Lawrence Durrell’s Comic Sketches: “Antrobus Complete”

Lawrence Durrell, best-known for The Alexandria Quartet, a tetralogy consisting of the novels Justine, Balthazar, Mount olive, and Clea, is an entrancing, lyrical stylist.  He is one of my favorite writers; he is also, in my opinion, one of the best writers of the 20th century.  Members of the anti-Durrell contingent claim  they were “going through a phase” when they read half of Justine and cast it aside. But it is unfair to judge a writer on the basis of half a novel.  Durrell was versatile: a novelist, poet, humor writer, and travel writer.

I am a fan of  Antrobus Complete, a collection of his comic short stories (really sketches, I think). It is  irresistibly funny, a bit like Saki crossed with Betty MacDonald.  Antrobus, a fussy retired diplomat, often has lunch with the narrator, presumably Durrell: they had served together in foreign capitals before Durrell quit to become a writer.  The narrator is fond of  Antrobus, who glumly tells stories about diplomatic faux pas and hair-raising misadventures that could have precipitated political crises. 

Title page, with illustration of Antrobus by Marc

I chortled and snickered over these stories. Durrell’s style here is  unlike the lyrical writing of The Alexandria Quartet.  It is spare and witty, gently satiric and charming.  I could have read these stories all day, if only there were more of them.

There is a cast of recurring characters, among them Polk-Mowbray, the chief of several embassies (later the Ambassador of a country called Vulgaria).  In one story, he adopts a devil cat who speaks English, sends malicious telegrams, and smokes cigars.  (I was reminded of The Master and Margarita),  Everyone at the office loves Smoke the cat, but he or she – they don’t quite know – causes trouble and scandals.  Polk-Mowbray is devastated when he must part with Smoke, who is sent to cat rehab and thence to a luxurious cat home.

 Antrobus does not altogether approve of Polk-Mowbray.  In Athens in 1937, Polk-Mowbray still “wrote good English,” according to Antrobus. (This was akin to Middle English, the narrator notes.)  But  Polk-Mowbray’s use of  language deteriorated after a brief stint in America, where he fell in love with  Carrie Potts, a  majorette in a Stars and Stripes parade. Upon his return to Athens, he adopted  American spellings, American slang, and loud American fashion.

Antrobus grieves, “I noticed that  he dropped the Latin tag in his drafts. Then he began to leave the ‘u’ out of words like ‘colour’ and ‘valour.’  … I found a novel by Damon Runyan in his desk-drawer one day.  I admit that he had the good taste to blush when he saw I’d found it… “ One day he came upon Polk-Mowbray dressed in “check plus-fours with a green bush cap with a peak.”  Worse, he drank a Coca-Cola with a straw. 

Antrobus’s other lugubrious musings are equally comic.  In “Frying the Flag,” he glumly reminisces about the Grope sisters, Bessie and Enid, two old women who were editors of the Central Balkan Herald.   The newspaper was riddled with typos and errors:  THE BALKAN HERALD KEEPS THE BRITISH FLAG FRYING, MINISTER FINED FOR KISSING IN PUBIC, QUEEN OF HOLLAND GIVES BIG PANTY FOR EX-SERVICEMEN.  At one point Antrobus, who is a bit of a misogynist,  grudgingly admits that the typos are not the fault of the sisters, but of the Balkan typesetters, who could not read English. Still, he fumes and scapegoats the sisters. Polk-Mowbrary finally gets rid of them by a clever yet humane scheme, which involves match-making.

In “Noblesse Oblige,” the new Third Secretary, Anthony De Mandeville, arrives with his chauffeur, Dennis Purfitt-Purfitt, in  a flamboyant Rolls Royce with the De Mandeville arms stenciled on it.  The two are a gay couple, and Polk-Mowbray, now an ambassador, is startled to be called “darling boy.” Antrobus is delegated to rebuke De Mandeville, and does so with fervor.  

