Read an Excerpt
By Lawrence Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1960 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
The oranges were more plentiful than usual that year. They glowed in their arbours of burnished green leaf like lanterns, flickering up there among the sunny woods. It was as if they were eager to celebrate our departure from the little island — for at last the long-awaited message from Nessim had come, like a summons back to the Underworld. A message which was to draw me back inexorably to the one city which for me always hovered between illusion and reality, between the substance and the poetic images which its very name aroused in me. A memory, I told myself, which had been falsified by the desires and intuitions only as yet half-realized on paper. Alexandria, the capital of memory! All the writing which I had borrowed from the living and the dead, until I myself had become a sort of postscript to a letter which was never ended, never posted....
How long had I been away? I could hardly compute, though calendar-time gives little enough indication of the aeons which separate one self from another, one day from another; and all this time I had been living there, truly, in the Alexandria of my heart's mind. And page by page, heartbeat by heartbeat, I had been surrendering myself to the grotesque organism of which we had all once been part, victors and vanquished alike. An ancient city changing under the brushstrokes of thoughts which besieged meaning, clamouring for identity; somewhere there, on the black thorny promontories of Africa the aromatic truth of the place lived on, the bitter unchewable herb of the past, the pith of memory. I had set out once to store, to codify, to annotate the past before it was utterly lost — that at least was a task I had set myself. I had failed in it (perhaps it was hopeless?) for no sooner had I embalmed one aspect of it in words than the intrusion of new knowledge disrupted the frame of reference, everything flew asunder, only to reassemble again in unforeseen, unpredictable patterns....
'To re-work reality' I had written somewhere; temeritous, presumptuous words indeed — for it is reality which works and reworks us on its slow wheel. Yet if I had been enriched by the experience of this island interlude, it was perhaps because of this total failure to record the inner truth of the city. I had now come face to face with the nature of time, that ailment of the human psyche. I had been forced to admit defeat on paper. Yet curiously enough the act of writing had in itself brought me another sort of increase; by the very failure of words, which sink one by one into the measureless caverns of the imagination and gutter out. An expensive way to begin living, yes; but then we artists are driven towards personal lives nourished in these strange techniques of self-pursuit.
But then ... if I had changed, what of my friends — Balthazar, Nessim, Justine, Clea? What new aspects of them would I discern after this time-lapse, when once more I had been caught up in the ambience of a new city, a city now swallowed by a war? Here was the rub. I could not say. Apprehension trembled within me like a lodestar. It was hard to renounce the hard-won territory of my dreams in favour of new images, new cities, new dispositions, new loves. I had come to hug my own dreams of the place like a monomaniac.... Would it not, I wondered, be wiser to stay where I was? Perhaps. Yet I knew I must go. Indeed this very night I should be gone! The thought itself was so hard to grasp that I was forced to whisper it aloud to myself.
We had passed the last ten days since the messenger called in a golden hush of anticipation; and the weather had matched it, turning up a succession of perfectly blue days, windless seas. We stood between the two landscapes, unwilling to relinquish the one yet aching to encounter the other. Poised, like gulls upon the side of a cliff. And already the dissimilar images mixed and baulked in my dreams. This island house, for example, its smoke-silvered olives and almonds where the red-footed partridge wandered ... silent glades where only the goat-face of a Pan might emerge. Its simple and lucent perfection of form and colour could not mix with the other premonitions crowding in upon us. (A sky full of falling-stars, emerald wash of tides on lonely beaches, crying of gulls on the white roads of the south.) This Grecian world was already being invaded by the odours of the forgotten city — promontories where the sweating sea-captains had boozed and eaten until their intestines cracked, had drained their bodies, like kegs, of every lust, foundering in the embrace of black slaves with spaniels' eyes. (The mirrors, the heart-rending sweetness of the voices of blinded canaries, the bubble of narguilehs in their rose-water bowls, the smell of patchouli and joss.) They were eating into one another, these irreconcilable dreams. And I saw my friends once again (not as names now), irradiated anew by the knowledge of this departure. They were no longer shadows of my own writing but refreshed anew — even the dead. At night I walked again those curling streets with Melissa (situated now somewhere beyond regrets, for even in my dreams I knew she was dead), walking comfortably arm in arm; her narrow legs like scissors gave her a swaying walk. The habit of pressing her thigh to mine at every step. I could see everything with affection now — even the old cotton frock and cheap shoes which she wore on holidays. She had not been able to powder out the faint blue lovebite on her throat.... Then she vanished and I awoke with a cry of regret. Dawn was breaking among the olives, silvering their still leaves.
