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Authors: Lawrence Durrell

Blue Thirst

BOOK: Blue Thirst
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Blue Thirst

Lawrence Durrell


My first impulse when I received these two transcripts of impromptu lectures I gave in California, was the normal one, namely to sit down and rewrite them, to give the prose some shape. But then, on reflecting, it seemed to me that it would be better to leave them just the way they were, with all the hesitations and fumblings and false starts. They seemed more actual that way; I thought that if I tidied them up I might take all the life out of them. The result is that whatever small changes I have made have been only in the interests of intelligibility; there were defective patches in the transcript, and sometimes in the typing. These I touched up lightly, but careful to keep the colloquial tone, and the hesitations which are inevitable in impromptu lecturing.

The first lecture was given in the marvelous Beckmann Auditorium at Caltech in Pasadena under the general title “A Poet In The Mediterranean.” The second was perpetrated at Claremont College, Pomona. My grateful acknowledgements go to both institutions for permission to reprint.

Lawrence Durrell

Paris, 1975

n invitation to reminisce is always rather terrifying. One inevitably thinks of those old after-dinner speakers, rosy with fatuity, who somehow can't break off. So when I received an invitation to reminisce I was a little bit tormented by doubts because I remembered also another cautionary tale—the curate, the shy curate in Leacock, a wonderful short story, where he found that every time he said, “Well, I think I ought to …,” they said “Won't you have another cup of tea?” And he was too weak to leave. He sank back into his chair finally lingered until dinner time and they said “Do you really have to go home? We could easily give you dinner.” And he was too weak, he stayed for dinner. Finally, they had to make—they were naturally furious—they had to make up a bed in the spare room. And he stayed there for weeks in a strange delirium, sometimes rising up from his pillow he would cry, “I really think I must …” and then sink back hopelessly with a cracked laugh. Finally as you may remember, the angels came for him. I didn't want them to come for me.

Nevertheless I did feel that perhaps there might be some point in trying to recollect and perhaps recreate a little bit of a Greece which is not finished now and gone for good, but which has changed very much and doesn't resemble the Greece that I knew at the age of 21 when I was a young aggressive poet. It was in Greece that I first hit the Mediterranean proper. And thinking it over I thought I might perhaps accept and have a try at repainting this not forgotten but not so terribly distant Greece in time.

The land I went to then was not the popular one it is today—Italy was the in thing. Everybody great had given a
to Italy, from the Romantic poet onwards. Byron was the only person who went to Greece, but he did it for a special reason. But the Greece I met presented enormous practical day-to-day problems. It was the era before DDT. I have to remind you how recently the medicaments which make Mediterranean travel easy and pleasant are—DDT was discovered only during the last war. Greece was one large flea before then. One enormous hairy gnashing flea. And several kinds of bedbug as well, mostly elephant-size. And walking across it in the heat, the primitiveness of the country was really intimidating. It was in some ways almost as primitive as Africa. If it hadn't been so beautiful and washed always by this marvelous blue sea, it would have really daunted even me, and I was tough and in very good health. But our Greece we learnt the hard way and we learnt it without penicillin and any of the amenities which are available now. The big miracle drugs, for example, that breakthrough was also at the end of the war: The sulphanilamides—a whole range of science that wasn't available to us in 1934. One was deep in the Middle Ages in a remote Greek village. The actual medical arrangements were in the hands of a few kind pharmacists and women called “good women” who were kind of medieval bone-setters and also masseurs with a marvelous sense of anatomy. They really did perform wonders. I have seen miracles performed with them—and also nobody quite knows how they got their special knowledge because they have enough sense to leave a tubercular bone alone. But they were great manipulators of limbs and even today they are still there and perform astonishing cures. They are also specialists in herbal cures. In those days I elected to live in a Greek village the life of a fisherman. The house that I took is on the north end of the island of Corfu which is extremely beautiful and which I found by accident. Later on it was literally a question of putting a pin in a map and saying to my mother “You've got to stop spending money and start economizing.” In those days Greece was unbelievably cheap and she managed to live very satisfactorily with her family in a large house. My brother has described all this inimitably and powerfully in a wonderful book. And I think here I should say that I feel extremely pleased that I am responsible in part for two of the best books about modern Greece. One is Henry Miller's book which is partly due to the fact that I took him there and he fell in love with it and wrote probably his best book there. And then my brother's own book is marvelous because he literally wasn't aware that there was an ancient Greece. It was extraordinary how he felt his way back into his 12-year-old skin to write it. Naturally in it his older brother figures as a sort of horrible Faustian figure. I was 22 and writing the
Black Book
at that time. And he paid off all his youthful grudges in the book, quite rightly. The book is really a masterpiece as a picture of Corfu simply because there is not a single classical reference in it. The seduction—you smile, but in fact it is perfectly true—the seduction about Greece is such that one tends towards purple prose all the time and it's very difficult to see a Greek landscape or a Greek village without thinking of Aphrodite or a modern Greek situation which doesn't immediately echo something Homeric. So naturally, if you have an Aphrodite in your pocket you tend to plaster it into your prose and consequently it's just not as good as somebody treating Greece as if it was entirely new, pristine, fresh and born yesterday—a new-laid egg. And Miller deliberately ignored the classical stuff he knew and my brother didn't know any. So between them they produced wonderful books of which I am rather proud because I took both of them there.

