I should confess up front, before going on to talk about this book, that I’ve never read anything by Gerald Durrell (not even My Family and Other Animals – though I am of course aware of it, as it’s one of OH’s favourite books of all time!) So really, I’m approaching the Durrells and their work with a fresh eye, and all that’s set me to reading this was a wonderful article in the latest “Slightly Foxed” magazine! But I like travel-type memoirs, I like old Fabers and I like good writing – so I hoped this would fulfil all the criteria! And actually, I think it does!

Wikipedia says of Durrell: “Lawrence George Durrell (27 February 1912 – 7 November 1990) was an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist, and travel writer, though he resisted affiliation with Britain and preferred to be considered cosmopolitan. It has been posthumously suggested that Durrell never had British citizenship, though more accurately, he became defined as a non-patrial in 1968, due to the amendment to the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962. Hence, he was denied the right to enter or settle in Britain under new laws and had to apply for a visa for each entry. His most famous work is the tetralogy The Alexandria Quartet.”

The book opens in 1937 with Lawrence Durrell and N. (his first wife Nancy) arriving on Corfu in the blue mediterranean – and the prose of the first paragraph is enough to hook you! This is still a primitive place, with superstitions, lack of plumbing and a belief in the local saint. In a series of pieces of varying length, Durrell records day-to-day life and impressions on the island; their dear friends and neighbours, including four characters credited at the beginning – Theodore Stephanides, Zarian, Cound D. and Max Nimiec; and the history and legends of Corfu itself. They swim and drink, witness olive pressing and the vine harvesting, talk and discourse on history vs myth, and all the time against the backdrop of a wonderful Mediterranean island. As the book comes to a close, we suddenly find that there a rumbles of War in the offing – this seeming paradise is under threat.

Lawrence and Nancy

Lawrence and Nancy

If I’m honest, it took me a little while to get into this book, and I’m not sure why – maybe I was just expecting too much, or had just gained a differing image of what the book was like from the review. But once I got sucked in and involved, it was hard to leave. Durrell’s prose is very beautiful and evocative, bringing the island, its dazzling light, its blue sea and sky very much to life. In many ways, he gives away little about himself and Nancy, a point picked up in his Wikipedia entry which described the book as “somewhat fictionalised”. And it is worthwhile noting that the rest of the Durrell clan seem to have been spread over the island at the same time, but you wouldn’t know it from this book! I would say not fictionalised – more that the book is characterised as much by what Durrell left out so that he could concentrate on the portrait he wanted to paint of his friends and the place they were in. Count D. in particular is a wonderful character, an amateur philosopher who comes out with some fabulous sayings:

“Philosophy…is a doubt which lives in one like a hookworm, causing pallor and lack of appetite. Suddenly one day you awake and realize with complete certainty that ninety-five per cent of the activities of the human race – to which you supposed you belonged – have no relevance whatsoever for you. What is to become of you?”


And there is a reason for this. At the end of the book, written in Alexandria while the war was on, Durrell brings us briefly up to date with the fate of the island after the fighting. It’s clear that he wanted the book to be a kind of tribute to Corfu and its people, a record and a memorial of his time there, reflecting his sadness at the destruction and his poignant feelings about the past. It’s a moving epilogue to what is a beautiful tale, recording a simple, in many ways idyllic life which has been lost. Innocence is destroyed by war and can never be regained.

“Two days before Christmas we climbed the dizzy barren razorback of Pantocratorus to the monastery from which the whole strait lay bar, lazy and dancing in the cold haze. Lines of dazzling water crept out from Burtrino, and southward, like a beetle on a plate, the Italian steamer jogged its six knots towards Ithaca. Clouds were massing over Albania, but the flat lands of Epirus were frosty bright. In the little cell of the warden monk, whose windows gave directly upon the distant sea, and the vague rulings of waves to the east, we sat at a deal table and accepted the most royal of hospitalities – fresh mountain walnuts and pure water from the highest spring; water that had been carried up on the backs of women in stone jars for several hundred feet.”

I ended up loving this book very much – for its conjuring up of the atmosphere of Corfu, for the wonderful characters and their conversations, for the glimpse into a lost (and perhaps simpler) world. And I *am* glad I have the other two volumes to look forward to!

(As an afterthought, has anyone read The Alexandria Quartet – and would you recommend it?)