Essays (1) Mentors, Muses and Magicians: Lawrence Durrell’s Peasants

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by David Green.

While Lawrence Durrell, famed author of The Alexandria Quartet, enjoyed the company of writers, artists and other high-brow types such as Diana Gould and Paddy Leigh Fermor, he maintained throughout his life a strong affinity with peasants, fishermen and other ordinary village folk, demonstrating not only genuine friendship but also a deep respect for traditional European culture as an antidote, indeed an alternate universe, to modern times. These people are guardians of custom and lore reaching back to the ancient past, thereby telescoping the past into the present, a major feature of Durrell’s oeuvre. They are also living embodiments of place rising up from the very soil itself, mentors, life coaches and role models – people truly rooted in place, something the exiled Durrell struggled to find – a true sense of belonging. This aspect of his writing can be found most prominently in his island books and in his letters and essays on travel and spirit of place. This essay will focus on Durrell’s interactions with peasants in Greece and in Southern France, where his descriptions are the most detailed.

In his 1998 Lawrence Durrell biography, Ian MacNiven quotes Durrell’s sister Margot as saying, “Larry liked to think of himself as a man of the earth, but I think it was just a part he played.”1 The quote referred to her brother’s stone wall building phase at Mazet Michel near Nîmes where he lived in a simple peasant house from 1959 to 1967 at the height of his fame. Perhaps like Churchill, stone wall building offered relief from more pressing matters and helped keep him grounded. Interviewed by The Paris Review in April 1959, Durrell was described as a “short man […] dressed in jeans, a tartan shirt and a blue pea jacket”2, just the sort of clothing common to the local Provençal farmers and a style he wore throughout his life. Later in the same interview, Durrell described writing as rather like chopping wood. In this context, Durrell is putting his art on the same level as the work of a peasant, or at least tradesman, for whom he held great respect throughout his life. He liked people who did things well. Margot’s comments should be taken seriously. However, the purpose of this essay is to establish that Durrell’s identification with rustics went deeper than a part he played. Even if it was an act, it certainly wasn’t a passing show, but a role he played for most of his life. When the BBC’s Peter Adams visited him in Sommières in 1976, he was impressed by the simple country life Durrell led. Later, in 1985, five years before his death, Durrell attended a literary event in London to promote Quinx, the last volume of his Avignon Quintet (1974 – 1985) novel, dressed as an onion seller.

An affectation or increasingly personal preference, this affiliation with peasants went back to his early days on Corfu in the 1930s, when Durrell and artist wife, Nancy Myers, rented a small villa in the remote north-east of the island, 10 sea miles from Corfu Town. At that time roads were poor, communication irregular and life primitive. Commenting on Corfu before the Second World War, Larry wrote in Blue Thirst,

Greece was one large flea, one enormous gnashing flea. And walking across it in the heat, the primitiveness of the country was intimidating. In some ways almost as primitive as Africa […] one was deep in the Middle Ages in a remote Greek village.3

However, as an impressionable young man he came to see the peasants as examples of how to survive, how to live: do your work, enjoy the simple pleasure of bread, olive oil and a local wine, and be absorbed in nature. Much as wine and sun inspired Larry, so did nature and peasants who seemed woven into the landscape. In addition, through their semi-pagan orthodox Christianity and traditional rituals, the peasant had a ready-made heraldic or symbolic universe with strong images and icons aimed at an illiterate people. On a deeper level, Durrell probably envied what the peasants seemed to have, a profound sense of belonging.

Life at the remote ‘white house’ at Kalami was charming but basic. At the time Lawrence and Nancy lived there, only four other houses stood nearby. Charcoal was used for heating, cooking facilities were limited, food basic and in winter the roads washed away. The house had no chimney though one winter the landlord gave them logs to burn inside the house. “It was more Homeric than Homer. We roasted lamb on the spit and mopped up the blood. And drank retsina, the resinated wine of Greece.” 4

While Durrell’s colourful imagination was clearly at work, we see the connection between the present evoking and connecting to the ancient past. On a more practical level, the local fisherman, Anastasius, taught the couple how to catch fish at night using carbide lamps – peasants as mentors as well as inspiration.5

However, Durrell was careful not to romanticise the locals.

