Travel broadens a person. At least that’s what the old adage maintains, and if we are to judge by the experience Lawrence Durrell renders in Sicilian Carousel, we have to agree. Of course, the adage requires qualification, since the traveler has to have his perceptive powers working at full tilt truly to broaden himself. Certainly not every traveler embarking on journeys hither and yon manages to engage himself in more than merely remarking on scenery and tasting wines and foods. But be assured, Durrell does. Moreover, he is able to re-create his engagement with place so remarkably that we too are enriched by his travel.
At bottom Sicilian Carousel succeeds because once again Durrell wholeheartedly devotes himself to investigating the “spirit of place.” Readers familiar with his The Alexandria Quartet will recognize this reminiscent theme, among others. Readers particularly sensitive to the influences of locale will understand Durrell’s reaction when he says, “In Sicily one sees that the Mediterranean evolved at the same rhythm as man, they both evolved together. One interpreted itself on the other, and out of the interaction Greek culture was first born.” Durrell’s powers of seeing and making us see—the land, the people, the ruins, the aura of place—produce unique effects, so that travel becomes exploration into intellectual currents.
Thus, the consciousness evolved within a place, developed out of the characteristics of geography meshed with human history, generates an enthusiastic response in Durrell. In his The Alexandria Quartet he presented a kaleidoscopic vision of Alexandria through a uniquely complex form, what he called at one point a palimpsest. But unlike the earlier work, Sicilian Carousel reveals no great complexity, for it makes no claims to be more than a travel narrative. However, the simplicity is deceptive, and the depth to which Durrell delves in this small book allows him to unearth an understanding of life central to all of Western culture.
Durrell has been at home in the Mediterranean for some time. Previous books about Cyprus, Corfu, and Rhodes attest to his love for what he has called “that magical and non-existent land—the Mediterranean.” Infected by “islomania,” he claims it is the range of the olive tree which marks this region’s spiritual and physical boundaries. The small bits of land set upon the pristine sea and strung together by their common Greek heritage hold countless memories for him. We are privy to his recollections as he examines Sicily in the light of those past sojourns, those past definitions of what is stimulating and comfortable for the soul (an unfashionable word for a troublesome concept).
Enriching the spiritual dimension of Sicilian Carousel and reinforcing the author’s memories are a series of letters sent by his longtime friend Martine, now dead, but still responsible for his embarking on the current journey. Her urgings have increased his anticipation of what he will find on Sicily. She remarks key locations and often addresses herself to questions the two of them have raised in other places, at other times. Reading her letters periodically throughout the journey, he is prompted to recall those conversations long past. In a letter about Agrigento, Martine cites their discussions concerning the Greekness of Cyprus “which had never been either geographically or demographically part of Greece.” She asserts that language is the key to the Greek identity, what “gave one membership of the Greek intellectual commonwealth—barbarians were not simply people who lived otherwise but people who did not speak Greek.” Martine’s sensitivity to place, her letters reveal, matches Durrell’s. Furthermore, she was an intimate friend, a confidante reminding one of the remarkable women that readers of Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet have already encountered: Justine and Clea, even the forlorn Melissa. The same intense questioning and depth of feeling exuded through her letters is evident in each of those women. The relationship between woman and author is equally significant.
But Martine is a character in absentia despite the vivid presence of her words. Balanced against her intensity are the amusing characters who accompany Durrell on the Carousel. Less deeply explored, they nevertheless present us with a sense of diversity inherent in any randomly selected group. A French aristocrat and his wife recognize Durrell as the famous writer but discretely refrain from broadcasting his identity. They are cultured, reserved, slightly out of place in the hectic scene of a guided package tour by bus. Included also are a shy American dentist and his “saucy” wife, she being his most glamorous patient, the two having eloped. An Anglican Bishop, recently the victim of a nervous breakdown, and his wife, alternately cowed by and highly protective of her husband, seem to be...
(The entire section is 2030 words.)