contests, they also suffered from psychic deformation induced by pent up suspense and enervating tension.”56 Joho subtitles his essay, “the dark luster of ancient Greece”. “Dark luster” also resonates in the oeuvre of Lawrence Durrell, for the image — “dark crystal” — appears twice in Prospero’s Cell (11 and 133) and once in the poem “Letter to Seferis the Greek” (1941). The effect is similar, a sense of revelation mixed with foreboding. And perhaps — just perhaps — Michael Haag experienced something similar to this dark description.
XI: Unfinished But Not Unimportant
I have not presented a full and complete account of Michael Haag’s ideas about Lawrence Durrell. I am merely presenting some of his ideas as we discussed them in various contexts and situations. I was not always in accord with his views, for Haag and I had disagreements, some quite profound. (Haag was cautious and unwilling to push his arguments as far as I would on occasion.) But I am trying to be faithful to his various interpretations as I understand them and to his general line of argument as I see it. No doubt Haag would have disagreed with some of my points. That was the nature of our back-and-forth exchanges. Nevertheless, I also intend this memoir as a tribute to Haag’s accomplishments. He radically changed my reading of Lawrence Durrell’s works — he opened up new vistas — and I thank him for that opportunity, however belatedly.
If I may indulge in a metaphor which Haag may have approved of, this memoir is like the fate of the Great Library at Alexandria. After the loss of the library’s contents, archivists and scholiasts gathered together the fragmented papyri and other surviving documents to form a corpus which barely hinted at the extent of its vast and vanished holdings. In a very small way, this is what I am doing.
Haag’s biography of Lawrence Durrell was unfinished, but his research and developing interpretations should be made available to stimulate further discussion of these two writers — one great, the other important — Lawrence Durrell the poet and Michael Haag the historian.
In conclusion, I would like to repeat what Haag himself said of the painter and writer Sophie Atkinson, whom he championed, “I do think that people should be remembered for what they have contributed.” And so should Michael Haag also be remembered.
1 Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea (London: Faber, 1962): p. 35. Subsequent citations appear in text as AQ.
2 Michael Haag, The Templars: History & Myth (London: Profile, 2008): p. 344.
3 The Durrell-Miller Letters: 1935-80, ed. Ian S. MacNiven (New York: New Directions, 1988): p. 55; letter dated “[February? 1937].”
4 Herbert Weir Smyth, Greek Grammar, rev. Gordon M. Messing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1956): p. 431; sec. 1931.
5 Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, 26 (2006): pp. 39-47.
6 Editor’s Note: Haag once stated to me that he had lived for some time in Dublin.
7 See my review of these two books: “Haag’s Many Alexandrias,” Arion, 17.3 (2010): pp. 133-59.
8 For an explanation of some of these issues, see Clifford Geertz, Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1988): pp. 1-24.
9 Helena Smith, “Literary Legend Learning to Type at 92”, Guardian, 2 March 2007.
10 An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, 7th ed., founded on Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon, 1968): s.v. ἀγών: “II. 2. the contest for a prize at the games.”
11 Geertz, p. 9: “The clash between the expository conventions of author-saturated texts and those of author-evacuated ones that grows out of the particular nature of the ethnographic enterprise is imagined to be a clash between seeing things as one would have them and seeing them as they really are.”
12 Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corcyra (London: Faber, 1945): 12. Subsequent citations appear in text as PC.
13 For the island as womb, see Richard Pine, Lawrence Durrell: The Mindscape, rev. ed. (Corfu: Durrell School of Corfu, 2005): pp. 162-63.
14 “Lawrence Durrell, The Black Book (1938; New York: Dutton, 1960): p. 21.
15 Tobias Joho, “Burckhardt and Nietzsche on the Agōn: the dark luster of ancient Greece,” Conflict and Competition: Agōn in Western Greece: Selected Essays from the 2019 Symposium on the Heritage of Western Greece, ed. Heather L. Reid, John Serrati and Tim Sorg (Sioux City, IA: Parnassos, 2020): p. 267: “The paradigmatic manifestation of the agonal spirit was athletic contest, but it took on a great variety of different forms and was eventually disseminated throughout all spheres of life, ranging from poetry to politics and from education to social entertainment.”
16 Durrell, Black Book, p. 22.
17 Cf. Andrew Wilson, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (New York: Bloomsbury, 2003): pp. 464-65. In his epilogue, Wilson’s I appears, and he puts on Highsmith’s dressing gown and thinks about her.
