Reading Corner: Bitter Lemons by Lawrence Durrell

One benefit to lockdown (for me especially as I am alone in my student house still) is having time to read undistracted meaning I can enjoy reading more leisurely. It is especially useful for starting books that are written almost like filigree lace and take time to unpick. Lawrence Durrell’s work is perfect for this – I can think of few other writers that cause me to check a dictionary in delight at seeing words new to me. His close focus on style requires the reader to self-indulgently luxuriate their way through his books – and now stuck inside we can. In this way, something like the Alexandria Quartet could keep me occupied for most of lockdown in blissful escapism, yet it lacks the pertinence of Bitter Lemons.

Bitter Lemons has sections of beautifully crafted style and evocative descriptions of an idyllic world. Yet it also has a fittingly bittersweet tone, as it records the political ineptitude that lead to war in Cyprus. You get to feel Durrell’s frustration in not being able to change the outcome, he must simply adapt and accept. This ever-hanging threat gives heightened sensuality to the beauty and pleasure he still finds, and the small actions over which he has control become points of celebration. For a book concerned with decline this might feel overly prescient, but Durrell’s deft sketching of his surroundings soon ensnares the reader and gives a sense of aesthetic optimism. In this way, Bitter Lemons is more pleasurable to read now than if I read it sipping cocktails on holiday. Durrell, with his aptitude for perfectly wrought prose, fully encapsulates the pleasure aesthetic beauty brings and how it is all the more potent in the face of stress and fear.

Durrell also does not let the worsening situation negatively impact his recollection of previous joys. And in a similar way we should read books like this to dream of better times. Whilst we may not be able to loll in pub gardens, we can dream of the past and the possibilities of the future, taking shelter in literature. There is something cleansing about reading a book so removed from your own reality. You can almost imagine yourself there in Durrell’s sun-drenched memories. A glass of cold white wine in hand, as you eat plump olives and chat before dinner. It is unlikely that any holidays will happen this summer, but a book and cocktail/cuppa are often just as good. What could be better than diving into the fluid prose of others and experiencing joy vicariously.

– Ed Bedford


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