Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 840
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 woman who have been married for years, or of a priest of the Greek Orthodox church, now the state church of Greece.
Through the quality of the prose, one understands that Durrell is as much concerned with his own writing as with the life on Corfu. Mention is made of writers admired, or read, by Durrell and his friends. William Shakespeare is mentioned—not only because the title of the book refers to one of his last plays, The Tempest (1611), but also because Durrell greatly admired Elizabethan writers. The main character in The Tempest is Prospero, a great magician put ashore with his daughter on an island; Count D. argues that Corfu was that island. Durrell presents the view that the ancient Greek poet Homer also wrote about Corfu in his epic poem the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.). According to Durrell, when Odysseus’ men were lost in a storm at sea, he was washed up on Corfu, where he met the princess whom Homer names Nausicaa. Little mention is made of contemporary authors, although Durrell does refer to his friend Henry Miller, an American novelist who lived in Paris at the time and visited Durrell on Corfu in 1939. Durrell had published Pied Piper of Lovers (1935) under his own name and under the pseudonym Charles Norden published Panic Spring (1937). It was on Corfu that he first read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934), which was banned in the United States. Under the influence of this book, Durrell wrote The Black Book (1938), in which, he said, he first heard the sound of his own voice.
In Prospero’s Cell Durrell once again hears the sound of his own voice: complex diction, strong dialogue, and dramatic situations, all of which are intended to illustrate what he has called “the spirit of place.” Place for Durrell, in this case Corfu, is not simply a geographical and historical terrain. It is as well his own particular experience with the native culture. As a young man, his experience of Corfu was different from that of the more mature one who would move to Cyprus in 1953 and then write Bitter Lemons about his residence.
The reader learns much about the traditional way of life on Corfu. The gathering and pressing of olives and grapes to make olive oil and wine are seen through Durrell’s eyes. The economy of his part of the island depends on the success of these crops. Of equal importance, these practices are ties to the traditional life in Corfu; so Durrell tells of the beliefs and ceremonies as they have been practiced for centuries and of the changes that have been introduced. The book ends with Durrell’s return after an absence of almost five years to see how the old ways have fared, so the nostalgic tone that was present in the beginning continues to the end.