On 21 September 1984, Sappho Durrell, the second daughter of the novelist Lawrence Durrell, visited her neighbour and friend Barbara Robson. She wanted Barbara Robson’s help in preparing a will and asked if she would act as her executrix. She also asked her to accept several carrier bags of her writings. These included journals, a play about Emily Brontë, dream notebooks and correspondence, mainly between Sappho Durrell and her father. The writings, according to Barbara Robson, were to be kept away from the family, and she was to use her best efforts to see that they were published after the deaths of both Sappho Durrell and her father. Four months later, on 31 January 1985, Sappho Durrell committed suicide. Five years later Lawrence Durrell died.
Lawrence Durrell was married four times, and Sappho, born in 1951 in Oxford, was a daughter of the second marriage. After the birth the family eventually returned to Cyprus, where the mother, Eve Cohen, had a nervous breakdown and asked Lawrence Durrell’s mother to move in to look after Sappho. Two years later Eve and Lawrence Durrell separated. Sappho Durrell moved to England with her mother but continued to visit her father regularly and developed a close relationship with his new wife, Claude, especially after they settled in France. In 1967, Claude unexpectedly died of cancer. Sappho was sixteen.
Durrell’s novels are, like many authors’, autobiographically informed, and parallels can be found between his own life and the characters in his fiction. Sappho believed that she was the inspiration for at least one of Durrell’s characters, Livia, from the novel of the same name published in 1978. Livia is a changeling, a monster created by a bad sperm that passed between an occidental and an oriental (Sappho’s mother Eve was an Alexandrian Jew), who grew up to be an androgyne and Sapphist. She is said to have been a girl forged from a boy, who dreamed she had sex for the first time with a man who resembled her father and later became a lesbian. Livia dies by suicide: she hangs herself.
This edited selection from the journals and letters is drawn mainly from 1979, the year Sappho Durrell underwent psychoanalysis under the care of Patrick Casement.
Claude Durrell, Sappho Durrell and Lawrence Durrell, 1961.
I want to play around with the idea of parricide – not in general but in specific. Vis à vis my father.
We went to visit the tomb and found dogroses and Venus’ mirror on Claude’s grave. On the way back, in the strange light, he began to improvise a Poe-like story very badly to demonstrate how the Languedoc lent itself to this, but more generally to show how the world was inside, waiting for its spring to be tapped, for the story-teller to tap it. I understood all this, tacitly, rationally, but in me I felt so dead: like a gourd with a good shape, but dry. I know that, rationally, he would like me to stand up and create, but that there is something in him which would ‘kill’ me if I did – would knock what I did. I will always have his ego between me and the world, and my surroundings will be as dry as dust.
Suddenly I try to imagine travelling this same road, with the castle and the trees, and supposing him dead. At once the colours around me deepen. In my mind I begin to breathe deeply, and my heart seems to beat faster. The world becomes infinite and excites me with its possibilities. My father dead, and perhaps killed by me?
I seem to suffer from the hypochondriac obsession that I will die early and that he wants me to die before him.
Some fortuitous things happened today. That film which had such an effect on me – probably quite out of proportion with its true merit – A Bigger Splash. The pool in the final picture haunted me. Hockney in the film referred to the fact that it was half painted in Albert’s Hyde Park and half painted by a pool lent by a friend in the south of France. It struck me, when I saw Armand’s pool, that it could have been there – in the mountains. There can’t be many places that have mountains covered in woods, with these same proportions.
Florence took me to her house – very California – and from the balcony we looked down the mountainside past the two or three turquoise patches of swimming pools to one at the very bottom – a paler turquoise, with a man, a good three kilometres away, drying himself in a huge corn-coloured towel. Florence said – ‘Tiens, ça appartient à un peintre anglais, qui paraît au tournage d’un film très populaire en Angleterre, au bord de cette piscine.’ It was in fact David Hockney who she was referring to – coincidence.
It was like looking down on a myth – this tiny slip of blue three kilometres down – was the very scene which held so much imaginative meaning for me. Le point du départ quoi. The pool belongs to Tony Richardson, and I can visit them tomorrow: to pay my pilgrimage. Something that Peter Adams had said earlier in the day came back to me like a perfume: ‘Nothing is real outside the head; all is illusory except what is in the mind.’ When one’s world is polluted to the soles of the shoes – then the mind must recreate a liveable world. Hockney for me was one of those starting points for imagining a world one can taste again.
22 MARCH 1979: Somewhere in the Po Valley there is a gap in the wall that runs alongside the main highway. The gap leads to a minor road which turns finally into a cart-track. This is the way to Mudu’s house. Once there the Po Valley suddenly falls into place, and the journey makes sense, but until then it had the aura of a dream. It was all arbitrary and unknown.
Mudu is a hermaphrodite. This is never said of course; only suggested. Mudu (Modo, Prince of Darkness) belongs to that category of country lesbians, the friends of friends’ parents whom I met when I was at school: pert, shrewd, fixing you with an eye that has all the sharpness and flatness of a cod. That same ancient sour cynicism.
