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Prospero’s Cell is a fine example of Durrell’s metaphysical speculations and a precursor to The Alexandria Quartet. Durrell, believing that “we are the children of our landscape,” tries to capture the essence of Greece in this book of his travels. Written in the 1930’s, when Durrell was just starting out as a writer, the book is more like a portrait of the artist as a young man than a conventional travel guide. He records the learning process that he has to undergo in order to become a writer, rather than listing the typical tourist attractions.

The process begins when, like a child, Durrell examines the building blocks of reality: “rock, air, sky—and all the elementals . . . white house, white rock, friends, and a narrow style of living.” Greece, at this stage of his creative development, provides the raw materials for his inspiration; he tries to manipulate its images into art. His challenge is to capture in words the multifaceted nature of reality.

In Prospero’s Cell, he finds that Corfu’s reality, which to him is always changing and receding, still seems touched by the wand of William Shakespeare’s magician, Prospero. The book, written in the form of a journal, mixes history and metaphysical speculations about life, geology, biography, folk customs, and peasant remedies, reflecting the narrator’s difficulty in capturing the island’s spirit. The primary quality of Durrell’s Corfu is transformation, as he views the island undergoing a sea change before his eyes. Traveling through the Greek waters, one leaves behind “the certainties” of the “real” world: “You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and wherever you look the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives.”

The narrative voice receives artistic advice from Count D., a Prospero-like wealthy recluse who resides on the island. The Count tells him that the best one can do is create “a portrait inexact in detail, containing bright splinters of landscape.” The count’s advice gives the narrator confidence that his fragmented images will come as close to the truth of Corfu as anything he could write.

The inexactness, the mutable natural world, the characters’ various visions, and the slippery nature of time and language are depicted for a reason. Durrell is testing out his notions of the Heraldic Universe. He contrasts the world of phenomena or striving (which he calls the “minus side”) to the world of repose or the Heraldic Universe (the “plus side”). The “plus” and “minus sides,” as he describes them, can be connected to Eastern philosophies. Knowledge of these two angles of vision allows him “to see Greece with the inner eyes—not as a collection of battered vestiges left over from cultures long since abandoned—but as something ever-present and ever-renewed.” In other words, Greece is the rich background on which Durrell constructs his own image of the country, a place where “sunlight and inner light meet.”

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