When travel is not possible, we can always turn to the voyages told in books.
And that’s just what I’ve been doing recently, as a way of escaping the confines of my house. I’ve been to the Greek island of Corfu with the English writer Lawrence Durrell, who lived on the island for five years from 1935. The account of his stay is recorded in his travel book Prospero’s Cell, first published in 1945.
And I’ve remembered why this book — an old favourite of mine — has meant so much to me over the years. The reason it creates such an impression on me is really quite easy to explain: I open the book and I’m instantly transported.
The book seduces because it allows the reader to see the world as Durrell must have done: completely absorbed, with all five senses open. I find it impossible to read even a single passage and to not feel somehow ‘taught a lesson’ in how one might live life on a higher level of perception.
Here is an extract, dated 28th May 1937:
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 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 … A single candle burning upon a table between our happy selves.
The book’s peculiar magic lies in the vividness of the prose. Like all great travel writers, Durrell does not present himself as the discoverer of the island — as if no-one has ever set foot there before — but as someone passing through an existing place and culture, taking in a feast of sensory experiences as he goes.
Durrell was a young man of 23 when he moved to the island in 1935. He came with his new wife, Nancy. Six weeks after their wedding day, they set sail from England to Naples; from there they took a train to the port of Brindisi and then an overnight ferry to Corfu.
Durrell begins his account of Corfu with a rhapsodic description of having arrived somewhere remarkable:
“Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins … You are aware of a change in the heart of things … aware of islands coming out of the darkness to meet you.”
Durrell also persuaded his mother and younger siblings to join him on the island — after their father had died suddenly in 1928, aged just 43. The family found a villa in Corfu Town, and befriended some of the local Grecian population.
It’s interesting to note that Durrell’s description of Corfu in Prospero’s Cell makes almost no reference to his early time on the island, nor to his family living nearby. I have the sense that the young writer was keen to describe his experiences as personal and intimate — the beginnings of his own identity as a writer.
Instead, the opening passages start in April 1937, two years into their stay and the point where he and Nancy had moved to the more remote territories of the north. Here they took up residence in a former fisherman’s cottage known as the White House, in the village of Kalami.
“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 … This has become our unregretted home.”
On these northern shores, he “cut himself off completely” — as he later described. Nancy, who was an artist, also preferred its remote location: “I felt we’d been living too near the crowds — too tame. I was terribly keen on being in the wildest places I could find — most untamed.”
Lawrence Durrell would go on to enjoy an acclaimed career as a writer. He is best known for The Alexandria Quartet (1957–60), a series of four interconnected novels that not only became a best-seller but also helped him to a Nobel Prize nomination.
I love these novels. But it is to Prospero’s Cell that I most readily return, perhaps because it offers me a chance to break through the screen of art into something real…
Visiting the Island myself
The Greek island of Corfu is undoubtedly much changed since the 1930s. Tourism has taken a fierce hold and hotels now pepper most of the island’s coastline.
The last time I visited Corfu, I happened to be staying near to Kalami and the White House where Durrell lived.
Finding the White House was not something I imagined doing until I realised that, quite by chance, we had pitched ourselves up on the same stretch of coastline, our hotel being some forty minutes walk away from Kalami. My imagination began to race at the prospect.
So as I lay on one of the beaches near to our hotel, reclined under a white umbrella with the cool sea lapping a few metres away, I re-read Prospero’s Cell with a new type of excitement.
I began to question what it could mean to go stalking the old territories of a famous writer. There is certainly something optimistic in the pursuit: you hope to overcome the anachronism of the modern-day conditions, to reach beyond the sheen of tourism and touch with some authenticity the distant conditions of the past.
Could there ever be a genuine point of contact? You begin to wonder: did he feel the same as I do at these island scenes? Or have my own responses been educated by his writings, my feelings merely an imitation of a tutor?
That day, the sun was hot and alone in the great blue canopy. The landscape consisted of shades of silver-blue mists overlaying each other into the distance. Later, I took a brief excursion along the coastal path, winding through the gnarled olive trees and passing gateways to private villas. Via a narrow track, I scrambled downwards, skirting the fences of sold-off land, and found a small stone hut on the water’s edge. I had made it to the shrine of Saint Arsenius, as mentioned in Prospero’s Cell where Lawrence and Nancy would come to bath and swim:
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 for it. The little lamp is always full of sweet oil now, for St. Arsenius guards our bathing. (From Prospero’s Cell, diary entry dated 5th May 1937)
I was thrilled by the discovery. I took care as I walked over the jagged rocks, which twist and serrate like the spine of some mythical beast curled up in sleep. As I padded my way over the white rocks, I imagined Lawrence’s hand landing in the same spot as mine.
I finally made it to the White House on the last day of my stay. Further along the track, past the shrine, crossing several beaches and through a small farm, I came upon the house almost by surprise. It once stood more or less alone on the bay at Kalami; now a veritable town has built up around it, turning this secluded hideaway into a small community.
Today, the White House is a guesthouse and restaurant whose visitor’s book is no-doubt filled with happy references to the Durrell family. Something unsatisfactory, however, makes my acquaintance with the house a hasty affair. Wherever the ledge of rock that Lawrence and Nancy used to have their breakfast and sunbathe was not possible to discern with any degree of accuracy — covered as it is now with restaurant dining tables and the legs and feet of modern travellers.
The changes brought to Corfu by mass tourism have all but swept away the original simplicity of the island. Even as early as 1967, Lawrence’s younger brother Gerry — the famed naturalist and zookeeper — lamented the “total lack of control, total rapacity, total insensitivity” of a tourist industry that built hotels in nearly every crevice of the island.
Sitting in one such hotel, perched above a pebble beach that opens onto the straits between Corfu and Albania, I considered that not every shred of beauty has been lost. Some of it cannot be altered: the ever-undulating water and the long ridges of the faraway mountains are surely unchanged. Perhaps the north of the island has survived for being more remote. The White House still stands.
Is it self-deception that persuades me that a trace of 1930s magic still hangs in the air? Is it romantic short-sightedness that leads me to think of that time as a sort of original Greece and not some prior era, before the arrival of any literary travelers whose sojourn here probably played a part in the changes that were to come?
These questions rise up and fall again like the waves, impossible to answer yet necessary to ask. Memorable experiences are more stable, cemented by a type of faith that is superior to reason.
I left the island with the spell still in tact. In days when I can’t travel, return to it in the pages of Prospero’s Cell.
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