Read an Excerpt
Spirit of Place
Letters and Essays on Travel
By Lawrence Durrell, Alan G. Thomas
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1969 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
Corfu and England
There were no ties binding the Durrell family to England; none of them had been born here, and Larry, having put down no roots, was feeling restless. From time to time a letter would arrive from George Wilkinson describing their idyllic life in Corfu, and the island began to sound more and more evocative. Naturally, I was very loath to lose the most brilliant and exciting friends it had ever been my good fortune to make, and I attempted to counter their plans with a few feeble arguments. "Alan," retorted Durrell, "think of the times in England when everybody that you know has got a cold." Wilkinson's latest letter had described the orange groves surrounding his villa. I was silenced.
Early in 1935 Durrell and Nancy set out as an advance guard, travelling by sea to Brindisi, where they were held up for some time by the revolution then taking place in Greece. The rest of the family followed a few weeks later. Durrell's first novel, Pied Piper of Lovers, was still under consideration by Cassell's when he left, but their offer to publish came through shortly afterwards, in time for me to send a message which caught up with the family, en route, at Naples; this enabled them to announce the good news on their arrival in Corfu.
It is difficult to believe that any place in the world today can rival Corfu, as it was then, as an elysium for a young writer and a young painter. It was not only warmer and sunnier than Bournemouth, it was cheaper. Durrell had a private income of about £150 a year, Nancy an allowance of £50; on the combined sum of £4 a week they lived in comfort and at ease in their own villa, and their outgoings covered a maidservant and a sailing-boat—the Van Norden.
Corfu is greener and more fertile than the sunburned islands of the Aegean, and the higher economic level, together with certain residual advantages left over from the Venetian and British occupations, provided a greater degree of amenity than was then to be found in the starker islands farther south. Skilled medical attention, for example, was afforded by the presence of Doctor Theodore Stephanides. But, for the Durrells, Theodore became much more than a physician; for one would be hard pressed to find a more erudite, civilized, and charming man; a mine of every kind of knowledge relating to the island, he became the perfect friend and mentor of their new world.
But it was not only the lyrical beauty of Corfu and the prismatic clarity of Greek light that appealed to Durrell; nor even the eternal legends handed down from classical times but intimately wedded to the landscape of today; there were qualities in the character of the modern Greeks themselves which struck deep chords with his own nature; so that Greece and the Greeks have formed one of the major influences in Durrell's life and writing. His own feeling for Corfu has been expressed in the most poetic and least troubled of his island books: Prospero's Cell; but the day-to-day life of the family has been vividly described in Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals, the continued success of which is partly due to the fact that it provides the perfect "escape book." Most people set out with high hopes in their youth—they will not be caged in the rat race; but all too often disillusion sets in, they marry, produce a family, give hostages to fortune, and ultimately face the realization that they are going to live out their lives as strap-hanging commuters. And here is this fantastic family living an uproarious life in magical surroundings; so long as the book lasts the reader, too, can live in Arcadia. Again and again, people who came into my bookshop would ask me: "Is it true? Was it really like that?" From my own brief experience of life on the island I can certainly affirm that the book is true in essence; but Theodore Stephanides, who was in Corfu for the whole time, confirms that virtually every incident described really took place. Not necessarily in the same order, of course, not in one uninterrupted series, but it all actually happened.
Cassell's published Pied Piper of Lovers in 1935 (the dust-jacket bearing a design by Nancy); it received little notice and only a few copies were sold. As the greater part of the edition was destroyed when Cassell's warehouse went up in the London blitz, it has become a rare book, sought after by libraries and collectors, and therefore valuable. In later years, in the hope of supplying one or two of the requests, which so frequently reached me as an antiquarian bookseller, I wrote round to those friends who had bought copies of the book when it came out. Their replies might well form the basis of a short essay on how books become rare: "... unfortunately I left it in a train"; "... when we were divorced my wife took the fiction and I kept the non-fiction"; "All my possessions were destroyed when a furniture repository in Jersey was burned to the ground." (Lord Jersey's great Rubens went in the same holocaust). Meanwhile Durrell was at work on a second novel, the landscape and general ambience of which were largely influenced by Corfu. The provisional title went through a variety of forms, Phoenix and the Nightingale, Music in Limbo; but it was finally published, by Faber' s in 1937, as Panic Spring. Early books by young writers are generally derivative to a greater or lesser extent, and Durrell's second novel owes a good deal to Aldous Huxley and Norman Douglas; but the original quality, which does begin to emerge, is a remarkable capacity for rendering scenery. As this is also a scarce book, and as Durrell does not intend to reprint either of his early novels, a number of selected passages, mainly those describing landscape, are reprinted here.
