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Embodying Landscapes

Since I’ve moved to Italy, Lawrence Durrell has become more of a friend to me than just an author whose books I love. I’ve managed to collect most of his books in one form or another and each time I read his work, I prepare myself to be taken somewhere beautiful and interesting. His words are evocative of an important connection that we seem to be mostly unaware of. The inseparable connection between us and the landscape and the ways we inhabit and shape the landscape both consciously and subconsciously and the way that it inhabits and shapes us. We are intertwined.

Painting on the wall of Basilica di San Nicola, Bari

And so are Lawrence and I. I find in him an echo of myself which is strange to say since he is long dead and yet not dead. On more than one instance I’ve noticed that we speak the same language. He, of course, speaks it better than I do because he has more experience in its use but nevertheless, there are moments when I hear and read myself in him.

I’ve just recently started reading his work seriously and this echoing is interesting to me. Could we be tapping into the same genius of place? I try not to think of it too much and just continue following my path, accepting Durrell as one of my mentors. Like the torch of Hekate, our experience should form a light for others on the path and he is my light in a genre of writing that seems very dim.

Mount Olive, Clea and Justine now play randomly in my iPhone as I walk to and from work. In the midst of all that I am doing, I don’t have much time to read for pleasure so I carve out time in between things. This is my one escape from the pressures of reality. His use of language transports me to another place where I am inspired.

Painting on the wall of Basilica di San Nicola, Bari

According to Durrell, we as characters are a function of the landscape and the culture that we develop is a product of the spirit of a place. For example, a particular landscape will give you a particular kind of wine or cheese which is cultivated according to the techniques necessary to make its production possible. This, along with the storytelling and traditions it inspires gets blended into the culture that we connect with a particular group of people. Therefore culture is created in tandem with the landscape – the spirit of place – and not just a product of human will.

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 you the same type of culture—will express itself through the human being just as it does through its wildflowers. Lawrence Durrell – Spirit of Place

This is the task of the writer of place – to isolate those parts of the people which is expressed by their landscape. We travel to come to grips with the “Greekness” or the “Spanishness” or in my case, the “Italian-ness” of Italy. An important point that Durrell mentions is that we can’t say, after hundreds of years of wars and resettlement, that there is a pure race of one kind or another. We are the result of countless invasions. It’s the landscape that inspires and continues a sense of identity what we mistakenly attribute to a group of people alone.

So how do we as travellers and explorers cultivate our awareness of this relationship and tap into its essence? The secret lies in identification. We stop the rush of questions and relax our minds, creating a space where the inner self can identify directly with what it senses, becoming apart of the exchange. You have only to tune in, without reverence, idly — but with real inward attention to be able to start building your own relationship to place.

People travel to find their own correspondences. They discover happiness where they feel aligned to and enriched by the soil that that culture represents. In relation to this, I agree with Durrell in saying that unhappiness is caused by people not attending to what the land is saying and not conforming to the hidden magnetic fields which the landscape is trying to communicate to the personality.

All my life I have searched for knowledge and not happiness. But just the other day, after a very long time, I began to feel a sense of natural personal happiness. I suspect that is because I have found a sense of alignment here that resonates with me. This Southern Italian landscape suits me.

With love,

Martina

  1. What a magnificent thought provoking and beautifully written article. The sense are awake with you in Southern Italy.

  2. Yes! From his first words in ‘Justine’, read when I was nineteen, Durrell had me too;

    “The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes….

    “I have escaped to this island with a few books and the child – Melissa’s child. I do not know why I use the word ‘escape’.”

    Sumptuous writing that summons the spirit of a place, with the puzzle of ‘escape’ being unwrapped as the book ranges backwards and forwards in time, and the city Alexandria embodied and treated as an active protagonist.

    All very apposite to your discovery of a ‘sense of alignment’, and happiness!

    1. “The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes…. I thought of these very words this morning. I feel that his words are re-inventing the way I experience a place. 😊

  3. Both Durrell’s (Lawrence and Gerald) are great writers in their own way. Lawrence has a fantastic grasp of language and his descriptions are superb but he can be a bit heavy; Gerald writes with lightness and humour and his books are a much easier read… very different topics as well. I’ve only read a few of Lawrence Durrell’s books, but found them superb. Have you read any of his poetry? He’s also a great poet…

    1. Yes! I opened his book on poetry looking for a quick Durrell fix. Haven’t had a chance to take in his poetry fully yet. Still lost in the Alexandrian Quartet but also exploring The Sicilian Carousel. 😊

  4. I read his Alexandria Quartet many years ago. Beautiful books. Very dreamy in a way. I like your interpretations of what he has to say, and about the intrinsic nature of landscapes.

    Take care.

    Neil S.

  5. I’ve never heard of Lawrence Durrell but it’s an interesting idea. Kinda like how dogs and their owners start to resemble each other, or couples who’ve been together forever.

  6. This is so great to hear! 🙂 That you’re discovering happiness, not only (but also) knowledge.

    I have not read the gentleman that you mention, but nobody knows this better than Slovenians: “We are the result of countless invasions.” We have been invaded so much that we changed completely from what we could have been, and what we can be once we leave Slovenia and its bloody roots. No wonder that so many people flee. Happiness is outside repression. And the repressed have learned it well.

    Italy, on the other hand, Rome, in particular, is still exactly that old aggressor that it always was. Romans enriched by Etruscans, that’s what we’ve got here. 🙂 So that they are not complete bestie… I wonder how it’s down there. I’m sure I will learn about it from you, and am learning already. Orecchiette, then.

    1. I understand but in this sense invasions is meant in a more positive sense. That if we look deeply into our collective history we can’t say that we are one race or another but that we are a mix of each other. And that culture is something. That perpetuates itself. It is not wholly dependent on our genetic make up. I’m as bound to become Italian as I was to become Turkish depending on how sensitive and accepting I am to the culture. 😊

  7. I liked this piece very much. Especially the ending. Happiness is not something to be sought but to be aware of. It happens at the strangest moments. That is true of sadness too. You have certainly made me want to relook at Lawrence Durrell. I started the Alexandria Quartet ages ago and couldn’t fathom it. Perhaps I’ll find one of his other works. Coincidentally I am reading a much simpler work by his younger brother Hetald at the moment. Also with a great sense of place. And very joyous too

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