Despite decades spent writing poetic evocations of the timeless pleasures of life in the Mediterranean, Lawrence Durrell had never set foot on the sea’s largest island: mysterious, impenetrable Sicily. For years his friend Martine begged him to visit her on this sun-kissed paradise, and though he always intended to, life inevitably interfered. It took Martine’s sudden death to finally bring him to the island’s shores. With Martine’s letters in his pocket, Durrell signs up for a tour group, hoping to learn the travel habits of those who aren’t obsessively devoted to island life. As he treks from sight to sight, dizzy with history and culture, Durrell finds echoes of his past lives in Rhodes, Cyprus, and Corfu.
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About the Author
Born in Jalandhar, British India, in 1912 to Indian-born British colonials, Lawrence Durrell was a critically hailed and beloved novelist, poet, humorist, and travel writer best known for the Alexandria Quartet novels, which were ranked by the Modern Library as among the greatest works of English literature in the twentieth century. A passionate and dedicated writer from an early age, Durrell’s prolific career also included the groundbreaking Avignon Quintet, whose first novel, Monsieur (1974), won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and whose third novel, Constance (1982), was nominated for the Booker Prize. He also penned the celebrated travel memoir Bitter Lemons of Cyprus (1957), which won the Duff Cooper Prize. Durrell corresponded with author Henry Miller for forty-five years, and Miller influenced much of his early work, including a provocative and controversial novel, The Black Book (1938). Durrell died in France in 1990.
Read an Excerpt
By Lawrence Durrell
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1977 Lawrence Durrell
All rights reserved.
As I explained to Deeds more than once during the course of our breakneck journey round Sicily in the little red coach, nobody has ever had better reasons than I for not visiting the island. I had let my visit go by default for many a year, and now with increasing age and laziness and the overriding fact—no, Fact, in uppercase—of Martine's death, what on earth was the point? I could surely spare myself the kind of sentimental journey which would be quite out of place and out of context? Yes or no? Deeds only shook his head and tapped out his pipe against a wall. "If you say so," he said politely, "but you seem to be enjoying it very much." I was.
The bare fact of my arrival in Martine's own private island had in some way exorcised the dismal fact of herdisappearance from the scene—so much had it impoverished life in general, and not for me alone. Moreover, the luck was that I was able to talk a little about her, for though Deeds had not known her he had actually seen her quite often driving about Cairo, Alexandria, and lastly about Cyprus where I had helped her to build the ambitiously beautiful house which Piers had designed for her around a cruciform central room which both vowed was based on a Templar motif. But now they were both dead! In some of those long telephone conversations which somehow never succeeded in fully repairing our long-relinquished attachment to the Cyprus past, I could hear, or thought I could hear, the chatter of waves upon the beach of Naxos, the Sicilian Naxos where she had at last come to roost like a seabird, secure at last from politics and civil strife alike. Happy, too, in the possession of the Man That Never Was and her "blithe and beautiful" children.
Unexpected and fateful is the trajectory which life traces out for our individual destinies to follow. I could not have predicted her Sicilian life and death in Cyprus, years ago. In fact, the Sicilian invitation was one of long standing, and the project of a visit to Naxos was one which had hung fire for many years. But it had always been there. I must, I simply must, she insisted, visit her on her home ground, see her children, meet her husband. And once or twice we almost did meet, the very last time in Rome. Yet never here, for each time something suddenly came up to prevent it. I think neither of us had seriously reflected on the intervention of something as unusual as death—though my wife, Claude, among her warmest friends, had suddenly surprised and saddened everyone by falling ill of a cancer and disappearing. Lesson enough, you would think; but no, I delayed and procrastinated on the Sicilian issue until suddenly one day Martine herself had floated out of reach. That last long incoherent letter—no, absolutely indecipherable—had not alarmed me unduly. An impulsive girl, she was accustomed to write in letters a foot high on airmail paper, and so terribly fast that the ink ran, the pages stuck together, and the total result even under a magnifying glass was pure cuneiform; say, an abstract drawing done in wet clay by the feet of a pigeon. But now the plane hovered and tilted and the green evening, darkening over the planes of colored fields girdling Catania, swam up at us. The island was there, below us.
Thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand, it had a sort of minatory, defensive air. From so high one could see the lateral tug of the main deep furling and unfurling its waters along those indomitable flanks of the island. And all below lay bathed in a calm green afterglow of dusk. It looked huge and sad and slightly frustrated, like a Minoan bull—and at once the thought clicked home. Crete! Cyprus! It was, like them, an island of the mid-channel—the front line of defense against the huge seas combing up from Africa. Perhaps even the vegetation echoed this, as it does in Crete? I felt at once reassured; as if I had managed to situate the island more clearly in my mind. Magna Graecia!
But it wasn't only Martine I had come to see. I had other pressures and temptations—inevitable when half my living came from travel journalism. Yet it was she who placed her darts most cunningly in spots where they cost me most pangs of guilt. For example: "You are supposed to be somewhat of an authority on Mediterranean islands—yet you neglect the biggest and most beautiful! Why? Is it because I am here?" A question which must remain forever unanswered. "After all," the letter continued, "fifteen years is a long time...." It wasn't that either. It was just my old slavish habit of procrastination. The invitation had always been accepted in the depths of my own mind. But circumstances were against it—though I made several false beginnings. And of course we missed each other elsewhere: Paris, New York, Athens; it was extremely vexatious yet it could not be helped. And of course there would always be time to repair this omission and repair the fifteen-year-old breach in our friendship....
In Cyprus, during those two magnetic summers we had discussed at great length the meaning of the word I had invented for people stricken by the same disease as ourselves: islomanes. I had even written a trilogy of books about Greek islands in a vain attempt to isolate the virus of islomania; with the result that later, in an age of proliferating tourism, the Club Méditerranée had even adopted the phrase as a cri de guerre, blessed by the French glossies. I had the impression that it had all but made the Medical Encyclopedia. And now?
Well, I had brought with me a few of those long amusing and tender letters to look over as we voyaged; almost all that I knew of Sicily today came from them. In Cyprus she had been a fledgling writer and I had tried to help her tidy an overgrown manuscript about Indonesia called The Bamboo Flute. Somewhere it must still be knocking about. It had moments of good insight and some metaphors vivid enough to incite cupidity, for I borrowed one for Bitter Lemons, but conpermesso so to speak: that is to say, honestly.
There were of course other strands woven into the skein, like the repeated invitations from an editor in New York to consider some long travel articles on the island. I visited my travel agent in the nearby town of Nimes where, like an old stork, he nested in a mass of travel brochures and train tickets. He was rather a cultivated old man, an ex-schoolmaster who had a tendency to think of himself as a cross between a psychiatrist and the Grand Inquisitor himself. "The thing for you," he said pointing a long tobacco-stained finger at me, "is the Sicilian Carousel—every advantage from your point of view. You will have Roberto as guide and a fine bus." My soul contracted. But truth to tell, the invitation from New York had in some queer way settled the matter. It was also as if Martine had given me a nudge from beyond the grave: had summoned me. But the thought of facing up to the chance adventures of the road made me uneasy. I had become a bit spoiled with too much seclusion in my old bat-haunted house in Provence. My friend must have divined my train of thought for he at once said, "You need a change—I feel it. And the Sicilian Carousel will give you what you need." He handed me a clutch of tomato-colored brochures which did nothing to allay my misgivings at all. The beauties of Taormina—I knew of them. Who does not? I did not need French commercial prose to excite me. Yet as I drove homeward across the dry garrigues of the Languedoc I was in some obscure way rather happy—as if I had taken a decision which was, at that particular stage, appropriate and necessary. So be it, I thought. So be it.
