In the summer of 1965, I hitchhiked with two school friends to Greece. We had just done our A levels, with mixed results. In Corfu, we all met our first boyfriends: likewise. What cast the real spell, over all of us nice Surrey girls, were the Greek islands. And the two books we read in those enchanted weeks offered the most intense marriage of literature and experience that I can remember.
After our hot, arduous journey through France and Italy, by car and (mostly) lorry, we had made the night crossing from Brindisi, in south-east Italy, to a Corfu first seen in a silvery dawn. Almost thirty years earlier, in the spring of 1937, Lawrence Durrell had made a similar crossing with his wife, a painter. They were young, and freespirited; in Kalami, in the north of the island, they took an old fisherman’s whitewashed house overlooking the sea. She began to paint. He began a journal.
Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins . . . 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 . . . of islands coming out of the darkness to meet you . . . aware not so much of a landscape coming to meet you invisibly over those blue miles of water as of a climate . . . Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder – the discovery of yourself.
Prospero’s Cell (1945) is the first of three books charting Durrell’s long love affair with Greek islands. Begun in notebook entries, it was, he explains in the Preface, finally composed in Alexandria – the setting for The Alexandria Quartet, novels which in retrospect seem to have cast their own spell over my whole generation. There he had fled, as the war took hold of Greece. ‘In those dark winters of 1941–2 Corcyra [as he always refers to it, anglicizing the Greek Kerkyra] seemed a place I
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