(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Although Durrell’s main concern is to give the reader an understanding of the landscape and manners of Corfu, he also gives a portrayal of life as it was on the island before World War II. Being barely twenty-five at the time of the first journal entry, he gives an impression of youth, optimism, and naivete—though the young Durrell is very much a man of the world in conversations with his friends. The book communicates the ease and delight of life spent in the sun by a young man and woman who have no financial worries but who do have interesting friends. There is, though, a note of nostalgia in the journal entries for a way of life whose passage Durrell regrets as he lives it, knowing that this time of youth will not come again.

Clearly reflected in Prospero’s Cell is Durrell’s ability as a writer of fiction. Even though his emphasis is on the land and its people, the reader knows what shade of blue the sea has, how the sand feels, the taste of bread dipped in olive oil. Legends—such as the story that descendants of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed Jesus Christ, took up residence in Corfu—are mentioned and their sources given. (After relating that legend, Durrell tells of his visit to a shoemaker named Iscariotes, but gains no new information despite the similarity of names.) Speculation about history is as important in Prospero’s Cell as recorded fact because Durrell places much importance on human inquiry.

Ancient religious beliefs and artistic achievements are presented in a contemporary context. Count D. owns a sixth century statue of a woman; as he and his friends look at it, the count discusses the period in which the statue was carved and recounts his understanding of women. The existence of Pan, a god of the ancient Greeks, is recalled by the count as he tells of local belief in a mischievous house sprite who resembles Pan, having cloven hooves and pointed ears. When marriage customs and religion are discussed, it is to explain the behavior of a young couple in love, or of a man and...

(The entire section is 840 words.)