But life on Corfu had one more gift for Durrell. He had the good fortune to live at leisure, free from all outside pressures, free from the need to write for money or work to a date-line, while he matured and finished his first important book, written under a number of provisional titles, Lover Anubis, Anubis, Anabasis, until it emerged as The Black Book. As John Unterecker was to say: "The writing of it was in an odd way both a consequence of spiritual agony and a labour of love. For Durrell had no expectation that any publisher would risk bringing out a book so savage in spirit and so uncompromising in language. It was, in this sense at least, the purest work that Durrell was ever to do; it was a demonstration, principally for Lawrence Durrell's private benefit, that he had the potential of becoming a major writer."
Durrell sent the only typescript to Henry Miller in Paris, telling him to pitch it into the Seine if he did not approve. Miller was enthusiastic, he urged upon Durrell the importance of retaining his integrity, of not compromising, of not allowing an expurgated edition. He put aside the writing of his own Tropic of Capricorn, and, helped by Anaïs Nin, typed out three copies, one each for Herbert Read, T. S. Eliot, and Jack Kahane. Kahane was persuaded to publish The Black Book in Paris, and Miller saw it through the press himself. In due course copies "in plain wrappers" began to filter into England and America where Cyril Connolly and T. S. Eliot buttressed Miller's high opinion with their own tributes: Eliot writing: "[it] is the first piece of work by a new English writer to give me any hope for the future of prose fiction."
When The Black Book was reprinted in Paris after the war Durrell wrote in the new preface: "This novel—after twenty-odd years—still has a special importance for me and may yet leave its mark upon the reader who can recognize it for what it is: a two fisted-attack on literature by an angry young man of the 'thirties.... With all its imperfections lying heavy on its head, I can't help being attached to it because in the writing of it I first heard the sound of my own voice, lame and halting perhaps, but nevertheless my very own. This is an experience no artist ever forgets—the birth-cry of a newly born baby of letters, the genuine article."
To George Wilkinson.
... Anent ourselves:
Corfu is the ideal place to use as a base for Mediterranean exploration: Nancy is rabid to examine the traces of early Byzantine painting down that coast of Greece, while I am mad to get to Knossos and examine the traces of a Minoan civilization, of which by this time I'm quite sure, my ancestors were a part. Do you know that the average height of the race was five four? Think it over. They were sturdy and lustful, and had a vital art of their own, which owes practically nothing to the huge contemporary civilizations around it. Only one more discovery will complete my certainty & happiness: did they wear silver candle-snuffers upon their most wholesome privities? I pray hourly that they did.
I'm doing my level best to assemble a huge small library to bring out, so that we'll have food for study & delight. I'm planning a specialized essay on Elizabethan writers, not because I hanker for the scholarly life, or a scholarly reputation, but because I've been reading so much lately that it helps to pour it into some sort of mould. It is also teaching me to concentrate, which is a valuable thing, hitherto neglected. I've got a great number of valuable reprints by scurrying round, and a huge facsimile Shakespeare fourteen ins. high by nine wide by nearly three thick ... which ought to sink the boat ... lots of poetry, too, some philosophy, some art-books (Nancy's), but very little modern reading. For about the last three months I've not read a single contemporary thing: as the rich Yank art-collector said when he was showing Epstein round his collection: "My taste stops after 1633."
Having sealed up your letter and forgotten to post it, I gave way to an ungovernable impulse, dearies, and wipped it cwudely open. The days are so dun and gloomy that we pant for the tropics: as much too, to see your faces again. My mother has gotten herself into a really good financial mess and has decided to cut and run for it. Being too timid to tackle foreign landscapes herself, she wants to be shown around the Mediterranean by us. She wants to scout Corfu, largely because your letters have stimulated her so. If she likes it I have no doubt but that she'll buy the place. For my own part I'm a leetle worried by its proximity to Albania. Have you read about the marriage of George & Marina? The papers deny any state of motive, but it occurred to me that we are more and more afraid of being unable to guard trade routes through Suez, and Greece will be the ideal base of operations against any southern country: more than that, if you look at the map you will observe how wonderful a base Corfu makes if Balkan trouble happens: Ideal ... What I want to know is, will you, Wilkinson, give your life for gallant little Greece, our gallant little ally? I thought not. Then move a few islands south. Personally the intentions of us are (strictly dishonourable as ever) to have a glance round for a good base of operations with a cheap exchange and pit out our existence for a year or two until our stock as artists goes up ...
Love and love. Send us a snap or two sumtime.
 Hotel Internazionale, Brindisi, Italy
To Alan G. Thomas
You will see from this that we have arrived so far—at a certain cost. The whole town has been alive with rumours of the Greek revolt—and the services have been disorganized. The place swarms with people who are held up. But by some special dispensation we have discovered a boat which will drop us off at Corfu sometime in the middle of tonight. I hope you can read this scrawl. I can get you a copy of the infamous Lady Chatterly for 14 liras—about 5/.
