Spirit of Place

Letters and Essays on Travel
By Lawrence Durrell
Paperback: $12.00 • ISBN: 978-1-60419-035-9

“No one else writing in English today has a comparable command of the light and music of language.”

—George Steiner, The Yale Review

Summary

From one of the last century’s greatest storytellers comes a collection of essays that capture the unique, distinctive, and cherished characteristics of a place, both its tangible physical aspects and the invisible weave of its culture. Lawrence Durrell’s articles about Mediterranean and Aegean islands along with passages from his letters were first published in 1969. This edition, edited by Durrell’s friend and bibliographer Alan C. Thomas, comprises letters spanning thirty years, excerpts from his first two novels (neither available in the US), short fiction, and travel essays. “My books are always about living in places,” Durrell wrote, “not just rushing through them.”

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. Spirit of Place is the fifth of Durrell’s books to be reprinted by Axios Press.

New York Times Book Review:

“The letters depict the brio of Durrell’s existence with intoxicating vividness.”

Library Journal:

“Much more than just a chronicle of his travels, Durrell’s honesty, outspokenness, warmth, and extreme sensitivity to people and to the beauty of nature and landscape. An unusual and fascinating title.”

Times Literary Supplement:

“The letters are excellent, vigorous, exciting, unselfconscious, with a lively, original vocabulary, and at all times, even bad ones, shot through with strength and vitality.”

Preface

Letters by Lawrence Durrell

Corfu and England

Greece

Egypt.

Rhodes

South America—Yugoslavia

Yugoslavia

Cyprus

The Midi

Essays, Travel Pieces, Selections from Early Novels

Landscape and Character

Pied Piper of Lovers

Corfu, Greece, Cyprus

A Landmark Gone

Panic Spring

Zero

Delphi

Troubadour

Beccafico: A Tragic History

Oil for the Saint; Return to Corfu

France

“In Praise of Fanatics”

The River Rhone

Laura, A Portrait of Avignon

Across Secret Provence

Old Mathieu

Women of the Mediterranean

Three Roses of Grenoble

The Gascon Touch

Solange

Down the Styx

Reflections on Travel

Index

From the Preface

Lawrence Durrell has achieved success in many forms of literature—nullum tetigit quod non ornavit—and one of his most striking qualities as a writer lies in his ability to render scenery and the feel of places. His early years were spent in India, and since 1935 his total residence in England can hardly add up to more than a year or so. In the meantime he has lived in Corfu, Greece, Paris, Egypt, Rhodes, the Argentine, Yugoslavia, Cyprus, and the Midi. Before the publication of The Alexandria Quartet, in which the city itself looms almost larger than the human characters, Durrell was most widely known for his books about Greek islands. These are not so much travel books. “It would be far more accurate,” as Richard Aldington remarked, “to describe them as ‘foreign-residence’ books.”

In addition to Durrell’s books, a number of articles describing scenery, generally Aegean or Mediterranean, have appeared in magazines, small privately printed pamphlets, and so forth. These essays and sketches are now gathered for the first time in book form. To provide something of the setting in which they were written I have collected passages from letters which Durrell has written to his friends over the last thirty years and linked them together with some brief biographical notes and a few memories of my own.

One of the difficulties which confronts any editor of Durrell’s letters is the fact that he almost never dates them. T. S. Eliot, with a kindly eye on future scholars, had the admirable habit of noting the date of receipt; in some cases postmarked envelopes have survived, in others there are internal clues, while Durrell’s frequent movements from one country to another provide a general framework into which most letters can be fitted. I know that some of my conjectures may well prove inaccurate, but hope that almost all the letters have been dated within a year of their having been written.

I have had one advantage not generally available to literary editors. When work on this book was well advanced Durrell came to stay with me, here in Chelsea, for a month, and I was able to consult him regarding the queries which had accumulated; indecipherable words, mistakes in typing, obscure references, etc. For example, a hand-written letter from Cyprus contains the sentence: “. . . Rose Macaulay? She adopted us and whizzed us off to bxxxe in her old car.” I scanned the map of Cyprus and read through a guide trying to find a place-name beginning with b (Durrell often fails to capitalize) and ending with e, but in vain. I asked Durrell to read the passage: “. . . whizzed us off to bathe.” In an account of shooting in Corfu, in 1936, one typewriter key had failed to strike home: “So far I’ve prohibited herons. They’re such heraldic creatures, and when they’re wounded they use their great razor bill like a tailor. I shot a couple and one chased Leslie and nea ly, nipped him in the arse.” Was this word nearly or nealy I asked. “How can I remember what I meant to say more than thirty years ago? Put ‘neatly nipped him in the arse,’ that will annoy Les if he ever reads it.” My friend John Bradley, the editor of Ruskin’s letters, was also staying in the house at the time, and this unfair advantage almost drove him round the bend. When he gets stuck he can’t run downstairs and ask Ruskin. Just as well perhaps as he has a very attractive young daughter.

From Letters by Lawrence Durrell: Corfu and England

[1935]

Hotel Internazionale,

Brindisi, Italy

To Alan G. Thomas

Dear Alan,

You will see from this that we have arrived so far—at a certain cost. The whole town has been alive with rumours of the Greek revolt—and the services have been disorganized. The place swarms with people who are held up. But by some special dispensation we have discovered a boat which will drop us off at Corfu sometime in the middle of tonight. I hope you can read this scrawl. I can get you a copy of the infamous Lady Chatterly for 14 liras—about 5/-.

If the English are a nation of shop keepers, then the Italians are a nation of waiters. Positively they radiate a sort of charming servility. I have never been as waited on in any country—or, I might add, so badly. All the service is done from the wrong side.

