Letter From the Classroom: Mashie Niblicks of the World, Unite!

My charming, patient Post-War British Fiction-studying undergraduates are currently becalmed in the brackish waters of Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, the first novel of his Alexandria Quartet.  I say “brackish” because Mr. Durrell can scarce forbear to use the adjective when Alexandria’s salt-sea breezes blow off the torpid waters of the port.  Torpid—there’s another word to conjure with.  T.S. Eliot speaks in the Four Quartets of “the torpid driven on the wind,” a phrase that was once a source of amusement to my fellow boarding-schoolers in Britain.  In the school slang, junior boys were known as “torpids,” and during our compulsory afternoon runs our “torpids” were often driven on the wind, much as Eliot states, around the gloomy hills of North London.  Of course Eliot didn’t mean Harrow schoolboys; he meant those-who-are-torpid or -listless, the febrile inhabitants of our godless cities and suburbs—but how many of his younger readers could possibly know the meaning of his chosen word?

Brackish is an adjective Durrell favored, like tenebrous (he shares this passion with William Faulkner) and phosphorescent.  Lovely words, each one.  I say my class and I are “becalmed” in Durrell’s splendid if patchy masterwork, precisely because his language holds us up like so many...

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