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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92 thoughts on “The Threshold of Imagination

  1. Oh my, it must have been fantastic to thumb through crates of old paperbacks, looking for nuggets of gold within their pages…what a fascinating post; beautiful photos too.

    1. I wouldn’t say it was fantastic, Monica. It was too grubby a job for that. But interesting? It certainly was. I do enjoy prowling through people’s libraries to see what they read, and that crate was a kind of library. Of course, books were at a premium there, and a good bit of book-swapping went on, so there never was any necessary connection between people’s preferences and what they actually were reading.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post.


  2. A Gulfish storyteller telling her own evocative story that includes, among other things such as mysterious raffia bags, guidance to the pages of a famous storyteller telling a story in which a fictional storyteller reminds us all, at least those of us who labor in photography, writing, and art of all manner, to begin!

    This post is a winner.

    1. When you put it that way, Ladybugg, it all sounds very crabs-in-a-basketish, or even sliding-panel-ish, which of course pleases me tremendously.

      And isn’t it just the truth, that beginning is the necessary first step. As far as I can tell, there’s only one way to learn how to write, and it involves doing some writing.

      I’m glad this post is a winner in your book!


  3. I love that you shared this experience. The manner in which you and Durrell found each other is the kind of thing that makes life worth living.

    1. I’ve always said I’d like the epitaph on my tombstone to read, “She Varnished From Our Sight.” But a close second would be “Serendipity Struck Again.”

      I’m fairly well convinced of one thing, Charles. Had I been reading from a Kindle, there would have been no story.


      1. Your story reminded me that when I was about 12 years old, we came home from a Sunday at our lake house and found that someone had left on the step in front of our grocery store a cardboard box filled with old books. This appeared to be a nuisance to everyone in the household except me. I read biography of Buffalo Bill Cody and a book called “Calkins’ Tales of the West.” And I read a book called “Breaking into Society,” written by a Midwestern humorist named George Ade, and his work became a lifelong passion of mine. We never knew who left those books there, but I have said thank you many times.

        1. I’d not heard of Geoge Ade, so of course I headed to the wiki. I was especially taken with the title of his piece, “Round about Cairo, with and without the assistance of the dragoman, or Simon Legree of the Orient” (1906). I also wondered briefly how he’d do today, given our lessened tolerance for satire and irony, and the scourge called political correctness.

          In any event, Abe’s Books has a pile of inexpensive copies of an assortment of his works, and I intend to indulge. I have a feeling I’ll have a word of gratitude for those folks who left the books on your doorstep, too.

          1. Besides his “Fables in Slang,” essays, and other short works, Ade was the Neil Simon of his day. He once had three plays on Broadway simultaneously. The collection of fables and essays in “Breaking in Society” is especially good.

  4. I’ve never read Durrell, but I will now have to add him to my list for future reading pleasures. Thanks!

    1. I’m sure you’d enjoy “The Alexandria Quartet,” Rosemary. A wonderful companion would be “Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel.” I bump back and forth between the two volumes, just to assure myself that it’s a human being who wrote the “Quartet.” He’s quite a funny human, too, and writes a great letter!


    1. It’s that seeking and claiming that can take such effort. As I mentioned up above to Rosemary, it’s worth balancing authors’ masterpieces with letters to their friends. There’s nothing quite like reading Durrell’s letters, especially those where he comments on the delights of having a six-year-old in tow, and the difficulties of trying to write in the midst of it all.

      It can be easy to imagine that masterpieces spring easily and fully-formed from their creators’ hands. But of course that isn’t so, which you know as well as anyone, Kayti. Perhaps the hardest task is creating a bit of solitude and silence for imagination to safely play.


  5. Durell’s words roll off the tongue as smoothly as melted butter. He surely had the gift of using words to fuel the imagination.

    I will one day look for his works. Maybe my library has them. If not I will at least order a used book in good conditon. Hopefully Amazon or Abe has some of his works.

    I enjoyed this post very much. Great writing as usual.


    1. Yvonne, my first thought was that of course your library would have the set, but perhaps not. I just did an online search of our library, and they don’t have anything by Durrell. I’m a little surprised, but it is a small library, so perhaps it’s to be expected.

      The booksellers are awash in copies, though, both new and used. It won’t be hard to find. I would recommend that you begin with “Justine,” the first in the series. Each novel can stand alone, but “Justine” will give you a sense of whether you’re going to enjoy his writing, or not, and it will make the succeeding novels more interesting.

      I am glad you enjoyed the post. I just realized this is the second time I’ve written a story focused on a physical book. I need to think about that – there may be more books that have personal stories associated with them.


    1. Can you hear me laughing? I never hear those words without thinking about Snoopy sitting atop his doghouse with his trusty typewriter. There are people who write about how to write who say you never, ever should begin with weather, but it seems to me Mr. Schultz and Snoopy did pretty well with that technique!


  6. Ah, you always take me on such fine and eloquent journeys. I can’t help feeling that it was the spirit of Durrell himself who sat beside you in Freetown and found a new home for some of his skill with words and story telling. Your experience in Freetown was mystical.

