Corfu and Lawrence Durrell

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Kalami Bay, Corfu, Greece. Durrell’s ‘White House’ is visible, though half-obscured by a tree, to the center-right of the photo. It rises directly above the water. 

 

Corfu and Lawrence Durrell

I recently finished rereading the memoir the British novelist Lawrence Durrell wrote of his years on the Greek island of Corfu, from the mid 1930’s until the outbreak of war in 1939. Often I note passages when I read, so I can go back and savor them later, lest they be forgotten entirely as one book follows another. And I’d like to share some of them here, in case someone else can get something out of them too. They are from the 1996 edition of the book as published by Marlowe and Company, New York. The memoir originally appeared in 1945.

‘Seen through the transforming lens of memory the past seemed so enchanted that even thought would be unworthy of it.’

‘A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava. You are aware not so much of a landscape coming to meet you invisibly over those blue miles of water as of a climate. You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and wherever you look the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives.’

‘It is a sophism to imagine that there is any strict dividing line between the waking world and the world of dreams….[We] are confused by the sense of several contemporaneous lives being lived inside us; the sensation of being mere points of reference for space and time.’

‘Our life on this promontory has become like some flawless Euclidean statement. Night and sleep resolve and complete the day with their quod erat demonstrandum; and if, uneasily stirring before dawn, one stands for a moment to watch the morning star, which hangs like a drop of yellow dew in the east, it is not that sleep (which is like death in stories, beautiful) has been disrupted: it is the greater for this noiseless star, for the deep scented tree-line and the sea pensively washing and rewashing one’s dreams. So that, confused, you wonder at the overlapping of the edges of dream and reality.’

‘In the spaces of the wind the ear picks up the dry morse-like communication of the cicadas high above on the cliffs; while higher still in space sounds the sour brassy note of a woman’s voice singing…Drinking the wind like some imagined figurehead on a prehistoric prow one cannot tell from the sad expression of the clear face whether N. hears the singing or not. Or whether indeed the singing is not in one’s own mind, riding clear and high above the white sails to where the eagles, broken like morsels of rock, fall and recover and fall again down the invisible stairways of the blue.’

‘”Philosophy,” he said once, “is a doubt which lives in one like a hookworm, causing pallor and lack of appetite. Suddenly one day you awake and realize with complete certainty that ninety-five per cent of the activities of the human race–to which you supposed you belonged–have no relevance whatsoever for you. What is to become of you?”‘

‘And here we are,’ says the Count, unwilling to relinquish his subject, ‘each of us collecting and arranging our common knowledge according to the form dictated to him by his temperament. In all cases it will not be the whole picture, though it will be the whole picture for you.’ 

Ángelos Sikelianós

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Villa of Ángelos Sikelianós on the Island of Salamis, Greece.

This is the first poem I have translated from Modern Greek. I am indebted to the translations of others whose works I have consulted in the process, but I found that none of them exactly expressed the impression the poem makes on me, and felt compelled to create my own. It’s an emotional and sensual poem, oddly earthy and ethereal at the same time. One can almost feel the temperature and weight and take in the insistent sounds, fragrances and visual characteristics of the various natural phenomena depicted by the poet in this short work. It has a rushing and expanding quality to it–an osmotic poem, perhaps–a scant collection of images which seem to have a power all their own to go out to greet the reader, become one with him, then be exhaled in the very reading to become something they could never have become if left unnoticed upon the page. It’s a curious thing.

Ángelos Sikelianós was an Ionian, from the island of Lefkas, where he was born on March 27, 1884. His poetry, as this short example shows, is dense with metaphors and comparisons which at times can nearly overwhelm the reader–but pleasantly so, and I find what I have discovered of his work so far to be intriguing in its simultaneous depth and clarity. He is not considered a Surrealist exactly, but he was interested in Surrealist themes, and some consider him a forerunner of that movement. He spent most of his life in Greece and died in 1951. My translation here is followed by the original Greek text.

First Rain

We leaned from the window,
and all that lay before us
was one with our soul.
The clouds, pale as sulphur, deadened vineyards and fields;
winds from the trees
hummed with unsettled air;
a swallow breasted swiftly 
back and forth across the grass.
Then suddenly it thundered,
the torrent broke, and dancing came the rain!
The dust leapt up, light as air.
And we, nostrils trembling, opened our lips
to the heavy draught of earth, letting it,
like a spring, drench the depths of our entrails
(already the rain had sprinkled
our thirsty faces,
like the olive and the mullein).
And shoulder to shoulder we asked: ‘What fragrance is this
that cuts the air like a swarm of bees
from the cones of pines,
from balsam and thyme,
from besom and willow too?’
And I breathed forth a mist (so abundant were the scents)
I breathed forth a mist, and became like a lyre,
caressed by the munificence of the breath…