Well, come in, Mudu said. It’s all in order! I heard that you needed a rest – one without influence; I think that was the term you used, and here there has never been influence of any kind. Consider this your personal retreat.
I was in no position to take him at other than his word. I was recovering from a bad psychological set-back and I’d given up bothering my mind with questions about others’ motives. I had resolved on short, sharp tactics if things developed unpleasantly or became too demanding (as they had in all my other relationships).
I arrived in the early evening. It was rather like going into a retreat – shriven, gentle. Mudu insisted that I have a bath (‘To wash away that filthy train grime’) and began preparing the meal only when I emerged from the bathroom. Throughout my stay, there were gentle rituals and I had long periods on my own. There was something monastic about Mudu – even his use of talk, wine, food and objects – and I soon found that my tempo eased and I began to savour my surroundings more. I had the slight and not unpleasant feeling that I was waiting for something.
I didn’t notice anything unusual for a while: there are so many strange new things about foreign parts generally and Italy particularly that I was lost for whole mornings wandering in the garden, smelling the new smells, comparing fauna and trying to define differences in atmosphere. It took me some time to focus on Mudu again and notice that his character was not a product of sun and wine, and that his profound distrust and disgust with the world was more than a reactionary trooper’s reflexes. Although he had a veneer of the old guard, with its right-wing opinions on a host of worldly matters, he had little practical experience of the world. His manner to me was not the one I had learned to expect from a middle-aged man to a young woman. He never patronized me in the slightest.
5 APRIL 1979: Dr Casement. First appointment.
7 APRIL 1979: Second session. In my dream I made love to my mother. I remembered it when I got back from seeing Casement, and, though I hadn’t been upset when dreaming, I now cried on remembering it. I was making love to her, even though I was disgusted, and I was having to force her – she was being coy and forcing me away. I wanted to make love to her not out of desire but out of domination. I hated her, despised her, and yet I went on. It was much how I imagine a man feels.
The moment you didn’t respond to my attempts to charm you I immediately imagined you were:
One. Bored, tired.
Two. Angry and unable to cope with me and my problems; not wanting to.
Three. Hostile. Censorious, disapproving.
10 APRIL 1979: Analysis has never worked.
The first analyst – I had a peculiarly upsetting run of dreams. Shook me. I dried up. My memory blanked out. He asked me for associations but I couldn’t think of any. He gave up after a while. Session over. He told my mother that I had burst into tears – which was not true – and that he thought I was a schizophrenic.
The problem is centred around expression. It’s all tied up, so much so that I need constant prompting by an analyst. My mind doesn’t want to let anything out, but I do. It’s programmed to cut at certain intervals. I feel very precarious.
30 APRIL 1979: CASEMENT’S INVOICE. Six sessions in April: £64.
1 MAY 1979: Trying to think why my relationship with my father is now so fucked up. I used to write him letters, but since Claude died his traditional pattern of wife=whore/stupid/bitch and me=virgin/wise has disintegrated. Because none of the women he has had since Claude died ever measured up to her, he has been placing more and more of the wife’s role on me and he is always aggressive towards wives. They can’t do anything right except be sweet and kind and giving. Before, when I withdrew, he would accept that I was different. Now he is aggressive, using the psychology of hostile silences or bitchiness. He is a master in the art of psychological destruction. He knows just where to hit.
I feel, when I’m with him – or writing to him – that I am on his black side. We quarrel over a shirt label; he will not give in over a single detail of reality. I am frightened of him physically and mentally.
2 MAY 1979: I’d better start at the beginning.
Father. Born 1912. India. His father: an engineer for the railways who died suddenly of heart attack when his son was twelve; he remembers his father as very tall. When born, Lawrence was jaundiced and appeared to be dead. It was only when they had administered to his mother and she was found to be OK that they looked in the basket and noticed that he was alive. His mother: hatred/love. She and he were very close. A sick baby. Once he mentioned that he had read a biography of Florence Nightingale and that it had helped him to understand her psychology. It could be that the relationship between them was nurse/patient – much like Proust – and his hold could never be physical but mental and psychological. BUT: he is very tough physically. He is wiry with a liver like a punch bag: he’s pummelled it so much with drink that it’s a rock.
Father’s marriages: there were four.
The first: Nancy, a painter. They had a daughter Penelope (Pinky), but Nancy found him overpowering. She had an affair, but he said that it was OK and that she could burn the affair out of her system and return to him when she felt like it. She hit roof. She wanted him to be possessive (wanted, really, to get away from him unbeknown to herself?). She said that he was a monster and that she would leave and take the child. She did. My Dad never fought for her. He just washed his hands and said let’s see what Nancy can make of her. Pinky was two at the time, and he did not see her again until she was fifteen or seventeen.
Pinky is very, very repressed and unreal. She is petrified of emotions which are too strong – anything other than twee.
Marriage two. My mother. Eve.