It is important when writing about peasants, not to falsify them with sentimental humour. It is very much the fashion to represent them as comic and quaint abstractions attached to names like Paul and Socrates and Aristotle […] but really the average Balkan peasant is quite commonplace, as venal, cunning or admirable as a provincial townsman. 6

There are times when Durrell does indeed use peasant characters for humour as well as wisdom. In Prospero’s Cell, the character of Father Nicholas provides both when Theodore Stephanides chides Nicholas’s wine consumption. The latter replies “Bah […] since you cannot get the better of me in this game of bishops and kings, how can I believe you in other matters?” 7

In Reflections on a Marine Venus, set on Rhodes, we meet the character Peter the shepherd who, according to Durrell, ‘combines the trades of poacher, guide and family man with perfect harmony’. And appropriately, he steals two sheep for a feast even though it is against the law.8

In the first two island books cited above, peasants and local characters feature more as a picturesque background to the author’s musings on landscape, history and place which is conveyed in the extended titles of both books. Prospero’s Cell is further described as a ‘guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra’, while Reflections on a Marine Venus is ‘a companion to the landscape of Rhodes. In Bitter Lemons of Cyprus the intent and the mood changes. Durrell went to Cyprus deliberately to live, perhaps for an extended time, and bought a peasant house in the small then Greek village of Bellapaix on the island’s north coast. Here the reader encounters the formidable character of Frangos, Durrell’s neighbour. Durrell’s arrival coincided with the Cypriot quest for enosis, union with Greece, and an end to British rule. The looming conflict is foreshadowed early on in the menacing form of this burly peasant who attempts to intimidate the author in a tavern, but backs off when Larry, lying, tells Frangos his brother died fighting for the Greeks at Thermopylae.

Larry had moved to Cyprus, he said, “to experience it through its people rather than its landscape, to enjoy the sensation of sharing a common life with the humble villagers of the place”,9 which differs from his intentions in the earlier island books. However, on Cyprus the experiment failed and even in the once-friendly village of Bellapaix, where Durrell became a familiar figure in the taverns around the Tree of Idleness, the locals turned hostile. Larry, an employee of the British government, was forced to flee the island in fear of his life.

These examples enable us to see peasants as sources of humour, wisdom, hospitality but also menace. Muse and monster at the same time. While peasants can be presented in Durrell’s prose as benign or philosophical characters of Homeric legend, they can also be a serious threat. It is worth noting in this context that when the Italian army invaded Greece in 1940, the locals put up such a fight the Italians beat a hasty retreat. Similarly, the peasants in Crete were equally fierce in their opposition to German occupation.

In 1978, Durrell published The Greek Islands, a pastiche of history, myth, legend and personal experience. Looking at all the pictures of Greek peasants, townsfolk and fisherman contained in the book, it’s apparent the world Durrell knew in the 1930s, 40s and 50s still existed into the 1970s and early 80s. When I visited Greece in 1985 the tourist boom and its modernising influences were well underway and yet on Paros I was thrilled to come across a peasant astride a donkey bringing his produce to market in wicker baskets slung either side of a crude saddle. He looked like Sancho Panza. Later, I witnessed a candlelit Easter procession straight out of the Middle Ages with robed and bearded priests, swinging orbs of incense and a procession of local folk in traditional dress singing reverential hymns in the still, spring night.

In 1975, when Durrell was 63, the BBC took him to Corfu and Rhodes to make a documentary, Spirit of Place: Lawrence Durrell’s Greece.

The programme opens with images of modern tourism: villas, new resorts, holidaying sun-seekers (things Durrell hated) but he undercut this by saying “The old Greece is not finished yet […] her ghost rises up to afflict me from time to time […] the real bone structure is still there.”10 A tone of melancholy can be heard in Durrell and his choice of the word ‘afflict’ suggests a nostalgia for a lost world, one to which perhaps he was always trying to get back. Even in France, where he moved in 1957, the landscape around his mazet near Nîmes is very ‘Greek’ as is the garden at 15 Route de Saussines in Sommières, his last house.

The focus for much of the documentary, the Corfu sections in particular, is on images of traditional culture and crafts such as wool spinning, grape pressing and bread making. There is also a lengthy scene of a wedding dance in traditional Greek costume which Durrell describes as “all very Homeric”.11

He maintains “the ancient mysteries are still here […] in Greece, you can immerse yourself in the crust of the landscape […] the flowerbed of ancient Greek mythology is always at your elbow […] two out of five words are Homeric, even in modern Greek”. 12

This powerful link to the past and Durrell’s perception of it being in and around us all the time, if one looks for it, form a significant feature of the programme and his literary themes. In one scene, Durrell is sitting with an old peasant woman eating olives and he comments, “I really have no real landscape. I’ve spent much of my life trying to find one, to have roots”.13 Durrell makes the point that his love of traditional peasant culture is not just a love of history and tradition, but therapy and a quest for belonging.

