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Reflections on a Marine Venus
A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes
By Lawrence Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1953 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
Of Paradise Terrestre
Alvarez fled; and after him the doom Of exile was sent out; he, as report Was bold to voice, retired himself to Rhodes
—MIDDLETON: The Spanish Gipsy
Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. There are people, Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication. These born "islomanes" he used to add, are the direct descendants of the Atlanteans, and it is towards the lost Atlantis that their subconscious yearns throughout their island life ... I forget the other details. But like all Gideon's theories it was an ingenious one. I recall how bitterly it was debated by candlelight in the Villa Cleobolus until the moon went down on the debate, and until Gideon's contentions were muffled in his yawns: until Hoyle began to tap his spectacles upon the thumbnail of his left hand, which was his way of starting to say goodnight: until Mehmet Bey, in the house across the oleander grove, banged his shutters together as a protest against the lateness of the hour. Yet the word stuck; and though Hoyle refused its application to any but Aegean islands, while Sand could not bring himself to look a theory so irrational in the eye, we all of us, by tacit admission, knew ourselves to be "islomanes."
This book is by intention a sort of anatomy of islomania, with all its formal defects of inconsequence and shapelessness: of conversations begun and left hanging in the air; of journeys planned and never undertaken; of notes and studies put together against books unwritten.... It is to be dedicated to the resident goddess of a Greek island—Rhodes. I should like, if possible, to recall some part of those golden years, whose ghosts still rise up and afflict me whenever I catch sight of a letter with a Greek stamp on it, or whenever, in some remote port of the world, I happen upon a derelict tanker flying the Aegean blue-and-white.
In Rhodes the days drop as softly as fruit from trees. Some belong to the dazzling ages of Cleobulus and the tyrants, some to the gloomy Tiberius, some to the Crusaders. They follow each other in scales and modes too quickly almost to be captured in the nets of form. Only by a strict submission to the laws of inconsequence can one ever write about an island—as an islomane, that is. And then who could ever hope to pin down, to circumscribe, the charms of a resident goddess? I have not attempted to cut down below the surface of my subjects' poses. I have attempted to illumine a single man by a single phrase, and to leave him where he sits embedded in the slow flux of Grecian days, undisturbed by literary artifice—as a good host should.... Gideon with his monocle screwed in sitting soberly before a bottle of mastika; Hoyle winding his enormous watch; Mills talking; Sand sucking his pipe; Egon Huber walking the deserted beaches hunting for scraps of wood to carve; and the dark-eyed E, whose shadow is somehow spread over all these—a familiar, a critic, a lover—E putting on a flowered frock in the studio mirror with her black hair ruffled. I have tried not to disturb them in the little eternities of their island life, where somehow their spirits mingle and join that of the Marine Venus standing in her little stone cell at the Museum like a challenge from a life infinitely more remote. If I have sacrificed form it is for something better, sifting into the material now some old notes from a forgotten scrapbook, now a letter; all the quotidian stuff which might give a common reader the feeling of life lived in a historic present.
That spring afternoon of 1945 when the order to embark came through to us in Alexandria, my first glimpse of Gideon, I remember, was not reassuring. We were to be fellow passengers aboard a military HDML—a vessel whose sleek and powerful lines suggested to my innocent eyes speedy and comfortable travel. We were promised an early morning landfall in Rhodes. In a few hours, then, I should find myself, after some four years of exile, on a Greek island once more.
Gideon stood among a cluster of engineers and seamen, abstractedly reading a book. I recall thinking to myself that he looked the personification of orthodoxy: the monocle, the clipped silver hair, the polished boots.... (An Indian Army regular whose knowledge of routine has placed him at the head of a sub-department devoted to sanitation or supply?) If I were to spend twenty-four hours in his company, I thought, I should undoubtedly spend them in politely deferring to judgments based on popular prejudice, or the naif self-regard of a regular soldier who has come to regard his regimental mess as the whole wide world. His rather obvious glass eye regarded the world from time to time with what seemed to me to be a somewhat boorish indifference—an impression which was strengthened when I saw him accept without thanks a comfortable chair and a cushion. The rest of us lay about his feet upon cushions improvised out of our kit. He was followed by a little black and white terrier, obviously very well trained.
On one point, however, my mind was soon set at rest. The panting of the great engines as they drove us storming across the oily waters of Alexandria towards the open sea made it quite clear that conversation would be an impossibility. We were each of us to be sealed up in the great throbbing privacy of sound. I cannot say I was unhappy. There was so much to think about, so much to hope for, in the idea of seeing Greece again. I thought of all the letters I had received in recent months—letters with an obituary flavor. "You will find it completely changed" said one. "The old life has gone forever" said another. "Go to America" urged a third. Tomorrow I should see for myself whether the old Greek ambience had survived the war, whether it was still a reality based in the landscape and the people—or whether we had simply invented it for ourselves in the old days, living comfortably on foreign exchange, patronizing reality with our fancies and making bad literature from them. Tomorrow I should know whether I must relegate my feelings about Greece to the dusty corners of memory along with so many other mad vagaries of the heart.
