Prospero in the Adriatic

I’ve been reading “around” the Adriatic as a way of imagining it, or rather seeing how it has been imagined. In this spirit, I picked up Lawrence Durrell’s 1945 book Prospero’s Cell. Durrell does not refer much to the Adriatic in his account. His Corfu, or rather Corcyra — he begins using the Latin name on the second page and then sticks with it pretty much to the end of the book — is Greek and in the Ionian. Perhaps it is in the Ionian because it is Greek. While he looks into many curiosities, he never looks into this one.

But the Adriatic lurks behind the book. Durrell refers to Corcyra in his first entry as “all Venetian blue and gold” (16), which historically probably functioned in much the same way that thinking of the island as in the Ionian because it is Greek did: it was Venetian, therefore in the Adriatic. Later, in a passage on the Turkish expansion eastward, he refers to the island as the “key to the Adriatic” (p. 77). He also includes a map of the “Eastern Adriatic” drawn by Bernard J. Palmer “after a copy of a late Portolano engraved in Italy by Lucini for Robert Dudley, 1646.” What was in 1646? The engraving or the drawing? Old books can be tantalizing. Perhaps both.

I suppose some readers might use a word such as “tantalizing” to characterize Durrell’s entire book, as it’s rather subtle and indirect. Conveyed through a series of dated entries from approximately October 1937 through September 1938, it purports to be a “guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra.” Anyone approaching it as a guide would be puzzled at least, if not thoroughly disappointed. It was not that kind of book even when it was written.

What Durrell seems to be trying for is more of an evocation of the spirit of the place, at the particular time when he experienced it, on the eve of World War II, after which, it is suggested, all this world would pass away. It’s an extended moment of intense observation and reflection tinged with the tension of impending war and the melancholy of after. It is thoroughly nostalgic and also limited by the perspective of its narrator, who writes about the things he sees, tastes, and hears, and the people, educated and erudite expats like himself, with whom he interacts.

There are a few locals, though we spy them rather from a distance, a bit like Turgenev’s hunter observing the Russian peasants of Orel Province. Or, perhaps more to modern tastes, like one of the “a year in X” accounts, in which one gets portraits of the eccentric neighbors interspersed with a bit of history, more ancient than modern, and lyric descriptions of the local scenery.

Its claims, too, tend to be rather subtle and uncertain. Even the major framing idea of the island as Prospero’s place of exile is offered up in this spirit, in a chapter called “History and Conjecture,” in the home-grown theory of a local recluse only ever referred to as “the Count,” who is conversing with an eternally curious Armenian expat named Zarian. Durrell’s stand-in narrator never takes part in the conversation, though he is present (apparently taking notes).

The evidence is as good or as thin as any of the other possibilities, and Durrell’s self-consciousness about the Count’s attempt, and his own, to even make it is evident in statements like this one: “It is one of the peculiar sentimentalities of the historian, this perpetual desire to trace places and origins by the shallow facts of romance” (p. 69). A fine phrase that I’ve already recorded for use as an epigraph, probably for my section on the shipwreck of St. Paul.

Basically, he’s got the original trade route, which puts the island “somewhere off the main route between Tunis and Naples” (p. 87). In addition, Caliban’s mother, SYCORAX, the “mysterious blue-eyed hag who owned the island” was “almost too obvious an anagram for CORCYRA” (ibid). Then there is the flora and fauna and the fact that they’re blown off course by a southwesterly, which is “about the worst thing that could befall an Ionian–sirocco weather” (ibid). There’s more here, and it’s all delivered in the same conjectural manner, through the colorful character who thinks a lot and has a lot of time to himself.

The Count’s crowning piece of evidence, in the context of the idyllic landscape the book evokes, is probably this one: “The state of being which is recorded in the character of Prospero is something which the spiritually rich or the sufficiently unhappy can draw for themselves out of this clement landscape” (p. 116).

Here I’m thinking of the accommodating natural world that Adrian Stokes writes about in his architectural histories from a decade or so earlier, with their reliance on contrasts between the northern and southern artistic impulses, the accommodating nature of the Adriatic, which allows the artists to “contemplate shapes and colours in the open air, paint on walls in the sun, or refine still further the shape of a shrine” (Stokes, The Quattro Cento, pp. 19-20).

It is a sentiment echoed by Durrell in one of the closing lines of the book, delivered in his “Epilogue from Alexandria”: “Nowhere else has there ever been a landscape so aware of itself, conforming so marvelously to the dimensions of a human existence” (p. 142).

It is an understandable flourish, in April 1941, as he looks back on an idyllic youth on an island imagined in myriad tones, ancient, modern, mythic, and magical.


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