Somewhere along the road I had recovered my peace of mind. This handful of blue days before saying farewell — I treasured them, luxuriating in their simplicity: fires of olive-wood blazing in the old hearth whose painting of Justine would be the last item to be packed, jumping and gleaming on the battered table and chair, on the blue enamel bowl of early cyclamen. What had the city to do with all this — an Aegean spring hanging upon a thread between winter and the first white puffs of almond blossom? It was a word merely, and meant little, being scribbled on the margins of a dream, or being repeated in the mind to the colloquial music of time, which is only desire expressed in heartbeats. Indeed, though I loved it so much, I was powerless to stay; the city which I now know I hated held out something different for me — a new evaluation of the experience which had marked me. I must return to it once more in order to be able to leave it forever, to shed it. If I have spoken of time it is because the writer I was becoming was learning at last to inhabit those deserted spaces which time misses — beginning to live between the ticks of the clock, so to speak. The continuous present, which is the real history of that collective anecdote, the human mind; when the past is dead and the future represented only by desire and fear, what of that adventive moment which can't be measured, can't be dismissed? For most of us the so-called Present is snatched away like some sumptuous repast, conjured up by fairies — before one can touch a mouthful. Like the dead Pursewarden I hoped I might soon be truthfully able to say: 'I do not write for those who have never asked themselves this question: "at what point does real life begin?"'
Idle thoughts passing through the mind as I lay on a flat rock above the sea, eating an orange, perfectly circumscribed by a solitude which would soon be engulfed by the city, the ponderous azure dream of Alexandria basking like some old reptile in the bronze Pharaonic light of the great lake. The master-sensualists of history abandoning their bodies to mirrors, to poems, to the grazing flocks of boys and women, to the needle in the vein, to the opium-pipe, to the death-in-life kisses without appetite. Walking those streets again in my imagination I knew once more that they spanned, not merely human history, but the whole biological scale of the heart's affections — from the painted ecstasies of Cleopatra (strange that the vine should be discovered here, near Taposiris) to the bigotry of Hypatia (withered vine-leaves, martyr's kisses). And stranger visitors: Rimbaud, student of the Abrupt Path, walked here with a belt full of gold coins. And all those other swarthy dream-interpreters and politicians and eunuchs were like a flock of birds of brilliant plumage. Between pity, desire and dread, I saw the city once more spread out before me, inhabited by the faces of my friends and subjects. I knew that I must re-experience it once more and this time forever.
Yet it was to be a strange departure, full of small unforeseen elements — I mean the messenger being a hunchback in a silver suit, a flower in his lapel, a perfumed handkerchief in his sleeve! And the sudden springing to life of the little village which had for so long tactfully ignored our very existence, save for an occasional gift of fish or wine or coloured eggs which Athena brought us, folded in her red shawl. She, too, could hardly bear to see us go; her stern old wrinkled mask crumpled into tears over each item of our slender baggage. But 'They will not let you leave without a hospitality' she repeated stubbornly. 'The village will not let you go like that.' We were to be offered a farewell banquet!
As for the child I had conducted the whole rehearsal of this journey (of her whole life, in truth) in images from a fairy story. Many repetitions had not staled it. She would sit staring up at the painting and listening attentively. She was more than prepared for it all, indeed almost ravenous to take up her own place in the gallery of images I had painted for her. She had soaked up all the confused colours of this fanciful world to which she had once belonged by right and which she would now recover — a world peopled by those presences — the father, a dark pirate-prince, the stepmother a swarthy imperious queen....
'She is like the playing-card?'
'Yes. The Queen of Spades.'
'And her name is Justine.'
'Her name is Justine.'
'In the picture she is smoking. Will she love me more than my father or less?'
'She will love you both.'
There had been no other way to explain it to her, except in terms of myth or allegory — the poetry of infant uncertainty. I had made her word-perfect in this parable of an Egypt which was to throw up for her (enlarged to the size of gods or magi) the portraits of her family, of her ancestors. But then is not life itself a fairy-tale which we lose the power of apprehending as we grow? No matter. She was already drunk upon the image of her father.
'Yes, I understand everything.' With a nod and a sigh she would store up these painted images in the treasure-box of her mind. Of Melissa, her dead mother, she spoke less often, and when she did I answered her in the same fashion from the storybook; but she had already sunk, pale star, below the horizon into the stillness of death, leaving the foreground to those others — the playing-card characters of the living.
The child had thrown a tangerine into the water and now leaned to watch it roll softly down to the sandy floor of the grotto. It lay there, flickering like a small flame, nudged by the swell and fall of the currents.
