Friday 9 November 2012

Songs of Blue and Gold

The hard slog of writing goes on, made grim by persistent migraine. It’s an all too familiar scenario. The grey skies and rain so conducive to sitting at a desk lost in thought are also a disincentive to the tough walks through the countryside that help keep mind and body in sync.

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. 

Julian Adie is a fictional creation, yet I have been faithful to the settings of Lawrence Durrell's life abroad and his quest for "the spirit of place". The White House in Kalami, Corfu is, and was, as described. It is still owned by the Athinaios family, who were Durrell's landlords in the 1930s.

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.

For the last thirty years of his life Durrell made his home in the Languedoc, south-west France, where the herb-scented raggedness reminded him of Greece. There it was harder, initially, to find his traces. Time does seem to have reset the co-ordinates. The centre of the small market town of Sommieres remains much as he described it, but across the Roman bridge over the Vidourle, his old house is swamped by the present in the form of a Champion hypermarket and its parking spaces.

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.


Bunched Undies said...

Thanks Deborah for this most interesting post. I will seek out your book from Amazon. And as a fellow migraine sufferer, I can sympathize.

bright star said...

I love this post Deborah,I also loved that novel . What a complex character Durrell was. His travel writing is superb.I love Propero's Cell. have you read The Colossus of marrousi{ wrong spelling sorry}
by Henry Miller ,that is very good too.

Marcheline said...

Sorry about the migraines... I have a few blog friends who suffer from them. Am feeling your pain re: the writing. I'm participating in NaNoWriMo this month, and although I've written for fun all my life, this is the first time I'm writing "big" with a real deadline. It's grueling, even though I'm writing stuff that I enjoy. The thought of HAVING to write is something completely different than just sitting down to doodle around occasionally. The weirdest part is that I actually have no idea how the story is going to end.

Deborah Lawrenson said...

Thanks David, Angela and Marcheline - feeling much better now.

Yes, definitely do know Miller's Colossus of Maroussi - and especially like his account of the trip across the Peloponnese with the Durrells.

Good luck with the writing, Marcheline - you're in good company in not knowing the ending: surely that's what makes the writing of it interesting!

Julie Farrar said...

Sorry about the migraine. I can't even look at a computer to write when I have one. Thanks for reminding me that I have wanted to put Durrell on a list of writers yet to read. I knew little about him as a person, only his reputation as a writer. This makes me more eager to get at him. And awaiting your next book because I loved The Lantern this summer.

Vanessa said...

Very interesting post, Deborah. I have always loved Durrell and his ability to write from different POVs. I also suffer from migraine, but - touching wood very hard here - have not had one for 2 years.

Have just emerged from NaNoWriMo, which had made blog hopping a distant luxury this month.

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