    1. Or, the fellow may simply have been someone who’d been in country for a while (the raffia bag, which had lost its stiffness), yet still was a bit homesick. On the other hand, he could have been in country a little too long, and was showing signs of the same desperation exhibited by mothers of multiple toddlers, who grab strangers in grocery store aisles for a bit of adult conversation.

      Of course, it’s possible he may simply have been a recent convert to Durrell, and like many converts, was eager to share his new Truth.

      Your interpretation of the encounter is delightful, although I’d put it another way. Rather than being an escape from time and place, which so much of mysticism seeks, it was an encounter firmly rooted in a particular time and a particular place.

      In a sense, that’s what could bring the two authors together. Greene would say the encounter exemplified “The Heart of Reality,” and Durrell would ask, “But what is reality?”

      Which reminds me of this, from “Balthazar.”

      “Every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the whole picture is changed…”


      1. Ah, your quote is so apt. Looking through an old journal of mine, I see I wrote this after I read the Alexandria Quartet in Cairo: Pursewarden writes ” I gibbered into the city….under a new moon which felt as if it were drawing half of its brilliance from the open sea. Everything smelt good again. The iron band that Cairo puts around one’s head dissolved, relaxed – gave place to the expectation of an open sea, an open road leading one’s mind back to Europe….” I think at the time I was feeling very iron-banded by Cairo and this passage felt like my reality. I then added my own words ” Sound in Alexandria draws a special quality from the sea. I can smell the sea in the sound of the Alex traffic overheard on the telephone. ( I must have just been on the phone booking a holiday in Alex. )

        1. How well I know that feeling of an iron band around the head. It isn’t always a physical place, a city, that causes it, as I’m sure you know. It is true that, when I found the sea through sailing, my own iron band loosened. Eventually, I tossed it off and away. There’s a reason people say, “This place (or that person, or this job) gives me a headache.” It’s only that Durrell found a way to express it differently, and perhaps more memorably.

          The ability of the sea to relieve the pressure’s unquestioned. The differences between Alexandria’s Corniche and the Galveston Seawall are obvious, but superficial. I suspect the experiences of people strolling there on a weekend aren’t as different as we sometimes assume.

  7. I’ve never been much of a literary reader…tech photography manuals seem to be what attracts me…and field guides. But your shared quotes do pique the interest. I admire folks who can pull together words in a creative and inspiring manner like Durrell and bloggers such as yourself.

    What serendipity that one of his volumes was in that pile of books….’twas meant to be.
    It was also quite cool that you were able to read Greene in the locale that was the stage of his book.

    1. I was quite a fiction reader when younger, Steve. Then, my tastes slowly changed. Now I prefer letters and essays, biography, history and other sorts of non-fiction. The very fact that I still read “The Alexandria Quartet” on at least a yearly basis is testament to Durrell’s achievement, but it’s more than that — there’s a kind of fascination I just can’t explain.

      Something else Greene and Durrell have in common is their ability to capture the expatriate experience. All of the “types” are in their books: the adventurers, the bureaucrats, the missionaries of a thousand faiths, the do-gooders, the scam artists. Oh — and the just plain quirky, who’ve landed in the middle of the bush and found it rather to their liking.

      It was completely cool to spend some time at the City Hotel. Until I wrote this, it hadn’t occurred to me that, when I go to Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, I always stay at the City Hotel there — the oldest building in town, on the banks of the Bayou Teche. Maybe I should look for all the old City Hotels in the country, and set off to visit them all.


      1. I just looked at Amazon and, having seen a few of your responses to and exchanges with others, know you will cringe just a slight bit that all are available for Kindle.
        While not quite as literary an undertaking, my neighbors decided to visit every Amherst (my hometown) in the U.S. After completing that they started on the Amhersts in Canada but as they are up in years decided enough was enough.
        My not so long ago younger years saw me reading biographies of early American presidents and other government officials. 6 volumes of Jefferson, 4 of Washington and several paltry one volume works. For some reason I never caught the fiction bug….even though I do appreciate creativity in all the arts.

        1. Oh, heavens. I don’t mind at all if people prefer reading on Kindles, or iPads, or whatever. I know there are some real advantages to them. I just prefer books, and feel compelled to speak up for them now and then.

          As a matter of fact, I just opened the most wonderful package that arrived in today’s mail. In a fit of extravagance, I ordered for myself a copy of Dr. Ferdinand Roemer’s “Texas: 1845-1847.” It came from Copano Bay Press, a small Texas press, and includes a fold-out copy of Roemer’s own map. You can see it here.

          It took some time to get it, because the books are prepared individually. It’s a thing of beauty. The jacket has the feel of fine suede. The paper has substance, giving the book some heft. The font is large enough to be easily read, and there are margins where a reader could make a note or two — although I’m not sure I could bring myself to do so!

          Your neighbor’s trek from Amherst to Amherst reminds me — did you know there are twenty-three towns named Paris in the US? That would be fun, too. It could make a heck of a photographic essay, if I had the skills and the time to travel around.

