Lawrence Durrell: Prospero’s Cell

“Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins. All the way across Italy you find yourself moving through a landscape severely domesticated — each valley laid out after the architect’s pattern, brilliantly lighted, human. But once you strike out from the flat and desolate Calabrian mainland towards the sea, you are aware of a change in the heart of things: aware of the horizon beginning to stain at the rim of the world: aware of islands coming out of the darkness to meet you.

In the morning you wake to the taste of snow on the air, and climbing the companion-ladder, suddenly enter the penumbra of shadow cast by the Albanian mountains — each wearing its cracked crown of snow — desolate and repudiating stone.

A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava. You are aware not so much of a landscape coming to meet you invisibly over those blue miles of water as of a climate. You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and wherever you look the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives.

Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder — the discovery of yourself.”

And this is only the first page. This year has brought me to the most adventurous prose and most daring forms of the novel, but writing like Durrell’s feels like home.

This is that famous book about Corfu — “not a history but a poem” — where I, already envious of his way with words when he sings about its olives in the middle section, had to close the book and say, “That’s it. I am going to Corfu.”

But this is not merely about a place, but of an irredeemable time and innocent way of life at the brink of the Second World War that we can only relive through the music he makes with his words.

“History with her painful and unexpected changes cannot be made to pity or remember; that is our function.”

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