I’m currently reading “The Greek Islands” by Lawrence Durrell. First, let’s be clear. I haven’t been to Greece, although (like many I am sure), I dream of a day when I can pilot my own sailboat into the harbor of a small Greek village washed in blue sky and white buildings. But reading Durrell, I feel like I’ve been there. The book reads hypnotically. Consider this passage. Durrell is writing about Corfu, and speculating that it is the site for The Tempest:
One of the magical things in The Tempest is the way the atmosphere of the island is experienced and conveyed by the shipwrecked souls when they come ashore. The sleep – the enormous spell of sleep which the land casts upon them. They become dreamers, and somnambulists, a prey to vision and to loves quite outside the ordinary boundaries of their narrow Milanese lives. This seductive quality, its bewitched disengagement from all concern, is something you will not be long in feeling here. The air around you becomes slowly more and more anaesthetic, more blissful, more impregnated with holy sleep. You will realize that this is exactly what happened to the conquerors who landed here – they fell asleep. The French started to build the Rue de Rivoli but fell asleep before it was finished. The British, who had almost a hundred year lease on the place, decided that it needed a seat of Government and built a most elegant one with imported Malta stone, as well as a chapter for the Ionian Parliament which they planned to create (for once, memorable and apposite architecture – is there any other British colony with buildings so fine?). But they fell asleep and the island slipped from their nerveless fingers into the freedom it had always desired. Freedom to dream.
Coming out of the dark church into the market he will be almost blinded by the light, for the sun is up; and it is now that the impact of this extraordinary phenomenon will begin to intrigue him. The nagging question, ‘In what way does Greece differ from Italy or Spain?’ will answer itself. The light! One hears the word everywhere ‘To Phos’ and can recognize its pedigree – among other derivatives is our English word ‘phosphorescent’, which summons up at once the dancing magnesium-flare quality of the sunlight blazing on a white wall; in the depths of the light there is blackness, but it is a blackness which throbs with violet – a magnetic unwearying ultra-violet throb. This confers a sort of brilliant skin of white light on material objects, linking near and far, and bathing simple objects in a sort of celestial glow-worm hue. It is the naked eyeball of God, so to speak, and it blinds one.
Durrell’s casual erudition is on display throughout, especially in his discussion of Minoan and Mycenaean history, where many of his comments about arcane corners of history come off almost as afterthoughts, rather than carefully studied history. And his portrayal of small village customs and interaction styles, while perhaps dated by now, speak to a deep well of experience.
This book, being from the late 70s, may be dated in spots. And as I said, I haven’t been there (yet!). But like the best travel writing, reading this book, I feel like I have.