          1. I have a Kindle, Linda. And it is for the advantages that I own it, not only for books, but other things like communications and entertainment…watching movies while on the elliptical, for instance.
            But I prefer holding a book. I’ve bought a few eBooks but usually print them out and read them in my hands rather than on a screen. My wife doesn’t always appreciate my preference for owning a book…she prefers the library…but I do enjoy having my books to reread when I choose, which is becoming more and more necessary as my retention for the names and morphology of plants and other life forms becomes more hazy with age.

            That “Texas: 1845-1847.” is a very handsome volume. And made to order, no less. I hope you get much enjoyment from it over the years. I’ve old copies of “The Connecticut River” and “Birds of America’ among others that I am very happy to look through and enjoy the old plates. None are collectors’ items but they are a pleasure to read.

            There are two Parises near here….New York and Maine, but no Massachusetts.

  8. Yet another parallel. When I was in the Peace Corps in Honduras, every volunteer received what was called a book locker, a box that contained dozens and dozens of paperback books. Those of us in the capital (Tegucigalpa) were even more fortunate because we could go to the Peace Corps office for a much larger supply. I remember finding and reading one of the four books in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, but memory is subservient to time, and after almost half a century I no longer know which of the four it was. Perhaps one day I’ll step across the threshold into the kingdom of memory and take possession of what’s there.

    1. Those book lockers sound like a great idea. I’m not sure Peace Corps volunteers had such a thing when I was in Liberia, but there were plenty of books to be swapped. As a matter of fact, when I was packing my sea crate for shipment to Liberia, one suggestion was that I include paperback books wherever I found an empty corner.

      I wonder if pre-loaded Kindles are being used now? While the gizmos would solve some problems, there still would be charging, internet access, theft, dust in the dry season and humidity during the wet season to contend with.

      I did go looking for information on solar charging in Liberia, and came across a current blog being maintained by a PC volunteer who’s teaching math in the country. By policy he can’t say exactly where he is, but he’s down near the coast, close to Monrovia.

      Speaking of Honduras, have you read Paul Theroux’s novel set in that country, called “The Mosquito Coast”? I believe it was written in 1982. I suppose the best way to put it would be to say it was dystopian before dystopian was cool. But I know a truly mad inventor who’s disturbingly like the protagonist of the novel, and the book helped me to understand him — at least to a degree.

      Your phrase about memory being subservient to time is so elegant, so graceful. True, too.


      1. I looked online and found several articles about the Peace Corps book lockers. There’s a blog post at

        that even mentions Justine in the first comment, so maybe that’s what I read.

        I hadn’t heard of Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, but from having lived in Honduras I’m one of the few Americans who knows where the Mosquito Coast is. Down there it’s called la Mosquitia.

        1. That’s an interesting article, especially combined with the comments. It’s something to ponder, isn’t it — what to put in a book locker. It sounds like the selection was good, and clearly it was well-received.

          Speaking of wonderful books, see my last comment to Steve Gingold, just above, about the wonderful book that came in the mail today. It’s a very special edition of Roemer’s “Texas.” Occasional extravagance is good for the soul.

        1. Funny how a thought just materializes and just carries truth with it. My Mom has developed severe memory problems and so you hit a chord…beautifully really.

  9. Yes! (And what a wonderful last line.) This is an experience I would love to have, as well. Adding Durrell to my reading list, Linda. Thank you as always for taking us all on such interesting adventures.

    1. Emily, here are some other tidbits for you-as-teacher, not to mention you-as-appreciator-of-good-literature. Here’s Greene himself, from the Greeneland site:

      “I found myself so out of practice and out of confidence that I couldn’t for months get the character Wilson off the balcony in the hotel from which he was watching Scobie, the Commissioner of Police, pass down the unpaved street. To get him off the balcony meant making a decision. Two very different novels began on the same balcony with the same character, and I had to choose which one to write.”

      How fun is that? And here’s something else. “The Heart of the Matter” was published in 1948, with police office Scobie as the protagonist. Is it a mistake or a coincidence that one of the most interesting characters in Durrell’s 1950s work is also a police officer named Scobie? I suspect not. But Durrell’s Scobie isn’t Greene’s Scobie — not at all. For example, from “Justine”:

      “The Egyptian government…had offered him a means to live on in Alexandria. It is said that after his appointment to the Vice Squad, vice assumed such alarming proportions it was found necessary to up-grade and transfer him; but he himself always maintained that his transfer to the routine C.I.D. branch of the police had been a deserved promotion…”

      “Scobie is a sort of protozoic profile in fog and rain, for he carries with him a sort of English weather, and he is never happier than when he can sit over a microscopic wood-fire in winter and talk. One by one his memories leak through the faulty machinery of his mind until he no longer knows them for his own…When he speaks of the past, it is in a series of short dim telegrams — as if already communications were poor, the weather inimical to transmission.”

      As I said — wonderful novels!