On arriving home I switched on the lights and took a perfunctory look at Sicily in the encyclopedia. They made it sound like the Isle of Wight. Then the evening papers arrived with their talk of strikes and lockouts and so on, and my resolve faltered at the thought of spending days and nights asleep on my suitcase at Nice or Rome or Catania. But somehow I could not draw back now. I lit a log fire and put on a touch of Mozart to console me against these dark doubts. Tomorrow my friend would ring me with the reservations. I cannot pretend that my sleep was untroubled that night. I regressed in my dreams and found myself in the middle of the war in Cairo or Rhodes, missing planes or waiting for planes which never came. Martine was inexplicably there, behaving with perfect decorum, dressed in long white gloves, and subtly smiling. It was the airport but in the dream it was also Lord's and we were waiting for the emergence of the cricketers. I slept late and indeed it was my friend's call which shook me awake. "I have the whole dossier lined up," he said. He liked to make everything sound official and legal. "When do I leave?" I quavered. He told me the dates. Technically the Carousel started from Catania; my fellow travelers were converging on that town from many different points in Europe.
So it was that I began to land hop sideways across France on a strikeless fifth of July with the pleasant feel of thunder in the air and perhaps the promise of a night storm to come and refresh the Midi. And there was no sign of that old devil the mistral, which was a good omen indeed. It is always sad leaving home, however, and in the early dawn, after a spot of yoga, I took a dip in the pool followed by a hot shower and wandered aimlessly about for a bit in the garden. Everything was silent, the morning was windless. The tall pines and chestnuts in the park did not stir. In the old water tower the brood of white barn owls snoozed away the daylight after their night's hunting. The old car eased itself lingeringly away across the dry garrigues with their scent of thyme and rosemary and sage. The Sicilian Carousel was on. All my journeys start with a kind of anxious pang of doubt—you feel suddenly an orphan. You hang over the rail watching the land dip out of sight on the circumference of the earth—than you shake yourself like a dog and address yourself to reality once more. You point your mind towards an invisible landfall. Sicily!
Nice was clothed in a fragile brightness; wind furrowed the waters of the bay making the yachts dance and bow. Light clouds, washed whiter than white, passed smoothly against the summer sky. Colored awnings, strips of Raoul Dufy—it was all brilliantly there. Yes, but the airport was a ferment of police and militia armed to the eyes with automatic weapons. We had been having an epidemic of aimless kidnappings and slayings during the past few weeks—the new patriotism. Hence all these precautions. The two Arab gentlemen up front hid something in their shoes—a permit to work or shirk I suppose? It could not have been a gun. Hashish? But I had to hurry to make my connection with Rome and I passed through all the X-raying in a rage of impatience. The travel plan was, as always, brilliantly conceived down to the last detail, but no travel agent can make allowances for such weird contingencies as a tommy gun attack or a police search. Nevertheless I did it, but only just. We skated off the end of the Nice runway and out over the sea once more, rising steadily until the regatta below us became a bare scatter of pinpoints on the hazy blue veil. I had now become quite detached, quite resigned in my feelings; the sort of pleasant travel-numbness had set in. Consigning my soul to the gods of change and adventure I had a short sleep in which I had a particularly vivid dream of Martine—but it was Cyprus, not Sicily. There were problems about her land which I was helping to settle in my limping Greek. And then, superimposed on this scene was the troublesome poem about Van Gogh which, like an equation, had refused to come out over the months. I had become so fed up with it—it was almost very good—that I had tried publishing it in its unfinished state in order to provoke it to complete itself. In vain. It needed both pruning and clinching up in a number of places. It was a charity to suppose that Sicily might do the trick, yet why not? A jolt was in order.
