Forgotten Classics: The Dark Labyrinth (1947) by Lawrence Durrell


An infrequent feature on classic books forgotten to the mists of time.

The name Lawrence Durrell is not a name mentioned with any frequency these days, but his work deserves a revival.  The Dark Labyrinth, published in 1947, begins with a simple enough premise: a small group of tourists visits a Cretan labyrinth.  In the ensuing narrative, the group gets lost with certain members getting rescued while others never return.  With this basic plot, Durrell spins a tale chock full of philosophical rumination, surgical precision social satire, and capacious character development.  The foredoomed tour group includes a failed artist, a harsh Christian missionary, a disgraced psychic, and a quaint Cockney couple on holiday.

The genius of the book comes from two sources: Durrell’s precise, nuanced use of language and his unorthodox plotting.  Unlike Brideshead Revisited, the reader isn’t drowning in the super-sweet honey and amber prose, The Dark Labyrinth is light and propulsive.  In terms of plotting, when the reader is expecting Durrell to zig, he zags.  But O Dear Reader, the zags!  A couple terms while reading, I quoted Hunter S. Thompson’s assessment of his drug-addled Samoan friend, “You’ve gone completely sideways on me, man!”  Not something I’d expect from a Dean of the English Highbrow Novel, especially a novel written two years after the Second World War.

The Dark Labyrinth is worth reading (and worth reprinting, perhaps by New York Review Books or the Dalkey Archive).  The novel presents the Artist in Embryo, along with his unique personal philosophy, a combination of Western physics and Eastern metaphysics (Einstein and Buddha).  The novel is also a great entrepôt into Durrell’s vast oeuvre.  This single, self-contained volume will lead to his travel writing and his more epic fictional works (the quartets and quintets).


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