As you can imagine, De Mandeville proves to be an imaginative social planner (his main task as the Third Secretary).   For the Italian Ambassador’s daughter’s birthday party, De Mandeville dresses the waiters in Roman togas and at midnight releases a flock of doves.  “They flew disspiritedly round and round the room involuntarily bestowing the Order of the Drain Second Class on us all.”  The Roman waiters must clean up with sponges and cloths and “remove the rather unorthodox decorations we all appeared to be wearing.”

Even the anti-Durrell contingent will enjoy this delightful book, which is enhanced by drawings by Marc (Mark Boxer).

Modernist Moods & Cozy Mysteries: Lawrence Durrell’s “Balthazar” and Catherine Aird’s “Henrietta Who?”

Life in the summer is different nowadays. There is less sitting on porch swings as Climate Change steals our creaky traditions.

The summers were always hot – I tossed and turned and sweated and was cranky for the duration of many past droughts and heat waves- but now the heat waves are longer, and air conditioning is a requisite of everyday life.

My reading has been lighter (and cooler?) this summer. I recommend turning on the AC and flinging yourself on the couch with a cozy mystery or something moody and poetic. We all need a portal to an exotic landscape or a different culture. Mine is usually through books.

So here are two novels I’ve recently enjoyed: Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar, set in Alexandria, Egypt; and Catherine Aird’s cozy mystery, Henrietta Who?, set in Calleshire, an imaginary county in England.

LAWRENCE DURRELL’S BALTHAZAR. When I talk about Lawerence Durrell, I talk about The Alexandria Quartet, a masterly tetralogy which comprises Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea. After I finish one of these books, I cannot tell you “what it is about.” I absorb the mood, the heat and exoticism, the rich language, the absurd and grotesque characters, from the anemic exotic dancer to the transvestite cop, and the nearly psychedelic dissociation rendered by the steamy nature of Alexandria.

Our perceptions keep changing as we read these books: Durrell’s portrait of Alexandria is always in flux. In the first book, Justine, we meet the narrator, Darley, an English writer in Alexandria. He is madly in love with Justine, a beautiful, troubled, intelligent, promiscuous, canny, deceitful, exasperating woman who attracts men and women alike – and has sex with everybody, while deceiving her husband and lovers – and is not particularly concerned about the consequences. And at the same time we have compassion for her: she is a lost soul, searching for her missing daughter.

All men are in love with Justine, except the gay men, and she especially is attracted to writers . Justine’s first husband wrote a novel about her, which mostly centered on the Freudian analysis that did not work on her. Now Darley, living on an island, has written about her in the context of a portrait of the city of Alexandria.

I recently reread the second novel, Balthazar, which Durrell refers to as a “sibling novel” rather than a sequel to Justine. Darley learns that he has been mistaken about almost everything he thought he knew. Justine did not love him – she loved another writer (of course), and this writer adamantly did not love her, and told her so! Balthazar, a doctor with a mystic bent, has scribbled corrections and notes on Darley’s manuscript, which he refers to as “the Interlinear.” Darley has a sense of humor: the affair is over, and the new interlinear fascinates him. And the interlinear clarifies the story of Justine’s husband, Nessim, who is as haunted as Justine, and Nessim’s brother, Narouz, a very shy man with a harelip, who visits the city once a year during Carnival, always searching for Clea, a woman he has seen once. She has no idea who he is.

Steamy, surreal, tragicomic – it’s all there!

CATHERINE AIRD’S HENRIETTA WHO? is the second in Aird’s Inspector Sloan mystery series. It has all the elements of Golden Age Detective Series, except that it was published in 1968, which is perhaps too late for the Golden Age. Yet the crimes are committed off-stage, so we are spared the violence; Inspector Sloan stays calm and methodical, however ghastly the crime; and it turns out that the people of Calleshire have many secrets.

This thoroughly enjoyable mystery begins with the postman’s discovery of the corpse of Mrs. Jenkins, who was apparently killed in a hit-and-run accident on a country road. Nothing is as it seems: from the tire marks, the police realize that somebody deliberately killed Mrs. Jenkins, running over her twice. And when the post-mortem shows that Mrs. Jenkins never gave birth, the problem of her identity and that of her daughter Henrietta, about to turn 21, become the center of this quietly effective who-dun-it.

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