The Threshold of Imagination

Given an opportunity to read Graham Greene on the veranda of the City Hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone, I found it impossible to resist. What better place to take up a battered, second-hand copy of The Heart of the Matter and indulge in a bit of literary romanticism?

Greene, who spent time in Freetown both as a traveler and as a British intelligence officer during WWII, drew on his experiences at the hotel in a variety of ways. In Journey Without Maps, an account of his month-long foot trek through Liberia in 1935, he described a place and a way of life still recognizable forty years later.

I wanted to do a pub crawl. But one can’t crawl very far in Freetown. All one can do is to have a drink at the Grand and then go and have a drink at the City. The City is usually more crowded and noisy because there’s a billiard table; people are rather more dashing, get a little drunk and tell indecent stories; but not if there’s a woman present.
I had never found myself in a place which was more protective to women; it might have been inhabited by rowing Blues with Buchman consciences and secret troubles. Everyone either had a wife at Hill Station and drank a bit and bought chocolates at the weekend and showed photographs of their children at home (“I’m afraid I don’t care much for children.” “O, you’d like mine”) or else they had wives in England, had only two drinks because they’d promised their wives to be temperate, and played Kuhn-Kan for very small stakes.

By the time I reached Freetown myself, tracking Greene’s path in the opposite direction and passing through towns not yet overrun by violence and civil war, I was ready to transact my business, then lose myself for a time in the heart of what some aficionados call Greeneland: the fictional yet familiar, just slightly seedy world that includes Greene’s reimagining of the City Hotel.

Wilson sat on the balcony of the Bedford Hotel with his bald pink knees thrust against the ironwork. It was Sunday, and the cathedral bell clanged for Matins. On the other side of Bond Street, in the windows of the High School, sat the young negresses in dark blue gym smocks, engaged on the interminable task of trying to wave their wirespring hair. Wilson stroked his very young moustache and dreamed, waiting for his gin and bitters.

I just had begun slouching deeper into the story when a shadow fell over the page. A fellow I judged to be European had bent nearly in half and was peering at the cover of my book. “Lovely,” he said. “Quite appropriate, actually. But there’s better, you know. May I?” Not waiting for a reply, he pulled over another chair, sat, and began digging into the raffia bag that served him as a satchel.

“I’m looking for Durrell,” he said.”Do you know his work, by chance? Have you read him?” I admitted that I didn’t, and I hadn’t. He dismissed my sins of omission with a wave of his hand and continued to dig, piling notebooks, pens and bits of folded paper onto the ground until, at last, he pulled out a slender volume and said, “This is part of it. You see? It’s called  Mountolive. It’s part of Durrell’s Quartet. It’s four books, actually. The Quartet, that is. The Alexandria Quartet. You’ll like it ever so much more than Greene. You’ll not find the books here in Freetown, I suppose, but do keep them in mind, won’t you?” 

Bemused, I assured him that yes, certainly — of course I would keep them in mind. With that, he tucked Mountolive back into his bag, replaced his chair, gave a slight bow, and was gone.

Even in a world awash with strange happenings, the encounter stood out. It certainly provided compelling dinner conversation during the remainder of my stay in Freetown.

Hearing the story one night, friends suggested we do some digging of our own in a crate of paperbacks left to them by co-workers who’d returned to the States. Ravaged over the years by heat, humidity, and insects, they were a conservator’s nightmare, filled with crumbling pages and half-eaten spines.

We nearly missed Balthazar because of its missing cover and heavy splotches of mildew. But there it was, the second volume of Durrell’s Quartet, and it was mine.

Returning to Liberia with my new treasure in hand, I intended to keep it only as a perfect souvenir of an unusual afternoon. Then, I read the book. I began around page twenty-something, since previous pages were missing or mildewed, but it wasn’t long before I realized the fellow I’d affectionately dubbed The Freetown Professor had been right. I did like it, and I liked it ever so much more than Greene.

Back in the States, I purchased The Alexandria Quartet as a complete set and read the four volumes in order. Then, I read them again, and re-read them many times more. No book (more precisely, no series of books) has captured my imagination as fully as Durrell’s masterpiece.

Against a backdrop of Alexandrian society, her customs, her Corniche, her brothels and souks, Durrell set himself an unusual and difficult task: examining the complexity of human relationships in the context of the space-time continuum.

At times, the first three volumes — Justine, Balthazar, and Mountolive — are described as siblings. Elsewhere, the character Pursewarden imagines them as a series of “sliding panels,” opening and closing at will to reveal fragmentary glimpses of reality. Balthazar suggests a palimpsest, pages where “different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other, the one obliterating, or perhaps supplementing, another.”

