Wednesday, 12 October 2005

Lawrence Durrell: The Dark Labyrinth (1947)

Originally titled: Cefalû
Edition: Faber & Faber, 1964 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1305

In all of Lawrence Durrell's novels, the author combines an apparently realistic story with psychological and spiritual allegroy, so that nothing necessarily means what it appears to signify on the surface. (I wouldn't class them as fully allegorical, because I can't come up with a meaning beyond the surface one for some aspects of each novel.) In The Dark Labyrinth, his first novel, the scaffolding which makes this structure work is much more obvious than in his later work, making it simultaneously easier to understand but less resonant because the cleverness registers consciously rather than being absorbed without noticing. This is basically because the central image - the mythical Cretan labyrinth in which the Minotaur lived - is so dominant.

The plot of the novel hinges round an incredible archaeological discovery on Crete - a complex maze of caves containing ancient artefacts of very high quality; this is immediately hailed as the original of the labyrinth from the myth in the same way that the ancient Cretan culture has been labelled Minoan after the king in the same myth. A group of British tourists become lost in the dark cave after a rock fall kills their guide; they are (with one exception, a man who found his way out) believed dead.

From the symbolic point of view, it is clear that the labyrinth represents a spiritual or psychological crisis in the lives of these people, some sort of difficulty that they need to find their way through. (Thus the labyrinth has three meanings: a set of Cretan caves, the mythological haunt of the monster, and a psychological crisis.) What happens to each of them in the maze after the guide's death has its own allegorical significance, especially clear for the couple who find themselves in a garden of Eden, a lost world - a plateau inaccessible from the rest of the island except through the maze, inhabited only by an elderly British archaeologist who found her way there years previously (importantly, she has not even been aware of the Second World War, and so the plateau has a sense of innocence that has been lost to the world at large).

This is not a Christian allegory, of course. I say this not because the illustration of religious ideas is the most frequent and best known reason for the use of allegory in literature, but because Durrell explicitly uses Biblical images like Eden alongside pagan Greek myth. One of the points of the labyrinth experience is that each person has to work out their own way to return to the outside world, not follow one unique path - compare The Dark Labyrinth with The Pilgrim's Progress, where those who do not follow the correct route to the Celestial City never get there. In fact, Durrell seems to assume that all the ideas that help the trapped tourists escape are true, which may in some cases annoy people. He was clearly extremely interested in mysticism and unusual religious ideas (whether or not he actually believed in them), and spiritualism is treated extremely sympathetically (though less laughably than Arthur Conan Doyle's later Professor Challenger novels); in this novel, real mediums, spirit guides and contact with the dead all exist.

The lack of the subtlety which I would associate with the later work of Lawrence Durrell (and which makes him, to my mind, one of the greatest English novelists of the second half of the twentieth century) marks The Dark Labyrinth as an early attempt at the themes and ideas which fill his mature work. It is not, therefore, his best, but it is definitely of interest to fans of his writing.

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