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Review: Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus (London: Faber & Faber, 1960)
Memories of this pure sunlight, these dancing summer days passed in idle friendship and humour by the maned Aegean.
I didn’t need any persuading, but if I had, that ‘maned Aegean’ would have clinched it. Soon after the Second World War, Lawrence Durrell found himself posted to Rhodes to help repair the devastation. He spent surely one of the happiest periods of his life on the island and wrote this sun-washed memoir, capturing a time of peace, friendship, and encounters with strong characters, both Greek and foreign.
If you are susceptible to the sweet seduction of islands, islomania, then this book will further enchant you. If you believe you are immune to such nonsense, it will enchant you anyway.
There are people, Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island, a little world surrounded by the sea, fills them with an indescribable intoxication.
In the midst of the beauty, light, play and warmth, they also manage to help the island to get back on its feet. I liked Durrell’s evocation of two basic building blocks of civilization. We forget, awash with technology and convenience, how much these services mean to our sense of security and well-being.
The post office has started to work, and has been inundated with remittances from Dodecanesians all over the world. One street lamp in ten has been persuaded to light after dark. These are not small things – they are part of that unknown quantity, civilization – for the street lamp brings order, and the post office confidence.
Durrell’s partner is also shocked by the happiness they find on the island, partly due to the contrast with an unhappy childhood, but also, one imagines, the utter relief of war’s end. Their appreciation for Rhodes may be partly bound up with the savouring of that hitherto elusive, soul-settling thing called peace. As I write this, I have just shared a definition of peace written by Saint-Exupéry in his musings on a futile reconnaissance sortie in the early and darkest days of the war. It resonates with Durrell’s comment on street lamps and post offices as signals of order and confidence.
You had been crying in your sleep, for I saw a tear on your dark lashes. It could only have been with happiness to have escaped to this island. Beside you on the bedside table lay the unfinished letter to your parents. A sad childhood is a poor preparation for unexpected happiness. Cheer up, you have escaped. By the time you wake and read this I shall be swimming. Come and bathe before tea.
They’ve escaped. Escaped unhappiness, escaped war and its tumult, escaped to an island of dazzling hues and brightness.
Westward along the shingle beaches around Trianda the sea was laying down its successive washes of prussian blue and violet, and thinning them out as they touched sand to green and citrons and the innocent yellows you can see on the ripening skins of tangerines.
I have a thing about mornings, for me perhaps the most magical time of the day, particularly when I get up before the world is moving much. In summer these bewitching hours are extended by early light, which plays tricks on the spirit and convinces it that all is and will be well, and that one might even live forever if one chooses.
Durrell starts his morning by waking his partner and slipping off for a bracing sea swim before breakfast, which is shared with a friend. I loved the idea of front-loading your day with happiness to carry you through your office duties, like a credit that gets carried over in a ledger of joy.
At six these early summer mornings I rise and cross the garden barefoot to wake E by throwing a pebble at her shuttered window; and together we bathe in the cold sea before breakfast.
Often Hoyle drops in from the hotel across the way, and all four of us settle down to breakfast in that sunny coolness. Days that begin like this cannot help carrying their perfection forward – as sums of money in a ledger are moved forward under different headings – to lighten the office-work … Idle conversations leading nowhere except perhaps to the confirmation of a happiness as idle as this shadowy garden, with its heavy odours of flowers, coffee, and tobacco-smoke, mingled with early sunlight.
And here, a late morning stroll where a soundscape manages to convey sights, colours and the smell of the sea and of ground coffee. I listen attentively to birdsong, but this made me want to widen my radar and listen out for other sounds.
Dry friction of cicada from the palm-tree across the road. Eucalyptus leaves breaking their wrists with a small click as they begin to plane down over the tombstones. The maceration of pebbles by sea-water, mingling with the noise of coffee being ground, and the shearing noise of a pot being scoured. An inventory of sounds from a late morning walk.
Among many joys of this book are the short but vivid sketches of magnificent people Durrell meets. A Greek friend has lightning fast ripostes in a conversation about the English and the Greeks. I’ve no idea if these comments have validity, but the reactions made me laugh anyhow.
‘You are English. They never see things before they happen. The English are very slow.’
‘And what about the Greeks?’
‘The Greeks are fast … piff … paff … They decide.’
‘But each one decides differently.’
‘That is individualism.’
‘But it leads to chaos.’
‘We like chaos.’
Durrell’s admiration for patiently cultivated happiness is also touching, and belies the notion that happiness is something outside our control, which just happens to us under the right conditions. This man works at, works for, his happiness.
His happiness is his own work, cultivated like the tiny pot of basil in the window of his house, by patience and the bitter harmony of experience.
And how can one do anything but warm to the young woman who tries to protect her boss from bad news, and herself from the bad luck of bringing it, through the swift deployment of the toilet flush. If only we could wash bad news away so easily.
The peasant girl from Cos makes an admirable servant but she shares the superstitions of her people. It is unlucky, for example, to be the bringer of bad luck or bad news. Telegrams almost always contain bad news. Therefore rather than give me the telegram which arrived this morning she tore it up and put it down the lavatory. ‘I was afraid it was bad news,’ she says. When I scold her she throws her apron over her head and roars like a bull. What is one to do?
