Double page extracts from the book in today’s Times’ Review, with the picture of Nancy with the Durrell family at the centre.
Larry and Nancy had found a little villa close to the Wilkinsons’ bungalow. It was on the hillside just south of Corfu town, overlooking the sea and Mouse Island. Their first home, which Larry dubbed Villa Bumtrinket, was primitive, “a little hut, really”, said Nancy. A headlong plunge through the olive groves brought them to a shingle beach, mundane by the standards of their later swimming places, but in those first weeks of discovery it seemed miraculous to be able to scamper down to their own private stretch of sea. Soon Larry’s mother and the rest of the family were installed at the nearby Villa Agazini, the strawberry-pink villa of My Family and Other Animals, so that during their first summer they were all within walking distance. Sailing, swimming, soaking up the sun, reading, talking, exploring… that first summer was everything they had hoped for and more.
One day Nancy, Larry and the Wilkinsons set off to walk across the island. Nancy was bowled over by the beauty of their route along ancient tracks. As they arrived in one remote village, all the men rushed out with chairs, bowing and gesturing to them to sit down while the women crowded round to examine these exotics who had appeared in their midst.
Nancy was wearing only a little halterneck top in checked cotton, which she had made herself, plus matching shorts, a straw hat and sandals; the women couldn’t make her out at all. “You a boy or a girl?” they asked, pinching her as if to see if her skin offered any clues. Having ascertained her sex, they made them welcome with figs and cheese and drink; for her the whole experience seemed fabulous. When they arrived at the other side of the island, the beach was amazing.
It was their first sight of the rugged and dramatic west coast that was to become so important to them over the next few years.
On a fine April morning in 1936 Spiro drove Nancy, Larry and Theodore to visit an acquaintance of Theodore’s who lived in the northeast of the island. The road was bumpy, but the landscape was stunning: Mount Pantokrator rising up on their left; the sparkling Ionian Sea below them on the right; olive trees, cypresses and flowers vibrant in the spring sunshine.
Larry and Nancy were smitten with the area. In Prospero’s Cell “N” is reported as saying, “the quietness alone makes it another country”. Nancy was keen to be in the wildest place she could find, while Larry wanted peace and quiet away from the “pack of brats” — his siblings — so he could work without interruption. As soon as Spiro found suitable lodgings, Nancy and Larry headed north.
In 1936 Kalami was just a few little whitewashed houses on a gentle bay, the steep hills behind rising up towards Mount Pantokrator. Nancy and Larry took two rooms in a house built on a flat rock on the southernmost curve of the bay. It belonged to a carpenter called Athenaios and his wife Eleni. Nancy was as intrigued by the clothing of her neighbours as the peasants were by hers. Even in the height of the summer the peasants wore thick woollen vests with long sleeves, believing that to leave them off would mean certain pneumonia. They were horrified to see Nancy and Larry wandering around in shorts and swimming costumes — or worse still, nothing at all. They made an effort to find skinny-dipping spots that were out of sight of the locals, but in their passion for taking their clothes off they probably didn’t always succeed.
Larry had finished Panic Spring the previous December, and all that summer he was working furiously on what was to become The Black Book. Inspired by the example of his friend Henry Miller, he was attempting something that was, for him, entirely new. After a morning of intense work, the boats provided relaxation. Sometimes they’d row across the bay, sometimes they ‘d go exploring in the Van Norden. As their confidence increased they sailed round the top of the island and discovered a deserted beach. They stayed there for a fortnight, sleeping under the stars, doing nothing very much apart from swimming and sailing and lounging about. For Nancy that fortnight was pure delight, combining her great love of simplicity and wildness, and they returned every summer. When she was in her sixties, surrounded by books, furniture, paintings, she commented that she had always imagined ending her days in a cave, owning nothing but a tin mug, plate and spoon: she was remembering those timeless summer days of solitude and freedom on the wild western beaches of Corfu.
Since Anaïs Nin’s death in 1977, and more importantly that of her husband Hugo, much more detail has emerged about her life. Nancy had read and enjoyed her dreamlike House of Incest, but it is unlikely that she was aware that Anaïs had a passionate affair with her own father [Cubanborn pianist Joaquin Nin] when they were reunited after an interval of 20 years. In fact, Nancy never got to know Anaïs that well. She was under the impression that the affair between Henry and Anaïs was more or less over by the summer of 1937, but during this time of what her biographer calls “relative sexual stability” Anaïs was limiting her sexual activity to Hugo, Henry and Gonzalo Moré, a Peruvian of Scottish, Spanish and Indian descent. Nancy referred wistfully to the fun she might have had if she’d been able to join Anais with “the Spanish refugees” she was supporting, unaware that helping the Spanish refugees’ was code for Nin’s affair with Gonzalo.
Thirty years later, after they had met up again in California, Anaïs wrote to Nancy that it had been pleasant to see her again, before adding the significant qualification, “or rather, to really see you for the first time as 1 did not ready know you in Paris—Henry and Larry were in the limelight”. Their relationship was mediated through their menfolk. In the 1930s, even a woman as groundbreaking as Anaïs was torn between her belief that a woman artist should be the equal of a man, and a residual sense that a woman’s primary role was as a handmaiden to a great man (in her case, Henry). It is hard to imagine now just how difficult it was in the 1930s for women artists to break through in a male-dominated environment, not only in a practical way, but in the far more complex matter of self-belief. Larry had instantly impressed her, but that did not stop Anaïs from noting his public bullying of Nancy. She describes an evening the four of them spent together, which seemed to her like a long voyage because their conversation ranged so widely, a “beautiful flow”. She goes on to describe how Nancy’s “stutterings and stumblings”, and the way she seemed to look to Anaïs to speak for her, reinforced her determination to forge a genuinely female voice, to write “as a woman, in a different way from Henry and Larry”. And a little later she writes, “Poor woman, how difficult it is to make her instinctive knowledge clear!” “Shut up,” says Larry to Nancy, Anaïs writes in her diary. “She looks at me strangely, as if expecting me to defend her, explain her.” Nancy’s inarticulateness inspires Anaïs to speak for all women. “Nancy, 1 won’t shut up,” she insists. “1 have a great deal to say, for June [Miller’s estranged wife], for you, for other women.” But in the end she couldn’t speak for Nancy, because they did not know each other. Nancy didn’t help the situation either. Anaïs writes that when she asked Nancy her opinion of the diary, Nancy with characteristic honesty, replied that she thought it was marred by “a straining for effect”. After which, Anaïs cooled rapidly.