  10. Love this: “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.” Simply perfect and timeless.

    I enjoyed the way you wrote to describe the books being intertwined and related. Haven’t read these – but sounds like a writer’s writer. We both should get online and request our library to order the set – there’s a form there and I think they listen.

    (Oh, FYI. St Arnold’s annual pub crawl is this weekend…a bit more stylish attendees probably.)
    Perfect post for a rainy day ponder.
    (Ponding water, right?- ending with a joke , too? OK I tried, not Durrell. giggles)

    1. What I love most, Phil, is that you and Debbie both picked up on that sentence about words and memory. That’s a sentence I’m pretty fond of — writing it made me remember Ernest Hemingway’s observation: ““All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” I suppose then the trick is to write another one, and maybe a few more.

      That was a very good suggestion about requesting the set for the library. I went right over and made my request. Don’t you love library services online?

      I went over to the St. Arnold site and discovered I don’t know a single one of the pubs listed for the crawl. Ah, me. Of course, that started me down memory lane, and I discovered every sort of missing or moved favorite spot. Even the Hobbit Hole has moved off Shepherd to someplace on Richmond with a terrible parking lot. Antone’s on South Main? Gone. Thank goodness they have some new locations and old recipes. What would summer in Houston be without an Antone’s and a cold St. Arnold’s Fancy Lawnmower?

      Rain tomorrow, too. Enjoy!


      1. I miss that old Hobbit Hole building – haven’t been to the new one. And that South Main Antone’s – they can try, but hard to reproduce that environment. (Zorba the Greek’s? Sigh, the sea food. Otto’s Hamburgers! On Sat afternoons, you might find soccer moms, elderly neighbors, astronauts, baseball teams, Presidents, and us! And their Bar-b-que next door. Weeping.)

      2. I remember eating a veggie burger at the Hobbit Hole on Shepherd on some of my occasional trips to Houston beginning in the late 1970s and continuing into more recent times. I didn’t know the restaurant has moved.

        1. I’ve been to the new location once. I ordered a standby from the previous menu, since I’d read such terrible reviews online while I was looking for the new address. My meal was very good. My suspicion is that the same folks who’ll walk up to the counter and order a Grande, Quad, Nonfat, One-Pump, No-Whip, Mocha, might be a little overly-critical in their restaurant reviews.

  11. I appreciate your desire to root through a crate of left behind books. You did find treasures.

    One good recommendation deserves another: When I was stationed in what was then West Berlin, there were bookshelves in the NCO club where people could swap books. That was where I found Dorothy Dunnett’s Crawford of Lymond books. There’s six of them, and I still have them. (I have the Alexandria Quartet, too.) Dunnet wrote historical fiction (England and Scotland during the Elizabethan era). I found them nearly impossible to put down. has both the Durrell books and Dunnett’s.

    1. I come from a family of “diggers,” WOL. When I was a kid, we’d go off to farm sales as a family. Dad would dig through boxes of tools, Mom would dig through china and glassware, and I’d dig thought boxes of books. It was such fun.

      I don’t know Dorothy Dunnett, but I’m going to send your link to a friend, pronto. She loves historical fiction, and was worrying a bit that she’d run out of things to read. This could be just the ticket, if she hasn’t already read them.

      The NCO procedure sounds like the way things are done among cruisers. People get to a new anchorage, and trade books. There are some very well-traveled paperbacks out there!


  12. I’m still amazed that the term “pub crawl” was in use in 1935 — somehow, I thought that was lingo Domer and his pals invented. Shows how “hip” I am, huh?!

    I love this statement: ‘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.’ And I can’t help but be impressed how very difficult good writing is to do — and to admire those pain-staking authors who get it right, regardless of how many drafts that might take!

    1. I went looking, Debbie, and discovered that “pub crawl” goes all the way back to 1910 , where it first was recorded as British slang. That makes sense, since “pub” as an abbreviation for public house in Britain (also Ireland, Wales — I don’t know about Scotland.)

      One of the little things WordPress does that I like is keeping track of our drafts. I don’t pay much attention to stats, but I do keep an eye on the draft count, and I’ve found some interesting things. For example, there’s no necessary correlation between the number of revisions and the quality of the work. In fact, there may be an inverse relationship — the more revisions, the worse the work, because it just isn’t coming together.

      If I’m working on a piece and start piling up revisions, I’ll often put it back in the files and go on to something else. When I do that, I sometimes can come back to it in a month or six, and make something of it fairly quickly.

      Of course, it’s harder when there’s a real schedule and real deadlines involved, or when we’re working on something larger than a blog post — as you know! Learning how to move past all those issues is as important as spelling and grammar, and maybe more so.


  13. Some great insights here, Linda, and I particularly like that quoted text, that you rightly point out is relevant to all artists, including photographers.

    1. In the beginning, I had even more about photographers in the post, Andrew, but I had to do my own kind of focusing, so the post didn’t get out of hand. Besides, I knew it would take only a hint or two to bring to your mind all of the decisions you make every time you take a photograph.