It's funny, I've often thought, and philosophers have frequently said, that one remembers the hard beds better than the soft ones. And those winters in Greece were extraordinarily hard, particularly living in unheated houses with no chimneys and no wood in the north of this island. The rainfall in Corfu is almost tropical in density—that is why it is so green. But sometimes one heard it for weeks on end—that and the sea pounding on the rocks below the house we lived in.

My brother very skillfully gave the impression that I lived with the family, but that wouldn't have been possible. You don't know how awful they are. I always lived apart from them but I used to visit them at Christmas just to observe them. And make a few notes. But I always lived with my wife alone on the north point of the island in a very lonely and rather beautiful house. And as I say, our life was one of the utmost primitiveness—in terms of food I don't remember what it was possible to find—apart from the few fish we caught—to eat, because the roads were washed out in the winter and apart from a few tins of macaroni I think we literally had nothing. Occasionally they killed a lamb, Greek lamb isn't bad, it's—well, I suppose it was horrible, our diet, but when you're young and in good health it didn't seem to matter very much.

There were other factors about ordinary living which I mustn't forget to mention, just to draw the picture of this rather primitive way of life. In this hot country, indeed in most of the Mediterranean at this time there was no refrigeration; just a few ice factories where one bought blocks of ice and crammed them into wooden ice boxes. In Corfu there was no butter and the milk was goat's milk; the beef was non existent, there was only lamb for people with small incomes but good lamb and sometimes pork. Chickens were thin and scrawny.

The best refrigerator I know is a deep well; and for most of my island life we lowered our bottles and tinned butter down the well in a basket with a long length of line. Or shoved it into a sea cave. Sometimes it was so hot that we carried our dinner table out into the bay and set it down in the water. It was cool enough if you sat with water up to your waist while you dined. The water was so still and clear that the candles hardly moved on such summer nights. And the bronze moon was huge.

Our heating system was mostly charcoal, which meant twenty minutes to boil a kettle for a cup of tea with much puffing and blowing. Primus stoves were very expensive and had a tendency to explode. As for light we used paraffin with its peculiar smell and though the Aladdin lamp had been invented it was expensive and was hard to obtain mantles.

The roads were washed out in winter and the little local bus service was
in summer; but when the sea was high they couldn't go. Most of you now have been to Greece or have seen enough of Greece in pictures to know those little island boats which ferry the melons and the fruit and vegetables back and forward. Well, they're also passenger buses, and in summer we had a daily waterbus to town which took two hours flat and the same back in the evening which took two and a half hours flat according to what the wind and weather was like. This fragile line of communication was completely washed out in the winter and we were left alone on this extraordinary hillside. I started at once to try and learn Greek, which is a very difficult language. I'd only done two years of classical Greek and it really wasn't enough. I hadn't been interested until I got there. But there were things which struck me very forcibly and touched me very much. Mainly that when I was starting on doing Demotic Greek with the local schoolmaster, I found that in almost any Greek sentence about 3 out of 5 words—no that's an exaggeration—let's say 3 out of 7 words came out of Aristotle or Homer. And it was a perfectly astonishing realization to me that Greece hadn't aged—the language that Greece used—hadn't aged as much as our own English because we started with the old Attic grammar and while a lot of the tenses had changed, and naturally a lot of vocabulary had changed and so on, the actual structure of the language as such is quite visibly there, still. And I don't think you could begin to teach English out of Chaucer, which would be roughly the comparison to today. And then Homer became more actual to me in this context, and I started brushing up the little ancient Greek I knew, and a whole winter, my first whole winter passed in that way, studying, teeth chattering with cold. There was no chimney in the house and finally my landlord put logs in an ordinary room there and burnt them so that the room filled with smoke and the smoke went out steadily through the ceiling. It was more Homeric than Homer. We roasted lambs on the spit and mopped up the blood. And drank
the resined wine of Greece.