If the English are a nation of shop keepers, then the Italians are a nation of waiters. Positively they radiate a sort of charming servility. I have never been as waited on in any country—or, I might add, so badly. All the service is done from the wrong side.
I feel most disinclined to write. It's very wearying kicking one's heels in this military and naval port.
I've got quite a lot of amusement parading the slums and attending funerals. Most impressive. But the excitement of Greek civil war—and Italian importunity consumes me. However we leave tonight. God knows what time we reach the island. Dawn, I imagine. We have met a charming Greek boy who speaks Italian and has taken us round the town; the only night-haunt—apart from the more obvious houses of Venus for the soldiers—is a vacuous café with a very bad amateur band. In order to give what Pat would call "body" to their music they accompany an exceedingly improbable and tinny gramophone. As the instruments are tuned from a piano which is several tones flat you can imagine the resulting noise.
Still I bear up very well under the stacks of local vino I am forced to consume. I'm developing a paunch like a channel buoy.
... For the rest—I'm too bored and the pen is too bad to write more. If I perish in the revolution you might save this letter as an example of what Italy can do to a gallant Englishman.
 Pension Suisse, Corfu
To Alan G. Thomas
A line to tell you we're alive, but held up owing to the non arrival of the bloody baggage. We hope it'll come on tomorrow's Greek boat from Trieste. Not another word from either Mr. Curtis or Mr. Brown: there must be some mistake about the novel: certainly they spelt my name Durnell: perhaps someone wrote a novel called "Pied Piper of Buggers" and that, being fashionable, was chosen! Today, tired of inactivity, I went into a shop to buy some exercise books to do some notes for the next novel. After a hell of a search (the amount people here know about their stock would give Baker the shudders) I ran a couple of dust-heavy books to earth and asked the price. Believe it or not they weighed them! On a great swivelling baggage weigher—like they have in the customs—with brass weights—and said, with uncertainty—24 dracs—I/-.
Enclosed are a few rotten scraps. More soon.
Love to everyone Larry
 Pension Suisse, Corfu
To Alan G. Thomas
What a smile on the face of the tiger! The family crawled ashore today and took us in bed so to speak, and wrung my withers with the news. We dashed straight off to the consul and seized the joyous letters. Of course accept. Positively accept. I feel like a sort of pontifical Lawrence this morning—I suppose the bloom will wear off in time. In a few days time my address will be Villa Agazini, Perama, Corfu. The scenic tricks of this paragon of places are highly improbable, and I don't quite believe my eyes as yet. Let me digest—But I hate the Italians.
... Cheerio and a million thanks—my love to Cooper—Pat—and anyone else who needs it.
 Villa Agazini or Bumtrinket, Perama, Corfu
To Alan G. Thomas
As you will see, we have more or less moved in. The paint is still drying on our furniture however, and there are a hundred and one things to be done yet. I've told you how unique it is up here, stuck on the hillside, haven't I? Well, multiply that by four. Today we rose to a gorgeous sunlight and breakfasted in it. Our breakfast table looks out plumb over the sea, and the fishing boats go swirling past the window. There's a faint mist over Albania today but here the heat is paralysing. Bees and lizards and tortoises (yesterday I caught a tortoise eavesdropping on us) are making hay; and the peasants together with those animals who cannot make hay are making water beautifully and indiscriminately. Soon I'll send you some photographs—but even they can't do justice to it all. Sometimes I almost suspect the whole thing; I don't think I can yet really believe in it.
George has bought a cool white sailing-boat and we bathe from it every day: in really deep blue water: fathoms of it. Of course, like all Edens the place has its drawbacks—and I don't mean the donkeys' foreskins. The peasants are incorrigible thieves and liars, but make up for it by having the dandiest arse-action when they walk. This is due to always carrying huge weights on their heads. They're very saucy and can be persuaded to do almost anything within reason. Food is cheap: but the wines are not as brilliant as in Italy—and the milk is poor stuff: also the butter. But local stuff is good and cheap. For instance there is a good peasant wine which tastes and looks like iced blood. It costs 6 dracks—3d per bottle. What more does one want? In England I couldn't buy a bottle of horse-piss for 3d. Yesterday we dined very royally on red mullet—as you know a most epicurean dish—it cost 10d. But prices will bore you stiff. The revolution has rocked the drachma up to 517: we hope it'll go to six hundred, and it may.
Excerpted from Spirit of Place by Lawrence Durrell, Alan G. Thomas. Copyright © 1969 Lawrence Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.