Despite the frustrations, I remain convinced that this is the most creative time of the year. Before I had this blog I wrote a piece for my website about the writing of my novel Songs of Blue and Gold, in which I tried to capture the moment when words catch fire in quiet times, and the chance reading of one book leads to another. Here it is, lightly edited.
"Inspired by the writer, poet and traveller Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990), this is a novel about love and memory, identity and biography.
It sparked into life one gloomy winter afternoon when I rediscovered Prospero's Cell on the bookshelves of a bedroom at the top of the house. Opening it and starting to read was like injecting the grey with vivid blues and emeralds. A richly evocative account of Durrell's life in Corfu in the 1930s, it was first published in 1945 and purports to be a diary in which he is a serious young writer living blissfully in the sun, deeply in love both with his new wife and with the idea of Greece.
Durrell states that Prospero's Cell is a "guide to the landscape and manners" of Corfu but it never quite becomes this. It is a lyrical personal notebook, and what he leaves out is as poignant as what he includes. Its content is almost unrecognisable as the same ground his younger brother, the zoologist Gerald, covers in his famous Corfu book My Family and Other Animals, in which "Larry" lives with the family (which he never did) and is the 'diminutive blond firework' by turns pompously literary and hilarious.
And by the time he wrote Prospero's Cell Lawrence and his first wife Nancy had separated. He was already sadder and wiser, and living in wartime Egypt with Eve Cohen who would become his second wife.
I was intrigued. Further researches and a reading of several biographies soon revealed a complex and contradictory character - and a further two wives. His work, over a period of nearly sixty years - most famously in The Alexandria Quartet - was concerned with duality: love and hate; truth and fiction; memory and misinterpretation. And running through it all, the transfiguring effect of time.
Lawrence Durrell wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean - to Rhodes (Reflections on a Marine Venus), Cyprus (Bitter Lemons), the former Yugoslavia, and finally to the South of France (Caesar's Vast Ghost) where he settled for thirty years.
What was especially rewarding as I dug deeper was that he featured in so many other biographies and memoirs - each giving further insights - thanks to his enduring friendships with writers such as Henry Miller, Anais Nin, T S Eliot (who was his editor and mentor at Faber and Faber), Patrick Leigh Fermor, Freya Stark, Rose Macauley, Richard Aldington and Elizabeth David.
Interwoven throughout were his many loves and four marriages. He seemed to pack so many different lives into one! And while he was a comet blazing, what of the women he collided with along the way, I wondered? How did their stories end? And what of those he met, whose lives he changed but who did not rate even a footnote in the biographies? Soon, I was busy inventing a fictional version of Durrell - Julian Adie - and Elizabeth.
Durrell aficionados might be disconcerted by the way I've played fast and loose with his chronology, compressing and altering his travels and his wives' biographies to give an impression of the author's life without providing in any way an accurate portrayal. In this, the book has more in common with his fictional characters, his use of dualism and reinterpretation, than with real people. "All these writers [in my books] are variations of myself," he said a few years before he died.
But in Corfu, the Shrine of St Arsenius - Durrell's "place of predilection" where he felt he was reborn as the writer he would become - is scarcely changed from the tiny waterside chapel on the cliff rocks where he and his wife Nancy dived and sunbathed naked, she 'like an otter…bringing up cherries in her teeth,' (Prospero's Cell).
As a reader of his biographies, I couldn’t help but wonder how is it that some people manage to live so many different lives in one, while others lack the courage to change. Does finding out that a parent or husband was not the person you thought they were change the way you feel about yourself, and colour your own memories?
The best biographies charm the reader into imagining they allow us an insight into what a famous person was really like. But how does this square with the difficulty we have in ever really knowing the people closest to us? Even the finest biographies are only one version of a life. What of the episodes that the biographer never discovers, or misinterprets according to his own prejudices and what of the people who are there only between the lines?"
For those who are still with me, here is the opening: of my novel:
By the time I reached Corfu, the season was in its last gasp.
Evening hung early over the bay when I walked the stony beach at Kalami and found the White House. It was just as he described: defiant on a rock, the sea clawing at its feet. On the headland behind, cypress trees pointed into a curdling sky. Pebbles crunched under my feet as I went closer, and waves sighed on grey stones. A brackish smell of nets and seaweed was sharp in the air.
This was how my search began. Looking for someone I didn't know, many years too late. And looking, at the same time, for someone I had always known, but trying to place her in a strange setting, reconfigured in some new history.
If you would like to read on a while longer, you can click this link.
Songs of Blue and Gold is still in print, published by Random House UK, and is available on Kindle.