Sicilian Carousel

By Lawrence Durrell
Paperback: $12.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-015-1

“Superbly captures the spirit of that place and does so with a generosity of imagination rare in any writing.”

—Paul Fussell

“The personal perception of a place and a people by an artist who has the selectivity to see and the style to describe what he sees as well as any prosodist writing. . . . Of his topographical trilogy on Corfu, Rhodes, and Cyprus [Sicilian Carousel] is closest in spirit to the lyricism and humor of Prospero’s Cell; what sadness there is in his tone here is no longer the anger of human brutality that fired the prose of Bitter Lemons, only a quiet resignation toward loss and age and death—truths, he tells us, which ‘must be accepted with good nature, good grace, good humor.’ Durrell makes us feel that he has learned these qualities.”

Harper’s Magazine

Summary

Although Durrell spent much of his life beside the Mediterranean, he wrote relatively little about Italy; it was always somewhere that he was passing through on the way to somewhere else. Sicilian Carousel is his only piece of extended writing on the country and, naturally enough for the islomaniac Durrell, it focuses on one of Italy’s islands. Sicilian Carousel came relatively late in Durrell’s career, and is based around a slightly fictionalized bus tour of the island. As Time Magazine put it, “His travel books arrive like long letters from a civilized and very funny friend—the prose as luminous as the Mediterranean air he loves.”

About the Author

Lawrence Durrell (1912–1990) was born of British parents in India. He is best known as the author of The Alexandria Quartet, a series of four novels set in Egypt, but he wrote many other novels, travel memoirs, poems, plays, and humorous sketches, and is widely regarded as one of the most dazzling writers of the 20th century. Sicilian Carousel is the fourth of Durrell’s books to be reprinted by Axios Press.

Illustrations

Acknowledgements

1: Arrival

2: Catania

3: Syracuse

4: Agrigento

5: Selinunte

6: Erice

7: Segesta

8: Palazzi

9: Palermo

10: Taormina

Poems

Index

From Chapter 1: Arrival

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 her disappearance 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!

*****

From Chapter 4: Agrigento

Martine: “But Agrigento for me is the acid test and I am sure you will feel it as I have; it reminded me of all our passionate arguments about the Greekness of a Cyprus which had never been either geographically or demographically part of Greece. What constituted its special claim to be so? Language of course—the eternal perennity of the obdurate Greek tongue which has changed so little for thousands of years. Language is the key, the passport, and unless we look at the Greek phenomenon from this point of view we will never understand the sort of colonizers they were. It was not blood but language which gave one membership of the Greek intellectual commonwealth—barbarians were not simply people who lived other where but people who did not speak Greek. It is hard for us to understand for we, like the Romans, have a juristic view of citizenship—in the case of the British our innate puritanism makes it a question of blood, of keeping the blood untainted by foreign admixtures. The horror for us is the half-caste, the touch of the tar brush. It is a complete contrast to the French attitude which resembles in a way the ancient Greek notion in its idea of Francophone nations and races. The possession of the French tongue with its automatic entry into the riches of French culture constitutes the only sort of passport necessary for a non-French person whatever the color of his or her skin. It is easier to find a place in a French world than in a British—language determines the fact; yes, if you are black or blue and even with a British passport it is harder to integrate with us.

“This little homily is written in the belief that one day you will visit the temples in that extraordinary valley below the horrid tumble of modern Agrigento’s featureless and grubby slums—and suddenly feel quite bewildered by finding yourself in Greece, one hundred per cent in Greece. And you will immediately ask yourself why (given the strong anti-northern and secessionist sentiments of the Sicilians) there has never been a Greek claim to the island. You will smile. But in fact if we judge only by the monuments and the recorded history of the place we are dealing with something as Greek in sinew and marrow as the Argolid or as Attica. How has it escaped? Because the language is no longer a vital force. There are a few pockets where a vestigial Greek is still spoken, but pathetically few (luckily for the Italians).There is an odd little Byzantine monastery or two as there is in Calabria. But the gleam of its Greekness has died out; its language has been swamped by Italian. Only the ancient place names remain to jolt one awake to the realization that Sicily is just as Greek as Greece is—or never was! The question of Greekness—and the diaspora—is an intriguing one to think about. If we take Athens (that very first olive tree) as the center from which all Greekness radiates outward …Sicily is about like Smyrna is—if we take its pulse today. O please come and see!”

*****