Lawrence Durrell was an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist and travel writer. Although he never won the Nobel Prize for Literature – his books were considered too ‘heterodox’ – by the end of the 20th century, he was a bestselling author and one of the most celebrated writers in English.
The great French writer Gustav Flaubert said: “Language is like a broken kettle on which we play a tune for the bear to dance to when we would have it stir the stars.” The language of Lawrence Durrell stirred the stars for me, so beautiful was it when I first read The Alexandria Quartet in my late twenties.
Why was he my favourite author? Only now, four decades later, and thanks to Astrological Psychology, do I see why we connected: both our Suns are in Pisces and as my Mars is also in Pisces, I have always liked creative men most. The Moon is our strongest personal planet and where he has Jupiter in a Sagittarian 1st house, I have Jupiter conjunct the North Node on the Ascendant. Durrell certainly was the best travelling companion, opening up new worlds for me with the settings of his novels in then still relatively unknown places like the Greek islands, Alexandria and Avignon.
He didn’t like England at all. Corresponding years later with his friend, the writer Henry Miller, Durrell laments: “I was born in India. Went to school there – under the Himalayas. The most wonderful memories, a brief dream of Tibet until I was eleven. Then that mean, shabby little island up there wrung my guts out of me and tried to destroy anything singular and unique in me.”
What do we see in the chart that is ‘singular and unique’ in Durrell?
The chart looks like an abstract drawing of a face in profile with Jupiter as the nose, the centre as the eye and the Small Learning Triangle as the head. The Pluto Mercury trine and the Mars/Sun square form the neck and the semi sextile, the shoulder. Jupiter is the tension ruler in Durrell’s consciousness with the only way out via a quincunx to Saturn in the 6th house of work. However, in his House chart, there is a trine and a sextile to the North Node at the blue angle of an Ambivalence Triangle.
At the back of Durrell’s mind, always, is the Moon – his strongest ego planet. It is on a low point, giving him not depressed, but deeper-than-usual emotions. There is always an emotional subtext to the interesting characters he creates in his novels.
The Opposition on the Encounter Axis
Jupiter in a Sagittarian 1st house opposes the Moon and Mars in the 7th house of close personal relationships, as if the man in him needed the relationships desired by his heart, but the adventurer in him did not. Is this why he married four times in his life? Or is it the surplus in his fixed (-13) as well as mutable (-5) motivation that had him marrying for emotional security and divorcing for freedom every so often? With Pluto also in the 7th house, his relationships would be constantly transformed by the ruler of sex, death and rebirth.
The longest relationships in his life were with men: T S Eliot (also on this blog), his publisher at Cassel; Theodore Stephanides, the Greek he met on Corfu and whose poems he later translated into English, and Henry Miller with whom he had a 45-year long, mutually critical friendship.
With women, it was a different story. In 1947, a few months after the AP/Pluto semi-sextile, and after his divorce from his English wife, Nancy, he married the Alexandrian, Eve Cohen. In 1952, when he felt intensely depressed because his Age Point was on a low-point Moon, Eve had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised in England. This was during the AP/Pluto conjunction which represented another ‘death’ in his relationships: they separated in 1955.
Six years later, in 1961, he married a Jewish woman, Claude-Marie, born in Alexandria. Durrell was devastated when she died of cancer in 1967 (6 years later). Then in 1973 (again 6 years later), his fourth and final marriage was with a French woman, Ghislaine. They divorced in 1979 (once again six years later).
Perhaps these short 6-year relationships with women explain Durrell’s quote: “The richest love is that which submits to the arbitration of time.” Or could it be to the arbitration of Jupiter who opposed his close, personal relationships?
A Cosmopolitan Jupiter
Durrell was always unhappy in England and in early 1935, the AP/Mars sextile facilitated the move with his wife Nancy, his mother and younger siblings, to the island of Corfu. There they could live more economically and escape both the English weather and what Durrell considered the stultifying English culture, which he described as “the English death”.
Durrell spent many years thereafter living around the world. But then, his Jupiter is in a Sagittarian 1st house and would assert itself in the form of his fascinating adventures in Egypt, the Greek Islands and finally, France. His travels were never Mercurial, flitting from place to place, but distinctly Jupiterian. He lived and worked in many different countries and his sojourns in these places – during and after World War II – gave him first-hand experience of many different cultures, making him decidedly cosmopolitan – which is exactly what he wanted to be.