      In fact, by the time I got done thinking about shutter speeds, aperture, white balance, and all of that — not to mention any post-processing that’s done — I was wondering: do we “take” photos, or do we also “make” photos? I’d never thought about that before, and it seems a really interesting distinction to me.

      That snippet of text is great. I’m glad you liked it.


  14. I did not know of Durrell, but am very happy to have been introduced. The writing you cite is economical, evocative, and propelling, in the sense that it makes you want to explore both interior and other landscapes. Your description of your work at your desk is an echo of this, and so very well written. A question: in what ways, if any, do you think writing to be sui generis as an art form?

    1. I didn’t see it yesterday, Allen, but this morning I see a slight resemblance between me and my “Freetown Professor.” I’m so sure everyone would love these books, if only they gave them a try. I do think you’d enjoy them, but I’d caution that, at least in my experience, they’re not books for picking up for ten minutes at a time. They’d be good at anchor, in a little cove, with nothing else on the schedule.

      As for your question, I’m not sure quite how to answer. Part of the problem is that I’m having trouble getting my mind around “sui generis” as a concept. I read a couple of overviews of the term’s use, and ended up more confused than ever. So: I’ll give you a bit of an answer based on what I think you meant, and if I’m wrong, you can correct me.

      It seems you’re asking, “Is writing as an art form unique?” I’ve only recently straightened out “unique” and “unusual” in my mind, and now understand that asking the question that way means, “Are there ways in which “writing” is a one-of-a-kind art, an art that has nothing in common with other art forms?”

      My first thought is, of course not. Writers look for shades of meaning as surely as a painter chooses colors. They sculpt sentences like a Rodin. They spend hours trying to capture the world with the same sensitivity as a photographer, or freeing their words to flow as musically as any sonata. Only the raw material is different.

      On the other hand, we use words to mediate experience to ourselves and others, which gives them a certain primacy. Everyone (or nearly everyone) has words at their disposal. All of us use them more or less artfully on a daily basis. Could it be that the only difference between the child telling a story and Durrell writing a novel is the size of the vocabulary and the intentionality involved? Perhaps.

      Of course, at this point I’m edging away from writing-as-art toward story-telling. Not everyone writes novels, but everyone tells stories. Your question reminded me of this, from Flannery O’Connor:

      ““There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.”

      I certainly have gone on, for someone who isn’t even sure she’s answering your question! If I missed the mark, let me know, and I’ll think about it some more.


      1. Thanks, this makes perfect sense. I thought of the question because I find myself floating from painting and drawing to poetry, to prose, and get a bit muddled, I think (in a good way). There does seem to be some overlap, as well as some bits that are specific to each genre. I was intrigued by the movement from writing more generally understood to the story in your comment. Of course, the storyteller’s embarrassment is one upped by the poet, who is still further removed from statistics. For the poet, as well as folk committed to the search for the right word, there is an attention to the beauty of the craft apart from the narrative. This is perhaps lost on many, as are certain kinds of painting, dance etc. But for those who dig deeper, what joy awaits!

        1. Every now and then I go over to Goodreads, pick a page at random and see what I find in the midst of their over-six-thousand quotations about writing. This is what I found today, from Ursula LeGuin. I think it’s on point.

          “A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight. By using words well they strengthen their souls. Story-tellers and poets spend their lives learning that skill and art of using words well. And their words make the souls of their readers stronger, brighter, deeper.”

          How about that?

  15. I read the entire Alexandria Quartet during the summer of 1969, during any time off I had from being a stewardess on a ferry boat sailing round the Scottish Islands. There were 39 sailors, and two of us stewardesses. I have no idea what the other one did with her spare time, but I kept my cabin door locked – especially late on Friday nights! – and drifted away from the ‘real’ world of maurauding half-drunk sailors, into the lush, dreamy, multi-layered depth and decadence of Durrell’s masterpiece.

    This wonderfully rich, evocative post has made me wish to take up the Alexandria Quartet and read it again – but only printed book form will do for Durrell!

    1. Durrell isn’t what would commonly be termed “escape fiction”, Anne, but his work clearly provided wonderful escape for you. It does amuse me to think how closely the world outside your door might have resembled the world roamed by Durrell’s wonderful and wacky Scobie. I got caught up reading a bit about him again yesterday, and pondering how much i’ve learned about human behavior since I first read Durrell in the 1970s.

      That’s one of the best reasons for re-reading, of course. Anais Nin says, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are,” and of course that holds true for books. We never come to a book as the same person. It’s one reason I enjoy real books, with my marginalia there to ponder along with the text. It’s fun — and sometimes perplexing — to see what caught my attention thirty years ago.


  16. Oh, my. I remember the Alexandria Quartet. It’s been years! I checked the bookcase… I still have Flaubert but not Durrell. Ah, me. Back to the used books store….. Thank you!

    1. It’s such fun to find people remembering these books from “back in the day.” I think they’re worth re-reading, as are so many books from earlier years, just to help us maintain our ability to read complex sentences and paragraphs that go on for a while.

