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A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corfu
By Lawrence Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1975 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
Divisions upon Greek Ground
"No tongue: all eyes: be silent." The Tempest
Some where between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins. All the way across Italy 'you find yourself moving through a landscape severely domesticated—each valley laid out after the architect's pattern, brilliantly lighted, human. But once you strike out from the flat and desolate Calabrian mainland towards the sea, you are aware of a change in the heart of things: aware of the horizon beginning to stain at the rim of the world: aware of islands coming out of the darkness to meet you.
In the morning you wake to the taste of snow on the air, and climbing the companion-ladder, suddenly enter the penumbra of shadow cast by the Albanian mountains—each wearing its cracked crown of snow—desolate and repudiating stone.
A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava. You are aware not so much of a landscape coming to meet you invisibly over those blue miles of water as of a climate. You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and wherever you look the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives.
Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder—the discovery of yourself.
It is a sophism to imagine that there is any strict dividing line between the waking world and the world of dreams. N. and I, for example, are confused by the sense of several contemporaneous lives being lived inside us; the sensation of being mere points of reference for space and time. We have chosen Corcyra perhaps because it is an anteroom to Aegean Greece with its smoke-grey volcanic turtlebacks lying low against the ceiling of heaven. Corcyra is all Venetian blue and gold—and utterly spoilt by the sun. Its richness cloys and enervates. The southern valleys are painted out boldly in heavy brush-strokes of yellow and red while the Judas trees punctuate the roads with their dusty purple explosions. Everywhere you go you can lie down on grass; and even the bare northern reaches of the island are rich in olives and mineral springs.
The architecture of the town is Venetian; the houses above the old port are built up elegantly into slim tiers with narrow alleys and colonnades running between them; red, yellow, pink, umber—a jumble of pastel shades which the moonlight transforms into a dazzling white city built for a wedding cake. There are other curiosities; the remains of a Venetian aristocracy living in overgrown baronial mansions, buried deep in the country and surrounded by cypresses. A patron saint of great antiquity who lies, clad in beautifully embroidered slippers, in a great silver casket, apt for the performance of miracles.
It is April and we have taken an old fisherman's house in the extreme north of the island—Kalamai. Ten sea-miles from the town, and some thirty kilometers 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. We are upon a bare promontory with its beautiful clean surface of metamorphic stone covered in olive and ilex: in the shape of a mons pubis. This is become our unregretted home. A world. Corcyra.
The books have arrived by water. Confusion, adjectives, smoke, and the deafening pumping of the wheezy Diesel engine. Then the caique staggered off in the direction of St. Stephano and the Forty Saints, where the crew will gorge themselves on melons and fall asleep in their coarse woollen vests, one on top of the other, like a litter of cats, under the ikon of St. Spiridion of Holy Memory. We are depending upon this daily caique for our provisions.
Climb to Vigla in the time of cherries and look down. You will see that the island lies against the mainland roughly in the form of a sickle. On the landward side you have a great bay, noble and serene, and almost completely landlocked. Northward the tip of the sickle almost touches Albania and here the troubled blue of the Ionian is sucked harshly between ribs of limestone and spits of sand. Kalamai fronts the Albanian foothills, and into it the water races as into a swimming pool: a milky ferocious green when the north wind curdles it.
The cape opposite is bald; a wilderness of rock-thistle and melancholy asphodel—the drear sea-squill. It was on a ringing spring day that we discovered the house. The sky lay in a heroic blue arc as we came down the stone ladder. I remember N. saying distinctly to Theodore: "But the quietness alone makes it another country." We looked through the hanging screen of olive-branches on to the white sea wall with fishing tackle drying on it. A neglected balcony. The floors were cold. Fowls clucked softly in the gloom where the great olive-press lay, waiting its season. A cypress stood motionless—as if at the gates of the underworld. We shivered and sat on the white rock to eat, looking down at our own faces in the motionless sea. You will think it strange to have come all the way from England to this fine Grecian promontory where our only company can be rock, air, sky—and all the elementals. In letters home N. says we have been cultivating the tragic sense. There is no explanation. It is enough to record that everything is exactly as the fortuneteller said it would be. White house, white rock, friends, and a narrow style of loving: and perhaps a book which will grow out of these scraps, as from the rubbish of these old Venetian tombs the cypress cracks the slabs at last and rises up fresh and green.
