Durrell's three topographical books, Prospero's Cell (1945), Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953), and Bitter Lemons (1957) are about Greek islands. In 1937 and 1938, after the enormous emotional effort of writing his first really original prose work, The Black Book, Durrell returned to Corfu, where his mother had earlier rented a house, with his first wife, Nancy. By contrast with The Black Book, Prospero's Cell, based on these pre-Second World War Corfu years, is pastoral comedy, a landscape with characters: perhaps almost a little too consistently sweet and bland all through. Durrell made copious notes for a book on Corfu in 1938 and 1939, but only reconstituted these towards the end of the Second World War, when he had spent about five years on official service in Egypt, and when Nancy had left him. No retrospective hurt or bitterness, no anticipation of coming violence, clouds his picture of Nancy's doe-like beauty, or of a timeless and crystalline world.
The second travel book, Reflections on a Marine Venus, is similarly built up in retrospect from Durrell's experience as an Information Officer in Rhodes in 1945 and 1946. This is not such a smoothly shaped work, it bulges rather at the seams with scraps of miscellaneous information, but it confronts reality with a harder and sadder eye. Durrell went to Rhodes wondering if his picture of Corfu had been a sentimental one, that of a tourist living cheaply because of local poverty and a favourable rate of exchange. He found in Rhodes an island shattered by war and poverty. What struck him now was not an atmosphere of pastoral romance but the stoical courage of the Greek people. His characters are no longer pastoral comedy characters, but real people who have suffered. There is still much fine description of landscape, much comedy of humours, much bravura writing, but the deep feeling is that life is a hard and bitter, though noble, business. The third travel book, Bitter Lemons, was written not retrospectively but almost journalistically. In 1952 Durrell came to Cyprus with his small daughter by his second marriage which had by then broken up. There, as I have mentioned, his work on Justine was interrupted by the outbreak of the Cyprus troubles and Durrell's various and always successful public service career made it inevitable that he should once again be offered official employment because of his early years in Corfu, and his great natural gift for languages, he spoke fluent modern Greek.
Emotionally, Durrell was deeply torn between his liking for both Greek and Turkish Cypriots, his happiness as a member of a small, friendly village community, and a simple, old-fashioned, perhaps slightly prickly British patriotism: his Kipling side.
Gradually his fellow villagers began to avoid him: his best friend, a Greek schoolmaster, was killed. He felt that strong military action against terrorists was necessary, but also that it made any long-range political settlement be-tween Great Britain and Cyprus impossible. He saw Great Britain as squandering an enormous capital of Hellenic good-will, founded by Lord Byron and renewed in the Second World War, by the comradeship of Greek and Briton as members of the Resistance in Greece and Crete. Sad and disillusioned, he left Cyprus in the autumn of 1956 and borrowed a cottage in Dorset, where he wrote Bitter Lemons, his book about his experiences in Cyprus, very rapidly. The prose style is much more plain and direct than in the other two island books, and Durrell's troubled frankness exacts a great deal of sympathy. A Book Society choice, Bitter Lemons was Durrell's first big popular success.
Some English critics (the verdict of European and American critics would be quite different) feel that it is in the poems and the island books that Durrell really fulfils him-self The argument of such critics as Francis Hope or John Lehmann is that in The Black Book, The Alexandria Quartet, and the double-decker Tunc and Nunquam, Durrell is, in Wallace Stevens's sense, letting the imagination breed incestuously from the imaginary. The ambitious fictions, in this case against them, are too self-indulgent, too grandiose, too much pure fantasia. In the poems, such critics would say, Durrell found a tone, and in the island books not only a tone but a scale, that exactly suited his talents and his personality. I would not agree; I would agree that the more ambitious fictions are vulnerable to critical sniping in a way in which the poems and the island books are not, and that the poems and the island books are the things to read first if one wants to approach Durrell the novelist through a sense of Durrell the man.
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