As anyone who has seen the acclaimed British television series The Durrells in Corfu is aware, the family of Lawrence Durrell spent four very transformative years on the idyllic Greek island.
Although the series is more comedic than dramatic, in reality the family’s circumstances leading them to move to the island were quite dire. Left without a husband and father to her four children, Durrell’s mother, Louisa, was bereft of resources without any means of taking care of the family.
She was also an alcoholic whose depression led her to spend large amounts of time unable to attend to her children.
In January of 1935, her budding novelist son Lawrence married Nancy Myers. Since Durrell was always unhappy in England, he persuaded his new wife and his mother and younger siblings to make the bold move to the Greek island of Corfu.
Corfu (Kerkyra, in Greek) a crescent-shaped island in the Ionian Sea, lies just offshore from the border with Albania.
There, they could not only live more economically but escape the English weather, and what Durrell considered the stultifying English culture, which he described as “the English death,” as well.
During that same year, Durrell’s first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, was published, enabling him to take care of his family economically.
His most famous work is The Alexandria Quartet, published between 1957 and 1960. The best-known novel in the series is the first, Justine. Beginning in 1974, Durrell published The Avignon Quintet, which is similar in many ways to the previous series.
The first of these novels, Monsieur, or the Prince of Darkness, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1974. The middle novel, Constance, or Solitary Practices, was nominated for the 1982 Booker Prize. By the end of the century, Durrell was a bestselling author and one of the most celebrated writers in England.
Corfu Adventure Opened up the World to Lawrence Durrell
As we know, the adventure the family set out on in 1935 was one that would shape all of their lives forever despite their having to decamp because of the Second World War just four years after they alighted there.
Two writers in the family, both Lawrence and his brother Gerald, an animal-lover, related various tales full of local characters, cultural mishaps, and sudden epiphanies of their time on Corfu in their literary works.
Gerald Durrell later became a world-renowned naturalist back in Great Britain for his work with animals.
While he was experiencing all the wonders of the natural word of Corfu, later encapsulated in the book My Family and Other Animals, which was the basis for The Durrells in Corfu, Lawrence was drinking up all the local spirits and getting to know all the local villagers.
At the same time, however, he was becoming very knowledgeable about the political realities of Greece. After the outbreak of World War II, he went to work for the British Foreign Service and later served as an official of the Cyprus government for the last two years he lived on the island.
Prospero’s Cell is Lawrence Durrell’s Love Letter to Corfu
After he was stationed in Alexandria following the fall of Greece, Durrell spent much of his free time writing what became his love letter to Corfu, finishing it in 1942.
He wrote the book as a way to memorialize his friends the villagers who had been killed in the invasion, and for the northern Corfu house he and Nancy had lived in which had been bombed and destroyed. He knew that the prewar life of simpler times and pursuits had ended for good, not only on the remote island of Corfu but in Greece itself.
His work Prospero’s Cell, the first of his travel writings, is Durrell’s paean to the magical Aegean island. Prospero, the protagonist of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, also, like Durrell, escapes to a desert island.
A count who Durrell met in Corfu says that he believes that the desert island was indeed Corfu. In the book, which includes the history of the island, Durrell quotes the Count, who tells him bluntly just what he thinks the book will look like and what Durrell will accomplish by writing it.
The Count answers him: “It is difficult to say…A portrait inexact of detail, containing bright splinters of landscape, written out roughly, as if to get rid of something which was troubling the optic nerves.”
That, in a nutshell, is how many travelers to Greece experience the country, in its staggering, stark beauty which is so strange and otherworldly that there is almost no way to categorize it in the mind’s eye.
After he was married, Lawrence and wife Nancy Myers (whom he refers to as “N.” in the book) went to live in a white house at the northernmost tip of the island.
His work grew out of their time together from poetic images he had gathered during those years. It is similar to his later work, Reflections on a Marine Venus, an account of his post-war life on the Greek island of Rhodes.
“It is April and we have taken an old fisherman’s house in the extreme north of the island Kalamai,” Durrell related in the book. “Ten sea-miles from the town, and some thirty kilometres by road, it offers all the charms of seclusion. A white house set like a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water. The hill runs clear up into the sky behind it, so that the cypresses and olives overhang this room in which I sit and write”.
“Some Writers Reinvent their Language”
A natural wordsmith who had begun writing poetry when he was fifteen, Durrell was such a gifted writer that critic Andre Aciman wrote of Durrell: “Some writers reinvent their language; others the world. Durrell did both.”
Durrell related in Prospero’s Cell the stories of some of the many characters that we meet in The Durells in Corfu, including Spiro the driver, who was also a magical provider of many essential things needed by the family; Theodore, the brilliant Corfiot naturalist (who was a mentor of Gerald in his discovery of animals and the natural world); and Zarian, an Armenian poet.
Durrell makes a memorable comparison between the inhabitants of Corfu and the characters in The Odyssey in Prospero’s Cell: “It is a portrait of a nation which rings clear today as when it was written. The loquacity, the shy cunning, the mendacity, the generosity, the cowardice and bravery, the almost comical inability of self analysis. The unloving humour and the scolding. Nowhere is it possible to find a flaw.”
Durrell examined many other themes in his later works, always seemingly returning to the conundrums of love and sex. As he states in “there are only three things to be done with a woman…love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.”
Lawrence Durrell’s Focus on People, Not Politics, of the Mediterranean
The tortured politics of the Mediterranean was always a dominant theme as well for the British Foreign Service agent. However, as he later stated in the introduction to Bitter Lemons, Durrell’s third book in a trilogy of island books, he “tried to illustrate it through [his] characters and evaluate it in terms of individuals rather than policies, for [he] wanted to keep the book free for the smaller contempts, in the hope that it would be readable long after the current misunderstandings have been resolved, as they must be sooner or later.”
Tragically, Durrell’s beloved home in Cyprus, Bellapais, referred to as “Bellapaix,” in the book, is now located in occupied northern Cyprus.
In 1957, Durrell 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.
“Journeys, Like Artists, are Born, not Made”
Fascinatlngly, the first three books tell the same story and relate the same series of events, but Durrell does this by employing varying perspectives of the different characters. Durrell described this technique in his introduction in Balthazar as “relativistic.”
Durrell’s other noteworthy writings include White Eagles over Serbia, (1957) and The Revolt of Aphrodite, comprised of the books Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970). Sicilian Carousel, a non-fiction treatment of his love for that island which is so much like Greece, followed, with The Greek Islands, and Caesar’s Vast Ghost amongst his last works.
Durrell received nominations for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1961 and 1962. This brilliant writer’s time in Greece gave him insights into human nature that he used in all of his subsequent works; as he wrote in Bitter Lemons: “Journeys, like artists, are born and not made.”
Durrell wrote that: “A thousand differing circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will—whatever we may think. They flower spontaneously out of the demands of our natures—and the best of them lead us not only outwards in space, but inward as well. Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.”
As Durrell wrote in Prospero’s Cell, “Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder—the discovery of yourself.”
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