Rome airport was no consolation—for it was being literally riven apart, torn up, bulldozed into heaps, smashed. Red dust rose from it as if from a sacrificial pyre. To the roar of planes was added the squirming and snarling of tractors wrestling with the stumps of trees. It was for all the world like the battles of mammoths in the Pleistocene epoch. Improvised footpaths and bridges across this battlefield awaited the visitors on the international lines. As for the internal and domestic flights a whole new airport had been constructed for them—but transport was lacking. Nor were there any taxis, it seemed. Glad that I had packed so lightly I humped my effects and jogged along like the-half-witted Sherpa I was towards the new buildings, following clusters of green arrows. I had a good hour and a half in hand for the Catania plane which was a relief, but when I reached my objective I found that once again all passengers were being X-rayed for guns and then passed through the long smugglers' tunnel. On the whole a bad ambience in which to start on a holiday journey, but my spirits rose slightly for I saw ahead of me what seemed to be the whole cast of Porgy and Bess, or some other big musical, being processed with operatic dignity by weary policemen. It was complicated by the fact that the only bar lay outside the clearance area and some of the cast kept slipping out of the cordon to buy a drink or a sandwich, to the annoyance of the officials. There were some cries and expostulation. One tipsy member of the party broke into a soft shoe routine which won all hearts but did nothing to settle the problems of the police. At last all was in order and the company assembled in a waiting room for their plane—alas, they were not to be on ours.
I was turned aside into another enclosure where the Catania passengers were submitting resignedly to the same processing. Immediately ahead of me was a huge Sicilian mother who had, as far as I could make out, won a fertility competition and had come up to Rome to receive her prize and make television history by explaining how she had won the trophy. She had her supporting evidence with her in the persons of six large and lugubrious sons with heavy moustaches. They caused quite a fuss in spite of their good nature and had to be pushed and pulled and shoved like cattle. And volubility! How delicious and infantile Italian sounded after a long absence, how full of warmth and good humor. The policemen conducted, so to speak, their swelling emotions with the bunched tips of their fingers—all so molto agitato. The Sicilian version of ox-eyed Hera did her own act back; then all swept into the waiting lounge and sank sighing into seats where the men fell into a prolonged brooding examination of their air tickets. They were on the plane but not of our party. We had been given little distinguishing rosettes for the Carousel. It was about time I pinned mine up. Immediately next to me was an aggrieved French couple with a small child who looked around with a rat-like malevolence. He had the same face as his father. They looked like very cheap microscopes. To my horror the mother wore a Carousel rosette. I bowed and they inclined their heads with coolness.
Then I saw Deeds sitting in a corner also with a distinguishing badge, bowed over his Times. I can't say I "recognized" him for I did not know him; but what gave me an instant shock of recognition was the clan to which he belonged. The desert boots, the trench coat hiding a faded bush jacket, the silk scarf knotted at his throat, the worn and weathered grip on the floor at his feet.... Had he appeared in a quiz I would have had no hesitation in writing out his curriculum vitae. Colonel Deeds, D.S.O., late Indian Army, later still, Desert Rat. Nowadays I suppose they have broken the mould of that most recognizable of species, the Eighth Army veteran. The clipped moustache, the short back and sides haircut.... "I see you are on this jaunt," he said mildly, to break the ice. And I said I was. His blue eyes had a pleasant twinkle. He said, "I have just come down from Austria. I don't suppose there'll be many of us on this flight." It was at Catania that we were to join the rest of the Carousel group—though the very word "group" gave me a twinge of resigned horror. If they were all like the two Microscopes in the corner I could just imagine the level of the conversation.
Excerpted from Sicilian Carousel by Lawrence Durrell. Copyright © 1977 Lawrence Durrell. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Table of Contents
- Chapter 1: Arrival
- Chapter 2: Catania
- Chapter 3: Syracuse
- Chapter 4: Agrigento
- Chapter 5: Selinunte
- Chapter 6: Erice
- Chapter 7: Segesta
- Chapter 8: Palermo
- Chapter 9: Taormina
- A Biography of Lawrence Durrell