Whichever metaphor the reader prefers, events in the first three volumes overlap and interweave, “crawling over one another like wet crabs in a basket.” Only the final volume, Clea, is a true sequel, introducing the aspect of time into the narrative.


Durrell’s dialogue can creak and groan like a recalcitrant ox-cart, but his descriptive powers are unrivaled. Whether tracing the outlines of Alexandrian society, plumbing the depths of traditional Egyptian culture, or attempting to capture the harsh beauty of Mediterranean sea and sky, his language is variously lush, languid, and spare. 

As Justine opens, the insistent force of natural processes animates the storyline. The narrator, a schoolteacher whose identity remains temporarily hidden, lives on an island with a companion we know only as “the child.”

In the great quietness of these winter evenings there is one clock: the sea. Its dim momentum in the mind is the fugue upon which this writing is made. Empty cadences of seawater, licking its own wounds, sulking along the mouths of the delta, boiling upon those deserted beaches – empty, forever empty under the gulls: white scribble on the grey, munched by clouds.  If ever there are sails here they die before the land shadows them.  Wreckage washed up on the pediments of islands, the last crust, eroded by the weather, stuck in the blue maw of water…gone!

Beyond the elegant structure of Durrell’s story and the  extravagant beauty of his language, there is another reason for artists of every sort to plumb the depths of his narrative.  Few writers provide more clues to their own artistic process or their personal convictions about the nature of art than does Durrell. Painter or poet, novelist, sculptor, or photographer – each can find guidance for their craft and wisdom for their art in these words from Justine that have become as well-known as their author.

I spoke of the uselessness of art, but added nothing truthful about its consolations.  The solace of such work as I do with brain and heart lies with this ~  that only there, in the silence of the painter or writer can reality be re-ordered, re-worked and made to show its significant side.
Our common actions in reality are simply the sackcloth covering which hides the cloth-of-gold — the meaning of the pattern. For us artists, there waits the joyous compromise through art with all that wounded or defeated us in daily life; in this way, not to evade destiny, as the ordinary people try to do, but to fulfill it in its true potential — the imagination.

Sitting in silence at my desk, awash in words and overcome by memories, I sort and sift, heap up and tear down, learning that process of re-ordering and re-working Durrell so rightly prized.

Like a painter selecting a favorite brush or a photographer choosing and framing a bit of landscape, I pick and choose my words delicately, purposefully, seeking to capture both emotional depth and temporal significance from my personal basket of crabs. Where words are right, Durrell implies, memory lives, and where memory remains alive and accessible, the past itself still lives, linked to an unimaginable future.

These are moments which possess the writer, not the lover, and which live on perpetually. One can return to them time and time again in memory, or use them as a fund upon which to build the part of one’s life that is writing. One can debauch them with words, but one can never spoil them.
In this context too, I recover another such moment, lying beside a sleeping woman in a cheap room near the mosque.  In that early spring dawn, with its dense dew, sketched upon the silence which engulfs a whole city before the birds awaken it, I caught the sweet voice of the blind muezzin from the mosque reciting the ebed – a voice hanging like a hair in the palm cooled airs of Alexandria…
The great prayer wound its way into my sleepy consciousness like a serpent, coil after shining coil of words, the voice of the muezzin sinking from register to register of gravity ~ until the whole world seemed dense with its marvelous healing powers, the intimations of a grace undeserved and unexpected, impregnating that shabby room where Melissa lay, breathing lightly as  a gull, rocked upon the oceanic splendors of a language she would never know.

The last of Durrell’s four volumes concludes with a letter written by Clea to the narrator, a schoolteacher whose name we now know to be Darley. Filled with news and gossip about  mutual friends, her letter includes a few details about her own development as a painter. Then, she adds this.

“As for you, wise one, I have a feeling that you, too, perhaps have stepped across the threshold into the kingdom of your imagination, to take possession of it once and for all…”

Her words evoke the beginning of the tale: the house at the edge of the sea; the child; the first, halting attempts to unravel perplexities of time and space that have dogged Darley’s every effort as a writer.

Reading Darley’s response, I imagine Durrell himself pushing back from his writing desk, overcome with laughter, filled with delight at the marvelous trick he has played upon his readers. Despite his structural tour de force, despite the complexity of his characters’ relationships and the marvelous, implacable unwinding of those great, coiled words, Durrell ends his saga with a joke.

The key to reworking reality, the key which Darley sought so passionately and with such difficulty, is far simpler than he could have imagined: so simple the child herself could have told him, had he only asked. Standing on the threshold of imagination, Darley has the last word in this saga, and the first words in the next.

