Photo Larry: Eleni Sevin. Photo Eleni: Peter Bulder
In her book ‘A Bite of Ice-cream’, Eleni Sevin returns to the little southern French town of Sommières, as she knew it towards the end of the last century. Recalling her years in the Midi in those days, in this ‘Letter to Larry ‘ she draws particularly on memories of her friend Lawrence Durrell, by now deceased.
She spent more than seven years in the immediate vicinity of the great writer, and it was in fact Durrell himself who asked her to set down these memories on paper: ‘Before my death, you should keep it a bit decent where it concerns other women, but after my death, on the contrary, that’s just what you should concentrate on – tell all!’
The book is based mainly on three interwoven themes:
Durrell himself, and his dealings with friends, relatives and associates.
Eleni’s day-to-day interactions with Durrell, and recollections of her own life during that period, and the typical ambiance of those days in and around Sommières, when the Midi still possessed its unique character, and characters.
Since in addition to being a great writer, Durrell was also a skilled musician and painter, Eleni has incorporated all three art forms in the book: the story itself, a number of drawings and previously unpublished photographs, and several of Eleni’s own French chansons, the lyrics to which form the themes around which the book is integrally structured.
Front door of Lawrence Durrell’s house
Photo: Eleni Sevin
In June 2012, Eleni was one of the speakers (and the only singer) at the Lawrence Durrell Centenary Conference in London, arranged by the International Lawrence Durrell Society. Below follows the text of her address, which was largely based on extracts from her book ‘A Bite of Ice-cream’.
‘Imagine before you a kitchen table, two chairs – with an old jacket of Larry’s draped over the back of one of them – and not to forget: two glasses and a bottle of red wine…
Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I’m very happy to be here in London on this special occasion, and I’d like to invite you on a kind of journey through space and time, back to the nineteen-eighties, back to Larry’s home, Maison Tartès in Sommières.
So, here I am in the kitchen of the ‘old ship’, as he used to call this house, and you just heard Larry singing and playing his grand piano in the room behind the hallway. A song from his musical: ‘Ulysses come back’…
And I think right now he’s searching for a copy of ‘The Black Book’, up on the first floor.
Well, it gives me time to introduce myself.
I first set foot here when I was 32 years old. Larry was 67 at the time and he was busy writing ‘Constance’. Three pages of glorious work a day…
I’d moved from Amsterdam to Sommières a year or so before and I did some couture work and sometimes I sang in a band, but I was happy to see Larry’s advertisement in the supermarket. He was looking for someone to replace his housekeeper, for a month.
But… After that month he asked me to stay. So for years I sat with him at this kitchen table nearly every day. To quote Larry: Marvellous!
Ah, marvellous indeed! There you are! Great! Tiens… I brought you some tulips from Amsterdam… Oh, Larry, I’m so glad you’re here with us and I hope you don’t mind if I remind you of those days in Sommières – I’ve made a few notes so that I won’t forget.
And I’ve poured you a red wine. No, no, no: this certainly is not a “Mother’s ruin”, or a “frelaté”, as you used to call cheap wines. No… And today, for once, I am not actingg like ‘A Dutch priest’. Your nickname for me, whenever I tried to temper your drinking behaviour. But this is a very special occasion for us all, so we have to raise our glasses.
You know what Larry? Shall I start with a song about the old days?
Chanson: Des Sourires en souvenir.
Well, then… Who did we meet at this kitchen table back in those days…
Ha, ha, ha… No… Larry, let’s not start with the women straight away… I know you’d love that… I remember when you asked me to write about you, you said definitely not to forget to write about them too; yes, I remember your words to this day:
‘Before my death, you should keep it a bit decent where it concerns other women, but after my death, on the contrary, that’s just what you should concentrate on – tell all!’
And another time, you said: ‘Have a sherry, have the whole bottle, and tell everything about my life. And naturally, you write down the most offensive things about me… and my recipes!’
But… let’s start with a man. With a domestic scene, which shows very well that whenever one is in need of a plumber, one has to be patient… and most certainly in the Midi… however famous one may be…
One morning Monsieur Pons, a plumber indeed, was supposed to be coming. You were expecting him at nine o’clock (for weeks already, in fact), and when at half-past nine he still hadn’t arrived, you became annoyed and impatient.
Finally we heard the drone of his 2CV in the garden. And in he came, to replace the taps in the bathroom. Well, we couldn’t draw any water while monsieur was busy, and it was all taking much too long for you.
‘He should have done this three weeks ago!’ you growled. ‘Just go and see what he’s getting up to…’ With an ironic look in your eyes, you sat in the so familiar Lotus position, on your chair, your blue woolly hat rolled up like a yarmulke. Our man had been twiddling with the bath-taps, but all of a sudden he disappeared, leaving us without water. The look in your eyes became sardonic, while you muttered sombrely: ‘Just as long as he does come back! He’s been using the same excuse for three weeks, anyway. He’s got a bad memory. Every time, he says: “I’ve come straight from the churchyard, because one of my old employees just died…” Well… What can you do?’
