Some of the greatest travel writers had no idea they would be travel writers. They were engaged in other careers and then went on to be the foremost chroniclers of the places to which they were posted. These days, because of the internet and that associated fiction, that we do not need to be anywhere but at our computers, this phenomenon has practically left our screens. But we have been left with a recent legacy of great travel writing, balancing on the back of sometimes lackluster other careers.
In the case of Lawrence Durrell, his urge to travel emerged from the nature of his family, who loved to wander, but primarily from his experiences in the diplomatic corps. He achieved world fame with his tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet (he resided in Alexandria, Egypt, which inspired the setting for the book) and his oeuvre is in fact considerable, including many titles now almost totally forgotten except by collectors and specialists in his work. But travel and examinations of time and place are common threads that run through them all.
Durrell was a contemporary of diplomat and thinker Harold Nicolson, author of The War Years, Congress of Vienna, Public Faces and Some People Â among others. Lawrence Durrell had a spell in the diplomatic corps and out of those experiences arose written classics of time and place: Esprit de Corps Â Sketches of Diplomatic Life with its perfect depiction of life in Yugoslavia early in the 20th century. But grave and serious the book certainly was not. Critic John Connell wrote: ‘Uproariously funny & shrewd; it is as if Sir Harold Nicolson had gone into partnership with P. G. Wodehouse’. Others in the genre of diplomatic travel literature Durrell produced were Sauve Qui Peut and Stiff Upper Lip set in some of the seamier outposts of the world. These three classics of time and place are tales of diplomatic misadventure by the British Foreign Office, accompanied by memorable and witty drawings by Nicolas Bentley. They are magnificent introductions to the countries they depict, despite the fictitious character, the deadpan, loopy Antrobus who populates all the stories.
His writings based on his diplomatic corps experiences were by no means his only travel books. There were also Prospero’s Cell: A Guide To the Landscape and Manner of the Island of Corcyra, Reflections on a Marine Venus, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, Blue Thirst, Sicilian Carousel, the Greek Islands and Caesar’s Vast Ghost. So much was Durrell a traveller that this expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist and travel writer resisted affiliation with Britain and preferred to be considered cosmopolitan. It was suggested after he died that Durrell never had British citizenship, but in fact he was classified non-patrial in 1968 due to the amendment to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. Hence he was denied the right to enter or settle in Britain under the new laws and had to apply for a visa for each entry. This travel writer was forced by law, then, to be a permanent itinerant.