coiner of oaths and roaring blasphemies

Spiro and Gerry, with the ‘battered old Dodge’ in the background

Lawrence’s Corfu memoir, Prospero’s Cell, was published in 1945, eleven years before his younger brother Gerald’s more famous memoir, My Family and Other Animals. Though Gerald’s memoir is structured around his nuclear family, and Lawrence’s does not mention his mother or siblings (except for Leslie), there are several characters and situations that appear in both books.

Lawrence’s description of Spiro Americanos, the Corfiot taxi driver who became a friend of the family, is like a deft and beautiful pencil sketch compared with Gerald’s later comic caricature:

…his Brooklyn drawl, his boasting, his coyness; he combines the air of a chief conspirator with a voice like a bass viol. His devotion to England is so flamboyant that he is known locally as Spiro Americanos. Prodigious drinker of beer, he resembles a cask with legs; coiner of oaths and roaring blasphemies, he adores little children and never rides out in his battered Dodge without two at least sitting beside him listening to his stories.

In My Family, Spiro is a primarily a comic figure, and one that is constantly in the background: he drives young Gerry about, helps Mother with the shopping, and even brings the family’s mail. He’s often cast in the role of the lovable fool, a foil. If he has a life beyond the Durrell family, we don’t know about it: Gerald does not mention Spiro’s wife or children (though he must have met them) in any of his three Corfu books.

Here’s how Gerald describes the family’s first meeting with Spiro in My Family:

…we saw an ancient Dodge parked by the kern, and behind the wheel sat a short, barrel-bodied individual, with ham-like hands and a great, leathery, scowling face surmounted by a jaunty-tilted peaked cap. He opened the car door, surged out onto the pavement, and waddled across to us.

Look at the similarities in the descriptions: like Lawrence, Gerald also immediately associates Spiro with his old Dodge car; he is a “barrel” (compared with Lawrence’s “cask”).

Later, Gerald describes Spiro as a “great brown ugly angel”, who protects the family.

Lawrence, however, shows us a different side of Spiro, beyond his role as a character in the Durrell family saga. In Prospero’s cell, Lawrence recalls how Spiro once gathered flowers at 4 in the morning for the English wife of a seaplane pilot (one of the seaplanes Theodore so loved to watch land), near Gouvino Bay, close to the Daffodil Yellow Villa.

…it is the kind of little devotion that touches the raw heart of Spiro as he pants and grunts up the slopes of canon, his big fists full of wet flowers, and his sleepy mind thinking of the English girl who tomorrow will touch the lovely evidence of this island’s perpetual spring. Spiro is dead.

Spiro’s death “in his own vine-covered house” during the war is also recorded by Henry Miller in his Corfu travel book, The Colossus of Maroussi. Gerald never mentioned the fate of his Corfu friends, perhaps because he could not bear to.

Brian Blessed played Spiro in the 1986 TV adaptation of My Family

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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....

memory, memoir and family chronicles

Spiro Amerikanos and Gerald Durrell on Corfu, 1930s.

In order to compress five years of incident, observation, and pleasant living into something a little less lengthy than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I have been forced to telescope, prune, and graft, so that there is little left of the original continuity of events. Also I have been forced to leave out many happenings and characters that I would have liked to describe…

Gerald Durrell, from the introduction to My Family and Other Animals, 1956.

Indeed, to create a memoir that would engage an outside audience and for the sake of narrative simplicity, Gerald altered the timeline of the events he describes, omitted people (like Nancy Durrell) who would have been an important part of the Durrell family‘s life on Corfu, and depicted his elder brother Lawrence as living in the same house as his mother and siblings, something he and his wife Nancy did for only a short time of the family’s five-year sojourn on the island.

What do we look for in a memoir? Do we expect absolute truthfulness, perhaps at the expense of the reader’s interest, or do we want a more interesting narrative that still reveals an essential truth about a person, a time and a place? We know that the witty and hilarious dialogues in My Family cannot be literally true, for example. It is unlikely that Gerald would have remembered these conversations verbatim 20 years later. Yet very probably they convey something essential about the flavour of the family’s life on Corfu, of the family atmosphere and relationships.

It certainly seems that Gerald had an ear for dialogue. His rendering of Spiro Amerikanos’ broken English, for example, is likely accurate, given that Lawrence’s close friend Alan Thomas described it in the same way in his 1937 diary. (1)

This is what Thomas has to say about My Family in his introduction to Spirit of Place, a collection of Lawrence Durrell’s letters and essays on travel:

Again and again people who came into my bookshop would ask me: “Is it true? Was it really like that?” From my own brief experience of life on the island I can certainly affirm that the book is true in essence, but Theodore Stephanides, who was in Corfu for the whole time, confirms that virtually every incident described really took place. Not necessarily in the same order, of course, not in one uninterrupted series, but it all actually happened.

And Gerald’s portrayal of his sister Margo, while clearly a caricature, is likely a good caricature; the exaggerated character traits Gerald imbues her with in My Family are discernible in her own writings in her memoir, Whatever Happened to Margo.

Gerald, of course, is not the only Durrell who pruned, telescoped and grafted his memories in the service of a memoir. In his own Corfu book, Prospero’s Cell, Lawrence Durrell does not mention that his mother, brothers and sister who also lived on the island. He also later claimed that he barely met his family during their sojourn on Corfu, though he and Nancy did visit his mother’s house regularly. Of course, it was Lawrence who suggested the entire family move to Corfu in the first place.

Remembrance, like Rembrandt, is dark but festive. Remembered ones dress up for the occasion and sit still. Memory is a photo-studio de luxe on an infinite Fifth Power Avenue.

Vladimir Nabokov, Ada or Ardor, a Family Chronicle

Notes:

(1)(See Lawrence Durrell and the Greek World, edited by Anna Lilios, Susquehanna University Press, 2004)

(2) Spirit of Place, Letters and Essays on Travel; Lawrence Durrell, edited by Alan G Thomas, 1969 (reissued 2011 by Axios Press)