Time passed. Suddenly we heard noises coming from the bathroom again. Quite irritated, you grumbled: ‘But he doesn’t whistle… he’s just eating a casse-croûte…’ And indeed, soon after that the man appeared in the kitchen, crumbs on his work-togs. He couldn’t finish the work, because he was short of a nut, and he couldn’t get it in Sommières. No, he would have to go specially to Nîmes next day, thirty kilometres away…
‘To Nîmes…?’ you said. You were honestly dumbfounded. ‘Tsssss…’
‘Well then, have a look at the drainpipe under the sink, which is blocked up.’ The swan neck was not the problem, apparently, so the plumber let the sink fill up again. You asked him, almost angrily: ‘And… is the sink emptying out properly now?’ ‘Commàng… commàng?’ responded the man, who was blessed with a strong Midi accent. ‘Oh, and he’s deaf too…’, you sighed. ‘No wonder I’m drinking…’ And then, the man left, promising to come back next day, together with the little nut. We just hoped that in the meantime no more of his employees died! You raised your hands dramatically and sighed: ‘Oh, if only I could find a woman who was a good plumber. Funny, really, that there aren’t any… With Freud in mind, you’d certainly think that they would be interested in it…’
Well, okay, Larry, you win… Let’s move on to the women…
Although an elderly French lady warned me seriously about your original behaviour with women, to be honest, when I first visited you, you made a lonely and rather melancholy impression on me. But very soon I was to meet women of all nationalities at this table, women young and not-so-young, known and unknown.
Nice women… Women with bodies like Egyptian wrestlers… Women with verbal diarrhoea… Women with problems and problems and problems. But also, women one could trust as far as one could throw a piano (all this you told me yourself)… Just like you, I set myself to making their stay comfortable. But I was astonished, certainly in the beginning, about all those – mostly young – admirers… You didn’t really understand it yourself either, because once, for example, you let slip to me: ‘I’m just an old man… You wonder what’s the matter with all these women…’ But nevertheless, you seemed most willing to give the young ones a “vol d’entraînement” (training flight), as you called it.
Then again, where women were concerned, you could act very melodramatically.
‘Now how can a soul ever write anything…? I’ve just put Madame C. on the train and now Madame L. rings up to say that she’s coming…!’ How you enjoyed it! Next morning, it wasn’t Madame L. that I met at this table, but Madame B.
Several days later, with feigned annoyance, you said: ‘They always throw my schedules into confusion! Friday, as many as six of them want to come, and all on the same day!’
I replied that many a man would be jealous.
‘Nonsense,’ you thought, ‘an old man like me…’ In the end you embraced me and asked the well-known question: ‘Well, why don’t you want me…?’ For once, you yourself had an answer: ‘You fear perhaps that I’m too unfaithful?’
‘Of course… if you’re already expecting six on Friday…’ I answered, as yet another lady knocked on the door…
In this case, it was an old friend of yours. To her, Simone Périer, you dedicated Sebastian.
Then, one day, you had a lady visitor for whom you’d once written a song. This song, and of course you know, was called: “Le Cascadeur”. Before I met her, she had tried to make a name as a singer. At the time of her visit, however, she had already turned her back on music. So I’m glad I have a score of the song.
Hey, Larry… Shall I sing it for you now? Yes? Okay then…
Alors, mesdames et messieurs et Larry: Le cascadeur. Une chanson de Lawrence Durrèll…
Oh yes, Larry… those women…
And then there was me too…
Time and again, you would propose to me something that was supposed to be extremely healthy, an exercise that you would gladly have done with me on your bed: breathing together! And you would repeat: ‘Yes, so healthy for you…’
Indeed you always acted very carefully with me, as if you were afraid I would break… but in this case… Oh yeah! With that inviting remark you could get me “climbing the walls”, because I was more or less sure that your offer had to be serving a double purpose.
Ohh, look at you… what do I see? I mean, that particular look in your eye: indeed, a great little look it is, full of mischievous impudence, of irony and laughter. Diable! This must be that famous Taoist look you described in A Smile in the Mind’s Eye… I’m right, eh?
And come to think of it now: Didn’t you write, somewhere in Quinx, about a certain old Yoga breathing trick for getting women into bed…? Yesss, bravo, Larry, nice try!
But let’s move on to another subject:
You were much against showy behaviour and ego-building, which I appreciated… But let me remind you of someone who seemed to suffer quite a lot from that.
One day the telephone rang and you asked me to answer the call and to say that you were in Paris. ‘Then I’ll love you forever,’ you added. I found it annoying to tell this little white lie, the more so because it appeared to involve a young, ambitious mayor. Since the penetrating chords of Erroll Garner’s piano music were also audible in your bedroom, where I took the call, I told the man that I would go and see if you were home. You refused to come to the telephone, and begged me: ‘Just say I’m in Paris!’ (Embarrassing, but I did it…) So then the man asked me to say that you should ring “Le Mairie”. You didn’t feel like it, and growled that the man was getting rather self-important: ‘I should do something about it,’ you said, ‘but I can hardly knock him out on the bridge, now can I?’
