Durrell supported his writing by working for many years in the Foreign Service of the British government. His sojourns in various places during and after World War II (such as his time in Alexandria, Egypt) inspired much of his work. He married four times, and had a daughter with each of his first two wives.
Durrell was born in Jalandhar, British India, the eldest son of Indian-born British colonials Louisa (who was Anglo-Irish) and Lawrence Samuel Durrell, an engineer of English ancestry. His first school was St. Joseph's College, North Point, Darjeeling. He had three younger siblings— two brothers and a sister.
Like many other children of the British Raj, at the age of eleven, Durrell was sent to England for schooling, where he briefly attended St. Olave's Grammar School before being sent to St. Edmund's School, Canterbury. His formal education was unsuccessful, and he failed his university entrance examinations. He began to write poetry seriously at the age of fifteen. His first collection, Quaint Fragments, was published in 1931, when he was 19.
Durrell's father died of a brain hemorrhage in 1928, at the age of 43. His mother decided to bring the family to England, and in 1932, she, Durrell, and his younger siblings settled in Bournemouth. There, he and his younger brother Gerald became friends with Alan G. Thomas, who had a bookstore and would become an antiquarian.
On 22 January 1935, Durrell married Nancy Isobel Myers (1912–1983). It was the first of his four marriages. Durrell was always unhappy in England, and in March of that year he persuaded his new wife, and his mother and younger siblings, to move to the Greek island of Corfu. There they could live more economically and escape both the English weather, and what Durrell considered the stultifying English culture, which he described as "the English death".
That same year Durrell's first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, was published by Cassell. Around this time he chanced upon a copy of Henry Miller's 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer. After reading it, he wrote to Miller, expressing intense admiration for his novel. Durrell's letter sparked an enduring friendship and mutually critical relationship that spanned 45 years. Durrell's next novel, Panic Spring, was strongly influenced by Miller's work, while his 1938 novel The Black Book abounded with "four-letter words... grotesques,... [and] its mood equally as apocalyptic" as Tropic.
In Corfu, Lawrence and Nancy lived together in bohemian style. For the first few months, the couple lived with the rest of the Durrell family in the Villa Anemoyanni at Kontokali. In early 1936, Durrell and Nancy moved to the White House, a fisherman's cottage on the shore of Corfu's northeastern coast at Kalami, then a tiny fishing village. Durrell's friend Theodore Stephanides, a Greek doctor, scientist, and poet, was a frequent guest, and Miller stayed at the "White House" in 1939.
Durrell fictionalised this period of his sojourn on Corfu in the lyrical novel Prospero's Cell. His younger brother Gerald Durrell, who became a naturalist, published his own version in his memoir My Family and Other Animals (1954) and in the following two books of Gerald's so-called Corfu Trilogy, published in 1969 and 1978 respectively. Gerald describes Lawrence as living permanently with his mother and siblings—his wife Nancy is not mentioned at all. Lawrence, in his turn, refers only briefly to his brother Leslie, and he does not mention that his mother and two other siblings were also living on Corfu in those years. The accounts cover a few of the same topics; for example, both Gerald and Lawrence describe the roles played in their lives by the Corfiot taxi driver Spiro Amerikanos and the Greek doctor and poet Theodore Stephanides. In Corfu, Lawrence became friends with Marie Aspioti, with whom he cooperated in the publication of Lear's Corfu.
In August 1937, Lawrence and Nancy travelled to the Villa Seurat in Paris to meet Henry Miller and French writer Anaïs Nin. Together with Alfred Perles, Nin, Miller, and Durrell "began a collaboration aimed at founding their own literary movement. Their projects included The Shame of the Morning and the Booster, a country club house organ that the Villa Seurat group appropriated for their own artistic . . . ends." They also started the Villa Seurat Series in order to publish Durrell's Black Book, Miller's Max and the White Phagocytes, and Nin's Winter of Artifice. Jack Kahane of the Obelisk Press served as publisher.
Durrell's first novel of note, The Black Book: An Agon, was strongly influenced by Miller; it was published in Paris in 1938. The mildly pornographic work was not published in Great Britain until 1973. In the story, the main character Lawrence Lucifer struggles to escape the spiritual sterility of dying England and finds Greece to be a warm and fertile environment.
At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, Durrell's mother and siblings returned to England, while he and Nancy remained on Corfu. In 1940, he and Nancy had a daughter, Penelope Berengaria. After the fall of Greece, Lawrence and Nancy escaped via Crete to Alexandria, Egypt. The marriage was already under strain, and they separated in 1942. Nancy took the baby Penelope with her to Jerusalem.
