[ilds] The Index to Prospero's Cell

Bruce Redwine bredwine1968 at earthlink.net
Tue Jul 22 11:05:56 PDT 2014

James, well taken.  Durrell may have written Prospero's Cell in the context of a genre of travel literature, Robert Byron's Road to Oxiana (1937) being the chief example.  Now we have Patrick Leigh Fermor, Durrell's close friend, being called the greatest British travel writer of the 20th century.  Paul Fussell has a good book on the subject, Abroad:  British Literary Traveling Between the Wars (1980).  Fussell distinguishes between guidebooks and travel literature, the former he says, "are not autobiographical and are not sustained by a narrative exploiting the devices of fiction" (203).  Prospero's Cell straddles both categories.  Its subtitle proclaims itself a guidebook (A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corcyra), but its narrative is autobiographical and takes the form of a writer's diary with dates.  Durrell wants it both ways:  non-fiction and fiction.  Durrell's reader, however, me for example at the age of 19 and green as one can get, would have problems figuring out what was going on and would naturally assume that Durrell was writing about his personal experiences — i.e., he was reporting fact.  Which, as we now know, was only occasionally true.  So my main point is that the readership of 1945 would probably has taken Prospero's Cell as a guidebook reported by the actual, personal experiences of a writer living on the island.  I doubt that readers would have assumed the book was an exercise in a new literary form.

Why did Durrell want it both ways?  One, proabably for marketing purposes, to capitalize on an anticipated market of Brits traveling to the Mediterranean after WWII.  Two, he was also nostalgic about Corfu, as he sat in his Ambron tower in Alexandria ("I loathed Egypt") and looked longingly towards Greece.

About N., I would say she gets treated badly in Prospero's Cell.  She's really just a very dim shadow in the story but one whose inheritance, if I recall correctly, pays for Durrell's adventure.  Ignoring her in the Index illustrates Durrell's feelings about his first wife.  I recall what Penelope Durrell Hope said at the Durrell Celebration in Alexandria (2007).  After her mother read PC, she said it was "all lies."  That sounds like proof of the punch line to the joke about a shepherd and his sheep — that is, it is better to have a mute sheep than a woman who "talk[s]" or talks back.


On Jul 22, 2014, at 9:48 AM, James Gifford <james.d.gifford at gmail.com> wrote:

> I am remembering with much fondness a visit to Freddie's in Louisville, which is an experience I recommend to all on the list for a companion piece to the 2015 Durrell Society panels in the February conference on 20th Century Literature and Culture...  It's conveniently adjacent to the voluptuous Brown Hotel and provides its own voluptuaries.
> Charles Sligh and I had a very generous gin & tonic while chatting through the archival traces of memory Old D uses so much.  In fact, we chatted about this very book and matter, though I think it was a bit mixed up with other travel writers of the Fermour, Byron, & Douglas types.  Charles was a bit pointed in his remarks, which is unlike the man, so I kept it in mind and think I can represent his views faithfully.
> Prospero's Cell would make much more sense if one reads the book from within the context of High Travel writing; Durrell is making his own innovations upon the styles of Douglas, Byron, &c., and readers of those authors always understood that gentleman travelers do not tell everything and change names and events and make minimal mention of companions; yes, a certain literacy matters in this elite sort of writing.
> I also remember him saying, and I'm pretty sure I've got this near word for word, one should also look at the front matter for the 1945 printing of PC -- if I recall correctly, LD mentions that Miss Yvette Cohen helped with the typing -- the reduction of Nancy to N. and a smaller role is partly understandable when we keep that production reality at the fore.
> I shared with him years ago my transcripts from the Gennadius Library as well, which includes some risque limericks, which Seferis had been writing and Durrell had been expanding.  He also had five unpublished mss. by Stephanides to sort through, perhaps verbatim.
> Personally, I've always taken Durrell's oft-repeated phrase, "Pursewarden wrote somewhere..." or "I remember Stephanides once saying..." as really meaning "I'm pinching this bit."  If not pinching, I'm inclined to read those phrases as meaning "I'm completely fabricating something impossible here, so I'll give it a quick brush up of the ol' Victorian 'oops, I found a tablet with evidence on it' trick to lend just the hint of reality to fiction..."
> And let's not forget that Gerald's /My Family and Other Animals/ erases Nancy entirely.  At least Durrell was open about the fictional nature of the "diary" dating of /PC/.
> Cheers,
> James
> On 2014-07-22, 9:01 AM, Bruce Redwine wrote:
>> I agree with Ken's thorough explanation.  As he says, this raises other
>> issues, one of those is the facticity of /Prospero's Cell,/ a subject
>> discussed years ago on the List but worthy of further comment.  When I
>> first read/ Prospero's Cell,/ I naively took it to be an accurate
>> account of Durrell's experiences on Corfu, 1935-1939.  It's not.  It's a
>> deliberate deception, part fact, much fiction, and much poetry (which
>> beautifully disguises the fiction).  Michael Haag convinced me of this.
>>  (I also believe that what's true of /PC/ is also true of Durrell's
>> other travel books.  This could lead to a long discussion of the
>> "truthiness" of travel literature in general!)  Durrell is obviously the
>> author of his own book and is obviously and ultimately responsible for
>> everything that goes in it.  He makes the selections of what goes into
>> the story.  But what about the Index, a device which makes the narrative
>> seem factual?  Did Durrell make the Index or did some editor at Faber?
>>  If the Index is Durrell's, then it shows what he considers important.
>>  Not all proper nouns are in the Index.  For example, "N." (Nancy) is
>> not, but the Van Norden (the sailboat) is.  Nancy bought the sailboat
>> but does not get a place in the Index.  I find this interesting.
>> Bruce
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