My first acquaintance with Lawrence Durrell was as Gerald Durrell’s irascible brother Larry in ‘My Family and Other Animals‘, and then through his thriller, White Eagles over Serbia, and Antrobus stories. Recently I’ve been reading his travel books – the three I’ve read so far are ‘companions’ to the landscape and customs of three Greek islands: Cyprus, Corfu and Rhodes.
I’m not sure whether Durrell would recognise any of these places now (were he alive to do so), given that his recollections of Corfu and Rhodes date from the immediate pre-war (Corfu) and immediate post-war (Rhodes), and Cyprus pre-partition. Bitter Lemons of Cyprus is more than just a travel book, and although Durrell is at pains to explain that he had no interest in politics, his stay in Cyprus was inevitably overshadowed by the gradual politicisation of the Cypriots and the terrorism (or freedom fighting) which eventually led to British withdrawal and partition of the island.
Prospero’s Cell is more of a straightforward guide to Corfu, though one which may no longer exist, and Reflections of a Marine Venus is an elegiac portrait of Rhodes, which Durrell evidently loved, but which he could see changing after WW2. All three books are wonderful portraits of magical places: Durrell doesn’t attempt to write comprehensively about either place, more sketching the outlines, and occasionally shading in some parts in more detail, though he succeeds in conveying what I imagine to be the essential reality of life on these islands. The characters leap off the page – both Greek, Turk and Briton – and the landscape is evocatively described. I’d recommend all three.