During his years on Corfu, Durrell had made notes for a book about the island. He did not write it fully until he was in Egypt towards the end of the war. In the book Prospero's Cell, Durrell described Corfu as "this brilliant little speck of an island in the Ionian," with waters "like the heartbeat of the world itself".
During World War Two, Durrell served as a press attaché to the British embassies, first in Cairo and then Alexandria. While in Alexandria he met Eve (Yvette) Cohen, a Jewish Alexandrian. She inspired his character Justine in The Alexandria Quartet. In 1947, after his divorce from Nancy was completed, Durrell married Eve Cohen. In 1951 they had a daughter whom they named Sappho Jane, after the legendary ancient Greek poet Sappho. (After many years of struggling with mental health problems, Sappho Durrell committed suicide by hanging in 1985.)
In May 1945, Durrell obtained a posting to Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese islands which Italy had taken over from the disintegrating Ottoman Empire in 1912 during the Balkan Wars. With the Italian surrender to the Allies in 1943, German forces took over most of the islands and held onto them as besieged fortresses until the war's end. Mainland Greece was at that time locked in civil war. A temporary British military government was established in the Dodecanese at war's end, pending sovereignty being transferred to Greece in 1947, as part of war reparations from Italy. Durrell set up house with Eve in the little gatekeeper's lodge of an old Turkish cemetery, just across the road from the building used by the British Administration. (Today this is the Casino in Rhodes' new town.) His co-habitation with Eve Cohen could be discreetly ignored by his employer, while the couple gained from staying within the perimeter security zone of the main building. His book Reflections on a Marine Venus was inspired by this period and was a lyrical celebration of the island. It avoids more than a passing mention of the troubled war times.
In 1947, Durrell was appointed director of the British Council Institute in Córdoba, Argentina. He served there for eighteen months, giving lectures on cultural topics. He returned to London with Eve in the summer of 1948, around the time that Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia broke ties with Stalin's Cominform. Durrell was posted by the British Council to Belgrade, Yugoslavia, and served there until 1952. This sojourn gave him material for his novel White Eagles over Serbia (1957).
In 1952, Eve had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalised in England. Durrell moved to Cyprus with their daughter Sappho Jane, buying a house and taking a position teaching English literature at the Pancyprian Gymnasium to support his writing. He next worked in public relations for the British government during the local agitation for union with Greece. He wrote about his time in Cyprus in Bitter Lemons, which won the Duff Cooper Prize in 1957. In 1954, he was selected as a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Durrell left Cyprus in August 1956. Political agitation on the island and his British government position resulted in his becoming a target for assassination attempts.
In 1957, he published Justine, the first novel of what was to become his most famous work, The Alexandria Quartet. Justine, Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960), deal with events before and during the Second World War in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. The first three books tell essentially the same story and series of events, but from the varying perspectives of different characters. Durrell described this technique in his introductory note in Balthazar as "relativistic." Only in the final novel, Clea, does the story advance in time and reach a conclusion. Critics praised the 'Quartet' for its richness of style, the variety and vividness of its characters, its movement between the personal and the political, and its locations in and around the ancient Egyptian city which Durrell portrays as the chief protagonist: "The city which used us as its flora—precipitated in us conflicts which were hers and which we mistook for our own: beloved Alexandria!" The Times Literary Supplement review of the Quartet stated: "If ever a work bore an instantly recognizable signature on every sentence, this is it."
In 2012, when the Nobel Records were opened after 50 years, it was revealed that Durrell had been on a shortlist of authors considered for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature, along with American John Steinbeck (winner), British poet Robert Graves, French writer Jean Anouilh, and the Danish Karen Blixen. The Academy decided that "Durrell was not to be given preference this year"—probably because "they did not think that The Alexandria Quartet was enough, so they decided to keep him under observation for the future." They also noted that he "gives a dubious aftertaste … because of [his] monomaniacal preoccupation with erotic complications." He had been considered in 1961 but did not make the shortlist.
In 1955 Durrell separated from Eve Cohen. He married again in 1961, to Claude-Marie Vincendon, whom he met on Cyprus. She was a Jewish woman born in Alexandria. Durrell was devastated when Claude-Marie died of cancer in 1967. He married for the fourth and last time in 1973, to Ghislaine de Boysson, a French woman. They divorced in 1979.
Durrell settled in Sommières, a small village in Languedoc, France, where he purchased a large house on the edge of the village. The house was situated in extensive grounds surrounded by a wall. Here he wrote The Revolt of Aphrodite, comprising Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970). He also completed The Avignon Quintet, published from 1974 to 1985, which used many of the same motifs and styles found in his metafictional Alexandria Quartet. Although the related works are frequently described as a quintet, Durrell referred to it as a "quincunx."
