The story of a Bohemian marriage

Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage, Joanna Hodgkin’s book about her mother, Lawrence Durrell‘s first wife Nancy Myers Durrell, is going to be released in three days, (according to Amazon.co.uk), in time for the celebrations of Durrell’s centenary  – and though sadly it will take me time to get my hands on a copy (shipping costs to Israel from Amazon are ridiculous), there are a couple of advance reviews to read in the meantime:

Hodgkin has created a website about the book, which is really rather good and has some nice photos of Nancy.

The Guardian gives the book a very positive review, saying it reveals a great deal about Nancy’s marriage to Durrell, but concludes that Nancy’s “strange knack for self-erasure” is present in the book too.

And if you are in the UK, the Durrell2012 website has a link on this page to a special discount that UK-based readers can enjoy for the book (scroll down to the image of the book’s cover on the left side of the page!)

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white house, green water

This Unimportant Morning

This unimportant morning
Something goes singing where
The capes turn over on their sides
And the warm Adriatic rides
Her blue and sun washing
At the edge of the world and its brilliant cliffs.

Day rings in the higher airs
Pure with cicadas, and slowing
Like a pulse to smoke from farms,

Extinguished in the exhausted earth,
Unclenching like a fist and going.

Trees fume, cool, pour – and overflowing
Unstretch the feathers of birds and shake
Carpets from windows, brush with dew
The up-and-doing: and young lovers now
Their little resurrections make.

And now lightly to kiss all whom sleep
Stitched up – and wake, my darling, wake.
The impatient Boatman has been waiting
Under the house, his long oars folded up
Like wings in waiting on the darkling lake.

(published in Cities, Plains and People, Durrell’s second book of poetry for Faber)

This Unimportant Morning condenses all that is wonderful about Durrell’s experience on Corfu. The island is a living being, awaking from slumber, unfurling, shaking itself awake. The house is the White House, the villa in the tiny village of Kalami where Durrell and Nancy lived for most of their time on the island; the boat with its long oars is the Van Norden, which Nancy bought as a gift for Durrell.

the white house, kalami bay

“I have bought us a twenty foot cutter, carvel built and Bermuda rigged,” she wrote in a letter, which Durrell included in Prospero’s Cell. “I am terribly excited – the whole world seems to be open before us.”

Themes of water and waking are important to Durrell; not least in his writings about Corfu. “It is a sophism,” he wrote in Prospero’s Cell, “to imagine there is any strict dividing line between the waking world and the world of dreams. N. and I for example, are confused by the sense of several contemporaneous lives being lived inside us.”

According to Theodore Stephanides, Durrell and Nancy chose to move from the Daffodil Yellow villa to Kalami after visiting a friend in the north of Corfu and admiring the natural beauty and peaceful atmosphere there; both were looking for a place where they could create. “A white house set like a dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water” is how Durrell described the fisherman’s house they rented; the water in the bay was “a milky ferocious green when the north wind curdles it.” In this bay, Durrell and Nancy swam naked, dived for cherries dropped into the water, and sailed.

Green water and the white house are among Durrell’s last memories of Corfu.

The day war was declared we stood on the balcony of the white house in a green rain falling straight down out of heaven on to the glassy floor of the lagoon…In April of 1941, as I lay on the pitch-dark deck of a caique nosing past Matapan towards Crete, I found myself thinking back to that green rain on a white balcony in the shadow of Albania…

whatever happened to nancy – II

A few more snippets about Nancy Myers, Lawrence Durrell‘s first wife, ahead of the publication of a new biography about her by her daughter, Joanna Hodgkin.

Lawrence Durrell with Penelope, his daughter with Nancy Myers (Life)

According to Durrell’s friend Alan G Thomas, Durrell met Nancy after he moved to London from Dorset in the 1930s; the young Durrell wanted to live a ‘Bohemian life’ and had a number of odd jobs in London including as a pianist in a jazz club called the Blue Peter. Nancy was an art student at the Slade, and for a while the young couple ran a photography studio together.

In a 1962 memoir (cited in Spirit of Place), Durrell had this to say about his early life with Nancy:

I had moved to London at the behest of my mother who, tired of my antics, said one day: “You can be as Bohemian as you like, but not in the house. I think you had better go somewhere where it doesn’t show as much.” So I left Bournemouth to study Bohemianism at first hand. I had some help in my researches from a young and beautiful student at the Slade School whom I married, but while we weren’t actually starving money was short, so she went on the stage as a temporary measure.