18 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey: 1786-1788, trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Meyer (New York: Schocken, 1968): p. 40. On p. 135, Goethe repeats this claim: “Nothing, above all, is comparable to the new life that a reflective person experiences when he observes a new country. Though I am still always myself, I believe I have been changed to the very marrow of my bones.” For similar statements, see pp. 135, 143, 341, 394, 404, 482.
19 Lawrence Durrell, Sicilian Carousel (New York: Viking, 1977): p. 39. Subsequent citations appear in text as SC.
20 Durrell-Miller Letters, p. 22; letter dated “early November 1936.”
21 Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Newsletter, 3.2 (1979): p. 3; my italics.
22 Anna Lillios, posting to the International Lawrence Durrell Society listserv, 5 July 2007; my italics.
23 Sophie Atkinson, An Artist in Corfu (Boston: Dana Estes, . My copy is the Boston edition. The book was also published in London at Herbert & Daniel, presumably in the same year. My edition does not contain a copyright symbol or statement of copyright, but Haag said that made no difference, for the copyright still held without formal notification.
24 For a general description of this problem, see William Leigh Godshalk, “Some Sources of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet,” in Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell, ed. Alan Warren Friedman (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1987): pp. 158-7. In an email to the ILDS listserv on 21 May 2007, Godshalk called Durrell’s plagiarisation “pilfering.” Pilfering is not the same as plagiarisation. Pilfering diminishes the force of plagiarisation.
25 Bronisław Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion: And Other Essays (1925; Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1954): p. 238; italics in original text. Also cited and emphasized by Geertz, p. 81.
26 Bruce Redwine, “Haag’s Durrells: The One or the Many?” Rev. of The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag, Profile, 2017. Web. 30 June 2017. The Durrell Library of Corfu. < http://www.durrelllibrarycorfu.wordpress.com. >
27 For Balthazar, see my “The Melting Mirage of Lawrence Durrell’s White City,” Arion, 16.1 (2008): pp. 33-34; for CVG, compare Lawrence Durrell’s description of the Battle of Actium on pp. 130-31 of his Caesar’s Vast Ghost: Aspects of Provence, photographs by Harry Peccinotti, (New York: Arcade, 1990) with Michael Haag’s long note in E. M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and a Guide, [rev. Michael Haag,] introd. Lawrence Durrell (New York: Oxford UP, 1986): pp. 247-48, n. 29.
28 NB two other names in the bibliography. “D. T. Ansted” is the author’s name on the title page of The Ionian Islands, and “Viscount Kirkwall” is the way his name is indicated in all the sources I’ve been able to check. Incidentally, Durrell misspells Ansted’s name as “Anstead.” See PC 89, 90, and 140.
29 Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes (1953; London: Faber, 1960): p. 16.
30 See also, Ian S. MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: A Biography (London: Faber, 1998): p. 293. MacNiven sees Count D. as “a composite character grounded on several of Larry’s Corfiot friends.” I disagree. I agree with Haag — Count D. is Lawrence Durrell himself and should probably be seen as how he wants to see himself. [Editor’s Note: however, there is very compelling evidence that “Count D” was a compound of two aristocrats whom Durrell visited during his years in Corfu: Theotokis and Palatiano.]
31 Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (New Haven: Yale UP, 2004): pp. 167-68.
32 Margaret Forster, Daphne du Maurier: The Secret Life of the Renowned Storyteller (New York: Doubleday, 1993): p. 418.
33 Pine, Mindscape, p. 90.
34 W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry ([Lexington, KY]: UP of Kentucky, 1954), p. 10: “Yet there is danger of confusing personal and poetic studies; and there is the fault of writing the personal as if it were poetic.”
35 The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, ed. David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford; New York: St. Martin’s, 1989): p. 728.
36 Harry Levin, “The Implication of Explication,” Poetics Today, 5.1 (1984): p. 101. Original italics.
37 Editor’s Note: The play Sappho was originally subtitled “The Tenth Muse”. Durrell also left an unfinished version of “Sappho” as a novel, which is reprinted in Lawrence Durrell’s Endpapers and Inklings 1933-1988 vol. 1, pp. 202-246.
38 Isabelle Keller-Privat, Lawrence Durrell’s Poetry: A Rift in the Fabric of the World (Madison, [NJ]: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2019): pp. 130-36 for overall analysis; p. 133 on Valéry.