      There was an interesting article I read and then moved on from that said authors like William James, Emerson, Thoreau and others are almost unreadable for many young people today. Part of it’s the writing, and part of it’s an attention span that seems to shorten every year.

      Durrell certainly would be a good antidote for all that, not to mention pure enjoyment, especially on the front deck of a new little house!


      1. Indeed! I think the Alexandria Quartet will be my housewarming gift to me. Thanks for the prompt. What a great idea. By then, this dashing-into-the-past-future will, hopefully, be complete and I can sit and enjoy and thank my friend Linda.

        Have you read John Banville? I became hooked on the first book of his I read after hearing an NPR interview. bought the first and all the following.

        “There must be hundreds of small panes in this structure, some of them original and bearing whorls and stipples from the oil on which the sheets of float-glass were poured out–oh, yes, my knowledge is not confined to flora and fauna, for among my many crafty attributes I am a maker and inventor and know the secrets of every trade and skill; I am, you might say, I might say, a Faust and Mephisto rolled into one.”

        Now. There’s a sentence!

        1. I haven’t heard of Banville, Janet, which isn’t surprising for any number of reasons. I did read an article or two about him, and discovered him saying that he’s “trying to blend poetry and fiction into some new form”. An admirable goal,no doubt. I do wish he hadn’t used the word “crafty” in the passage you quoted, but that’s just me. “Crafty” reminds me of papermakers and découpage, and cute little birdhouses decorated with fake flowers. My lack, no doubt.

          I did enjoy the hundreds of small panes reference. I often think of the ways in which words can be windows or walls. It’s nice to find someone else using the image.


          1. I expect he meant “crafty” as you see it and as a pun on himself (the narrator). Banville seems to write with a sense of humor about himself/his characters.

            I ordered the Alexandria Quartet. Sitting on the deck in the mornings and reading it was too good an image not to act on.

            Hopefully, the young men who work with the contractor will take my bribe to paint the walls inside so I can, indeed, sit and read on the deck the week we’re up there in August.

  17. When I learned that you were reading a book about Graham Greene, it brought memories about our country’s past. This author was very famous during the seventies when military dictator, General Omar Torrijos Herrera was in power.

    Torrijos was a fan of Greene and invited him frequently to his beach house in Farrallón. They talked and generously drank Scotch whiskey until the wee hours talking just about anything, mainly international politics and espionage. As you probably know, Graham Greene worked for MI6, the British Intelligence agency under the supervision of Kim Philby, who would later be revealed as a Soviet agent,

    Both Torrijos and Greene were fond of Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his Communist regime in Cuba. Fidel Castro also traveled frequently to Panama to chat with Torrijos bringing with him Cuban cigars specially made for his friend. Torrijos also reciprocated by flying to Havana on numerous occasions. This friendship continued until Torrijos death on July 31, 1981 when his plane went down in flames under mysterious circumstances.

    Greene wrote a novel dubbed, “Our Man in Havana” based on Garbo, the Spanish double agent who played an important role in espionage activities against Nazi Germany during WWII.

    Never read the novel, but after reading your blog post, I just might give it a try. Espionage novels are my cup of tea.

    After Torrijos’ sudden death, Greene lost his compass to our country and never returned.

    Sorry to say, I had no idea who Lawrence Durrell was, until I read your post. My knowledge of the English language is too restricted to fully understand his work.

    Loved your picture of the City Hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The architecture style is gorgeous.

    1. One of Greene’s books I haven’t read is “Our Man in Havana,” so your comments about the historical context, Greene’s relationship with Torrijos, their mutual friendship with Castro, and so on are fascinating.

      In fact, your comments are so intriguing I placed an order for a copy of “Our Man in Havana”. Strangely enough, it’s the one book our library doesn’t have, and my local Half-Price Books doesn’t have it in stock, either. No matter. The going price at Abe’s is $3.47, with free shipping. I couldn’t stand the wait, of course, so I kicked in the extra two dollars for priority shipping. I’m anxious to get it — it sounds like a perfect summertime read. If you read it, too, we could compare notes.

      The City Hotel was a gem. It’s had a sad, sad history since that photo was taken, and is no more. It ended with a fire, but war, economic troubles, a lack of passion for preservation and so on all took their toll. You could call this photo “Before.” I have some “After” photos in the files, too, waiting for another post.


  18. How beautifully you tell this adventure of discovery, Linda. Indeed, the words are exquisitely thought out and used. I have never read Greene nor have I heard of Durrell, but the quotes you chose and your description of the books are most tempting and I suspect one day I will find myself picking up the Alexandria Quartet and saying, “Linda was right.”

    1. Jeanie, Greene would be great lake reading. He made some distinctions among his own novels, calling some — well, novels — and others “entertainments.”

      The one I’d recommend for you is called “Travels With My Aunt.” It’s the perfect complement to your life right now, and shows in story form what happens when someone takes seriously that charge to be the “head honcho creative director” of his own life. As the Goodreads reviews make clear, it isn’t for everyone, but what book is? I enjoyed it a great deal — enough to re-read it a couple of times, just as a reminder.

