Sam Jordison of The Guardian chose Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea for his Reading Club in March because Feb. was the centenary of Durrell’s birth (but also the month for a Dickens’ celebration so March seemed the best alternate) and because “Durrell is a wonderful writer who is currently underrated and should be read by far more people.”
I’m sure Jordison is right. I’d never heard of Durrell until I read an article in the May/Summer 2014 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle by Linda Lappin. She writes while making a pilgrimage to Corfu where Durrell lived and wrote his memoir, Prospero’s Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corfu. She is totally caught up in the spell of his writing, in the “power of place”, and can only take his prose in “small doses,” pausing in between “as if to take in air before plunging deep again . . . [because it] tastes so rich.” Durelle begins this memoir with a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (I saw this a few years ago at Stratford Festival with Christopher Plummer — fantastic!!), referring to what Lappin calls “the enchantment that Prospero has spun over the characters and their imaginations: the mesmerizing power of art. But it also evokes the power of place, for Prospero’s island and its spiritual geography are inextricably bound up with his magic.” I’m hooked!
Lappin explains that she is travelling to experience what Durrell called islomania, the disease of people 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.” I’m pretty sure this is a disease I, too, suffer from. The way Lappin talks about Durrell’s fascination, imagery, and his interpretation of the “soul” of Corfu, makes me understand why she is one of thousands who take this pilgrimage every year — to see the island with its clear pools and distant mountains, to see where Durrell worked and wrote and sailed and imagined his evocative prose.
While The Guardian’s readers took on The Alexandria Quartet, I think I will begin with Prospero’s Cell (once I’ve finished exploring the Fitzgeralds; I have several more books on that theme set in my agenda) as Lappin has thoroughly bound me, too, up with his magic. I think it may be akin to the feelings I had when visiting Rapa Nui — not like being trapped on an island with no visible land in any direction, but like having an expansive feeling of being a part of something amazing and beautiful, something unique and incomparable that stretches out as far as the eye can see. Yeah, I definitely have islomania!
You can listen to podcasts online from The Guardian — on the 100th anniversary of Durrell’s birth, Jan Morris considers his work; Joanna Hodgkin discusses his life and her new biography; and we hear archive recordings from the British Library.
In the next week, I’ll be reading and reviewing The Romantic Egoists: Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (an album put together by Scribners and Scotti Fitzgerald), the Collected Works of Zelda Fitzgerald, and Call Me Zelda by Erika Robuck. Stay tuned!