Prospero’s Cell

A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corfu
By Lawrence Durrell
Paperback: $12.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-003-8

Introduction by Simon Winchester

Prospero’s Cell is . . . one of Lawrence Durrell’s best books—is indeed, in its gemlike miniature quality, among the best books ever written.”

—Freya Stark

Summary

Prospero’s Cell is a diary of Lawrence Durrell’s life on Corfu just before World War II. Early in 1937, at the age of 25, he and his new wife took an old fisherman’s house on the north end of the island and began to explore and describe the enchanted world that they found. They swam, fished, sailed, harvested olives, savored wine and foods unknown in England, visited sites of interest and beauty, and enjoyed meeting a procession of uniquely colorful locals. This island idyll came to an abrupt end in 1941, as the Germans prepared their invasion of Greece. Durrell left Corfu “with a regret . . . luxurious and . . . deep.” He was evacuated by sea to Alexandria where he worked for the British government, published a literary journal called Personal Landscape, and gathered impressions that would eventually take shape as The Alexandria Quartet.

About the Author

Lawrence Durrell was born of British parents in India in 1912 and died living in France in 1990. He is best known as the author of The Alexandria Quartet, a series of four novels set in Egypt, but wrote many other novels, travel memoirs, poems, plays, and humorous sketches. Prospero’s Cell is regarded by many as his masterpiece and describes his affectionate relationship with the Island of Corfu and with Greece in general.

Preface

Introduction

1: Divisions upon Greek Ground

2: The Island Saint

3: Ionian Profiles

4: Karaghiosis: The Laic Hero

5: History and Conjecture

6: Landscape with Olive Trees

7: The Vintage Time

8: Epilogue in Alexandria

9: Appendix for Travelers

10: Lear’s Corfu

Brief Bibliography in English

Index

From the Introduction by Simon Winchester

During all the years when Albania was an isolated nightmare of a nation a fortunate few of its people came and stopped, they gazed out across the sea, they sighed and they dreamed.

Drab-dressed soldiers were everywhere, spies in raincoats peered and whispered, rifles poked furtively from slits in a thousand mushroom-shaped concrete pillboxes—and anyone stopping to gaze across the channel would have become in an instant an object of the darkest suspicion. But though even as recently as the early Nineties they were not allowed to do so, numbers of men and women often did trickle into the tiny Albanian port town of Saranda, and they did stand by the seawall, and they did stop, and they gazed out towards the west, especially as the sun was setting.

For less than two short miles across the water—a bracing swim, easy enough, except for the risk of a sentry’s rifle-shot between the shoulder blades—lay what must have seemed at the time the sweetest of Utopias. As the sun went down so they could watch as the lights of the villages on the free Greek island of Corfu began to flicker and then to blaze across the waters—a vision of paradise, all too easily seen from within the hinterlands of hell.

Corfu is still the most heavenly of islands, even though Albania, freed from Maoist isolation, has her own competing beaches now, and swarthy types sell suntan oil from the doorways of poor Enver Hoxha’s long disused pillboxes. The neutral agencies of geology, topography, climate and history may still connect her to her mainland neighbour, but she is in all ways very different, and for much more than the fact of being an island. Corfu is a place on the edge—on the edge of the Islamic world, among other things, for while Catholics and Jews and Orthodox Christians inhabited the island, the Turks possessed Albania, and mosques rose among its hills.

*****

From Chapter 1: Divisions upon Greek Ground

“No tongue: all eyes: be silent.” The Tempest

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.

*****

4.29.37

It is April and we have taken an old fisherman’s house in the extreme north of the island—Kalamai. Ten sea-miles from the town, and some thirty kilometers by road, it offers all the charms of seclusion. A white house set like a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water. The hill runs clear up into the sky behind it, so that the cypresses and olives overhang this room in which I sit and write. We are upon a bare promontory with its beautiful clean surface of metamorphic stone covered in olive and ilex: in the shape of a mons pubis. This is become our unregretted home. A world. Corcyra.

*****

5.22.37

At evening the blue waters of the lagoon invent moonlight and play it back in fountains of crystal on the white rocks and the deep balcony; into the high-ceilinged room where N.’s lazy pleasant paintings stare down from the walls. And invisibly the air (cool as the breath from the heart of a melon) pours over the window sills and mingles with the scent of the exhausted lamps. It is so still that the voice of a man up there in the dusk under the olives disturbs and quickens one like the voice of conscience itself. Under the glacid surface of the sea fishes are moving like the suggestion of fishes—influences of curiosity and terror. And now the stars are shining down frostblown and taut upon this pure Euclidian surface. It is so still that we have dinner under the cypress tree to the light of a candle. And after it, while we are drinking coffee and eating grapes on the edge of the mirror a wind comes: and the whole of heaven stirs and trembles—a great branch of blossoms melting and swaying. Then as the candle draws breath and steadies everything hardens slowly back into the image of a world in water, so that Theodore can point into the water at our feet and show us the Pleiades burning.