Yes, one day I found myself writing down with trembling fingers the four words (four letters! four faces!) with which every story-teller since the world began has staked his slender claim to the attention of  his fellow men. Words which presage simply the old story of an artist coming of age. I wrote: “Once upon a time…”
And I felt as if the whole universe had given me a nudge!

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Evangeline Memories

For weeks I’ve watched my blogging friend Proserpina entice her readers into accepting a simple concept - color-based blogs - and encourage them to help create a rich and expressive tapestry of personal preference. “Here is a color,” she says. “Here are its qualities. Here are some references to it in history and the arts. Does it remind you of something? How do you feel about it? How has it decorated your life?”  

Such simple questions, and yet the answers she receives build one upon another to form patterns of exquisite complexity. Readers contribute images of famous paintings, or their grandchild’s refrigerator art. They bring limericks and literature, poetry, personal photographs of beloved objects, memories from days of long-past travel and dreamscapes from journeys yet to come.

With each new color, discoveries are made. When Proserpina designated “Blue” as her first color, I was a bit disappointed. I’ve always considered blue to be my least favorite color and yet as images, videos and snippets of literature were posted, I realized “blue” is too general a term. While I dislike the primary blue of the color wheel, powder blue baby blankets, navy blue and electric blue, I wear denim and covet turquoise jewelry. I’ve reveled in the azure, aqua and cerulean of Carribbean waters and will sit for hours watching the smokey indigo of disappearing sunsets. Clearly, there are distinctions to be made. (more…)

Published in: on October 12, 2010 at 4:11 am  Comments (26)  
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Victor Hugo Kindles Some Thoughts

Prejudice can be terrible to behold and worse to experience. In its most virulent forms - such as sexism, nationalism, ageism and racism – it can destroy communities and erode relationships. Sometimes its Medusa-like coils seem determined to wrap around every aspect of our lives. Prejudice helps lay the foundation for religious intolerance and class envy. Prejudice colors discussions of politics and sometimes renders problematic the most well-intentioned attempts at problem-solving. Even minor irritants like social snobbery and cliquish behavior have a soupçon of  prejudice stirred into their mix. All of us are prejudiced, it seems, but in a wonderful bit of irony, none of us wishes to appear so. It’s simply who we are.  (more…)

Published in: on September 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm  Comments (24)  
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The Banned and the Beautiful

“Flophouse” made me giggle.  I’d never heard such a word, and when I pulled the slim yellow volume from my parents’ bookshelves, admiring the bold red print along the spine and the rough, burlap texture of  its cover, I wasn’t certain at first I’d read it correctly.  But there it was: “flophouse”.
Paging through the book I found it once, twice, and twice again.  I giggled every time I read it, and went running down the stairs to the Big People’s party.
“What’s a flophouse?” I asked my Dad.  “What are you reading now?” he asked in turn, not even bothering to look up from his cards.

What I was reading was John Steinbeck’s  Cannery Row. Unlike another of his classics, The Grapes of Wrath, the saga of Doc and Dora, Mack, Hazel and Eddie never was banned by any library or school board I know of, but in my parents’ household, banning would have been irrelevant. Books were written, and books were meant to be read. If the reader happened to be a third-grader who’d pulled a grown-up novel off the shelves because she was attracted by the cover, so be it. Their assumption was that I’d be interested, or not, and if a grown-up book piqued my interest there was plenty of time to look up unfamiliar words or talk about life in a flophouse. (more…)

Published in: on October 3, 2009 at 10:49 pm  Comments (20)  
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The View from Uncle Henry’s

Uncle Henry’s was a fine place to celebrate a first year of writing.

Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, just north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.

Across the road from the lake, Uncle Henry’s provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view perfect for sunset-watching, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude — perhaps its greatest virtue. Not every lodging encourages just sitting and thinking, those necessary components of the creative process. Uncle Henry’s did.

While robins stitched their song through branches of dogwood and azalea and morning flared out across the sky, I was more than happy to sit and think, particularly about the nature of persistence, and how quickly a year can flee down corridors of time.

Uncle Henry wasn’t my uncle, of course, but the fellow whose name had become attached to the now-shuttered Mississippi landmark.

Established as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926, the place was sold in 1933 to William Wilkerson. Known in those days as the Moon Lake Club, it became a Prohibition landmark famous for good food, high living and assorted illegalities. It lost, then re-gained respectability when the locals cut its connections to the Chicago mob. Finally, in 1946, it was purchased by Henry Trevino, the foster father of Sarah Wright.

Sarah and her son George (now deceased) transformed Uncle Henry’s into an Inn and Restaurant. Tourist guides referred to it as a Bed and Breakfast, but none of the common terms quite captured its dusty reality.