But this mayor had persevered, finally succeeding in snaring you for an interview. One morning he burst into your house, along with the interviewer. To my amazement, during the whole interview you were pulling the fellow’s leg. With an inscrutable grimace on your face, you were answering all the questions in a half-whisper, your tone implying that you were taking part in a conspiracy.
Moreover, you were deliberately mispronouncing the French language, putting on an appalling English accent. Both mayor and interviewer, however, remained dead serious; you, on the other hand, were visibly enjoying yourself, slyly winking at me time after time. After their departure, we were in fits of laughter. But from then on, every time this mayor called, you begged me yet again to say that you were not at home.
Normally, though, you were in a good mood and very serious whenever journalists came…
By contrast, once when you were in Paris, I was asked never to tell you who passed the night in your bedroom. But now, finally, I can.
One afternoon while you were away, I had a shock when the outside door suddenly opened. To my relief I saw Gerry (your brother Gerald Durrell) and Lee Durrell (his wife) coming in. Lee had a small towel in her hand, which she carefully carried through the hall while explaining that she and Gerry had come to stay for a couple of days. She told me, giggling, that in the towel there was a third guest. A small, wounded snake. Looked quite pathetic.
‘Never tell Larry that we stayed in his bedroom with a snake, because he’d do us a mischief,’ Lee implored me, ‘he’s scared to death of snakes!’ (Tell me about it…) More than once, you gave me serious warnings about snakes in our region, and you always shivered when you told me about the cobras you came across in India, when you were a child…
And now for a souvenir of a different sort…
Once we had a very pleasant champagne lunch with Yehudi Menuhin and his wife Diana, and next morning I was lucky enough to hear and watch Yehudi practising the entire D major violin concerto by Brahms. Enchanting!
But sometimes we went out: to a party, for instance! Then we usually took the ‘Escargot’, your faithful VW camper, and you would drive so slowly that you caused a traffic jam behind you, full of agitated French drivers…
I want to remind you now of one party, a Christmas party, at Ludo Chardenon’s place – your friend the herbalist. I hope you will love this souvenir:
Chanson: Olalala Larry
Larry, let me tell you now how much I enjoyed all the time I spent with you.
And this is how I remember you: your masculine mix of the humourist, the rugby fanatic, the ardent walker and swimmer, the lady-killer, orator and adventurer: in short, one who could take on the whole world in all its facets, from the primitive to the sophisticated. And then your ability to come up with practical solutions to difficult situations, and your help, which I very much appreciated. And not to forget the author, of course, nor the way in which you poured wine…
And your feminine side: your romantic attitude, your “housewifely” attitude to money, your taste for gossip, your motherly concern in relation to me and others, your neatly-clipped nails and well-groomed hair, the sometimes so sensitive, even fragile, look you could cast at me. Not forgetting, of course, the way in which you poured the morning tea…
And I always so looked forward to our conversations, which ranged from the serious to the frivolous, from the historical to the hysterical… And then your contemplative side: Once you discovered that here on the kitchen cabinet, flecks of white paint were missing in several places, so that the black background had become visible. ‘I think the flies did that, to have a calm spot where no-one sees them’ you said, musingly.
Many times in our conversations you carried me off with you to strange lands and peoples that I would otherwise never have seen. You allowed and taught me to look through your eyes, into the present and the past. You, with all your knowledge, humour and imagination, allowed me into your perceptions of the world – this, Larry, I experienced as a great privilege… And I thank you for that! And I’m happy we can all read your writings…
But now for something different: About a stupid misunderstanding… Finally, I have the courage to tell you that I never wanted to go away… That I’m sorry I never answered your question: ‘Why did you leave me, my darling…?
In fact, I’ve composed a song about it, which I’ll now sing for you…
Chanson: Le message d’une gitane
Now, a warning to publishers, and advice for writers: with what must have been the fourth glass in hand, you proclaimed one morning that Vogue magazine wanted to dedicate an article to Gerry, and had asked you for a contribution. You were planning, very vigorously and flamboyantly, to serve up approximately the following: ‘Gerry is the one man I know who can borrow 3 million and more from his publishers, to start an infirmary for backward dormice. How does he do it? With the help of Jesus! When his publishers refuse, he says, carelessly tipping the ash from his cigarette: ‘So you refuse? Wait then… You know what my next book is going to be? No? ‘The life of Jesus!’ Consternation! They blench and take out their cheque-books…’
Ai, ai, ai… What’s that, Larry…? Oh, you mean my manuscript, the one I promised to write about you… Well it’s here. Just finished, including my songs. Yes, very late indeed…
Anyway, Larry I have to leave the kitchen table now. I give you a big kiss and I must tell you again how grateful I am that I got to know you and was able to be part of your entourage for such a long time! Thank you!
You know what: I’ll put on your favourite music from Corfu… So we can pleasantly dream and dance away, and drift off stage left… Right?’
(All drawings are by Frank Lohmann)
Photo Larry: Eleni Sevin. Photo Eleni: Ian S. MacNiven
Location of photo’s: Conservatory of Lawrence Durrell’s house . (Maison Tartès)
Below: Invitation from Gerald and Lee Durrell to a Christmas Party at Mas Michel.
(Drawing: Gerald Durrell.)