We are lucky in our friends. Two of them seem of almost mythological quality—Ivan Zarian and the arcane professor of broken bones Theodore Stephanides. Zarian is grey, eminent and imposing with his mane of hair and his habit of conducting himself as he intones his latest love song; he claims to be Armenia's greatest poet with a firmness and modesty that completely charm. He has spent nearly two years here intoning his work to anyone who would listen, and making an exhaustive study of the island wines. He has managed to convert the top floor of the St. George Hotel into a workroom—indeed a wilderness of manuscript and paintings. Here, looking out upon the blunt fortifications of the Eastern Fort, and pausing from time to time to relish a glass of wine, he compiles his literary column for some new world Armenian newspapers. On Friday, the 8th of March, he sent me a friendly message reading:
Dear Durrell: we miss you but most your beautiful wife. Dear, boy, yes, certainly I have immortalized you this week. I have written this epoch of our lives. Great love from Zarian.
Zarian walks as if he wears a heavy cloak. A copious and extravagant figure, it was he who instituted our literary meetings once a week at the "Sign of the Partridge," off the main square of the town. Zarian possesses an extraordinary typewriter which enables him, by simply revolving the bed of type, to write in French and Italian as well as in Armenian and Russian. At these weekly meetings he rises to his feet and, in a beautifully controlled voice, recites the "to be or not to be" speech from Hamlet, first in French, and then in Armenian, Russian, Italian, German and Spanish. He scorns to learn English properly.
From My Notebook 5.12.37
For Theodore's portrait: fine head and golden beard: very Edwardian face—and perfect manners of Edwardian professor. Probably reincarnation of comic professor invented by Edward Lear during his stay in Corcyra. Tremendous shyness and diffidence. Incredibly erudite in everything concerning the island. Firm Venezelist, and possessor of the dryest and most fastidious style of exposition ever seen. Thumbnail portrait of bearded man in boots and cape, with massive bug-hunting apparatus on his back stalking across country to a delectable pond where his microscopic world of algae and diatoms (the only real world for him) lies waiting to be explored. Theodore is always being arrested as a foreign agent because of the golden beard, strong English accent in Greek, and mysterious array of vessels and swabs and tubes dangling about his person. On his first visit to Kalamai house he had hardly shaken hands when sudden light came into his eye. Taking a conical box from his pocket he said "excuseme" with considerable suppressed excitement and advanced to the drawing room wall to capture a sand fly exclaiming as he did so in a small triumphant voice "Got it. Four hundred and second."
Gulls turning down wind; today a breath of sirocco and the sea grinding and crushing up its colors under the house; the town gardens steaming in their rotten richness. The Duchess of B. abroad in a large hat, riding in a horse carriage. Shuttered mansions with the umbrella pines rapping at the windows. On the great southern shelf you can see the road running white as a scar against the emerald lake; the olives are tacking madly from grey to silver, and behind the house the young cypresses are like drawn bows. Nicholas who was standing firm and square before us on the jetty a minute ago is now that speck of red sail against the mountains. Then at night it dies down suddenly and the color washes back into the sky. At the "Sign of the Partridge" Zarian gives a discourse on landscape as a form of metaphysics. "The divine Plato said once that in Greece you see God with his compasses and dividers." N. maintains Lawrence's grasp of place against an English boy who declares all the Lawrentian landscapes to be invented not described; while Theodore surprises by asking in a small voice for a glass of wine (he does not drink) and adding in an even smaller voice: "What is causality?"
Causality is this dividing floor which falls away each morning when I am back on the warm rocks, lying with my face less than a foot above the dark Ionian. All morning we lie under the red brick shrine to Saint Arsenius, dropping cherries into the pool—clear down two fathoms to the sandy floor where they loom like drops of blood. N. has been going in for them like an otter and bringing them up in her lips. The Shrine is our private bathing-pool; four puffs of cypress, deep clean-cut diving ledges above two fathoms of blue water, and a floor of clean pebbles. Once after a storm an ikon of the good Saint Arsenius was found here by a fisherman called Manoli, and he built the shrine out of red plaster as a house for it. The little lamp is always full of sweet oil now, for St. Arsenius guards our bathing.
At evening the blue waters of the lagoon invent moonlight and play it back in fountains of crystal on the white rocks and the deep balcony; into the high-ceilinged room where N.'s lazy pleasant paintings stare down from the walls. And invisibly the air (cool as the breath from the heart of a melon) pours over the window sills and mingles with the scent of the exhausted lamps. It is so still that the voice of a man up there in the dusk under the olives disturbs and quickens one like the voice of conscience itself. Under the glacid surface of the sea fishes are moving like the suggestion of fishes—influences of curiosity and terror. And now the stars are shining down frostblown and taut upon this pure Euclidian surface. It is so still that we have dinner under the cypress tree to the light of a candle. And after it, while we are drinking coffee and eating grapes on the edge of the mirror a wind comes: and the whole of heaven stirs and trembles—a great branch of blossoms melting and swaying. Then as the candle draws breath and steadies everything hardens slowly back into the image of a world in water, so that Theodore can point into the water at our feet and show us the Pleiades burning.