It would be wrong to think this fascination with peasant life was all muse or therapy. Durrell held a genuine affection for local folk. In Oil for the Saint: Return to Corfu, published in 1966, Durrell describes his joyous return to the white house at Kalami, where he says he had learned to live like a fisherman, frugally, a habit that became lifelong. 14

But if the relationships with old friends and his landlord are genuine, they are qualified by the fact that Durrell was good for business. “‘I never cease to marvel,’ said Athanaios, ‘at the way you have brought us trade. Just by writing a book about us […] they come and look at the house and we show them your picture and make them buy Coca-Cola’.” 15

Later in life, in France, Durrell would form close friendships with Jerome, the saintly tramp philosopher and exile from modern life; Aldo, the vine grower; and Ludo Chardenon, the peasant herbalist.

Durrell’s departure from the Levant after the Cyprus tragedy did not end his affiliation with the rustic world. Moving to France with his third wife, Claude Vincendon, he bought a mazet (small farmhouse) on the outskirts of Nîmes in a semi-rural region. Here, Durrell completed his seminal work, The Alexandria Quartet, which saw him achieve international fame. But this did not prevent him enjoying and writing about Rabelaisian adventures in the Provençal countryside with such characters as Raoul, the clumsiest plumber in the region, or bull fighting-mad Pepe, the hard-drinking Camargue cowboy. These experiences \are recorded in Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel, edited by Alan G. Thomas, published in 1969. It is clear from these stories that local characters afforded Durrell an excellent way to explore southern France, his home from 1957 until his death in 1990, and get to grips with its terre noire. Significantly, he said of Raoul that he was,

one of the most careless and destructive men I have ever known. In fact I cannot think why I ever liked him. I think I was curious. He was so like an infant Gargantua, so typically Provençal, that I listened to his accounts of what he ate and drank like a man in a dream. 16

On the one hand, Durrell could write a sprawling series of esoteric novels like The Avignon Quintet, but on the other, he could humorously describe, with equal nuance, a car trip with two vinous tradesmen to the same city to buy tapware. Raoul also wanted to get a wife as long as she can make a good ragu. There was an earthy, ribald side to Durrell that is often overlooked by scholars of his major works. Raoul intrigued Durrell because he seemed a living embodiment of Provence. In his essay Landscape and Character, Durrell explores this theme further:

I willingly admit to seeing ‘characters’ almost as functions of landscape [….] just as one particular vineyard will always give you a special wine with discernible characteristics so a Spain, an Italy a Greece will always give the same type of culture – will express itself through the human being just as it does through its wild flowers.17

Thus, the peasants of Greece will be unique to their landscape and always informed by it and so will those of Provence, character determined by countryside and climate, rather than cultural implant. And the longer one lives in a particular region the more one adopts its habits and manners. This ground-up approach to character explains why Durrell spent his life looking for, and often befriending, folk who embodied this theory.

In 1966, Claude bought a Gothic-style mansion just outside Sommières into which the couple moved. But this leap in status did not take Durrell away from his fascination with local characters. Indeed, Sommières, which Durrell described in a 1957 letter to Henry Miller as “a medieval town asleep on its feet”18 was then, and remains, one of the poorest villages in France, where, well off the tourist trail, Durrell found that the more traditional way of life still haunted the old streets and shabby houses. He became well known to the local shopkeepers and café owners along the Vidourle River where he liked to sit and chat over glasses of wine.

Significantly, in 1972, he met Ludovic (Ludo) Chardenon, a herb grower who sold remedies at local markets. Durrell’s interest in peasant herbal lore went back to his days on Corfu and Rhodes. Both Prospero’s Cell and Marine Venus have appendix lists of peasant remedies in common usage at that time. Chardenon gave Durrell a mixture which apparently cured the author of eczema. In appreciation, Durrell wrote an homage entitled The Plant Magic Man.