The opening novel, Monsieur, or the Prince of Darkness, received the 1974 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. That year, Durrell was living in the United States and serving as the Andrew Mellon Visiting Professor of Humanities at the California Institute of Technology. The middle novel of the quincunx, Constance, or Solitary Practices (1981), which portrays France in the 1940s under the German occupation, was nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982.
In 1982 Durrell wrote "About Eduardo Sanguinetti," the preface to Sanguinetti's philosophical essay Alter Ego (1986). He wrote:
"This is what the work of Sanguinetti shows us, in the form of a mirror image. Or, to put it in less philosophical terms, Eduardo Sanguinetti, like almost any other creator, has little understanding of what he is going to do and only partially understands what he has done. Sanguinetti, in a way of contemplating the world and all his work, whatever the medium, reveals this particular way. Sanguinetti is a style. He is an extraordinarily coherent statement of a way of being in the world."
Other works from this period are Sicilian Carousel, a non-fiction celebration of that island, The Greek Islands, and Caesar's Vast Ghost, which is set in and chiefly about the region of Provence, France.
A longtime smoker, Durrell suffered from emphysema for many years. He died of a stroke at his house in Sommières in November 1990. One year after his death, in 1991 the British literary magazine Granta published excerpts from the journals of his late daughter Sappho. She had committed suicide in 1985 at the age of 33 after many years of psychiatric problems. In the journals, she intimated that she had an incestuous relationship with her father. Reviewer Roger Cohen said that the nature of her "largely incoherent" writing made it impossible to determine whether the events she describes were real or imagined.
Durrell said that he had three literary uncles: his publisher T. S. Eliot, the Greek poet George Seferis, and the American Henry Miller. He had first read Miller after finding a copy of Tropic of Cancer that had been left behind in a public lavatory. He said the book shook him "from stem to stern".
Durrell worked for several years in the service of the Foreign Office. He was senior press officer to the British embassies in Athens and Cairo, press attaché in Alexandria and Belgrade, and director of the British Institutes in Kalamata, Greece, and Córdoba, Argentina. He was also director of Public Relations in the Dodecanese Islands and on Cyprus. He later refused a Commander of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, because he felt his "conservative, reactionary and right-wing" political views might be a cause for embarrassment. Durrell's works of humour, Esprit de Corps and Stiff Upper Lip, are about life in the diplomatic corps, particularly Serbia. He claimed to have disliked both Egypt and Argentina, although not nearly so much as he disliked Yugoslavia.
Durrell's poetry has been overshadowed by his novels, but Peter Porter, in his introduction to a Selected Poems, calls Durrell "One of the best [poets] of the past hundred years. And one of the most enjoyable." Porter describes Durrell's poetry: "Always beautiful as sound and syntax. Its innovation lies in its refusal to be more high-minded than the things it records, together with its handling of the whole lexicon of language."
For much of his life, Durrell resisted being identified solely as British, or as only affiliated with Britain. He preferred to be considered as cosmopolitan. Since his death, there have been rumours that Durrell never had British citizenship, but he was originally classified as a British citizen as he was born to British colonial parents living in India under the British Raj.
In 1966 Durrell and many other former and present British residents became classified as non-patrial, as a result of an amendment to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act. The law was covertly intended to reduce migration from India, Pakistan, and the West Indies, but Durrell was also penalized by it and refused citizenship. He had not been told that he needed to "register as a British citizen in 1962 under the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962."
As The Guardian reported in 2002, Durrell in 1966 was "one of the best selling, most celebrated English novelists of the late 20th century" and "at the height of his fame." Denied the normal citizenship right to enter or settle in Britain, Durrell had to apply for a visa for each entry. Diplomats were outraged and embarrassed at these events. "Sir Patrick Reilly, the ambassador in Paris, was so incensed that he wrote to his Foreign Office superiors: 'I venture to suggest it might be wise to ensure that ministers, both in the Foreign Office and the Home Office, are aware that one of our greatest living writers in the English language is being debarred from the citizenship of the United Kingdom to which he is entitled.'"
After Durrell's death, his lifelong friend Alan G. Thomas donated a collection of books and periodicals associated with Durrell to the British Library. This is maintained as the distinct Lawrence Durrell Collection. Thomas had earlier edited an anthology of writings, letters and poetry by Durrell, published as Spirit Of Place (1969). It contained material related to Durrell's own published works. Important documentary resource is kept by the Bibliothèque Lawrence Durrell at the Université Paris Ouest in Nanterre.