At such moments we never speak; but I am aware of the brown arms and throat in the candlelight and the brown toes in the sandals. I am aware of a hundred images at once and a hundred ways of dealing with them. The bowl of wild roses. The English knives and forks. Greek cigarettes. The battered and sea-stained notebook in which I rough out my poems. The rope and oar lying under the tree. The spilth of the olive-press which will be gathered for fuel. The pile of rough stone for the building of a garden wall. A bucket and an axe. The peasant crossing the orchard in her white headdress. The restless cough of the goat in the barn. All these take shape and substance round this little yellow cone of flame in which N. is cutting the cheese and washing the grapes. A single candle burning upon a table between our happy selves.
I have preserved the text of Theodore's first communication. It arrived on Sunday by the evening boat and was delivered at the door by Spiro the village idiot. Since it was superscribed urgent I made the messenger the gift of a drachma.
I learn with considerable joy from our mutual friend Z that you are intending a written history of the isle. It is a project which I myself have long contemplated but owing to the diffuseness of my interests and lack of literary talent I have always felt myself unequal to the task. I hasten however to place all my material at your service, and on Tuesday will send you (a) my synoptic history of the island, (b) my facts about St. Spiridion, (c) my freshwater biology of Corcyra, (d) a short account of the geology of the island of Corcyra. This should interest you. It is only the beginning. Yours sincerely, Theodore Stephanides.
It is on the strength of this that I have entered into a correspondence characterized on my part by flights of deliberately false scholarship, and on his by the unsmiling and fastidious rectitude of a research worker. Our letters are carried to and fro by the island boats. It is, as he says, only a beginning.
At night the piper sometimes plays, while his grazing sheep walk upon the opposite cape and browse among the arbutus and scrub. We lie in bed with our skins rough and satiny from the salt and listen. The industrious and rather boring nightingales are abashed by the soft liquid quartertones, the unearthly quibbles of the flute. There is form without melody, and the notes are emptied as if drop by drop on to the silence. It is the wheedling voice of the sirens that Ulysses heard.
We have been betraying our origins. N. has decided to build a garden on the rock outside the house. We will have to bring the soil down in sacks, and employ the Aegean technique of walled boxes and columns. The design is N.'s and its execution is in the hands of John and Nicholas, father and son, who are the best masons in the village. The father builds slightly lopsided because, he says, he is blind in one eye; and his son comes silently behind him to rectify his errors and admire his facility in pruning the mountain stone into rough blocks. John is most comfortable squatting on his haunches in the shadow cast by his wide straw hat and talking scandal; he moves along the wall in a series of hops like a clipped magpie. His son is a fresh-faced dumb youth with a vivid smile and excellent manners. He dresses in the hideous cloth cap and torn breeches of the European workman, while his father still wears pointed slippers. It is worth perhaps recording the traditional island costume, now seldom seen except at festivals and dances.
* Blue embroidered bolero jacket with black and gold braid and piping.
* A white soft shirt with puffed sleeves.
* Baggy blue breeches called Vrakes.
* White woollen gaiters.
* And pointed Turkish slippers with no pompom.
* Either a soft red fez with a blue tassel
* Or a white straw hat.
The straw from the packing cases will go to cover the floor of the magazine where the goat is tethered. The rooms look lovely and gracious with their whitewashed walls, and the few bright paintings and books. The windows give directly on to the sea, so that its perpetual sighing is the rhythm of our work and our sleeping. By day it runs golden on the ceilings, reflecting back the bright peasant rugs—a ship, a gorgon, a loom, a cypress tree; reflecting back the warm crude pottery of our table; reflecting back N. now brown-skinned and blonde, reading in a chair with her legs tucked under her. Calm eyes, calm hair, and clear white teeth like those of a young carnivore. As Father Nicholas says: "What more does a man want than an olive tree, a native island, and woman from his own place?"
The man and his wife are fine creatures. He is called Anastasius and she Helen. It is obvious from their children that the marriage was a marriage of love rather than convenience. She is most delicately formed in a deep silken olive color; their hair has that deep black which shines out in sudden hints of blue—the simile of the Klepthic poems says "hair like the wing of a raven." Beautifully formed eyebrows above their dark eyes, clear and circumflex. Only their hands and feet—like those of all peasants—are blunt and hideous: mere spades grown upon the members through a long battle with soil, ropes, and wood. Their daughters are called Sky and Freedom.
"Formal geology," writes Theodore in his treatise, "will still find features of interest in Corcyra; and if the form of the island in general is conditioned by its limestone features, there are many interesting configurations worth the mature attention of field workers."
Excerpted from Prospero's Cell by Lawrence Durrell. Copyright © 1975 Lawrence Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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