September 2016 Club
Bitter Lemons of Cyprus by Lawrence Durrell
Any idea where the Orrs went on holiday this summer?
Reading this mid-century book in situ was the perfect place to gain a certain perspective on Durrell’s writing. I must admit to having preconceived ideas about Lawrence based on the writings of his brother, some of which proved true – he is somewhat pompous, snobby and embraces an occasionally flowery style of writing sprinkled with classical references. His arrogant attitude towards Greeks and Turks as an Englishman abroad was appalling in parts, yet I feel somewhat reflective of the time. Nevertheless, there was something about him I couldn’t help but like – maybe the way his writing style flipped from comic to political to absolutely breathtaking in his colourful, artistic description of island life. I found myself giving him the benefit of the doubt on more than one occasion!
Bitter Lemons is a semi-biographical account of the three years Durrell spent on the island of Cyprus in the 1950s. Under British colonial rule, the island was a somewhat forgotten corner of The Levant, hugely under-invested in and largely ignored by the British Government. According to Lawrence, Cypriots loved the British: “We love them and want them to stay as friends. But we want to be our own masters.” Hence the rise of the Enosis movement and the eventual reason that he has to flee the island in 1956 for his own safety due to his political office.
When Durrell arrives on the island, he has very limited funds and no intention of getting a job, yet he has a desire to buy a house. Reading around the novel itself, it seems he was also looking after his very young daughter, who is only briefly mentioned, as his wife was hospitalised in England having suffered a mental breakdown and he had wanted to dedicate some time to writing – perhaps if he had portrayed this to reader instead of painting himself as being a single, fancy-free man with no responsibilities, we may have had more empathy for him.
He wangles his way into buying a restoration project from an extended Cypriot family with the help of a characterful Turk named Sabri. The whole house-buying scenario is hilarious and worthy of a Best Sitcom Script Award, although you can’t help feel that he is taking huge advantage of the family by virtually kidnapping the matriarch and securing an inheritance house for a pittance.
After much touring of the island and drinking in local tavernas, he manages to secure a position as an English teacher at the gymnasium school in Nicosia and later on, as a press adviser to the British governor. In this position, he does seem to be a little torn between the needs of the Cypriots and the neglectful way the British Government have treated the island. He joins the ranks of the “bitter” as “terrorism” spreads throughout the island.
I think what will stick with me most about this book are Durrell’s descriptions of a languid, beautiful island of the past. One when you could stroll the streets of Famagusta, when there was no green line demarcation between the Greek and Turkish areas of the island, when passage by ship from Trieste to Limassol cost £47, when there were no Costa Coffee, Zara or Lidl chains, but also one when there was no Senate or any universities to nurture talent and ideas. Durrell concludes that these factors, together with a lack of public swimming baths and a decent bookshop, contributed to the “general air of suffocating inertia which pervaded everything.”
The book was saturated with the most sumptuous descriptions of colour – from the trees to the fruits and flowers to the coastline and golden toned villages.
For the semi-solid colourway, I finally succumbed after many years of dyeing for the club, to a mellow golden yellow. Personally, I’m a huge yellow fan, but I do understand that it’s not everybody's favourite which is why I’ve approached it with caution, but just imagine for a moment it combined with a warm grey or a rich plum or dark navy. Delicious! Durrell describes “the tawny golden light softly upon” the tower of Bellapaix Abbey and “the Mediterranean luxuriance of yellow fruit.” But there are descriptions of melting golden sunsets throughout the novel. I called it Bellapaix.
For the variegated colourway, I was initially inspired by the description of Venice on the first page – the colours of wine, tar, ochre, blood, fire-opal and ripening grain – but equally these could be the pomegranates, figs, grapes, peaches, oranges, quince, mulberries, cherries, roses and cyclamen. I called it Tree of Idleness.
The yarn base is Delectable – a little unusual for the club as it’s a heavy laceweight. It was this sentence which provided the inspiration for choosing the yarn: “It seemed in that warm honey-gold afternoon a delectable island in which to spend some years of one’s life.”