I feel most disinclined to write. It’s very wearying kicking one’s heels in this military and naval port.

I’ve got quite a lot of amusement parading the slums and attending funerals. Most impressive. But the excitement of Greek civil war—and Italian importunity consumes me. However we leave tonight. God knows what time we reach the island. Dawn, I imagine. We have met a charming Greek boy who speaks Italian and has taken us round the town; the only night-haunt—apart from the more obvious houses of Venus for the soldiers— is a vacuous cafe with a very bad amateur band.

In order to give what Pat would call “body” to their music they accompany an exceedingly improbable and tinny gramophone. As the instruments are tuned from a piano which is several tones flat you can imagine the resulting noise.

Still I bear up very well under the stacks of local vino I am forced to consume. I’m developing a paunch like a channel buoy.

. . . For the rest—I’m too bored and the pen is too bad to write more. If I perish in the revolution you might save this letter as an example of what Italy can do to a gallant Englishman.

P’fui

Larry.

From Essays, Travel Pieces, Selections from Early Novels: Landscape and Character

“You write,” says a friendly critic in Ohio, “as if the landscape were more important than the characters.” If not exactly true, this is near enough the mark, for I have evolved a private notion about the importance of landscape, and I willingly admit to seeing “characters” almost as functions of a landscape. This has only come about in recent years after a good deal of travel—though here again I doubt if this is quite the word, for I am not really a “travel-writer” so much as a “residence-writer.” My books are always about living in places, not just rushing through them. But as you get to know Europe slowly, tasting the wines, cheeses and characters of the different countries you begin to realize that the important determinant of any culture is after all—the spirit of place. Just as one particular vineyard will always give you a special wine with discernible characteristics so a Spain, an Italy, a Greece will always give you the same type of culture—will express itself through the human being just as it does through its wild flowers. We tend to see “culture” as a sort of historic pattern dictated by the human will, but for me this is no longer absolutely true. I don’t believe the British character, for example, or the German has changed a jot since Tacitus first described it; and so long as people keep getting born Greek or French or Italian their culture-productions will bear the unmistakable signature of the place.

And this, of course, is the target of the travel-writer; his task is to isolate the germ in the people which is expressed by their landscape. Strangely enough one does not necessarily need special knowledge for the job, though of course a knowledge of language is a help. But how few they are those writers! How many can write a Sea and Sardinia or a Twilight in Italy to match these two gems of D. H. Lawrence? When he wrote them his Italian was rudimentary. The same applies to Norman Douglas’ Fountains in the Sand—one of the best portraits of North Africa.

We travel really to try and get to grips with this mysterious quality of “Greekness” or “Spanishness”; and it is extraordinary how unvaryingly it remains true to the recorded picture of it in the native literature: true to the point of platitude. Greece, for example, cannot have a single real Greek left (in the racial sense) after so many hundreds of years of war and resettlement; the present racial stocks are the fruit of countless invasions. Yet if you want a bit of real live Aristophanes you only have to listen to the chaffering of the barrow-men and peddlers in the Athens Plaka. It takes less than two years for even a reserved British resident to begin using his fingers in conversation without being aware of the fact. But if there are no original Greeks left what is the curious constant factor that we discern behind the word “Greekness”? It is surely the enduring faculty of self-expression inhering in landscape. At least I would think so as I recall two books by very different writers which provide an incomparable nature-study of the place. One is Mani by Patrick Leigh Fermor, and the other Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi.

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the country with Tartars, and within two generations discover, to your astonishment, that the national characteristics were back at norm—the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living, and the passionate individualism: even though their noses were now flat. This is the invisible constant in a place with which the ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting quite quietly over a glass of wine in a Paris bistrot. He may not be able to formulate it very clearly to himself in literary terms, but he will taste the unmistakable keen knife-edge of happiness in the air of Paris: the pristine brilliance of a national psyche which knows that art is as important as love or food. He will not be blind either to the hard metallic rational sense, the irritating coeur raisonnable of the men and women. When the French want to be malins, as they call it, they can be just as we can be when we stick our toes in over some national absurdity.

Yes, human beings are expressions of their landscape, but in order to touch the secret springs of a national essence you need a few moments of quiet with yourself. Truly the intimate knowledge of landscape, if developed scientifically, could give us a political science—for half the political decisions taken in the world are based on what we call national character. We unconsciously acknowledge this fact when we exclaim, “How typically Irish” or “It would take a Welshman to think up something like that.” And indeed we all of us jealously guard the sense of minority individuality in our own nations—the family differences. The great big nations like say the Chinese or the Americans present a superficially homogeneous appearance; but I’ve noticed that while we Europeans can hardly tell one American from another, my own American friends will tease each other to death at the lunchtable about the intolerable misfortune of being born in Ohio or Tennessee—a recognition of the validity of place which we ourselves accord to the Welshman, Irishman, and Scotsman at home. It is a pity indeed to travel and not get this essential sense of landscape values. You do not need a sixth sense for it. It is there if you just close your eyes and breathe softly through your nose; you will hear the whispered message, for all landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. “I am watching you—are you watching yourself in me?” Most travellers hurry too much. But try just for a moment sitting on the great stone omphalos, the navel of the ancient Greek world, at Delphi. Don’t ask mental questions, but just relax and empty your mind. It lies, this strange amphora-shaped object, in an overgrown field above the temple. Everything is blue and smells of sage. The marbles dazzle down below you. There are two eagles moving softly softly on the sky, like distant boats rowing across an immense violet lake.