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.
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).