Friday, December 31, 2010

Durrell's Sicilian Carousel

Lawrence Durrell spent a good part of his life in the eastern Mediterranean, and most of his best work is set there: The Aexandria Quartet, of course, and one of my personal favorites, Reflections on a Marine Venus, also his most accomplished political work, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, the novels Tunc and Nunquam, and more. I naturally had high expectations for his book on Sicily. It was a bit disconcerting to start reading it and discover that he had never visited Sicily before the visit that is the occasion of this book, published in 1977 when Durrell was 65. He has been living alone in Provence since the death of his wife, and the passing of another old (female) friend, long resident of Sicily and long-entreating Durrell to visit, inspires him to leave his country house and go, too late to see his old friend Martine. Durrell is one of my very favorite writers and I open any of his books confident that the experience will be rich and pleasing, but still the realization that he has signed up for the "Sicilian Carousel," a guided group bus tour, comes as a bit of a shock: Durrell on a tour?

But the master, old, is still a master, and disarmingly humble at the same time. He does not pretend to be anything other than an older gentleman, alone now, and traveling with a group (he is recognized by several people along the way). He cannily fictionalizes the trip, which gives him liberty to send up some of his companions; the odious character is made more odious (and is the subject of a probably fantastic yarn at the end), the widowed, retired British officer with whom he buddies up is affectionately caricatured (he pores over the cricket scores at breakfast), the inevitable comely young German woman is sexed up a bit for some disruptive fun and the English, French and Italians are regarded in all their stereotypical glory.

Durrell has also studied, presumably for the trip although he doesn't say so, the classical history of the island and particularly the Hellenistic period (his love of Greece is deep and broad and he sees Greece everywhere in Italy). The tour concentrates on classical ruins, about which Durrell knows a good bit more than the guides although he is generous in giving credit when credit is due. Some of his expositions about the temple sites are the best passages in the book. He has some interesting remarks about the hybrid character of Sicilian architecture (a sensitivity to architecture runs through all of Durrell's work).

The book is late and slight. Recommended for Durrell completists and also not a bad background book for someone planning an archeological trip to the island. There is no deep insight into Sicilian society or any real attempt to develop Sicilian characters.

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