I chose Lawrence Durrell’s memoir, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, to read during my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. It was first published in 1957, and was the winner of the Duff Cooper Memorial Prize. The New Statesman notes: ‘[Durrell] writes as an artist, as well as a poet; he remembers colour and landscape and the nuances of peasant conversation…’. The Observer states: ‘His account of the calamity is revelatory, moving and restrained. It is written in the sensitive and muscular prose of which he is consummate a master.’
Durrell’s preface to Bitter Lemons of Cyprus begins: ‘This is not a political book, but simply a somewhat impressionistic study of the moods and atmospheres of Cyprus during the troubled years 1953-6.’ In the 1950s, the Enosis movement fought for freedom from British rule. He lived on the island during this period, in a rural village named Bellapaix, after moving from Serbia. This travelogue ‘completes a trilogy of island books’ for the author. Durrell served as an official of the Cyprus Government during his time there; of this, he writes: ‘Thus I can claim to have seen the unfolding of the Cyprus tragedy both from the village tavern and from Government House.’
Early on, Durrell writes about others who have discovered the island before him, some of whom have recorded their experiences firsthand, and some of whom are more historically infamous. For instance, he says: ‘… the confluence of different destinies which touched and illumined the history of one small island in the eastern basin of the Levant, giving it significance and depth of focus.’ His intention here was an immersive one; he wished 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.’
Anyone familiar with Durrell’s writing will not be surprised to know that his descriptions within Bitter Lemons of Cyprus are entirely sumptuous. Even before he reaches the island, and is travelling through Venice, one gets a feel for just how rich the book will be. His initial impressions of the glorious Italian city unfold thus: ‘Cloud and water mixed into each other, dripping with colours, merging, overlapping, liquefying, with steeples and balconies and roofs floating in space, like the fragments of some stained-glass window seen through a dozen veils of rice-paper. Fragments of history touched with the colours of wine, tar, ochre, blood, fire-opal and ripening grain.’ There is such a sense of place from the very beginning, in fact, that one feels as though one is with Durrell, experiencing both his journey, and Cyprus, along with him.
Bitter Lemons of Cyprus is many things; as its blurb states, ‘it is a document at once personal, poetic and subtly political – a masterly combination of travelogue, memoir and treatise.’ The extended essays here are immediately engaging, and so much attention is devoted to small details throughout. Durrell’s prose is sharp and intelligent, and always has a touch of the poetic about it. It manages at once to be lush and informative.
The tone of Bitter Lemons of Cyprus certainly gets more serious as it goes on, as Durrell becomes more involved in life on the island, first as a teacher, and then in his governmental position. I found the first half of the book more engaging than the second; whilst it was still of interest with regard to social history and politics, the prose in the second half seemed to shift, becoming more matter-of-fact, and was without the customary beauty of the first part. It almost felt, in fact, as though two separate books, written by different authors, had been sandwiched together. Regardless, it is rare to read such a well-informed and balanced travel memoir, and thus, I would recommend Bitter Lemons of Cyprus highly.