Other favourite characters, and characters they are, include Durrell’s English buddies, among whom the most quirkily likeable is the British Consul General, Hoyle. Beset by health problems and full of idiosyncrasies, I am proposing him as a candidate for a Nuannaarpoq Award. His display of resilience, and the intelligent rendering of a handicap into an opportunity for minute observation and enjoyment of details, strike me as laudable examples of the spirit of nuannaarpoq.
But since he must pause and rest after every little exertion, he had developed an eye for the minutiae of life which all of us lacked. Forced to stand for ten seconds until his heart slowed down, Hoyle would notice a particular flower growing by the road, an inscription hidden in some doorway which had escaped us, a slight architectural deviation from accepted style. Life for him was delightful in its anomalies, and no walk was possible with Hoyle without a thousand such observations.
I also love his archly dignified response to the doctor who insists he needs an operation.
Hoyle is suffering from hernia, and Mills proposes to perform a minor operation on him when the weather gets colder. ‘I shall have to poke a hole in your middle and let some of the sawdust out, Hoyle,’ he says. Hoyle hates the idea. ‘Can’t I die in peace?’ he says testily. ‘What would happen if you didn’t operate?’ Mills sighs and swallows his wine. ‘You would soon be going about with that tummy of yours on a tray. How would you like to hold up a tray all day?’ ‘I should have a servant to hold the tray,’ says Hoyle with dignity.
Endearing too is his habit of slamming on the brakes whenever he has an idea while driving. I can’t decide if this is dangerous or sensible. If he is so absorbed by new ideas, then it might make sense to stop when struck by one. On the other hand, if his absorption means that the brakes are slammed on without a passing glance in the rear view mirror, it may be that ideas lead to death all round.
When a new idea struck him, it was his habit to slam on the brakes, stop the car, and sit awhile to consider it from every angle.
Lastly, on Hoyle, this touching comment which signals again his tenacity and quietly reserved love of life, made when a friend visited him in hospital.
‘As you get old,’ he says, ‘it gets harder to grab hold of life. This time my fingers nearly slipped.’
While ever we wish to grab hold of life, may our fingers never slip.
Another friend, who died soon after these happy years, is Gideon. Slightly eccentric, one has to admire the ingenuity of fining oneself for various lapses with something pleasurable. In his case, his fines are administered in the form of glasses of wine. Our ornery friend Hoyle, perhaps thinking of his own health problems, is unimpressed.
He had got into the habit of ‘fining’ himself for little errors of taste of judgement. ‘Damn,’ he would say, ‘ I fine myself two glasses of red.’ Or else ‘I simply can’t let that pass without fining myself a glass of white.’ … Now he fined himself for his rudeness to the American-Greek of Cameiro Skala while Hoyle watched him with all the weight of his unexpressed distaste apparent in his expression. ‘Your liver will have to pay up in the end,’ he remarked sourly.
Again, I can’t vouch for any validity in these national-characteristic memes, but Gideon’s alignment with his humorous and prejudiced definition of his own race at least has the virtue of consistency.
‘Have you never heard Gideon’s own definition of an Englishman?’ he asked. ‘It fits him perfectly. An Englishman may be defined as a soft-centred creature with a tough and horny shell, through which two very sensitive antennae (humour and prejudice) explore the world around him.’
Lastly, Durrell’s book touches on creativity, and he meets two people who are dedicated to one or another form of art. Koch is an Austrian artist who managed to stay one step ahead of the German army’s recruitment officers throughout the war, by deftly deploying their own rules and regulations and slipping through the net on a series of labyrinthine ‘technicalities’. Which coincidentally left this ‘aristocrat of the spirit’ free to pursue his art.
He is one of the aristocrats of the spirit – the poor artist who wishes for nothing but a chance to create.
Manolo the Butcher, on the other hand, pursues art through poetry or, more specifically, epic poetry. He bursts into Durrell’s office and demands the right to recite his epic on the sufferings of Rhodes under the heel of the Fascists. His defiant declamation of this long piece of doggerel is a masterpiece, if not of poetry then of pride and performance.
In his turn, Durrell, several of whose poems I have learned by heart, shares a couple of comments on poets and poetry. I found the first intriguing, though I don’t know if it holds true, and the second made me wonder if the same time-lapse can be usefully applied to other forms of creative revision.
Writing poetry educates one into the nature of the game – which is humanity’s profoundest activity. In their star-dances the savages try to unit their lives to those of the heavenly bodies – to mix their quotidian rhythms into those great currents which keep the wheel of the universe turning. Poetry attempts to provide much the same sort of link between the muddled inner man with his temporal preoccupations and the uniform flow of the universe outside. Of course everyone is conscious of these impulses; but poets are the only people who do not drive them off.
Poems, like water-colours, should be left to dry properly before you alter them – six months or six hours according to the paints you use.
This book, slim and bright, is a prose-poem, as are Durrell’s memoirs of other Greek Islands, including Prospero’s Cell, which I will now have to revisit and celebrate in these pages.