'Now watch me fetch it up.'
'Not in this icy sea, you'll the of cold.'
'It isn't cold today. Watch.'
By now she could swim like a young otter. It was easy, sitting here on the flat rock above the water, to recognize in her the dauntless eyes of Melissa, slanted a little at the edges; and sometimes, intermittently, like a forgotten grain of sleep in the corners, the dark supposing look (pleading, uncertain) of her father Nessim. I remembered Clea's voice saying once, in another world, long ago: 'Mark, if a girl does not like dancing and swimming she will never be able to make love.' I smiled and wondered if the words were true as I watched the little creature turn over smoothly in the water and flow gracefully downwards to the target with the craft of a seal, toes pressed back against the sky. The glimmer of the little white purse between her legs. She retrieved the tangerine beautifully and spiralled to the surface with it gripped in her teeth.
'Now run and dry quickly.'
'It isn't cold.'
'Do as you are told. Be off. Hurry.'
'And the man with the hump?'
'He has gone.'
Mnemjian's unexpected appearance on the island had both started and thrilled her — for it was he who brought us Nessim's message. It was strange to see him walking along the shingle beach with an air of grotesque perturbation, as if balancing on corkscrews. I think he wished to show us that for years he had not walked on anything but the finest pavements. He was literally unused to terra firma. He radiated a precarious and overbred finesse. He was clad in a dazzling silver suit, spats, a pearl tie-pin, and his fingers were heavily ringed. Only the smile, the infant smile was unchanged, and the oiled spitcurl was still aimed at the frontal sinus.
'I have married Halil's widow. I am the richest barber in all Egypt today, my dear friend.'
He blurted this out all in one breath, leaning on a silver-knobbed walking-stick to which he was clearly as unaccustomed. His violet eye roved somewhat disdainfully round our somewhat primitive cottage, and he refused a chair, doubtless because he did not wish to crease those formidable trousers. 'You have a hard style of life here, eh? Not much luxe, Darley.' Then he sighed and added, 'But now you will be coming to us again.' He made a vague gesture with the stick intended to symbolize the hospitality we should once more enjoy from the city. 'Myself I cannot stay. I am on my way back. I did this purely as a favour to Hosnani.' He spoke of Nessim with a sort of pearly grandeur, as if he were now his equal socially; then he caught sight of my smile and had the grace to giggle once before becoming serious again. 'There is no time, anyway' he said, dusting his sleeves.
This had the merit of being true, for the Smyrna boat stays only long enough to unload mail and occasional merchandise — a few cases of macaroni, some copper sulphate, a pump. The wants of the islanders are few. Together we walked back towards the village, across the olive-groves, talking as we went. Mnemjian still trudged with that slow turtle-walk. But I was glad, for it enabled me to ask him a few questions about the city, and from his answers to gain some inkling of what I was to find there in the matter of changed dispositions, unknown factors.
'There are many changes since the Hosnani intrigue in Palestine? The collapse? The Egyptians are trying to sequestrate. They have taken much away. Yes, they are poor now, and still in trouble. She is still under house-detention at Karm Abu Girg. Nobody has seen her for an age. He works by special permission as an ambulance driver in the docks, twice a week. Very dangerous. And there was a bad air-raid; he lost one eye and a finger.'
'Nessim?' I was startled. The little man nodded self-importantly. This new, this unforeseen image of my friend struck me like a bullet. 'Good God' I said, and the barber nodded as if to approve the appropriateness of the oath. 'It was bad' he said. 'It is the war, Darley.' Then suddenly a happier thought came into his mind and he smiled the infant smile once more which reflected only the iron material values of the Levant. Taking my arm he continued: 'But the war is also good business. My shops are cutting the armies' hair day and night. Three saloons, twelve assistants! You will see, it is superb. And Pombal says, as a joke, "Now you are shaving the dead while they are still alive."' He doubled up with soundless refined laughter.
'Is Pombal back there?'
'Of course. He is a high man of the Free French now. He has conferences with Sir Mountolive. He is also still there. Many others too have remained from your time, Darley, you will see.'
Mnemjian seemed delighted to have been able to astonish me so easily. Then he said something which made my mind do a double somersault. I stood still and asked him to repeat it, thinking that I had misheard him. 'I have just visited Capodistria.' I stared at him. Capodistria! 'But he died!' I exclaimed, though I had not forgotten Balthazar's enigmatic phrase about the false teeth.
Excerpted from Clea by Lawrence Durrell. Copyright © 1960 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.