Lawrence Durrell and the Middle East. Yes, we've all read The Alexandria Quartet. But Shakespeare could produce Macbeth and the grotesque Titus Andronicus. Eliot could write Gerontion yet turn patriot in The Defence of the Islands.
And Durrell, along with the Quartet and Bitter Lemons, managed to produce a pro-Israeli potboiler called Judith. Never heard of it? No wonder. It's just been published for the first time, and the Fisk hands have pawed every page. Heaven have mercy, etc. Come back Leon Uris and Exodus.
It's the novel of the film of the same name, for which Durrell wrote an initial script. The movie opened to lacklustre reviews in 1966, starring Sophia Loren as a Jewish Holocaust refugee-kibbutznik, Peter Finch as a Haganah Jewish settler and my old favourite Jack Hawkins as the lovelorn Major Lawton. Leon "I'm definitely biased" Uris wrote Exodus in 1958 – "the greatest thing ever written about Israel," according to David Ben-Gurion – as a Zionist epic in which Bedouin Arabs are described as "the dregs of humanity". The film version, with Paul Newman and Eva Marie Saint, came out six years before Judith. They might have been co-authored.
But all praise to Richard Pine and the Durrell School of Corfu, who have now published the first edition of Durrell's novel; if it lacks historical integrity – and, by God, it does – the author's prose shines through thickets of propaganda; a ship's crew sleeping "like a litter of cats", dusk in Jerusalem ("the honey-coloured tones of its buildings giving back the light of the sun as if filtered through the heart of a honey-comb"), the valley of the semi-fictional Shamir kibbutz as the refugees arrive ("orchards stretched away on every side, the leaves of the trees dusted pollen-yellow in the faded gleam of their headlights").
But as Pine notes of the Quartet, "Durrell himself had far greater sympathy for the Jewish cause than for the Arabs", and in Judith not a hint of sympathy touches the Palestinian victims. He does not even mention that the birth of the state of Israel caused the eviction and flight – the ethnic cleansing – of about 750,000 Arabs from their homes.
The only Arab who claims his old lands, a "Prince" Daud, admits his father had earlier sold them to the Jews. "We must have it again – we must have it," he shouts, "his fine eyes swollen with a facile emotion". When two Jewish agents travel to Egypt to meet an Arab smuggler, Abdul Sami, they find him living in the desert with "his two hundred wives and his dozens of impish children". But Sami is also "a heavily modernised man, and owned several Frigidaires, a helicopter, three Rolls-Royces of different colours … and a complete women's hairdressing establishment."
From the Arab quarter of Jerusalem – after Israel's independence – come "the withering snarls and yelps of the Arab radio, calling for death to the Jews…" Daud "lightened his boredom" by crucifying an elderly Jewish kibbutz guard on the cross-beam of a water-mill. Daud's force is trounced by the brave defenders of Ras Shamir, along with its tiny army of children. In the 1948 war, the real kibbutz Shamir was scarcely attacked; and its children had already been evacuated to Haifa.
But Durrell understood the British in Palestine – their impossible attempt to balance the Balfour Declaration for a Jewish homeland with the rights of the Arabs – and he matches his outrageous bias with a devastating and, I suspect, all-too-accurate account of the last days of the mandate. A British officer says: "We've made too many promises to too many people. We can't keep them all. I'm no politico, but I'll lay you short odds that HMG will funk it and try and crawl into the skirts of UNO." As indeed the British did crawl off to the United Nations Organisation.
Durrell puts its well himself: "The occupiers of Palestine, relieved at last of the burden they found so onerous, owing to their inability to tell the truth to either of the chief factions, or to honour the pledges given to both, now became almost deliberately slack in the execution of their duties."
There's also a chilling moment when Donner, a British policeman, turns off a tap in an interrogation centre. "Someone must have left it on after the last 'Water-Cure' – a refinement which consisted of pouring water from a teapot up the nostrils of clients until such time as they decided to tell the truth." I bet the Guantanamo lads liked that bit.
But as a narrative of Jewish wartime suffering, Durrell comes close to grandeur. Here is Grete, a Jewish woman divorced by her German husband and forced to work in a Nazi brothel, learning from a priest – "I know that beyond a shadow of a doubt your child is dead" – that her little boy, Otto, perished in Dachau: "The centre of numbness in the middle of her mind gradually overflowed to encompass her whole body. It overflowed like ink or blood on her carpet and she felt spreading through her a slowly expanding stain of something like amnesia. The phrase had turned her into a pillar of salt." Read on.