According to Thomas, Nancy was indeed a beautiful and striking young woman:

>Nancy was a striking and beautiful girl, very tall and slim, with a clear white complexion and light blonde hair; more than once I have heard people in the street call out as we passed: “Look – Garbo.”

But Nancy did not get to tell her own story; she is merely ‘N’ in Durrell’s Corfu memoir Prospero’s Cell – as poet Derrek Hines so beautifully puts it in his 1996 poem Van Norden, written after a week’s sojourn at the White House in Kalami (with Joanna Hodgkin and her half-sister Penelope, Durrell’s daughter with Nancy):

Because she
never brought herself free of the island
with her own version of their stay,
Nancy remains,
trapped in the strong sun of those years,
casting no shadow.

Van Norden was the name of the boat that nancy bought on Corfu for Lawrence, and which the couple sailed frequently. Hines uses the boat as a metaphor for the Durrells’ marriage. Like the couple, it was moored at the White House, and was a symbol of freedom, yet by the time war was declared and Durrell and Nancy fled Corfu, the marriage was on the rocks. The Van Norden was scuppered when the Germans invaded the island, and Nancy left Durrell, taking her small daughter Penelope with her.

Take this, Van Norden's mooring,
the iron wedding ring that joined sea to garrigue.
Salt jealousies, wordless divorces of rust,
have gnawed away the marriage to a stain....

the colossus of maroussi

Pontikonisi and Vlaheraina monastery as viewed...

Pontikonisi and Vlaheraina monastery


The 'White House' in Kalami, now available for rent as a holiday home, and inaccurately dubbed 'the Corfu residence of Authors Gerald and Lawrence Durrell'

In 1939, Henry Miller visited Lawrence and Nancy Durrell in Corfu, and stayed with them in the ‘White House’ at Kalami (oddly, the house today is erroneously billed as the place where Gerald Durrell wrote My Family and Other Animals). In 1941, he published a book about his travels, The Colossus of Maroussi, in which he mentions Lawrence and Nancy frequently, offering some interesting glimpses into Nancy and Lawrence’s relationship and life on Corfu:

Durrell, and Nancy his wife, were like a couple of dolphins; they practically lived in the water.

(In Prospero’s Cell, Durrell describes Nancy as being like “an otter”, another water animal).

And later, during a trip to the Greek mainland, Miller records an exchange between the couple when their car breaks down, stranding them:

“Why don’t you try to do something?’ said Nancy. Durrell was saying, as he usually did when Nancy proffered her advice, ‘Why don’t you shut up?”

Miller also remarks on some of the Durrell family‘s friends familiar to readers of Gerald’s autobiographies – notably Spiro Amerikanos (Miller mentions Spiro’s son, Lillis – Gerald does not mention Spiro’s family at all) and Theodore Stephanides, both of whom seem to have made quite an impression on Miller.

Here Miller quotes from a letter Lillis wrote about the dying Spiro:

There was one other person whose presence I missed and that was Spiro of Corfu. I didn’t realize it then, but Spiro was getting ready to die. Only the other day I received a letter from his son telling me that Spiro’s last words were: “New York! New York! I want to find Henry Miller’s house!”. Here is how Lillis, his son, put it in his letter: “My poor father died with your name in his mouth which closed forever. The last day he lost his logic and pronounced a lot of words in English…He died as poor as he always was. He did not realize his dream to be rich.’

At the time of Miller’s wartime visit to Corfu, the rest of the Durrell family had already left the island – apart from Margaret Durrell, Lawrence’s younger sister, who had made up her mind to “sit out” the war with her Greek friends. When Lawrence and Nancy left for Athens, Miller stayed alone on Corfu and Margaret was charged with looking after him. She recalls (in an interview with Sue and Ian MacNiven recorded in Lawrence Durrell and the Greek World edited by Anna Lillios):

Henry was up in the north with Lawrence, and Henry stayed on after Lawrence went to Athens, and Lawrence asked me to look after him and he said ‘Don’t let anybody swindle him,’ which I thought was a typical Lawrence remark at that point.

Durrell and Miller, many years after Miller’s visit to Corfu.