Prospero’s Cell is an account of Lawrence Durrell’s life on the island of Corfu from 1937 to 1941. In 1937, Lawrence Durrell, his wife, his mother, and her other three children moved from England to Corfu. In Prospero’s Cell, only one brother is mentioned as being on Corfu; the book is largely structured around the life of Durrell and his wife. This book, as is true for three other books Durrell wrote about living on the Greek Isles, is most properly described as literature of residence since it concerns the life of someone who has gone to a place to live, not simply to visit as a tourist. Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953) concerns Durrell’s residence on the island of Rhodes. In Bitter Lemons (1957), Durrell tells of going to live on Cyprus from 1953 to 1956. These two and Prospero’s Cell, however, have for audience mainly those concerned with modern literature and culture. They do give information valuable for the inquisitive tourist, but of greater importance is that they tell of the culture of the islands during times of political and social change: the coming of World War II in Prospero’s Cell, the governance of Rhodes by the British after the war in Reflection on a Marine Venus, and the rebellion in Cyprus against British annexation in Bitter Lemons. A fourth book, The Greek Islands (1978), is a well-written and well-illustrated travel book, a guide to the Greek Islands.
Prospero’s Cell was written in Alexandria, Egypt, and incorporated notes that Durrell had made about the years when he and his first wife, Nancy, lived on Corfu. In the published form, the format of a journal was retained, and each section is dated, the first being 10.4.37 and the last being 1.1.41. The epilogue to the book was written in Alexandria as Durrell recalls the couple’s escape to Crete when World War II was declared. At the time the book was written, he was working in Alexandria for the British embassy. There is an appendix for travelers who desire information about the history of Corfu and the twentieth century way of life. There is also a brief bibliography of books in English about the island. The revised edition (1975) has a preface by Durrell and one more chapter.
Most of the information about Corfu in the book is given through conversations between Durrell and four friends of his who lived on Corfu at the time. The book is dedicated to them: Theodore Stephanides, Zarian, the Count D., and Max Nimiec. During conversations held at the count’s country estate, the white house where Durrell and his wife lived, and The Sign of the Partridge (a tavern), the friends argue about the history, legends, and customs of Corfu. Through these dramatic scenes, the reader learns of the different people who have controlled the island, what they contributed, and why they were defeated. One learns much about the food, drink, and customs of Corfu, since most of the conversations occur during meals or celebrations.
Knowing that he must provide objective as well as personal information, Durrell, includes chapters outside the format of the journal which tell, for example, of Saint Spiridion, the island saint. He also writes of the history of the island and reviews those who have written about it. Always, Durrell is concerned to show how the past relates to the present: customs that have ceased or continued and qualities of the inhabitants that are constant.
Dickson, Gregory. “Lawrence Durrell and the Tradition of Travel Literature,” in Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Quarterly. VII, no. 5 (1984), pp. 43-50.
Durrell, Gerald. My Family and Other Animals, 1957.
Fraser, G. S. Lawrence Durrell: A Critical Study, 1973 (revised edition).
Friedman, Alan Warren. “Place and Durrell’s Island Books,” in Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell, 1987.
Markert, Lawrence W. “Symbolic Geography: D. H. Lawrence and Lawrence Durrell,” in Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Quarterly. V (Fall, 1981), pp. 90-101.
Pinchin, Jane Lagoudis. Alexandria Still: Forster, Durrell, and Cavafy, 1977.