Thursday, November 20, 2014
My Family and Other Animals - Gerald Durrell
The Durrells - Mother, Larry, Leslie, Margo & 10 year old Gerry - are suffering through a miserable winter when Larry decides that they should move to Corfu to get away from the awful English climate. The decision is no sooner made than they set off through Europe, eventually arriving on Corfu with a mountain of luggage & Gerry's dog, Roger. They are taken over almost immediately by Spiro, a giant of a man who thinks he speaks perfect English & who protects the Durrells from being robbed or taken advantage of during their stay on the island. They find a strawberry-pink villa with a bathroom (Mother's main requirement) & settle in. Larry is a writer & fills his room with books. Leslie is gun-mad, hunting anything that moves while Margo spends her time sunbathing & reading fashion magazines.
Gerry is mad on natural history & he & Roger explore the island observing & collecting the animals, mainly insects, that they come across. Unfortunately the rest of the family aren't as excited about scorpions in matchboxes as Gerry is & there are regular eruptions when his latest specimen is discovered in the fridge or the bathtub. Every so often, Mother becomes concerned about Gerry's education & employs a tutor for him, all of them lovable in varying degrees but none of them very useful as tutors. Gerry's best friend on the island is Theodore, a lovable man who is just as absorbed by natural history as he is. Every Thursday, Gerry has tea with Theo & they discuss Gerry's latest acquisitions or go on expeditions themselves to look for new animals to observe.Gerry's animals & his observations of the natural world are one of the many delights of the book. The adventures of Achilles & Cyclops the tortoises, Ulysses the owl, & especially the Magenpies (Spiro's mispronunciation of magpies) are very funny. As well as the mad adventures, there are also the quiet moments when the island truly seems a paradise.
Though I spent many days voyaging in the Bootle-Bumtrinket, and had many adventures, there was nothing to compare with that first voyage. The sea seemed bluer, more limpid and transparent, the islands seemed more remote, sun-drenched, and enchanting than ever before, and it seemed as though the life of the sea had congregated in the little bays and channels to greet me and my new boat. A hundred feet or so from an islet I shipped the oars and scrambled up to the bows, where I lay side by side with Roger, peering down through a fathom of crystal water at the sea bottom while the Bootle-Bumtrinket floated towards the shore with the placid buoyancy of a celluloid duck. As the boat's turtle-shaped shadow edged across the sea-bed, the multi-coloured, ever-moving tapestry of sea life was unfolded.
The Durrells moves from the strawberry-pink villa to a daffodil-yellow villa when Larry invites hoards of people to stay without considering where they're to stay then, later, to a snow-white villa to avoid a visit from a miserable old aunt. Mother just calmly tries to keep the peace as all she wants is for everyone to be happy. She's remarkably calm when Gerry brings yet another creature into the house or Larry, in his superior, sarcastic way, invites his literary friends to stay for indefinite periods. She calmly goes along to chaperone Margo on a date with a very unsuitable young man & seems able to cater for a large party at a moment's notice. Eventually, after five years, the family reluctantly decide to return to England for the sake of Gerry's education, & their final farewell to Corfu is incredibly poignant as the boat takes them away from this little paradise.
The success of the book is partly due to the picture of Corfu before tourism made the Greek islands so popular. To a child like Gerry, it seemed to be a paradise where he could spend whole days wandering through the olive groves & on the seashore exploring & observing. The descriptions of the natural history are fascinating but really, it's the eccentricities of the Durrell family that make it so very funny. I laughed out loud many times as I listened to stories of Larry's pomposity being squashed by the puppies Widdle & Puke destroying his room, or Margo's forlorn lovesickness over one of Gerry's tutors leading to her taking the puppies out on a boat trip that nearly ends in tears. Every time Leslie appeared with a gun, I laughed over his complete obsession with firearms over everything else. To Leslie, Corfu was just somewhere to hunt, he couldn't see the natural beauty of the place at all.
Apparently the book takes some liberties with the facts (Larry was married & living in another part of Corfu & the Durrells left because of the outbreak of war rather than for Gerry's education) but it seems the essential truth of the book was recognized, even by Larry (the writer Lawrence Durrell) who later said "This is a very wicked, very funny, and I'm afraid rather truthful book – the best argument I know for keeping thirteen-year-olds at boarding-schools and not letting them hang about the house listening in to conversations of their elders and betters." I just think it's one of the funniest books I've read in a very long time.
Naturally I'm going to find myself collecting copies of this book as I seem to collect copies of all my favourite books. I already own one paper copy & the audio book & next month, I'll have another copy as My Family and Other Animals is the new Slightly Foxed Edition & I collect those too.
There are also secondhand copies available from Anglophile Books.