      I mentioned to Omar, above, that I’m going to give “Our Man in Havana” a try. It’s one I’ve never read. Green was so prolific it’s hard to choose what to read next, and I often make the mistake of re-reading favorites instead of pushing on to something new.

      I hope you do read the Alexandria Quartet. It’s good any time of year!


  19. I confess I had never heard of Lawrence Durrell, but he turns out to be a sibling of Gerald Durrell – naturalist and conservationist who had a close association with Whipsnade Zoo which we often go past on our way to one of our favourite hills. From the brief snatches you quote I can see why such writing cries out to be read and re-read. And as is the case with great music (and I include Jazz), great art, and photography and cinema one discovers a little more with each re-acquaintance. The Quartet sounds like a good read – but before that I have Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’ to read.

    1. Every time I hear “Whipsnade Zoo” I want to laugh. Sometimes I do laugh. It’s such a wonderful name. And you’ve just opened the gate to another wonderful path. Gerald’s life is fully as interesting as his brother’s. What I keep thinking about is that Gerald ended up being homeschooled by friends of Lawrence. Wouldn’t that have been something?

      I tend to read (or view, or listen) the same way I like to travel. I’m more inclined to go back to a place that intrigues me several times than to head off to another place solely because it’s different. In the same way, I have a collection of books, like “The Alexandria Quartet,” that have repaid repeated readings. I often make use of the library for new books. Then, if one really appeals, I’ll buy a copy, and we start becoming friends.

      I’ve not put “The Goldfinch” on my list, but I’ve heard good things about it. The worst I’ve heard is that it’s a bit slow-going in the beginning, but it seems to reward the ones who keep on. Enjoy!


    1. Oh, that’s wonderful, sherri. I’m getting better at capturing the flavor of country-Texas speech, but I wasn’t sure I could get his accent. It seems as though I did, at least a little. Thanks so much for letting me know that.


  20. A fellow just appeared at your side and gave you a challenge/gift of sorts. He chose the right girl to give it to, didn’t he? And here you pass it to us.

    1. You betcha, Bella. You know me. If someone wants to show up and chat, I’m game. And if there’s a gift to pass on, that’s even better. Of course, sometimes it takes me a little while to find the gift wrap, the scissors and the tape, but that’s ok. At least I didn’t misplace the gift while I was searching.


  21. There’s something magical about finding something you could scarcely hope to find. Not all of it, but enough of a taste. Bella is right; you were just the recipient of such a gift.

    As usual, Linda, you enchant me with the telling.

    1. nikkipolani, sometimes it’s even more magical than finding something we hoped for. Sometimes, we’re recipients of gifts we never could have imagined. Now and then, we don’t even realize we’ve been given a gift until we’re far, far down the road.

      You’ve reminded me of something Annie Dillard said, that always makes me laugh — probably because it’s true. “Many writers do little else but sit in small rooms recalling the real world.” This certainly was a matter of recalling a bit of the real world. I’m glad ou enjoyed it.


  22. This is probably one of the most elaborate book review posts in the blogosphere. Of course, it’s not just a book review but could well be a chapter in a memoir. You just might have created quite a few chapters already for that major memoir, Linda.

    1. I thought about you when I was writing this, Arti, and all your wonderful book (and film) reviews. It didn’t occur to me until I’d finished it that it could function as a book review, too.

      Yesterday, I finally got curious and went to see if any of “The Alexandria Quartet” had been turned into film. The answer is yes — there was a film named “Justine.” I watched the trailer, and won’t even link it here, it was so bad. It might be possible to transform “Justine” into a movie, but someone needs to do a better job of it.

      I’m smiling at your comment about a memoir. As much as anyone, you’ll understand when I say yes, I have created quite a few chapters. I’m just not sure I want to write about them. Perhaps it’s just a matter of finding the right approach, as I did here.


  23. This post is truly enchanting on so many levels. I was always one who could spend hours in a library stacks enjoying the sheer discovery of research. Opening books was a sort of progressive revelation…the outside look of it, the smell, the blurb on the back or inside the jacket, a quote chosen for the intro and the first line of the first paragraph..even the artistic embellishments. So I understand the thrill of the box of old books or going through garage shelves filled with dusty old volumes or journals.

    Durrell is most assuredly on the list of this rather poorly read reader in life’s grand scheme!! I thank you for the introduction.

    I also have to say thanks for the permission that flowed through the missive that it is not just ok, but part of the job description for artists to re-order or re-work reality to show some side the artist sees. As soon as I read that I thought that maybe I should be glad to utilize photoshop, my pen, my brush and my vision, to re-work reality to show it’s beauty or it’s grit

    I also want to once again let you know what a fan I am of your writing. In school we learned that in an essay, first you tell them what you are going to say, then you say it, and then you tell them what you said. Terrible, right? Right!! Oh, anyhow.

    So it is wonderful as a reader to be in the hands of a writer who conveys information and experience so pleasurably, where the telling rises so far above what is being told, that the piece in itself is as marvelous as that being described.

