Reading finds you.
It was jet-lag-induced sentimentality that caused me to slide Prospero’s Cell from the shelf in the first place. It caught my eye. Spine stained with damp, the pages pock-marked and soft to the touch. On the inside cover, my mother’s name in a deliberate ornate cursive, and the year ’79. A second hand in darker pencil read 39c. The book was a relic.
Nine years earlier I had left Australia for England to write a thesis on The Tempest, never intending to stay away so long. I liked the title. I had never heard of Lawrence Durrell and didn’t know you shouldn’t admit to that. My point is I went into the book with a limited attraction and very few preconceived notions. I actually thought it would make a change from my usual reading: intersectional feminism, histories of prejudice and violence. Things I read for my own understanding and work and writing. And as I said, I liked the title. I liked that it belonged to my mother shortly before she married. I was bemused by the cost. I read the blurb. A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corcyra, a pre-war travel writing memoir about Corfu. I missed Greece. Durrell was a poet apparently. I like poets.
I’m fascinated by how books and readers come together at a moment in time. Not-quite-exact moments. Books also intervene in entirely underhanded ways. I’ve found my share of lost books or fragments in the metro and on beaches; they have been edifying or elucidatory at that point in my life. Sometimes books come back from the inside pocket of a coat or suitcase. There’s nothing supernatural about it, I just take the hint when it comes. Basic associative thoughts such ‘I like the title’ follow fast on an initial feeling from the damaged spine: ‘Yes. This.’
So, I can’t say exactly how I knew but it was almost as though I could taste it. Life on the island begins with the author, Lawrence, and his wife N. There is a sense of matrimony and sacrifice:
‘We bathe naked, and the sun and water make our skins feel old and rough, like precious lace.’
Lawrence’s metaphors begin to take on the quality of dark charms:
‘All morning we lie under the red brick shrine…dropped cherries into the pool—clear down two fathoms to the sandy floor where they loom like drops of blood.’
N. receives a box of Turkish Delight. It’s from one of the historians of the island that the author has befriended. A dead turtle washes up. Sequences of slaughter follow; an eel is hooked and killed, and in a boat far offshore, an octopus is severed from the bone and with ‘paralysed and shattered brain’ is ‘thrown dully to the bottom of the boat’. The tentacles of its final dendrite mind suck desperately, tearing from the edge of the wooden vessel like ‘human flesh.’
These more brutal and embodied episodes have their ethereal counter-realm in myth. Calypso, Apollo, Jason and Medea, Juno and others waft through conversation between olives, coffee and Caliban’s wine. Myth is ever present. We are told it emerges from the island’s fertile soil, and then we are gifted another:
‘N. is cutting the cheese and washing the grapes. A single candle burning upon a table between our happy selves.’
With happy an acidity enters. In Lawrence’s skill for capturing place it is out of place. You could argue he was just roaming over the image and came to an easy resting point. But happy falls, snaps in half; a kind of bored violence.
About half way through the book N. more or less goes missing, her absence noticeable. I realise that women in the book on the whole feature in the animal sphere: they make noises and operate by patterns that are innate, instinctive, or unconscious. It is simply that the voices of men ‘chorus’ and the voices of women ‘cry’, like gulls, ‘panicked and dazed’. He describes the ‘sour brassy note’ of a woman’s voice singing somewhere. N. seeps into herself as a slow glaze:
‘N. caught in one of those fine unconscious attitudes sits at the prow… one cannot tell from the sad expression of the clear face whether she hears the singing or not.’
Lawrence starts hanging out with a bunch of local self-appointed intellectuals who gaze transcendently over vistas in their pajamas, drinking coffee and passing the long mornings ‘in idle talk’. The local village shadow-play provides an atmosphere. We move into evidence around the book’s titular concern: SYCORAX, Caliban’s mother, is an inexact anagram for CORCYRA. The men muse wryly on the notion that Shakespeare may have once visited the island.
Each of Lawrence’s dated entries—the book is structured somewhat like a diary—are linguistically full; they bulge. The magma of the olives is pressed and pressed, the pressure extracts the oil. The ‘north wind’ turns the olive trees ‘inside out’. Things start diffusing in the heat:
‘One is entangled and suffocated by this sense of physical merging into the elements around one… One could die like this and wonder if it was death.’
‘One’ is scattered liberally, a style that begs to be italicized; it lures you to elevate it. At this point, the psychology of the grape takes on a meaty combative significance. He has ‘a little bowl’ of grapes, which he now washes alone:
‘They are the little early grapes, delicately freckled green, and of a pouting teat shape. The sun has penetrated their shallow skins and has confused the sweetness with its own warmth; it is like eating something alive.’
We are now almost solely in the world of his island friends, who appear to share his preference for male company:
‘I trust… that your wives are not offended with me for refusing to invite them to these meetings… women tire me. They lack the magnanimity of the male mind.’
Time-worn misogynist commonplaces like these feel forced. Such tired moments are interspersed with gorgeous esoteric pieces of lost practice from the island’s history, such as the burning down of a cigarette as an accepted unit of time (it takes three cigarettes to traverse from x to y).
When N. does reappear, the reader feels the slippage. I could taste her silencing. An impossible jealousy and condescension have emerged in him:
‘A rather good-looking villager is making over-friendly remarks to N. who is replying in her bad Greek as best she can.’
At this moment, nearing the end of Prospero’s Cell, I went looking for her. An internet search ‘lawrence durrell wife prospero’ revealed that N. is Nancy, and there is a biography, Amateurs in Eden (2012), written by her daughter from her second marriage. The biography is an account from her records, with her voice, of her journey with Lawrence on the island. I order Amateurs in Eden second-hand (still waiting for it to arrive). In the meantime, I read around a bit. I read around the abuse that N. experienced, which is now, I find out, common knowledge and I am very late to her story. She left him in Alexandria, after the Epilogue.
I still do not know how I knew. I was listening, I suppose. Tasting. Emotional manipulation, jealousy. There were cruel words behind that one candle. He told her she was ‘Nothing but a dirty Jew’, a common refrain; on sex, he said she was a ‘block’ for ‘fucking’. With depression in her later years, having been written and unwritten by others, she started a memoir. Her daughter finished it when she died of cancer.
As her friend Anaïs Nin put it, Nancy spoke with every part of her body except her mouth; she had spent her life in ‘eloquent silences’, silences her husband cultivated; coopted. From the earliest pages I had heard them. I had picked up this book for something different, to move for a moment into another world. In attempting a brief reprieve, I had been taken directly back into a dark story beneath a story, incidentally, the place of my own writing: I had recognised the ‘silent and beautiful’ woman in my own mother. A woman’s truth sacrificed to man-made myth. Is this kind of silencing so ubiquitous across time that even picking up a book at title contains the hidden travels of it? Or rather is this discovery simply what happens when we read through our mothers? It was after all her name on the inside cover.
I do know that reading finds you. A few days later I check my rural post-office box on its dirt-road by the sea. Enter on cue a parcel. It must be Nancy’s biography I’m waiting for, but turns out it’s from a friend overseas. A gift without occasion containing Living a Feminist Life by Sara Ahmed, and a note: ‘This book is an amulet. x’
Kathryn Crowcroft is a writer and poet based in Melbourne and London. Her first book is forthcoming with Corsair, Little, Brown UK, and Hachette Australia.