A little shabby, quite a bit quirky, the place was imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. It was easy to imagine Uncle Henry’s as a “she” — the prototypical Southern Lady, temporarily down on her luck, but genteel and dignified nonetheless.

There’s no question Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend, not to mention local life. At dinner, more than a few locals gathered in the dining room, old-timers who’d been coming for so many years the waitress knew every answer before asking her polite question: “Will you be having the usual this evening?”

Some days later, I mentioned Moon Lake to a pair of fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House. They grinned, and one asked, “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” When I admitted I’d not only stopped there, but had lingered for a few days, the other fellow said, “Well, it’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure. But that’s the good news – it’s not the Holiday Inn.”

It certainly wasn’t the Holiday Inn. George hinted at that himself when I made my sight-unseen reservation. A late, impulsive decision to attend Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival had left me scrambling for a room. Motels were booked, and had been for weeks.

When I called the humorously-named but perfectly respectable Shack Up Inn, they had a waiting list in addition to their reservations. But, with the solicitous kindness I was coming to associate with Mississippians, the proprietor said, “You better call up to Uncle Henry’s. I believe I heard they had a cancellation, and they might be able to put you up. Of course, they might not, but you call George. He’ll tell you how things are.”

As it turned out, Uncle Henry could put me up and George did tell me how things were. “Now, you know this isn’t the Hilton,” he said on the phone. “We’re old and comfortable, but you’re not going to have that wi-fi business or a jacuzzi in your room.” Once I arrived, he added another caveat or two. “There aren’t any keys to the rooms,” he said, “and you can’t take a shower except before five and after ten at night, because sometimes water leaks from your shower down into the dining room.”

That was fine by me. After all, Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it no Hilton or Holiday Inn could dream of matching — William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, a pair of local boys who’d done really, really well for themselves.

I hadn’t intended to land in the lap of Faulkner and Williams when I decided to hit the road for the blues festival, but that’s exactly what happened.

Faulkner frequented the Moon Lake Club as an adult, but Tennessee Williams’ connections were forged in childhood. His early impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, helped Williams transform the Club into Moon Lake Casino in dramas such as Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Sitting in the gallery one afternoon, reading Williams’ work and pondering what it must have required of him to transform his sleepy, Mississippi world into works of dramatic art, I amused myself with the thought that he might have appreciated at least the tone of my own first blog entry.

I have things to say — words to write, metaphors to build, conclusions to draw, paragraphs to stack and reorder to suit myself and perhaps others…
If I’m to share my words and my vision, it [will require] energy and perseverance.

The confidence and declarative force of the words still seems entirely inexplicable to me. But I had persevered during that first year, at least in the sense that I had written, and on that late Mississippi afternoon, I found Williams himself eloquently affirming the importance of perseverance as a first step toward success.

Before my trip, I’d never read Tennessee Williams’ essay, The Catastrophe of Success. I discovered it as an addendum to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I’d tucked into my bag as travel reading. Originally published in a 1947 edition of The New York Times, the essay was written as Williams celebrated an anniversary of his own. Three years had passed since the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie, and Williams finally was receiving recognition as a playwright.

In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant – not only because I was in Tennessee Williams’ country, but because his words rang out with the clarity and force of a plantation bell.

The essay is filled with truth, memorable and recognizable truths that demand retelling. All of us hope to succeed, but Williams did succeed, marvelously well. Reflecting on the circumstances of his own life and career, the authority implicit in Williams’ words is undeniable.

The sort of life that I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every ince of rock higher than the one caught hold of before. But it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last…
You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.
Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, [once you understand] that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to – with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies…
Then what is good? An obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims.
William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life – live!” says Saroyan. That time is short, and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Re-reading the essay today, I find myself once again drawn through the veil of dogwood and azalea toward Moon Lake. I imagine Uncle Henry, and mourn the closing of his Inn. I remember Yazoo Pass, sluggish and narrow, winding its way toward Vicksburg, and consider my great-grandfather’s Union Regiment — the 34th Iowa — trembling there at the edge of their own great, unwelcome adventure.

Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints glisten in the rain, and from the shores of the river a plaintive, tremulous cry falls and rises like a riff of breeze across the Delta.

Where I sit, rocking in the late afternoon warmth, I hear the clatter of a small boy’s feet running headlong across the gallery toward an unimaginable future, surefooted as any child still certain of his world. “Time is short,” he shouts back across the decades, his words twining like unstoppable vines through sweetgum and magnolia.

Hearing his voice, I stop my rocking. Planting my feet on boards that creak and complain like the bones of time itself I rise, my thoughts turning south and west while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and the perseverance begins again.

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