    “Once upon a time” words floated out of nowhere (make that Texas) into a digital pool and washed up on shores all around the planet. A varnisher of boats had begun to write!………………..

    1. Judy, we talk about the changes our parents and grandparents experienced, and yet we’ve seen a few, ourselves. Through all of my schooling, even through graduate school, there wasn’t a personal computer in sight. Instead, we “went to the library,” with all that entailed — even falling asleep in a carrel from time to time. People thinks books are unbearably old-fashioned — they obviously haven’t met card catalogues and 4×6 index cards!

      As for re-shaping reality, I’ve had some interesting discussions with a Lansing photographer named Michael Smith about the subject.. It’s been some while back, when people still were haranguing one another about photoshop use and such. I remember him making the point that every artist makes decisions every minute of the day. To insist that what happens in post-processing is manipulation, while what happens before the shutter is pressed is artistic decision-making, is a distinction without a difference. Both processes can be artistic, and are made in the service of reworking reality.

      I was delighted to find that he’s begun a new blog, after a bit of a hiatus. He’s really an interesting guy, and I think you’d enjoy taking a look at his site.

      I’m so tickled with your re-working of Durrell’s conclusion, and you know how much I appreciate your willingness to read, comment, collaborate, etc. Right now the heat and humidity are beginning to rise and the words are shriveling on the vine, so to speak. I need to get my schedule rearranged, so I do something more than stare at the computer when I sit down.


      1. A bit steamy here in Sunny South Florida too!! You should see my hair!! Why does it have to look so much better in DRY climates?? Sob sob!!

        Thanks for the tip on Michael Smith..will enjoy visiting.

  24. I was 16 on maybe 17 when I first became lost in the Alexandria Quartet. George and Betty Yohalem had retired to Placerville in the late 50s after a long career in Hollywood and bought a bookstore on Main Street, the Pioneer Book Shop. I wandered in and George became something of a mentor, recommending books he thought I might like. He and his wife also got me involved in Little Theater. One day I was browsing and discovered a book that had just arrived, Justine. I picked it up, read the first few pages, and was intrigued. I carried it over to George for his recommendation. He hesitated.

    “It’s on the mature side, Curt,” he warned. “But it is very well written.”

    I proudly left the store with “Justine” in hand and a final admonition from George that I was not to tell my mother he had recommended the book. I became lost in the “Quartet,” transfixed in a way that I had never been before and have rarely been since. For the first time, I became aware of the power of good literature to modify how we perceive the world.


    1. If there’s anything better than a local bookstore, it’s a bookstore that comes with an owner who’s willing to make recommendations, “talk books,” and not talk down to a kid who’s browsing. Not only that, Curt, he made you a literary co-conspirator. What’s not to like about that?

      Your point about the power of the written word is exactly right. I just went digging and found a list I made over a year ago — ten books (well, nine books and one speech) that really have shaped me at various times in my life. What’s most amazing is that I remember not only what the books contained, but also their appearance: covers, type, and so on.

      I suppose the proof of their influence is the fact that every one of them has been mentioned on this blog, and some have appeared multiple times. I suppose it’s no surprise that “The Alexandria Quartet” is on the list.


      1. I knew we had discussed the Quartet before. Hopefully I didn’t repeat myself, Linda. It would be an interesting exercise to pick out the ten books that have influenced me the most. I know they aren’t all ‘literary.’ –Curt

        1. I remembered the tale, but you added nice detail here. Besides, what’s wrong with repeating such a good story? It’s a way of reminding ourselves of those touchstone experiences.

          I just looked at my list again. Only two are “literary” in the common sense. And I cheated. I couldn’t decide on number ten, so I included the two books I was trying to decide between. Interestingly enough, both are the same genre.

  25. I read Greene’s The Comedians in preparation for my immersion into Haiti. It was surprisingly (and sadly) relevant all those years later.

    Did you ever discover the professor’s identity? I’m imagining there might have been quite a story there.

    1. Your reading of “The Comedians” must have been akin to my reading “Journey Without Maps.” Unfortunately, the conditions described in that book are going to look like a picnic if they can’t get this Ebola under control — and it’s just getting worse.

      As for the professor, there was no way to discover his identity. He simply emerged from the crowd, and then faded away. Even if I’d wanted to find him, remember — this was in the mid-70s, in an undeveloped country with none of the tools we have today (heck – I’m not even sure there were telephones apart from the government offices) and I wasn’t quite as assertive as I am now. And if I had found him – then what? No, better to let the moment remain in memory, as a mystery.


  26. AOUT 22,2014
    Que de souvenirs au City Hôtel en 1956….!
    c’était le temps où je découvrais H G Greene, Durrell et bien d’autres, en regardant la faune des habitués……

    1. Beaucoup de gens ont de merveilleux souvenirs de l’hôtel. Merci pour l’ajout de la vôtre, et je vous remercie beaucoup de votre visite. J’espère que vous apprécierez encore Graham Greene et Durrell!


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