Book Review: Judith by Lawrence Durrell

Judith by Lawrence DurrellI wrote a review a little while back on My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell: an autobiographical account of the author’s unorthodox childhood in Corfu.  I liked the book very much and enjoyed getting to know Durrell’s pets, neighbours and eccentric family members.

Judith is written by Gerald Durrell’s older brother Lawrence.  Lawrence Durrell is in fact much better-known as a writer, having published a huge range of work including novels, travel writings, poetry and plays throughout his long literary career; I just happened to chance across Gerald’s work first.  I’m glad I did, actually, as I felt as though I had already got to know Judith’s author to some degree.  I was pleased to find that the same type of humour and clever character sketches which made me warm to My Family and Other Animals were also present in this novel, even though this is a very different kind of book.

Judith was begun in 1962 as a screenplay for a film of the same name, starring Sophia Loren.  Despite being commissioned for the script, however, Durrell is not credited for his input as he distanced himself from the production before filming was complete.  The full reasons for this were unclear, but according to the introduction in my edition it appears that Durrell was “dissatisfied with the changes in the storyline made by subsequent writers”.

Film poster for Judith (1966)

Film poster for Judith (Paramount Pictures, 1966)

Durrell died in 1990 and the book was never published in his lifetime.  This is the first time the novel has been brought to the public’s attention, and will be released this month.

The story, set in Palestine during the 1940s, follows two main female characters: Judith and Grete.  Both are Jewish refugees from Germany, arriving with the hope that this land, the religious home of the Jewish people, will provide their salvation.  Following the fates of these two characters opened up yet another world and history with which I was not very familiar: the conflict between the Palestinians, the native Arab people, and the newly-named Israelis, the Jews – both fighting for the land they believe is rightfully theirs.

This conflict frames the whole plot and provides the main stimulus for the novel’s action.  Don’t worry though, it’s not so political that it can’t be followed; I found the background Durrell provides to be just enough for a beginner to understand what was going on, while providing a comprehensive justification of the characters’ actions and whetting my appetite to find out more about a war still going on today.

Both Judith and Grete are brought to Ras Shamir, where the residents have toiled and worked together to build a future for themselves and their descendants.  Once swampland bought from the Arabs, they have transformed it into fertile farming land and a thriving community; now the Arabs want it back but the Jews refuse to leave what they have worked so hard for, and they are willing to defend it with their lives.

The two women, while sharing a religion and culture, could not be more different.  Judith is an intellectual; her father was a renowned physicist but was murdered before his work could be announced to the world, and Judith has been requested by name and saved from the concentration camps in order to decode her father’s life work.  She meets Aaron, a leader in the community, who irritates her from the start with his bluster and his arrogance, while he sees her as cold, stand-offish and holding too high an opinion of herself.  Unfortunately for these two fiercely independent souls, both also feel a spark of attraction for the other…

I liked Judith immediately because when we first meet her she has come through a horrific ordeal; we see the human side of her and sympathise with her plight, yet we admire her spirit in the face of adversity.  She is a survivor, and she’s quietly but obviously clever too.

There is a small but excellent part of the novel where she offers Aaron her help deciphering a troubling page of code, and he laughs at her: the very thought of a woman having a chance at such a task!  She takes the page away without another word, spends the whole night puzzling over it, but finally cracks it and leaves it for him to find.  Aaron does at least have the decency to seek her out, abashed and ready to make peace – it’s a turning point in his opinion of her.  There are many scenes like these where Judith and Aaron clash, but come away having learnt more about the other and, paradoxically, having drawn closer to one another.

Grete, on the other hand, is a much weaker character: I mean weaker mentally – the picture Durrell paints of her is still as vivid and real as it is with Judith.  Grete has also been through a terrible time and has been separated from her child, but unlike Judith she cannot seem to survive on her own.  She needs propping up by the men around her; luckily for her she is beautiful and attracts not one but two potential and very different lovers.  She easily becomes hysterical and finds it hard to cope under pressure.

She does have her moments where she fights back, challenging immigration officials or turning her (German Nazi) ex-husband over to the Jews in order to get her child back.  But at other times it’s as if life has overpowered her to the point where she simply gives up and allows her men to shape her future; she is not at all interested in fighting for the future of Israel, much to the annoyance of her Jewish lover David.  She was a bit of a puzzle to me and I found her hard to figure out, but I actually think that that is a testament to the depth of Durrell’s writing: his characters, especially his female characters, interestingly, are not one-dimensional but complex and made up of a mixed bag of characteristics.

It’s intriguing to discover that the film version of Judith leaves out the more intellectual Judith’s story entirely and morphs her into a simplified version of Grete: a victim confronting her evil husband.  No wonder Durrell wasn’t best pleased with the final script.

I thought that Judith was well worth reading and I’d have no hesitation in recommending it to you.  I’d be really interested to hear from anyone who’s read other novels by Lawrence Durrell and what you thought of them; I’m keen to read more by him now, perhaps his Alexandria Quartet which I believe is his best-known work.

Judith will be published on 13 November 2012 and you can buy it from Amazon here.  Thanks to Open Road Integrated Media for my ebook copy.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Nishita
    Nov 14, 2012 @ 13:35:28

    I didn’t know Gerard Durrell had a brother…let alone a literary one. This story sounds interesting, but also seems a little dated (maybe I am biased because of the poster). I will look for it in some second-hand book stores though.


    • TheBrontëSister
      Nov 18, 2012 @ 21:15:08

      Please don’t judge it by the awful film poster! It’s completely unlike the book itself, and has absolutely put me off seeking out the film. I only included it as a curiosity!

      You won’t find Judith in a second-hand book shop as it’s just been published, but I’m sure you’ll find others by him… I’m keeping my eyes peeled too…


  2. lina
    Apr 18, 2013 @ 19:27:46

    My other and myself are huge fans of the Durrell family. Initially, as you, we started by reading Gerald Durrell’s work. One day, one of Lawrence’s books came home and then… I feel like we are trying to have his whole work ! Oh and by the way, their sister had wrote a book as well about their family pension, and she is describing a bit of both Lawrence and Gerald.
    As much as I can say, Lawrence’s work is divided between its fiction and its travel/autobiographically inspired books. I have a preference for fiction (and my mother for the other ones).
    Alexandria Quintet is a great book, actually one of my favorites. The characters are deep and interesting and you’ll only want more. But my favorite is Avignon’s quintet. Set in the South of France (Lawrence lived there), it’s an amazing book, reuniting all the themes you can find in Lawrence’s books (including his apparent passion for Templars for example, as his participation in some scholars’ books and conferences proves).The characters are set in the first section of 20th century (he is notably dealing with WW2, nazis, etc) and are travelling (as usual, in Lawrence’s books).
    I hope you’ll enjoy the reading!


    • TheBrontëSister
      Apr 22, 2013 @ 13:36:06

      Interesting – I didn’t know their sister had written a book! I will have to look that up. They were such a unique and creative family and well worth researching I think.

      I’m with you in the preference for the fiction slant – it brings the travel/autobio side out for me and makes it so much more readable. I definitely want to read more by Lawrence – I just have to decide which one to read first!


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