As we rounded the old fort I turned back to catch a last glimpse of E standing and waving to me from the corner of the esplanade before the mist began to settle and the whole scimitar-like sweep of minarets and belfries of the upper town dissolved in soft pearl and gold. Egypt and Greece—for a moment the conflicting loyalties of love and habit assailed me. But E was following me to Rhodes after an interval of weeks, and she was my only tie with Egypt. I saw her enter the old office car, and watched it move slowly off in the murk. The journey had begun!
Ten miles off Alexandria we were still carving up a solid brown trench in the waters of the open sea—waters polluted by the dense Nilotic silt—when a solitary dolphin struck surface and galloped alongside us for a moment; my heart rose at the augury, for the fish is a bringer of fair weather and luck. I leaned to follow it with my eye when, with the suddenness of an axe falling, we hit the pure Mediterranean blueness of the true Aegean, a sea with depth and tone, that swallowed and gave back the sky; a sea that belonged to the waterless islands and grey windmills, to the olive trees and the statues. At long last we had burst through the misty curtain of atmosphere that lies forever over Mareotis.
The sun was slowly setting, lumbering down into the Underworld, My fellow passengers had, for the greater part, fallen asleep. Gideon alone sat awake over his book, tapping away an occasional yawn with a long index finger and caressing his dog. The crew came up and distributed mugs of service tea. If you leaned to the rail now and stared down into the water you had the impression that we were flying; the flared bows of the HDML were lifted high as she drove her coarse furrow through the still sea. The snarling of the great engines wrapped us all in a deaf silence—a marvelous brutal music of vibrating steel and wood. Behind us we left great stains of oily heat upon the waters and a white cicatrice which slowly healed again. The warmth of the coarse sweet tea was delightful; it reminded one that night was falling, and that the cold was slowly settling in from the west. Presently I too lay down and drifted into a shallow sleep from which all this noise seemed to be like the placid roaring in some colored seashell picked up on the warm beaches of Corfu or Delos in those happy years before the war. It was as if my longing to be back in Greece had all but exhausted itself in fulfillment. I was numbed. Forgotten scenes came into my mind, without form or coherence, yet bathed in the sunny lambency of the Greek past, and even in my sleep I felt something like the absurd disposition to tears with which I last saw the shores of Crete fade into the mists of 1941.
The storm which caught us some eighty miles off Alexandria had been described in the weather report as "a slight squall." It seemed nothing so negligible. Indeed the first impact suggested something like the eruption of a volcano. The HDML hit the first wave with a prodigious slap that jolted every bone in our bodies. Such weather would have been bad enough in an island caieque, but in a craft which could not throttle down to less than fifteen knots without making leeway, its effect was indescribable. I awoke to see the Aegean heaped up around us in glossy valleys, lit by the yellowish glare of the ship's lamps. The even snarling of the engines was now punctuated by a regular series of sobs and grunts and by the horrible grinding of the screws as they were lifted clear of purchase.
In later days Gideon was used to say (when asked how first we had met) that we had been thrown together. He enjoyed the literal as well as the figurative aspects of the phrase far more, I am sure, than either of us enjoyed the storm which first introduced us to each other. But thrown together we certainly were. At the first impact of wind and water the ship began the butting, goring motion we were to learn so well. The noise of the screws before they buried themselves in the sea once more suggested the noise of a giant grinding his teeth. Hurled into a corner, I found Gideons head in my lap, and my legs round the neck of a soldier. We lip read each others' apologies and disengaged as gracefully as we could—only to be flung down once more in a heap. It was impossible to stand upright; it was rather more than difficult to manage to stay in one place. Throttled down as far as she would go the HDML skidded along the surface of the sea with the waves breaking over her in a series of stabbing white concussions. We braced our feet firmly and listened to the dull whacking of the hull against the water, and the dismal sound of crockery being smashed in the galley. From this time forward we lived on all-fours, crouching like apes whenever we wished to move about the ship. Sleep became an impossibility. The terrific slap of every wave was like a punch to the solar plexus. The little dog retreated with a world-weary air to the furthest end of an empty kit bag where it curled up and slept.
Several people began to be picturesquely sick. Gideon and I retreated in opposite corners like spiders and contemplated this weakness on the part of our fellow passengers with a disgust so identical that we were forced to smile, catching each other's eye. I saw that he had smashed his monocle. Unbuttoning his jacket he pulled out a cigar case containing, as far as I could judge, some twenty replacements, and inserted one.
