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Lawrence Durrell’s Posthumous New e-Novel ‘Judith’ Is the Modernist ‘Exodus’

The expatriate British writer’s unfinished potboiler marks a milestone in depictions of Jewish characters

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Lawrence Durrell building a stone wall, 1960, with his third wife, Claude-Marie Vincendon. (Loomis Dean/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
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Justine, Lawrence Durrell (1957)

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As recently as the late 1970s, the now common act of openly writing outside your own identity—as a man if you were a woman, as black if you were white—was considered audacious and even disrespectful. For those who found themselves on the wrong side of society—homosexuals, the lower-classes—it was equally dangerous at times to write within their own identities. Many modernist writers therefore turned to the “Jew,” Christian Europe’s eternal symbol of otherness. The recent release of Judith, Lawrence Durrell’s unfinished novel based on the treatment he wrote for the 1966 Sophia Loren vehicle of the same name, is an opportunity to revisit the author’s relationship to his Jewish characters, who played a pivotal role in what he called the “Heraldic Universe” of his fiction.

In his personal life, Durrell, who died at 78 in 1990, was twice married to Jewish women (and became the father in this way of an ostensibly Jewish daughter); of the four celebrated novels known collectively as The Alexandria Quartet, two—Justine and Balthazar—are named for central Jewish characters.

Durrell’s personal history was fertile soil for contradiction. The part of the British Empire where he was born, for example, would become India, and although he was not Indian, he yearned for his Indian childhood throughout his life. He often spoke of his Irish heritage, but barely ever set foot in Ireland; and as his father wanted him to have an Oxford accent, young Larry was sent “home” instead to England to obtain one. A jazz-playing bohemian in London, he failed his university entrance exams and then left England for good. In the Mediterranean, he sought to escape what he called “the English death,” a morbid mixture of class system, oppressive social conformity, sexual timidity, and grim weather.

Durrell’s contemporaries in Britain often deployed Jewish characters as a reminder of their own need to blend in—and of the dangers they faced should they fail. When Somerset Maugham wanted to investigate marginalization, this social-climbing gay man wrote “The Alien Corn,” a brilliant story about social-climbing Jews, one of whom hopes to become a pianist. T.S. Eliot’s insecurities about his origins wander The Waste Land and other poems in the form of seedy Jews, seedy gays, and seedy foreigners (it’s not clear the poem’s Mr. Eugenides isn’t all three—Smyrna had a large Jewish population), an unholy trinity of outsiders any of which, but for the lottery of birth, he might himself have been.

For Durrell, on the other hand, the Jew was an icon of freedom—as were, to some extent, homosexuals, members of secret societies, and the physically deformed. While the occasional gilded “orientalization” of his Jewish characters threatens to reveal a dangerous and dark verso, it is also true that Durrell’s refusal to toe the usual line is in keeping with his iconoclastic insistence on “original innocence.” He wanted to break free of Anglo-Christian morality, and he viewed the segregation these groups faced as a gift. Looking back at the original critical reaction to Justine, it is tempting to speculate that this, rather than his poetry-infused writing, is what prompted middlebrow critics to accuse him of charlatanism (although lush prose is still today treated by many British reviewers as a kind of trick played on the reader).

In part because screenwriters—who in those days had no strong public identities, and who still today tend to work in teams of disposable members—were less bound by this code, the non-Jewish writer Lawrence Durrell found himself writing a “Jewish” book in Judith, and many of the systems by which Jews provided meaning in his previous fiction had to be put aside.

Released as an e-book with an informative introduction by editor Richard Pine, Judith is interesting in ways now it couldn’t have been then, perhaps precisely for how unfinished it is.

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Set in Mandatory Palestine during the build-up to the U.N. partition plan and the ensuing civil war, Judith finds Durrell dealing for the first time in his career with a majority-Jewish cast, undermining his usual Jew-as-outsider symbolism—although, in a manner typical of Durrell’s search for the complexities of human allegiance, he inserts in places of prominence a British gentile widowed by a Jewish husband; a Jewish woman who before the war married a Nazi; and a British officer who falls in love with a Haganah spy. Indeed, throughout Judith, Durrell engages in—and seems almost devoted to—a constant blurring of loyalties and commitments between the personal and the professional, the national and the sexual, the selfish and the selfless.

movie poster for 'Judith'

Whether because it was to be a pot-boiler or because it was still in early stages, Judith lacks Durrell’s distinctive voice. One result is that every character—Jewish, Arab, British—speaks like a public-school boy (or occasionally like a public-school boy’s wet dream), and this odd tic inadvertently creates an even playing field on which the motivations of all the characters can achieve similar momentum. It also offers space for doubt. Aaron, for example, a Sabra and activist dedicated to the birth of Israel—by violence if necessary—cannot imagine waging war against his childhood friend, Daud, an Arab who wants to reclaim land sold by his grandfather. Grete and Judith, both recently rescued from Germany, question their dedication to Israel: Grete would see her new country’s independence lost if she could only find her missing child, and Judith wonders if she mustn’t put science before the needs of any one group of people. These are the sorts of complicated dilemmas at which Durrell excelled and that make his finest writing so deeply human. (Daud is perhaps one of the few characters not given a rounded treatment.)

Judith’s origins as a screenplay and its status as an unfinished work make it hard to judge its virtues as a novel. It seems likely that the completed book would not have been especially good, although certainly no worse than many other pulp thrillers published then (or now). Major historical moments are rushed, while personal moments of marginal importance are lingered over thoughtfully. The various plots don’t yet mesh, and some simply end without resolution. The inclinations that made his best books so very good make Durrell a poor thriller writer: He didn’t want to see the surface, but rather to wade deep into the water. Add to this the fact that he lived in constant need of money and often wrote very quickly, especially when boiling his pot, and it seems certain that if the novel had been published (which might not have been possible, as the screenplay was a work for hire), it would have joined his justifiably unremembered political thriller White Eagles Over Serbia on a backlist somewhere.

And yet, in the embryonic novel we see the mind of the author at work: the plots—and Durrell could, when he wanted, be masterful with plot—growing slowly more complex as their moral ambiguity increases, the characters gradually coming to life as the story moves forward. The result, while not a great novel, is nevertheless of great interest, whether to those who enjoy Durrell or to readers who are interested to see a previously unmarked milestone in modernist depictions of Jewish characters.

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Lawrence Durrell’s Posthumous New e-Novel ‘Judith’ Is the Modernist ‘Exodus’

The expatriate British writer’s unfinished potboiler marks a milestone in depictions of Jewish characters

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