“Νο person, place, or thing can ever quite remain the same for us after we have seen, smelled, tasted, heard, and felt it through the senses of Lawrence Durrell.”
“Durrell…communicat[es] his gusto for Greek ruins, wild flowers, Patmian monks, forged bus tickets, the violet, alluring sea, and pilgrimages embellished by traditional dancing beside barbeques. . . .”
—Raymond Mortimer (Sunday Times)
Reflections on a Marine Venus, a very personal memoir by leading 20th century novelist Lawrence Durrell, explores life on a magical and enchanting island (Rhodes) right after World War II. It is about Greece when it was a demiparadise. But it is also about the distillation of life and experience, the savoring of all the exquisite pleasures, physical, sensual, and intellectual, available on one lovely island at one time, and that might still be there for us to discover in our own time.
Here is a brief excerpt selected by a reviewer on Amazon.com:
“The author goes for a midnight swim in the final chapter: ‘The [moon]light filters down a full fathom or more to where, on the dark blackboard of weed, broken here and there by dazzling areas of milk-white sand, the fish float as if dazed by their own violet shadows which follow them back and forth, sprawling across the sea’s floor.'”
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. Reflections on a Marine Venus is regarded by many as a masterpiece.
1: Of Paradise Terrestre
2: Orientations in Sunlight
3: The Little Summer of Saint Demetrius
4: The Sunny Colossus
5: In the Garden of the Villa Cleobolus
6: The Three Lost Cities
7: The Age of the Knights
8: Lesser Visitations
9: The Saint of Soroni
Appendix 1: A Short Calendar of Flowers and Saints for Rhodes
Appendix 2: Peasant Remedies
From Chapter 1: Of Paradise Terrestre
Alvarez fled; and after him the doom
Of exile was sent out; he, as report
Was bold to voice, retired himself to Rhodes
—Middleton: The Spanish Gipsy
Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. 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. These born “islomanes” he used to add, are the direct descendants of the Atlanteans, and it is towards the lost Atlantis that their subconscious yearns throughout their island life…I forget the other details. But like all Gideon’s theories it was an ingenious one. I recall how bitterly it was debated by candlelight in the Villa Cleobolus until the moon went down on the debate, and until Gideon’s contentions were muffled in his yawns: until Hoyle began to tap his spectacles upon the thumbnail of his left hand, which was his way of starting to say goodnight: until Mehmet Bey, in the house across the oleander-grove, banged his shutters together as a protest against the lateness of the hour. Yet the word stuck; and though Hoyle refused its application to any but Aegean islands, while Sand could not bring himself to look a theory so irrational in the eye, we all of us, by tacit admission, knew ourselves to be “islomanes.”
This book is by intention a sort of anatomy of islomania, with all its formal defects of inconsequence and shapelessness: of conversations begun and left hanging in the air: of journeys planned and never undertaken: of notes and studies put together against books unwritten….It is to be dedicated to the resident goddess of a Greek island—Rhodes. I should like, if possible, to recall some part of those golden years, whose ghosts still rise up and afflict me whenever I catch sight of a letter with a Greek stamp on it, or whenever, in some remote port of the world, I happen upon a derelict tanker flying the Aegean blue-and-white.
From Chapter 2: Orientations in Sunlight
From the windows of my office I can overlook some of the twisted streets and warrens of the old town. It is an admirable point of vantage from which to look down unobserved upon the conversations and quarrels of the Greeks. At mid-day I caught sight of a small procession consisting of a mother and father followed by two little children and a miscellaneous body of relations. The father walked at the head, carrying an ikon of the Virgin from which hung down a little lighted lamp. They were moving house, it seemed. The man walked with calm circumspection, shielding the flame of the lamp with his right hand lest a gust of wind should put it out and thus prejudice the luck of the new house. Slowly and anxiously the little procession turned a corner and was gone. Watching the serious faces of the children I found myself hoping that the family ikon would arrive safely at the doorway of the new house, and that the happy augury would help them build their luck confidently next year against the bitter trials of the world to come. Surely, I thought, history as chronology is woefully misleading; for the history of a place, dispersed by time, lives on in fable, gesture, intonation, raw habit. No textbook can capture it fully. Here in Rhodes, for example, one runs across songs left behind by the Crusaders, living on side by side with a belief in a freshwater Goddess whose antiquity stretches back beyond Plato.
The Aegean is still waiting for its painter—waiting with all the unselfconscious purity of its lights and forms for someone to go really mad over it with a loaded paintbrush. Looking down upon it from the sentinel’s tower at Castello, from the ancient temple at Lindos, you begin to paint it for yourself in words. Cerulean sky touched with white cirrus—such fleece as grows between the horns of nine-day goatlets, or on the cocoons of silkworms; viridian to peacock-tail green where the sea threshes itself out against the cliffs. Prismatic explosion of waves against the blue sky, crushing out their shivering packets of color, and then the hissing black intake of the water going back. The billiard-green patch edged with violet that splashes the sea below Lindos. The strange nacreous bones of cliff at Castello. But to paint Greece one would have to
do more than play with a few colors. Other problems: how to convey the chalky whiteness of the limestone, the chalk-dust that comes off the columns on to one’s fingers, the soft pollen-like bloom on the ancient vases which makes so many of them seem like great plums of pure light. And when you had done all this you would still have to master the queer putty-mauve, putty-grey tones of the island rock—rock that seems to be slowly cooling lava. An impossible task when all is said and done. It is pleasanter not to try, but to lie dozing in the shade and watch Gideon working away on squared paper with his little child’s paint-box. He stops whistling only to swear and shake his fist at Anatolia which is manifestly eluding him.“I nearly had it in this one” he says. The paint-box was a present intended for his daughter; but one day, cooped up in a transit-camp he decided to try the colors out. He has graduated via railway-trains and one-dimensional drawings of houses and cows to sedate little watercolors of the landscapes he has visited. Some are quite good; but though I offer to buy them he refuses.“This is my diary,” he says.
From Chapter 3: The Little Summer of Saint Demetrius
In Kalymnos the infant’s paint-box has been at work again on the milky slopes of the mountain. Carefully, laboriously it has squared in a churchyard, a monastery, and lower down repeated the motif: a church, a monastery, a town; then, simply for the sake of appropriateness, a harbor with a shelf of bright craft at anchor, and the most brilliant, the most devastatingly brilliant houses. Never has one seen anything like it—the harbor revolving slowly round one as one comes in. Plane after stiff cubistic plane of pure color. The mind runs up and down the web of vocabulary looking for a word which will do justice to it. In vain. Under the church the half-finished caieques stand upon a slip—huge coops of raw wood looking for all the world like the skeletons of dismembered whales.
Three little girls in crimson dresses stand arm in arm and watch us. The harbor liquefies under the keel as we throttle down and move towards the port, our engines now puffy and subdued, yet quickened like our heartbeats as we sit and watch the island. The echo of our passage—the hard plam-plam-plam of the exhaust—bounces gravely off the rusted iron hull of a steamer which lies on its side in the shallows, its funnels sticking up like nostrils, but all the rest of it submerged in water as clear as the purest white gin. This is Kalymnos. High up, under the walls of the Church of the Golden Hand a woman is singing, slowly, emphatically, while from the wharves across the way a man in a blue overall is hammering at a coffin. Uncanny isolation of sound and object, each dissimilar, each entire to itself. Detached from the temporal frame. A song and a hammering which exist together but never mix or muddle the hard outlines of each other.