The dawn came up as thick as glue; westward the sky had taken on the color of oiled steel. The storm had passed over us, leaving behind it only a heavy sea propped up in an endless succession of watery slabs. The prow of the HDML still buried itself in the waves with feverish crunchings and tremblings. Some of us slept, and later by the watery beams of the early sun, were able to extend the limits of our visibility as far as a horizon dipping and swelling—but offering as yet no trace of land.
The passengers lay about upon piles of disordered kit, for all the world like corpses on pyres, waiting for torches to set them alight. As the daylight advanced a few of the hardier souls took courage and stuck out their pallid and unshaven faces to ask questions of the crew. Where were we? When would we arrive? The army showed a disinclination to discuss the question. Indeed it looked as if they knew as little as we did. We had been blown off our course. Speculation which at first seemed academic, began to be ever so slightly tinged with alarm, as we caught sight of the captain poring over a chart of the Eastern Mediterranean. The cook distributed mugs of cocoa over which the problem was discussed from every angle. Gideon, I discovered, was reading an account of Aegean travel published in the eighties of the last century by an eccentric divine, the Rev. Fanshawe Tozer, whose writings were to amuse and delight us so much afterwards. He passed me this work with the opening paragraph heavily scored by his thumbnail, and made a grimace as he did so. I took it and read: "There is an element of excitement attending a voyage to Rhodes arising from the uncertainty which exists with regard to reaching that island." The Rev. Tozer then had shared many of our present misgivings in the early eighties. I hoped sincerely that this passage was not to prove an augury. It seemed a positively ominous quotation to stumble upon at this time and place.
Later we shared some moldy rounds of sandwich and a bottle of Cyprus cognac which I had had the forethought to bring with me; and finally, inspired by the warmth of the sun and a calmer patch of weather we left the dumb show in which our politeness had been so far continued (the wind and rain plus the noise of the engines precluding any more civilized exchange) and fell to words, single words carefully shouted across the intervening space to form sentences.
"We'll probably touch Cyprus tonight."
"Cyprus? Surely not."
"What will you bet?"
"It's hundreds of miles away."
"Bah! These Army people never do anything right."
An officer, who happened to be crawling past with that peculiar air of devout forbearance that seamen affect when they are carrying unwelcome passengers, glared at Gideon. He seemed about to say something rather forcible, but my companion had already retreated behind his book. He emerged to wrinkle his nose at the retreating back.
"Mark me," he said, "They could land us in Beirut without turning a hair."
It did not seem wise to continue a conversation any further along these lines. I fell into a doze and the morning passed in a series of watery sunshines punctuated by squalls and the threshings of the sea. In the late afternoon the weather brought us its omens of approaching land—two spring turtle doves, blown off their course, no doubt. They swerved over us and were gone in the direction of Africa.
The problem of our position had not been clarified by any official pronouncement beyond the bare admission that we were off our course. Speculation still made pretty free with place names. Dusk closed down in a series of thin, misty rainstorms, which reduced visibility to a few hundred yards; and darkness had barely followed dusk when there was a shout which turned every head in the direction of the lighted cockpit where, above the great illuminated dials of the dashboard the rubber windscreen wipers bored circles of clarity in the pervading murk of that sottish dusk. Someone had spotted land—the merest etching of darkness upon darkness—and for an hour we thundered along a black and rocky coast, catching fitful glimpses of its capes and cliffs through the shifting packets of mist. To add to the rising emotions of optimism and relief came the pleasant sensation of a calmer sea. We began to reassemble our dispersed possessions and comb our sticky hair. I could taste the sharp brine which had dried on the unshaven stubble of my lips. Gideon traced the parting of his silver hair with something like complacence, and then examined the cavities in his teeth. He seemed to approve of what he saw. Then he offered me his comb. "You see," he said, "it will turn out to be Cyprus."
It turned out to be Rhodes. We rounded several more headlands before an officer came aft and told us so. As if endowed with powers of human understanding, Gideon's little dog (its name turned out to be Homer) emerged from its hideout and began to tidy itself up. "That's the stuff", said its master.
Vague lights now appeared and the note of the engines mellowed and sank in tone. Dark slabs of harbor masonry wallowed and glittered against the streetlights as we nosed slowly in. All that could be seen of the famous harbor was a small area of some fifty square yards lighted by some makeshift method to guide shipping. The rest was blackness which swallowed up the cracked masonry, the steel pickets and the rusty barbed wire which covered the whole of the waterfront. Absolute blackness otherwise.
Excerpted from Reflections on a Marine Venus by Lawrence Durrell. Copyright © 1953 Lawrence Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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