39 Keller-Privat, p. 134.
40 Keller-Privat, p. 133.
41 Lawrence Durrell, The Tree of Idleness and Other Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1955): p. 7.
42 Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons (New York: Dutton, 1957): pp. 56 and 126. As Keller-Privat points out, this early awakening is also mentioned in Durrell’s letter of about November 1953 to Henry Miller. See Keller-Privat, p. 135. See also Durrell-Miller Letters, p. 275.
43 Brewster Chamberlin, The Durrell Log: A Chronology of the Life and Times of Lawrence Durrell, 3rd ed. (London: Colenso, 2019): pp. 102-03.
44 See the following pages in AQ: Nessim (30), Scobie (129, 719), Narouz (577), Mountolive (584), Darley and Clea (669), and Alexandria itself (732).
45 Durrell, Bitter Lemons, p. 56.
46 George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss, vol. 1 (London: William Blackwood, 1860): p. 79; bk. 1, ch. 6.
47 I thank Chancellor’s Professor Andrew Stewart, Departments of History of Art and Classics, Univ. of California, Berkeley, for suggesting Durrell’s probable source: The Oxford Book of Greek Verse in Translation, ed. T. F. Higham and C. M. Bowra (1938; Oxford: Clarendon, 1967). See also, Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus, ed. and trans. David A. Campbell (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1982). “Parting” of the Oxford anthology is fr. 94 of the Campbell edition, and “Night” is fr. 168B. Although the one-line fr. 147 is not included in the Oxford anthology, it continues the theme of remembrance as immortality and appears in Greek Lyric I: “Someone, I say, will remember us in the future.”
48 Greek Lyric I, p. 173n: “ascription rejected by Wilamowitz, Lobel, Page.”
49 The arguments for and against fr. 168B are too detailed for my discussion. For a sample of the disagreements, see the exchange between A. W. Gomme’s article “Interpretations of Some Poems of Alkaios and Sappho,” Journal of Hellenic Studies, 77.2 (1957): pp. 255-66 and Denys Page’s article “ΔΕΔΥΚΕ ΜΕΝ Ἁ ΣΕΛΑΝΑ,” Journal of Hellenic Studies, 78 (1958): pp. 84-85. Gomme questions how fr. 168B, “which can charm most men’s ears,” could be “banished” from Sappho’s corpus (p. 265). Page does not consider the fragment authentic but acknowledges the poem’s “charm.” His answer is technical and leaves unexplained why some scholars (Gomme, Higham, Bowra, and Anne Carson, poet and classicist) choose to ignore his argument that no linguistic “evidence” warrants the poem’s inclusion in the Lesbian corpus (p. 84). In her If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho (New York: Knopf, 2002), Anne Carson includes fr. 168B in Sappho’s corpus, although she notes, “not included among Sappho’s fragments by most modern editors” (p. 382). In my opinion, the irresistible “charm” of fr. 168B says something about Sappho herself, real or imagined, and deserves serious consideration.
50 Martin West, “A new Sappho poem,” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5334 (24 June 2005). West provides commentary, Sappho’s Lesbian-Aeolic Greek, and a translation. He emphasizes, “In the new poem, however, the focus is on Sappho herself.” See also, Anne Carson, “The Beat Goes On,” New York Review of Books, 52.16 (20 October 2005). Carson provides commentary and translation. For an extensive analysis of the Tithonus poem, see The New Sappho on Old Age: Textual and Philosophical Issues, ed. Ellen Greene and Marilyn B. Skinner (Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies, 2009).
51 I thank Professor Stewart for these comments.
52 Richard Pine, A Writer in Corfu: an essay on Borderlands, Exile and Metaphor, with a translation into Greek by Vera Konidari (Corfu: Durrell Library of Corfu, 2020): p. 23.
53 Keller-Privat, p. 136.
54 Lawrence Durrell, White Eagles over Serbia (1957; Middlesex, UK: Penguin/Peacock, 1980): p. 28: “The book was Walden […] out of which he [Methuen] had evolved a laborious private code for keeping in touch with Dombey.” For the date, see Chamberlin, p. 98.
55 Richard Pine, Minor Mythologies as Popular Literature: A Student’s Guide to Texts and Films (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2018): pp. 411-16.
56 Joho, p. 275.