Lawrence Durell– one of the greatest British writers and philhellenes of the 20th century – achieved spectacular success with The Alexandria Quartet, the first volume of which appeared in 1957 and violet language – doesn’t wear well as you age the reader, his travel books are one different story. In his poetry and travelogues – even more so than in his novels – Durrell made some lasting literary breakthroughs.
Durrell’s first travel book, Prospero’s Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corfu, is truly a travel-in-residence book, written in the form of a diary, and therefore unique for its time: the effect of a delicious scenery, language and culture imprinted on a sensual and ravenous young mind. Although the diary dates from the late 1930s, few were interested at the time in an introspective, smug, and utterly romantic portrayal of life on a Greek island during World War II. But once the war was over, “the book, which was eventually published in 1945, electrified a war-weary, colour-hungry British audience,” writes one biographer. Indeed, Durrell deliberately ignored the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler, and the other horrors of the decade. He said that while politics is an issue “dealing with average values,” the artist is driven by “his self-isolation and disruption of the societal instinct.” So while politics was about understanding and shaping the attitudes of the common man, art was the opposite – it was about grappling with the extraordinary. art was loneliness; politics social commitment.