Critical Context

Prospero’s Cell is part of the tradition of recollections by British writers who have been attracted to the Mediterranean. Norman Douglas wrote reminiscences titled Old Calabria (1915) and the novel South Wind (1917), among other books, about his own experiences. His characters speak self-consciously of art and the emotions; in Durrell’s book, the count remarks on one occasion that he himself is beginning to sound like a Norman Douglas character. E. M. Forster, also a British novelist, who lived in Greece, Italy, and Egypt, wrote a travel narrative about a different part of the Mediterranean world, Alexandria: A History and a Guide (1922). Closer to Durrell in thought and style is D. H. Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy (1916).

Though Durrell certainly was aware of these writers and their works, the matter of influence is not relevant. Yet Durrell does write about Egypt in The Alexandria Quartet, the four-volume novel that led to his international fame. The first novel, Justine, was published in 1957, the same year he published Bitter Lemons, and was followed by Balthazar in 1958, Mountolive in 1958, and Clea in 1960. His later novels all have something to do with the Mediterranean world. Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970) are set in England and Switzerland but the key events have their origins in Greece and Turkey. Five subsequent Durrell novels are largely concerned with the area of France known as Provence. The series takes its title from one of the major cities of Provence, Avignon. The Avignon Quintet consists of Monsieur: Or, The Prince of Darkness (1974), Livia: Or, Buried Alive (1978), Constance: Or, Solitary Practices (1982), Sebastian: Or, Ruling Passions (1983), and Quinx: Or, The Ripper’s Tale (1985).

In his fiction, Durrell reverses the emphases of his three books about living on Corfu, Rhodes, and Cyprus. History and local custom are used to provide detail and believability to the characters and events of the novels. In the books discussing his residences, however, the creation of characters and dramatic situations serves as an interesting way for readers to learn.