Larry announced that he was going to spend three or four weeks in London over Christmas. Without her. “I can’t remember what he said he wanted to do, or whether that was really what he wanted to do,” said Nancy, and nor did she care much, so long as she too was free to do her own thing. Most probably she did not inquire too closely, since Larry would only have been able to countenance her freedom if he had another woman in view. The companion he had chosen for the London trip was, unbeknownst to Nancy, a young painter called Buffie Johnson, whom she described dismissively as “just a cheery, rather rotund girl”. Larry told Buffie his marriage was as good as over.
Nancy was looking forward to some uncomplicated fun and decided to go skiing. She kitted herself out with dark blue ski pants arid jacket, and a bright yellow bobbly sweater she’d knitted herself. Henry saw her off at the station. He was troubled by the rift between his friends, and expressed to Larry his dismay at seeing them heading off in different directions. He hoped Larry would soon return and nestle down in their Paris flat, adding gently, “I rather think you’d be better off.” As Switzerland was the conventional place to go, she thought she’d have more fun in Austria. At the Hotel Goldener Adler in Innsbruck she was told that Mutters was a good place, but Mutters turned out to be a disappointment.
Someone told her of a place that sounded suitably remote. She took a bus part of the way, then proceeded through the snow on foot up the valley to the single hotel at its end, and her bag was conveyed on a sledge. She fell in love with the place at once: a small hotel standing all alone against a backdrop of small hills and mountain slopes. “It was absolutely marvellous,” she said. “Just what I was longing for.” The sun was shining, adding to the effect which made it, she added significantly, “tremendously like Shangri-La”.
There were maybe a dozen young people, most of them novice skiers like herself. Even better, there was a handsome young ski instructor who straight away paid particular attention to the beautiful, solitary girl who had tramped through the snow to join them. The first morning they set off for the nursery slopes and skidded around in the snow, falling down and laughing and generally having a wonderful time before coming in for lunch. In the afternoon they returned to the slopes and in the evening after supper they played games, including “a sort of bar billiards”, said Nancy vaguely. The precise details of the game were unimportant, compared to the sheer fun of it. They sang songs.
The next day the same blissful formula was repeated: sunshine and hilarity on the ski slopes, good humour and easy company over meals and in the evening. The ski instructor was showing definite signs of interest, which Nancy enjoyed, but most important of all she was relaxed and happy, revelling in uncomplicated pleasures almost for the first time in her life. It was “a wonderful release after Paris. Absolute bliss”. On the third night, soon after she had gone to sleep, she was woken by a noise at the door. The light came on, and there in the doorway stood Larry. He was in a foul temper, claiming he’d had to walk from Paris — a slight exaggeration, but he had made the last part of the journey on foot, stumbling up the valley through the snow while someone walked beside him with a lamp. “I don’t think,” said Nancy, “my heart has ever sunk quite as much as it did at the sight of a cross, cold, damp Larry arriving just as I thought I was going to have a most wonderful time in this place.”
Then came the inevitable interrogation. What had she been doing? She tried to fend him off with vague statements: “This is an awfully nice place.” But he was having none of it. “Why did you tell me you were not having a good time?” he wanted to know. “You’ve been lying to me again!” The cross-examination lasted most of the night, and when they went down to breakfast the following morning he refused to say good morning her new-found “jolly friends”.
“As soon as you’ve finished breakfast we re off,” he told her. While everyone else went off to enjoy themselves in the sunshine on the ski slopes, she and Larry trudged miserably back to Mutters. They had no money to get back to Paris, and had to wait in the Goldener Adler while Nancy telegraphed the bank for cash. Most of that week was spent cooped up together in the hotel bedroom. The details were vague in Nancy’s memory. “He wanted me to do a drawing of some sort, a woodcut of two animals. He wanted it for a card or something.”
Their new-year card survives: an image of a lion and a unicorn, nursery-rhyme creatures famous for their fighting. “The lion beat the unicorn/All around the town.”
And Nancy’s unicorn is most subdued. All Nancy remembered clearly was that it was a “nightmare week”. Writing to Henry, Larry put a mock heroic gloss on the whole dismal business, describing it as his “crazy catapult jump across Europe to join Nancy”, and invoking the spirit of Lost Horizon, the film that was so much a part of their mythology at the time. “I tell you Conway made no more violent attempts to reach Shangri-La than I did to deliver my little Christmas present.” He congratulated himself on the clever detective work which had made it possible for him to run her to earth at four o’clock on Christmas morning, though he did let slip that now they were tearing each other’s hair out. But he ends by addressing Henry as “my dear Conway” and saying blithely “Shangri-La for ever!” As so often, the conventions of their correspondence meant private misery was portrayed as farce.
© Joanna Hodgkin 2012. Extracted from Amateurs in Eden; The Story of a Bohemian Marriage; Nancy and Lawrence Durrell
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