Every different city and country he got to know resulted in either a travel book or a novel, a quartet (Alexandria) or a Quintet (Avignon). His experience and knowledge of Corfu resulted in the lyrical novel, Prospero’s Cell. He also learnt Greek which enabled him to later translate the poems of his friend, Stephanides, into English.
In his chart, adventurous Jupiter longs for the financial security demanded by Saturn in Taurus in his work as indicated by the quincunx between these two energies. At the same time, Saturn yearns to travel. Durrell satisfied both these cravings by working for many years in the Foreign Service of the British government in Egypt. In May 1945, Durrell obtained a posting to Rhodes but then German forces took over most of the islands, locking Greece in a civil war. His book, Reflections on a Marine Venus, was inspired by this period and was a lyrical celebration of the island (hardly mentioning the troubled times of the war).
In 1947, after WW2, Durrell was director of the British Council Institute in Córdoba, Argentina, where he gave lectures on cultural topics. In 1948, he was posted by the British Council to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, which led to his novel, White Eagles over Serbia (1957) and humorous novels such as Esprit de Corps and Stiff Upper Lip.
The Major Shifts in his Consciousness
Born in India to British colonial parents, he was sent to England at the age of eleven for his education. He did not like formal education – a perfect reflection of innovative Uranus on the 3rd-house cusp which filled his consciousness in 1924 when he was 12. Uranus has Venus in Aquarius by its side, giving Durrell a more philosophical sense of aesthetics. Uranus conjunct Venus was constantly aware of Mercury conjunct the Sun, both in creative Pisces, as suggested by the semi-sextile linking these energies. In short, Durrell wanted a more creative education.
The first major shift in his consciousness, the C1 in 1925/6 came when he was 13 and his Age Point was traversing the 3rd house of learning. At the same time, the AP/Jupiter sextile gave him a way out: into writing poems. This resulted in Quaint Fragments, his first collection which was published in 1931, when he was 19, and which ‘melted’ his heart as the AP/Moon square that same year suggests.
According to Peter Porter who published ‘Selected Poems’, Durrell’s later poetry has been overshadowed by his novels, but he calls Durrell “One of the best [poets] of the past hundred years. And one of the most enjoyable.” He describes Durrell’s poetry: “Always beautiful as sound and syntax (…) together with its handling of the whole lexicon of language.”
In Durrell’s House chart, the tension between Jupiter and his Moon and Mars is released in the 5th house, in creative self-expression where his North Node beckons. Nothing, neither work nor women, was going to prevent him from following his soul’s creative path.
At the C2 in 1961, his most famous (and magnificent) work, The Alexandria Quartet, had just been published – while his Age Point was moving through the 8th house. His gift to mankind was his wonderfully inspiring, descriptive writing of relatively unknown places, influenced by Jupiter and the surplus of fire (-11) and earth (-3) in his temperament.
His early venture into literature was also crowned at the C2 in 1961, when he was on the shortlist of authors considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature. An award I think he deserved, but did not win, “because of [his] monomaniacal preoccupation with erotic complications.” There is no doubt in my mind that this was the influence of Henry Miller (after reading the biography, Henry Miller. The Paris Years, by the photographer, Brassaȉ).
The English Death Again
With his Age Point in the 4th house of home and family, his father died of a brain haemorrhage in 1928. His mother decided to take the family back to England, “that shabby island” and in 1932, they settled in Bournemouth. At the low point of home and family, he was again dealing with the lifeless English culture, when he wanted to live. Fortunately he became friends with an antiquarian bookstore owner whose books opened up new worlds for him.
That same year, when the AP/Neptune trine facilitated his creativity, Durrell’s first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, was published by Cassel. Two years later, he came across a copy of Miller’s 1934 novel, Tropic of Cancer. After reading it, he wrote to Miller, expressing his intense admiration for this novel.
