Rugged Corfu Coast

Reading Guide


Inspired by the writer, poet and traveller Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990), this is a novel about love and memory, identity and biography.

It sparked into life one gloomy winter afternoon when I rediscovered Prospero's Cell on the bookshelves of a bedroom at the top of the house. Opening it and starting to read was like injecting the grey with vivid blues and emeralds. A richly evocative account of Durrell's life in Corfu in the 1930s, it was first published in 1945 and purports to be a diary in which he is a serious young writer living blissfully in the sun, deeply in love both with his new wife and with the idea of Greece.


Larry and friends c.1938 Copyright: Tassos Athinaios


Durrell states that Prospero's Cell is a "guide to the landscape and manners" of Corfu but it never quite becomes this. It is a lyrical personal notebook, and what he leaves out is as poignant as what he includes.




The White House Its content is almost unrecognisable as the same ground his younger brother, the zoologist Gerald, covers in his famous Corfu book My Family and Other Animals, in which "Larry" lives with the family (which he never did) and is the 'diminutive blond firework' by turns pompously literary and hilarious.

And by the time he wrote Prospero's Cell Lawrence and his first wife Nancy had separated. He was already sadder and wiser, and living in wartime Egypt with Eve Cohen who would become his second wife. Kalamari headland from The White House balcony




I was intrigued. Further researches and a reading of several biographies soon revealed a complex and contradictory character - and a further two wives. His work, over a period of nearly sixty years - most famously in The Alexandria Quartet - was concerned with duality: love and hate; truth and fiction; memory and misinterpretation. And running through it all, the transfiguring effect of time.


Lawrence Durrell wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean - to Rhodes (Reflections on a Marine Venus), Cyprus (Bitter Lemons), the former Yugoslavia, and finally to the South of France (Caesar's Vast Ghost) where he settled for thirty years.


What was especially rewarding as I dug deeper was that he featured in so many other biographies and memoirs - each giving further insights - thanks to his enduring friendships with writers such as Henry Miller, Anais Nin, T S Eliot (who was his editor and mentor at Faber and Faber), Patrick Leigh Fermor, Freya Stark, Rose Macauley, Richard Aldington and Elizabeth David.
Jetty on Agni Beach, Corfu
Interwoven throughout were his many loves and four marriages. He seemed to pack so many different lives into one! And while he was a comet blazing, what of the women he collided with along the way, I wondered? How did their stories end? And what of those he met, whose lives he changed but who did not rate even a footnote in the biographies? Soon, I was busy inventing a fictional version of Durrell - Julian Adie - and Elizabeth.


Julian Adie is a fictional creation, yet I have been faithful to the settings of Lawrence Durrell's life abroad and his quest for "the spirit of place". The White House in Kalami, Corfu is, and was, as described. It is still owned by the Athinaios family, who were Durrell's landlords in the 1930s.


Durrell aficionados might be disconcerted by the way I've played fast and loose with his chronology, compressing and altering his travels and his wives' biographies to give an impression of the author's life without providing in any way an accurate portrayal. In this, the book has more in common with his fictional characters, his use of dualism and reinterpretation, than with real people. "All these writers [in my books] are variations of myself," he said a few years before he died. So, on one level, Julian Adie is another fictionalised version of Lawrence Durrell: what he might have become if certain events had taken place. It is also crucial to say that Lawrence Durrell was never implicated in a suspicious drowning. This part of the story was prompted by the accidents at sea that were a recurrent theme of his novels, not real life.

Yaliscary Bay, Corfu - the flat rock with fig tree For the last thirty years of his life, Durrell made his home in the Languedoc, south-west France, where the herb-scented raggedness reminded him of Greece. There it was harder, initially, to find his traces. Time does seem to have reset the co-ordinates. The centre of the small market town of Sommieres remains much as he described it, but across the Roman bridge over the Vidourle, his old house is swamped by the present in the form of a Champion hypermarket and its parking spaces.


But in Corfu, the Shrine of St Arsenius - Durrell's "place of predilection" where he felt he was reborn as the writer he would become - is scarcely changed from the tiny waterside chapel on the cliff rocks where he and his wife Nancy dived and sunbathed naked, she 'like an otter…bringing up cherries in her teeth,' (Prospero's Cell).