ΤΟ ΠΡΩΤΟΒΡΟΧΙ 

Σκυμμένοι από το παραθύρι…
Και του προσώπου μας οι γύροι
η ίδια μας ήτανε ψυχή.
Η συννεφιά, χλωμή σα θειάφι, θάμπωνε αμπέλι και χωράφι·
ο αγέρας μέσ’ από τα δέντρα
με κρύφια βούιζε ταραχή·
η χελιδόνα, με τα στήθη,
γοργή, στη χλόη μπρος-πίσω εχύθη· κι άξαφνα βρόντησε, και λύθη κρουνός, χορεύοντα η βροχή!
Η σκόνη πηρ’ ανάερο δρόμο…
K’ εμείς, στων ρουθουνιών τον τρόμο, στη χωματίλα τη βαριά
τα χείλα ανοίξαμε, σα βρύση
τα σπλάχνα να μπει να ποτίσει
(όλη είχεν η βροχή ραντίσει
τη διψασμένη μας θωριά,
σαν την ελιά και σαν το φλόμο).
κι ο ένας στ’ αλλουνού τον ώμο ρωτάαμε: «T’ είναι πόχει σκίσει
τον αέρα μύρο, όμοιο μελίσσι;
Απ’ τον πευκιά το κουκουνάρι,
ο βάρσαμος ή το θυμάρι,
η αφάνα ή η αλυγαριά;»
Κι άχνισα – τόσα ήταν τα μύρα – άχνισα κ’ έγινα όμοια λύρα,
που χάϊδευ’ η άσωτη πνοή… 

 

 

Konstantinos Kavafis

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Scene at Greek Yacht Club of Alexandria, Egypt, 1920’s. Konstantinos Kavafis spent most of his life in this city.

One of the books I’ve been spending time with lately is a marvelous recent collection of poetry in translation entitled ‘Modern Greek Poetry: An Anthology’, edited by Nanos Valaoritis and Thanasis Maskaleris and published in 2003. Since my own smattering of Greek has been confined to a year of reading the ancient language with a private tutor, followed by a year of New Testament Greek in a classroom, and then some enthusiastic but very undisciplined attempts to learn modern Demotic on my own, I am extremely grateful for the existence of this great collection of translations representing the work of many modern poets. Now and then I’d like to share a few of them here, along with an occasional comment. 

I have never really taken to Konstantinos Kavafis (1863-1933), perhaps because his rich assortment of historical Hellenistic allusions are mostly lost on me, perhaps because I have always been puzzled by his rather flat or even non-existent use of metaphor, and certainly because his quirky blending of ancient, modern and regional colloquial speech can simply not be reproduced in translation at all. But I have been struck forcefully by two short poems in this collection and would like to share them here, hoping that someone else will find them remarkable and move that person to investigate Kavafis’ work in more detail on his or her own. Here are the two, then. They are good examples of what I might call ‘catalytic poetry’, verse which prompts a kind of interior reaction or conversion in the reader which could be identical, similar or even entirely different from anything which might have been happening within the poet himself when he wrote it. 

Hidden

Of all the things I’ve said and done
let them not ask who I was.
Obstacle it was and it transformed
my actions and my way of life.
Obstacle it was and it stopped me
often when I would speak.
My most unnoticed actions
and my most covered up writings–
only from these will they understand me.
Perhaps it wasn’t worth expending
such care and such labor to reveal myself.
Later–in a more perfect society–
someone else made up like me
will surely appear and freely act.

Addition

I do not examine whether I’m happy or unhappy.
But one thing with joy I always set in my mind–
that in the great addition (their addition which I hate)
which has so many numbers, I’ll not be there,
one of the many numbers. In the whole sum
I was not counted. And this joy is enough.

February 1897

‘Prospero’s Cell’

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Island of Corfu, Ionian Sea, Greece.

I’m back to an old hobby lately: reading and thinking about the Greek island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea, and in general all things Corfiot. A great little book I return to periodically is Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Prospero’s Cell’, first published in 1945 and reprinted several times since. It’s a little masterpiece of travel, history, culture and reflection all on its own. And it takes its name from one of the non-fictional characters who appears in it, a reclusive nobleman who lives in a dilapidated villa among vineyards and olive groves, and whose theory is that Corfu is actually Prospero’s island, that Shakespeare was inspired to use it as the setting for his play, ‘The Tempest’, and may even have visited it himself. Here’s a short quote from the book, typical of the kind of thing I like about it, and of Durrell’s style as travel writer and essayist:

‘The Count smokes his home-made cigarettes in a short bone holder, stained with nicotine. Relaxing and spreading out his hands against the moonlight as if to warm them at its white fire, he begins to talk. I have wasted all these words on describing the Count in the hope of isolating that quality in him which is so admirable and original, and when he begins to talk I grasp at once what it is. He is the possessor of a literary mind completely uncontaminated by the struggle to achieve a technique; he lacks the artifice of presentation, the corrupting demon of form. It is a mind with the pollen still fresh upon it.’

I don’t know about the Shakespeare theory. One thing in its favor, as Durrell points out in the book, is that the name of Caliban’s mother, the witch Sycorax, could well be an anagram for the ancient Greek name of the island which we call Corfu: Corcyra. But there are several other peculiarities of Corfiot life and manners which may find their reflections in Shakespeare’s play. I won’t spoil your own experience of reading Durrell’s book by enumerating them here, but his discussion of them is very entertaining. And perhaps the theory is not at all far-fetched. Elizabethan England may appear to have been very far removed from anything Ionian, but the island group of which Corfu is a part was at the center of a major trade route between Venice and points East in Shakespeare’s time. Like his fellow English contemporaries, he would have been used to Greek currants from the island of Zante, a staple in British holiday baking, for example.  And Shakespeare is rumored to have been out of the country in 1611, when ‘The Tempest’ was written. I like to think of him sojourning on Corfu, pen in hand, and conjuring up his character Ariel, mysterious sprite of the air, while gazing upon the mists and storms which occasionally obscure the Corfiot coast. It’s all interesting to consider.