In August 1937, with his Age Point on the cusp of the 5th house of creative self-expression, he and Nancy travelled to Paris to meet the writers, Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin (also on this blog.) Together they collaborated in creating their own literary movement. They also started the Villa Seurat Series in order to publish Durrell’s Black Book, Miller’s Max and the White Phagocytes, and Nin’s Winter of Artifice with Jack Kahane of the Obelisk Press as publisher.
Durrell’s first novel of note, The Black Book: An Agon, was strongly influenced by Miller; it was published in Paris in 1938 – the same year in which Durrell’s Age Point was heading for the IP, the perfect balance in his creativity. The main character (Lawrence Lucifer) struggles to escape the spiritual sterility of dying England and finds Greece to be a warm and fertile environment. One critic said The Black Book abounds with “four-letter words… grotesques,… [and] its mood equally as apocalyptic” as Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer.
Back In Corfu, Lawrence and Nancy lived together in bohemian style in the White House, a fisherman’s cottage on the island. Durrell’s best friends, Stephanides and Miller, were both guests.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Durrell’s mother and siblings returned to England, while he and Nancy remained on Corfu. In 1940, they had a daughter. His Age Point had just entered the sign of Taurus, and he would be more earthbound than before. After the fall of Greece, they managed to escape via Crete to Alexandria in Egypt. Their marriage was not working and they separated in 1942 when Durrell’s Age Point was on the 6th house cusp.
Work was now essential. Durrell served as a press attaché to the British embassies, first in Cairo and then Alexandria, where he met Eve Cohen, a Jewish Alexandrian. She inspired the character Justine in The Alexandria Quartet
After Eve’s nervous breakdown, he moved to Cyprus with their daughter Sappho (who would commit suicide in 1985). He bought a house and taught English literature at a Gymnasium. He next worked in public relations for the British government during the local agitation for union with Greece. He wrote about this time in Cyprus in Bitter Lemons, which won the Duff Cooper Prize in 1957, pre-empting the AP/Neptune conjunction in early 1958, as if his consciousness were brimming with his creativity.
In 1954, when his Age Point was on the 8th house cusp, he was selected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, dues he certainly deserved. Durrell left Cyprus in August 1956. Political agitation on the island and his British government position made him a target for assassination attempts.
In 1957, he published Justine, the first novel of what was to become his most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet. This was followed by Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960), set before and during the Second World War in Alexandria – during the AP/Neptune conjunction when his consciousness was saturated with Neptune’s creative energy. ‘Quartet’ was praised for its richness of style, the variety and vividness of its characters, its movement between the personal and the political, and its locations in and around the ancient Egyptian city which Durrell portrays as the chief protagonist:
“The city which used us as its flora – precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!” The Times Literary Supplement review of the Quartet stated: “If ever a work bore an instantly recognizable signature on every sentence, this is it.”
In 1960, Durrell’s Age Point was on the cusp of the 9th house, ruled by Jupiter, who would take him to yet another country, to France. After his last divorce, Durrell settled in Sommières, a small village in Languedoc, where he purchased a massive house on extensive grounds, surrounded by a wall and set on the edge of the village. Did he need to be far from the madding crowd to continue his soul’s journey into creative self-expression?
With his Age Point travelling through the 11th house, from 1972 to 1978, Durrell published The Avignon Quintet in 1974 while Neptune was firing up his creativity, as suggested by the AP/Neptune square. The first of these novels, Monsieur, or the Prince of Darkness, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1974. The middle novel, Constance, or Solitary Practices, was nominated for the 1982 Booker Prize.
Many more wonderful works were completed during this period and before his death at age 72 in 1990, when he died of a stroke at his final abode on earth.
Then the writer whose language stirred the stars for me caused a stir in my stars when I read on the Astrotheme website that he could be cruel and abusive towards his wives especially when he had had too much to drink. Apparently, three of them left him (the other one died).
At first, I didn’t want to do the article on Durrell at all. He now reminded me of my father whose cruel and abusive treatment of my mother and older sister I witnessed from age 6 to 7. It also explained to me why I hadn’t liked any of the photos of Durrell at an older age: did I see the abusive alcoholic in him?
With my Age Point approaching the Sun on a low point in the 12th house in Pisces – an excellent reflection of an absent father, drowned in his drinking – it seems Durrell is taking me on another intense journey.
And while his behaviour might have been ugly, his language is still, to me, the most beautiful English.