The Shrine of St Arsenius - Durrell's place of predeliction










In Songs of Blue and Gold Melissa Norden travels to Corfu with a copy of a book by Julian Adie romantically inscribed by the author to her mother Elizabeth. Melissa, struggling to come to terms both with Elizabeth's recent death and with her own husband's affair, is intrigued by the discovery of her mother's secret relationship with Adie.

Surrounded by the timeless blue of the Ionian and Julian Adie's own poetic interpretations of the lush island landscape, Melissa comes gradually to understand a part of her mother's life she never knew existed, and the way it changes how she thinks about herself, as well as about love and marriage.


But when Melissa meets Alexandros, she thinks of him only as someone who has been hurt like her. She is drawn to the story of his similar experience and discounts the connection she feels to him as a person. When there is the possibility that there might be more between them, she cannot trust herself to make the right decision, nor allow herself to trust him.

Meanwhile, she is not the only one with an interest in Julian Adie's life in Corfu and his connection to Elizabeth. An American biographer, Dr Braxton, is intent on proving that they were both involved in a tragic and dark episode decades before. It is not long before Melissa is caught in the unsettling position of feeling that everyone she meets seems to know her mother better than she did.

It's not only Julian Adie's reputation that is being re-evaluated; everything Melissa thought she knew about her background is in flux and is open to reassessment.

Olive groves in Corfu

Discussion Points

How is it that some people manage to live so many different lives in one, while others lack the courage to change? How large a component is the ability to trust - and how is trust built up or undermined?

Does finding out that a parent or husband was not the person you thought they were change the way you feel about yourself, and colour your own memories?

The best biographies charm the reader into imagining they allow us an insight into what a famous person was really like. But how does this square with the difficulty we have in ever really knowing the people closest to us?


Even the finest biographies are only one version of a life. What of the episodes that the biographer never discovers, or misinterprets according to his own prejudices? What of the people who are there only between the lines?


Do biographies really only reflect what the reader wants to find - that is, are they read, as Melissa reads Adie's biography, to find answers to our own specific questions? Is a memoir, like the one Melissa writes "chasing Adie's shadow across his sunny places", any more reliable?

In the novel, stories about Julian Adie swirl around: some true; some almost true; and many false. How do these stories square with the troubled yet generous and reflective character who actually appears in the narrative?

The rocks under The White House

Suggested Further Reading

Selected books by Lawrence Durrell:

Travel

Prospero's Cell
Reflections on a Marine Venus
Bitter Lemons
The Greek Islands
Caesar's Vast Ghost

Novels

The Alexandria Quartet
Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea
The Avignon Quintet
Monsieur, Livia, Constance, Sebastian, Quinx

Poetry

Collected Poems, ed. James A. Brigham
Selected Poems, ed. Peter Porter

The Shrine of St Arsenius - Durrell's place of predeliction

Biographical and Background Reading

Ian MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell, A Biography. This is the official biography, exhaustively researched with Durrell's full cooperation in the years before he died.

Gordon Bowker, Through the Dark Labyrinth, A Biography of Lawrence Durrell. The unofficial version and no less admiring of Durrell as a writer, but with a less restrained investigation of the darker episodes in his life.

Edmund Keeley, Inventing Paradise, The Greek Journey 1937-47. This and the following are more academic volumes examining Durrell's literary influences and setting his work in context.

Anna Lillios (ed.), Lawrence Durrell and the Greek World

Michael Haag, Alexandria, City of Memory. A fabulous book, wonderfully written, which reveals the Alexandria of E M Forster and C P Cavafy as well as Durrell. Haag's own photographs such as that of the now-derelict Ambron Villa (where Durrell lodged), as well as unusual ones missed by other biographical works, make this special.

Hilary Whitton Paipeti, In the Footsteps of Lawrence Durrell and Gerald Durrell in Corfu (1935-39), A Modern Guidebook. This slim volume, packed with photographs and quirky facts, is as enjoyable for the armchair traveller as for the visitor to Corfu.


The White House

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