My mother had a bitch of an unloving mother and a father who was obviously sexually attracted to her (never consummated, my mother says – which is true). When my mother met my father she was in the process of having a mini-breakdown and she just talked and talked to shed everything. He listened very understandingly at the time but was later able to use the things that came out against her. My father, an aggressive and demonic drunkard, has always lived on the edge of madness, and at the end of his tipsy stages he becomes very destructive, with a terrible psychological accuracy. It doesn’t matter who it is. I remember I never thought him violent until he hit me. They lived together from 1942 to 1947 and were married in 1947.
I was born in 1951. On the day of 28 May, the hospital saw that the birth was going to be in the middle of the night, so they drugged my mother to set back the contractions. My mother didn’t want to be drugged. She fought as much as she could. And I was born two days later, with my head all scrunched up and my eyes like slits – at two in the morning. My father’s first comment was that my mother must have been having an affair with a Korean.
My father apparently was enchanted with me. So was Mother, but after eighteen months their relationship started to go sour, and my mother began to get very depressed. She tried to explain to my father how depressed she felt by saying, ‘It was like you felt in Argentina,’ (he nearly cracked-up, collapsed with acute depression there; my mother had to nurse him), but he pooh-poohed her. No one could suffer as much as a great artist.
She didn’t know how to make him understand how serious her illness was. She had become frightened of his violence and had decided to leave. She was talking to herself in bed, saying that she would tell him tomorrow, and a voice in her head said, ‘You won’t,’ and, suddenly, the bedroom blind accidentally shot up with a bang, waking my father. He asked her what she had done.
My mother said, ‘It wasn’t me – but since you’re awake, I’m leaving you.’
He said, ‘Is that all? Let’s discuss this in the morning.’
My mother said, ‘No. Now.’
He got up and they started arguing. They went into the hall and she went on screaming, ‘I’m leaving I’m leaving.’ He started to argue but when he saw that her ring was gone, the breath went out of him. He wheezed with the shock and started to throw her around. Instead of fighting back as she usually did, she submitted because he couldn’t hurt her. Three days three nights they played cat and mouse. He became the devil. He refused to believe she had the will to leave him. She peed on the bed. It was a pure power struggle. At the end of the three days he was frightened of her. She was frightened herself. She was having hallucinations.
Amid all this, I needed to have my nappies changed, which my mum did but, as she was changing them, she looked up and saw in my father’s face an awful demonic look. It was as plain as day. As soon as he realized that she had seen it, he caught himself and re-composed his features.
She was drugged and taken to a military hospital. They drugged her heavily to the point where her head was throbbing.
While my mother was away, I was looked after by my grandmother but she disliked having to deal with my shitting (servants had dealt with it in India with her children). My father echoed her disgust and disapproval. She said that when my mother came back she was going to punish me for shitting in my pants (I still had to wear corduroy trousers to keep nappies up). On her return my mother was horrified to see my fright.
When she finally came back she was fully recovered and wanted to take me away (she remembered the devil). It became a battle for my soul – who was closest to me.
Hair washing finally blew the gasket. I had got soap in my eye once and screamed like hell if anyone mentioned hair washing. In the end my hair was matted it was so dirty. My mother decided a hairdresser was the only way. ‘Here, take your daughter,’ my granny said, and thrust me against my mother.
Confrontation came when they said that my mother should leave but that I was to stay. It happened in the hall, apparently. They both marched up with me between them, holding each of their hands, and said that my mother was to get out: she was upsetting me; she was being a spanner in the works. I dropped their hands and went to my mother.
Points to raise with Casement: One. ‘You’re hurting me.’ It’s from my mother, but I can’t remember anyone having hurt her (me? my father?). The phrase sticks in my mind. Also the tone of voice she used. Whining, ingratiating, half surprised, half manipulative.
Two. Imagined conversation with analyst: that it was worse than going to the dentist. It was in a sense a mental violation. It was unclean, disgusting, unfair – obscene. Probing the mind.
3 MAY 1979: Media – used not to be a factor in our relationship but has become more so. Perhaps father feels that as his life becomes more empty he needs to fill it with unimportant chatter.
DIALOGUE: She, fingering glass: really just a buck for my wit to jump over. The late sixties were the catchment area of the cynic. Now people seem to be settling again on the sentimental.
He: You mean you’d settle for the sentimental.
She: Well, no. My sense of the times – say, gauged by songs, like, for instance, ‘Who wants yesterday’s papers?’ – is completely dated now. Everyone is dying for yesterday’s anything. People are either honestly ostrich-like, or at least, as they’d put it, more mellow in their disenchantment . . . [Looks at her watch] and at 23.37 hours you can quote me on that –
He: Come over here. [Winning.] You can bring your glass if you’re afraid of coming alone.
She: I don’t like to be made to feel so little-womanish.
He: I’m not interested in you as a woman. Right at this moment. I can feel my blood withdrawing from my skin and shrinking into my centres, and a little bit of warm companionship helps. Am I such a conger eel as all that? Come on, unlace a bit. [He pats cushion once. She sits.] I hate being lectured at. Let’s talk about you.
She is watching darkly and looks suspicious, but is actually stiff and awkward.
She: I’m level. As the situation stands or falls, I see I have no choice. No. Let’s talk about you.