Tag Archives: Nancy Durrell

Dissimulate Days

IMG_0006Bitter Lemons

In an island of bitter lemons
Where the moon’s cool fevers burn
From the dark globes of the fruit,

And the dry grass underfoot
Tortures memory and revises
Habits half a lifetime dead

Better leave the rest unsaid,
Beauty, darkness, vehemence
Let the old sea-nurse keep

Their memorials of sleep
And the Greek sea’s curly head
Keep its calms like tears unshed

Keep its calms like tears unshed.

– Lawrence Durrell

Lawrence Durrell’s non-fiction book, of the same title as his poem, Bitter Lemons, describing his time spent living in Cyprus (1953-56), is a beautiful account of one man’s attempt to assimilate himself into a culture not his own, to understand and illustrate through words what traveling does to one’s interior as well as exterior being.

How sad it is that so many of our national characteristics are misinterpreted! Our timidity and lack of imagination seem to foreigners to be churlishness, taciturnity the deepest misanthropy. But are these choking suburbanizes with which we seem infused when we are abroad any worse than the tireless dissimulation and insincerity of the Mediterranean way of life? (35)

The joy with which he describes the landscape, the people, the mood, and the air of Cyprus is wonderful. The difference between his English humor and the humor of Greek island people is some sort of beautiful mathematical equation.

His name is Frangos,’ he said, with an air of a man who explains everything in a single word. (39)

If you have read Lawrence’s brother, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, then you might find, as I did, a revisiting of a similar spirit in the first half of this book. But this is not a book told (retrospectively) from the eyes of a ten year old. As events and relations between England and Cyprus deteriorate, it takes on a much more lugubrious tone. Fear and paranoia permeate the air, but as happens, people forget to remember their grudges, especially once they have got to know and like one another. The tension within each person to toe the national line and conjure up hostilities for former friends is sad and moving, if not predictable.

My one cavil is that if I hadn’t read Amateurs in Eden (biography about the marriage between Nancy and Lawrence written by Nancy, but not Lawrence’s daughter) I never would have known that Nancy was with Lawrence for the duration of this period. In fact, if I’m not mistaken it is her simple and lovely line drawings that end each chapter, although, again I could find no credit given in Bitter Lemons that confirms the identity of the illustrator. That is strange. And unsettling. I wish I didn’t even have that piece of information because the amount of extra energy such an omission in an autobiographical piece of literature requires is so great as to perversely focus my attention where Lawrence clearly did not want it to go.

She walked about the harbor at Kyrenia with a book and with the distracted air which betokened to my inexpert eye evidence of some terrible preoccupation- perhaps one of those love-affairs which mark one for life. (97)

Durrell’s eye for subtle details and succinct suggestions of what lies beneath a look, posture, or smile is powerful.  I found the above quote haunting. Is there such a thing? To be marked for life? The sensitivity of Durrell’s observations are arresting, entertaining, and at times, simply profound.

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What To Do With The Ends

No, I am not at all cynical, I have merely got experience, which, however, is very much the same thing.
– Oscar Wilde, Complete Shorter Fiction, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (24)

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Swedish Cardamon Bun Twists

With a change of season/change of life momentum I made a Herculean effort to finish all of the books that are lingering on various tables, in my bag, or car. Things were a little out of control and all the loose ends were begging me, please, to come together in a completed knot before I move on.  I had amassed a haphazard mix of material: perhaps it was end of term overload, indecision or stress of the unknown future but I suddenly felt I was reading too many books. The one quality they had in common was put-down-ability. By which I mean, a book of essays or short stories which make a fine and proper reprieve from it all. It. The It of it all-  an overwhelming mountain if its crushing the soul beneath- quick, where’s my book? True, in some cases, the put-down-ability derives from lack of a compelling reason to pick-up-again-ability, if you will. I had Oscar Wilde, Vincent Scully, biographies of Jane Austen, Lawrence Durrell and his first wife Nancy, all on rotation. Books are a little like buns- some never proof, but others bake up beautifully.

In this materialistic and half brutalized age, it is still the faith of great architects that noble men can be formed and made by noble buildings.
– Vincent Scully, Modern Architecture and other Essays (63)

Scully is a wonderful writer with such an open love for his subject; the way in which I look at architecture has been so enriched by his perspective and insight, it’s truly invigorating. For him, architecture is art, philosophy and psychology. Every building he discusses has a narrative and meaning, an essential, and through his eyes, beautiful place on the path of progress. Maybe it is because everything is swarming with a verdant freshness. Maybe it is because I am simply, finally, looking up again, but a book that places you in the world is surely superior to one that offers mere temporary escape from it. It seems to me there is always an element of hope in any work of art- hope as a reason to look up and forward.

I made Swedish Buns the other day. I was meant to tie them into some sort of an effortless twisted knot. With every bun I would manage the first end with beautiful clarity and then something would go awry with the final twist. I kept finding myself in an awkward moment of holding a fast drooping twisted end without the slightest idea what to do with it. At a certain point my hand would just take over- roll, tuck, spin, hide, hope, whatever. Once I had achieved some semblance of a sphere I would put it down, having no idea how I had formed it.

Life, my outlook on life,  is a twisted knot of cynicism and, yes, I will admit-  hope.  I try not to, I really should, but sometimes a plateful of sweets presents, and a cynic can never swallow joy.

A dear man sent me this wonderful poem. “What blame to us if the heart live on.” The heart is the mother of all yeasts.

Chaplinesque

We will make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

Harold Hart Crane