Ludo Chardenon, whom Durrell first met at a market in Arles, is an intriguing character. Appalled by the rapid urbanisation of southern France, the encroachment of motorways and ever-growing tourism, Durrell saw Chardenon as a guardian of the past, a man who knew every inch of Provence and had a robust sense of hospitality which both Larry and his brother, Gerry, enjoyed when they visited him. Often they would go home replete with food and drink, their cars loaded with an excess of herbs. Chardenon, who described himself as just a Cévenol peasant, was also a jovial host and very knowledgeable about the region and its history. Of his herbal recipes he said “I have no way of knowing how old all this knowledge is. My grandmother got it from her grandmother, and so back several centuries at least; but you know, myself I often wonder if a lot of it couldn’t go back to Romans and Greeks.”19 Comments such as this, and Chardenon’s love of food, wine and jovial conversation are quite enough for us to understand why he and Durrell became good friends. In The Plant Magic Man, initially published as a chapbook in California in 1975 and later reprinted as a foreword to Chardenon’s book, In Praise of Wild Herbs: remedies and recipes from Old Provence, Durrell wrote fondly,

Myself, I am always reassured by the plant man, Mr. Ludo Chardenon, who holds a central stall every Saturday selling a bewildering variety of kitchen herbs as well as many herbal remedies with much of the panache of a great magician. His broad handsome face is always laughing, and he takes the world (which includes himself) with a grain of salt.20

Ludo Chardenon thus embodied a number of elements Durrell admired: spirit of place, knowledge and love of nature, skill in what he did, love of food and drink and above all he appeared to inhabit another world, a lost world but in a sense a parallel universe, in that Chardenon lived in the present but appeared connected to another time and place, the past telescoping into the present yet again.

In keeping with his interest in Buddhism and Taoism, as alternate forms of wisdom, Durrell sought ‘other’ ways of thinking, of living, and of finding meaning, something which often eluded him. Durrell’s fascination with peasant culture and tradition was part of this. It was rooted in the landscape, part of it and always had been. It was, as the BBC documentary and Durrell’s commentary make clear, the very essence of spirit of place. And this mattered to Durrell. Exiled from his Indian homeland at age 11, he became a professional vagrant for much of his life: the Greek Islands, Argentina, Yugoslavia, England, Egypt, never really belonging anywhere, even in France where he lived for over 30 years. He was, as Durrell scholar, Richard Pine, has observed in a 2020 essay, a xenos, an outsider always looking to belong.21

Durrell’s peasants were the opposite, an antidote. They were, in effect, the gnarled olive trees on the hillside that had been there since the time of Homer, since the days of Caesar, steeped in the past. As such, along with his love of history and literature, peasants and similar local characters were essential to his muse and remained a prominent feature of Durrell’s life to the very end. His affiliation with these characters was much more than just a role he played, it was an essential ingredient. He needed them.

© David Green, 2020

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  1. Ian MacNiven, Lawrence Durrell: a Biography, (London, Faber 1998) p 489
  2. The Paris Review, Lawrence Durrell, the Art of Fiction No. 23, 1960
  3. Lawrence Durrell Blue Thirst, (Capra Press, California, 1975) p 1
  4. Durrell, Blue Thirst, p 1
  5. Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell: a guide to the landscape and manners of the island of Corcyra, (Faber and Faber, London, 1945) pp 39/40
  6. Durrell, Prospero’s Cell, p 38
  7. Durrell, Prospero’s Cell, p 45
  8. Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus: a companion to the landscape of Rhodes, (Faber and Faber, London 1953) p 115
  9. Lawrence Durrell, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, (Faber and Faber, London, 1957) p 53
  10. Spirit of Place: Lawrence Durrell’s Greece, (BBC documentary, 1975, produced by Peter Adams)
  11. Spirit of Place, BBC
  12. Spirit of Place, BBC
  13. Spirit of Place, BBC
  14. Lawrence Durrell, Spirit of Place: Letters and Essays on Travel, (Mount Jackson, USA: Axios Press, 1969) p 428
  15. Durrell, Spirit of Place, p 443
  16. Durrell, Spirit of Place, p 502
  17. Durrell, Spirit of Place, pp 231 & 232
  18. Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller, The Durrell Miller Letters 1935 – 1980, edited by Ian S MacNiven, (New York, New Direction, 1988) P 285
  19. Lawrence Durrell, The Plant Magic Man, (Capra Press, California, 1975) p 3
  20. Durrell, The Plant Magic Man p 1
  21. Richard Pine, A Writer in Corfu, (The Durrell Library of Corfu, 2020) p 5

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