June 29th, 2013
Sappho Durrell (b. 1951, d.1985), photographer unknown
Sappho Durrell was born to english author Lawrence Durrell & Durrell’s second wife, Yvette Cohen. Sappho was a writer and playwright. She committed suicide in 1985, at 34.
I just finished reading a compressed selection of her journal entries and letters found in Granta #37 (1991). It’s pretty harrowing stuff. For starters, her prose style and means of forming ideas are fairly disjointed & oblique in a way that suggests a troubling disconnection from others and herself. She does reveal a savvy, astute bluntness in assessing her early life and teen years in several passages, but once she settles into her present day conflicts with life & men (especially her father), you find yourself in a confusing, dismaying blizzard of psychodramatic cross-currents & symbols & life-theories.
Her relationship with her father is at the core of this blizzard. It’s a tangled, saddening one, and we get a missing-piece jigsaw puzzle of it as readers in the form of her journal entries (including notes on her psych visits), snippets of their letters to each other, (complete with bewildering kabbalistic notes she made to her dad’s) & bits of her poetry (urgent, sideways-angry, incoherent).
I found their letter-writing relationship most poignant and compelling. It’s a coy, writerly, between-the-linesy ultra-layered back-and-forth which, granted the typical in-joke esoterica freighting any correspondence between close family members (especially when both are writers!), to me is still sadly fraught with an inordinate degree of passive aggression and psychological cryptography, trap-laying, maze-running. It’s fascinating and painful to read the extent to which these two artfully dodge love.
What’s worse is that we get Sappho’s journal entries which, elliptical as they may be, give us some insight into what she feels for him (& more frequently, against him), and the relationship needs of hers that are going unmet. This makes it all the harder to read those letters, and how hard it is for her to be immediate and authentic in directly addressing her issues with him.
Not to let Durrell off the hook — the opposite in fact. He had more responsibility to engage with his daughter in a meaningful away, and find out what was going on with her adulthood drift and emotional turmoil and identity-malaise. Because all the signs were there: depression, self-loathing, withdrawal. Sappho lacked the courage to speak to him frankly, and was still trying to figure out, both on her own and with the help of her psych, why she was upset with her father. Durrell had the power here, and certainly the insight and intelligence to be able to come to her emotional aid, but failed to. The sense I get from his letters to her was of a man interested in his daughter as intellectual foil and cultural cohort, someone else to prove himself to as artist and intellect, someone to irony-spar with.
For more about Sappho, please check out this NYTimes bit that preceded the Granta publication: http://www.nytimes.com/1991/08/14/books/no-headline-011291.html.
For more about Lawrence Durrell, check out this Encyclopedia Britannica bit: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/174363/Lawrence-Durrell.