But there were also other fascinating things. When I started to learn Greek it was the popular tongue I studied, the so-called Demotic. But I rapidly realized that there were two distinct Greek languages—one for the newspapers and one for the hearth. The popular one had evolved itself comfortably by peasant use, and a much simplified syntactical approach. But this was considered too vulgar to write down, and a highly purified sort of Greek had been evolved for the newspapers, thus causing a great and unnecessary problem for schools and parents. Can you imagine talking the way you do in ordinary life and yet being forced to read Elizabethan prose every time you opened the
Los Angeles Times,
with a classier and more classical vocabulary? This has been a real plague for the Greek poets and only now has the battle been won for Demotic Greek thanks to half a century of taming and civilizing this language for the uses of poetry. But at the turn of the century when someone suggested turning the Bible into Modern Demotic Greek there were street battles and deaths. Only a highly educated classics scholar could read the Bible then, and the priests didn't want to let the peasants know the meaning of what they read or chanted. This battle was carried on—the battle of the two languages—and when I was there there were even two different words for ‘wine' and ‘bread.' Well by great luck an enlightened Minister of Education—whom you will know under the name of Kazanzakis, author of
Zorba The Greek
—gave permission for the Greek classics to be turned into modern Greek for the schools; and so the children of Greece came at last into the heritage of their native literature, and could read Homer and Sophocles in a good crib, as we would call it in England. Well, the two kids of my landlord were then going to the village school and were being taught Homer in a pretty storybook version. They came back at dusk usually, but one night I heard the whole family talking and laughing until the late hours. It was strange because they usually were in bed by the time darkness fell in order to save fuel. I felt that something special must have happened. The next morning the landlord came to me and said “Oh gosh, I've got the most wonderful story these kids are reading. I wish I could explain it to you, but your Greek isn't good enough. It's apparently by a man called Homeros. What a pity you don't know Greek any better. It's a marvelous story.” Then he began telling me the story of Ulysses, which he himself could not read—he had vaguely heard Homer's name but he didn't know the story. But kids were bringing their lesson books back in the evening and he was engulfing the story. It struck me so forcibly because I had the translation by T. E. Lawrence, and I had two other versions right there in the house and we were always having a look at them just to compare daily life in modern Greece with daily life in ancient Greece, and I was always struck by the degree to which we found everything up to date. I don't believe a place like Ithaca, for example, has changed at all since Ulysses went back there. I certainly spent a few weeks there in exactly the sort of conditions that Ulysses must've found. But now, of course, the end is near at hand because last year they got television. (I wasn't joking. I like television and it wasn't a snide remark.) But when you have village manners and village customs with all the tremendous tradition and hospitality and a perfectly formal way of looking at things, town manners imposed on you by a box, which naturally entices you with the things it has to offer, naturally alter the old stately easygoing ways. It's done it to us all. It's done it to all our countries. And up to now it hasn't been possible in all those mountains in Greece to get a decent television service working. But the Greeks being ingenious have managed it, and I'm afraid it's going into action now, which means that all those very remote little villages which one used to know will now be glued to Athens. And of course Athens contains everything meretricious that London and New York can provide for it in terms of modern Greece. So inevitably it will have a radical effect on Greek manners of the old style. So this is why perhaps it's a bit nostalgic, my reminiscences of that forgotten Greece. For example, the monuments were not ringed about. I have slept for a whole month in a sleeping bag on Sunion and watched every dawn come up icy with dew. I slept inside the lion gate at Mycenae and among the statues of Olympia. There was no tourism then and there was no money to be had from monuments. In fact, in Olympia when I asked for the museum curator he came down on a bicycle, climbed into a tree and took the key down and opened the front door of the museum for me, and when we'd had a good look ‘round he climbed into the tree and replaced the key. I could have pinched the lot. It was so easygoing and so Irish and absolutely unpretentious that one felt very much at home.

BOOK: Blue Thirst
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