As far as I can tell – and I could only wish facts proved me wrong here – Umberto Eco and Lawrence Durrell never met each other. To assess whether they knew about each other is however a more slippery question. I do not find hints of the former in the catalogue of Durrell’s personal library, whose entries in fact demonstrate a more pronounced penchant for French works. On the other hand, even if Eco’s immense library cannot yet be consulted, it is not unreasonable to assume that some Durrell could feature among the thirty-five-thousand titles on the semiotician’s shelves. Be that as it may, reasons for this missed mutual acquaintance can be merely temporal: Eco started his academic career around the time the Alexandria Quartet was published; his own debut in fiction, Il Nome della Rosa,came in 1980. By then Durrell was an author of consolidated fame, a mature writer whoseinfluences were of course fully formed.
On 12 August 1937 Lawrence Durrell and his wife Nancy arrived in Paris at the Gare de Montparnasse, having travelled from their home in Corfu. They were met at the station by Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, in whose company they were to spend much of the next eight months. Among their new friends would be the German painter Hans Reichel, the Hungarian photographer Brassaï [Gyula Halasz] (on both of whom Durrell would write essays)1, and Alfred Perlès, a Vienna-born writer of Czech and Jewish parentage. They would also meet (among many others) André Breton, Herbert Read, Raymond Queneau, Eugene Jolas and David Gascoyne. This international potpourri of artists would have an abiding influence on the imagination of Lawrence Durrell who, up to that point, was an autodidact poet and incipient novelist, with Pied Piper of Lovers (1935), Panic Spring (1936) and the about-to-be-published Black Book to his credit.
Lawrence Durrell’s departure from Cyprus in 1956 — the result of rising tension on the island between the British, Greek Cypriots, and Turkish Cypriots — is concurrent with the publication of both Bitter Lemons (1957)1and Justine (1957), the first book of The Alexandria Quartet.2While Bitter Lemons,set during the Cypriot struggle for independence,is hesitant to commit to an admonishing, expatriate tale of a dying empire — a hesitancy undoubtedly influenced by Durrell’s career with the Foreign Office and the unfolding of the Suez Canal Crisis in July of 1956 — Justine and the novels that follow find themselves freer to offer a critical portrait of diplomatic life under British colonial rule. That Durrell should publish these two countervailing texts immediately following the end of his final political post as Director of Public Information, where he oversaw a propagandist radio station and government news publication, points to his torn identity as a British servant and a philhellene.
In the preface to Bitter Lemons, Lawrence Durrell mentioned with regret that “the cutting of my overgrown typescript removed the names of many friends to whom I am deeply indebted for material on Cyprus” (11). Curiously, the typescript of this volume that Durrell sent to Faber and Faber was barely trimmed at all.1 On the other hand, the typescript of his earlier book on Rhodes, Reflections on a Marine Venus, had been severely cut by his editor at Faber and Faber, Anne Ridler. After the publication of Reflections, Durrell wrote to his friend Theodore Stephanides: “Glad the Rhodes book amused you—cut in half as it was—I can’t bear it” (Spirit of Place 119). Durrell exaggerates just slightly, for only about a third of typescript did not make it into the published version.