“My family and other animals,” by Gerald Durrel
From the very first page of the prologue, you are pulled inside this story and this family, so vividly. “This is the story of a five years sojourn that I and my family made on the Greek Island of Corfu.”… “I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters.”… “My mother also insists that I explain that she is a widow for, as she so penetratingly observed, you never know what people might think.”… “Living in Corfu was rather like living in one of the more flamboyant and slapstick comic operas.” So the first observation concerns the benefit of a prologue, a “letter of intent” in a novel. I have just read the introduction of Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison. I think that you risk everything writing such a page but – if you succeed in touching the right strings and in doing a value added synthesis – you can create a powerful springboard and you give the correct note to the following chapter. In fact, if you suppose reading the first line of Durrell’s memoir without the prologue “July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered… A sharp, stinging drizzle fell, billowing into opaque grey sheets… a greeny-grey, froth-chained sea that leaped eagerly at the cement bulwark of the shore…” the impression is quite different, maybe not so attractive. Going on, you understand soon that the springboard works as soon as you read: “…It was the sort of weather calculated to try anyone’s endurance.”
The characters are designed without sentimentalism, with sharp intention: “Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with catlike unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.” And the plot runs coherently, without hesitation, as if it were a Grimm’s tale: “So we sold the house and fled from the gloom of the English summer, like a flock of migrating swallows” (just on the third page of the account). Then there is the sense of the rapid movement, of the journey, the migration (given for granted, as to emphasize the character of this family, dog included, able to cross Europe without problems) and suddenly the change: “… somewhere in that tract of moon-polished water we passed the invisible dividing line and entered the bright, looking-glass world of Greece. Slowly this sense of change seeped down to us and so, at dawn, we awoke restless and went on deck.”… “The shallow sea in the bays was butterfly blue, and even above the sound of the ship’s engines we could hear, faintly ringing from the shore like a chorus of tiny voices, the shrill, triumphant cries of the cicadas.” Here we are in Corfu.
I like the “mass scenes”, where there’s mess, confusion: “… while the rest of us leaned out of the cab and made wild gestures with magazines and books at the pursuing horde. This only had the effect of exciting them still further, and at each alley-way we passed their numbers increased, until by the time we were rolling down the main thoroughfare of the town there were some twenty-four dogs swirling about our wheels, almost hysterical with anger.” … “I had never seen anything so colourful and attractive. This, I decided, was really the way to die, with shrouded horses, acres of flowers, and a horde of most satisfactorily grief-stricken relatives. I hung over the balcony rail watching the coffins pass beneath, absorbed and fascinated.”
And I like the detailed descriptions of the house and the garden “this doll’s-house garden was a magic land, a forest of flowers through which roamed creatures I had never seen before…” as well as the description of Spiro, the taxi driver “within a few hours he had changed from a taxi driver to our champion, and within a week he was our guide, philosopher, and friend…”
All along the memoir, nature is strong glue. You can see Corfu through the eyes of the writer, Gerry, passionate about nature and animals. So the descriptions are never touristic ones: “… discovering quiet, remote olive groves which had to be investigated and remembered, working our day through a maze of blackbird-haunted myrtles, venturing into narrow valleys where the cypress trees cast a cloak of mysterious, inky shadow…” and that is an excellent Durrell’s merit.
Now speaking about the “ingredients” of this nice book of memoirs, I think they are:
– Humour. The tone is always light, pervaded by a marked British humour that renders the story agreeable. Each chapter and each event is described with a great sense of humour. “As soon as we had settled down and started to enjoy the island, Larry, with characteristic generosity, wrote to all his friends and asked them to come out and stay. The fact that the villa was only just big enough to house the family apparently had not occurred to him.” … “As usual when a problem arose the entire family flung itself with enthusiasm into the task of solving it. Each member had his or her idea of what was best for me, and each argued with such fervour that any discussion about my future generally resulted in an uproar.” … “Where most people are hypochondriacs as a hobby, Lugaretzia had turned it into a full-time occupation. When we took up residence it was her stomach that was worrying her. Bulletins on the state of her stomach would start at seven in the morning when she brought up the tea.” …
– Characters. The writer has a genuine gift in describing different characters, starting from those of his family – especially his mother – and following with all the people of Corfu he met. It is a collection of highly peculiar figures that are the best part (for me) of the book. “… sat a short, barrel-bodied individual, with hamlike hands and a great, leathery, scowling face surmounted by a jauntily tilted peaked cap.” … “… a strange, mentally defective youth with a round face as expressionless as a puffball. He was always dressed in tattered shirt, shiny blue serge trousers that were rolled up to the knee, and on his head the elderly remains of a bowlers hat without a brim.” … “As she sat in the sun, like a great black toad with a scarlet head-dress draped over the cow’s horns, the bobbin of wool would rise and fall, twisting like a top, her finger busy unravelling and plucking, and her drooping mouth with its hedge of broken and discoloured teeth wide open as she sang, loudly and harshly, but with great vigour.” … “He has a sharp, foxile face with large, slanting eyes of such a dark brown that they appeared black. They had a weird, vacant look about them, and a sort of bloom such as one finds on a plum, a pearly covering almost like a cataract. He was short and slight, with a thinness about his wrists and neck that argued a lack of food.” … “George was a very tall and extremely thin man who moved with the odd disjointed grace of a puppet. His lean, skull-like face was partially concealed by a finely pointed brown beard and a pair of large tortoise-shell spectacles.” I never found a cliché in his descriptions. The same for descriptions of nature and animals. I think that this ability to research, to analyse, and to synthesize is the most distinctive ingredient of the book, and the most notable point of Durrell’s writing craft.
– Dialogues. They are a valued part of the characters, useful to highlight them and humour. For example, Durrell’s mother is described essentially by her sharp and characteristic phrases, all along the story. “I’m glad you’ve come, dear,” she panted; “this pelican is a little difficult to handle.” … “Yes, dear, that would be nice,” agreed Mother, not really listening. … “Mother regarded him with astonishment. ‘Didn’t you notice?’ she asked. ‘None of them had a bathroom.’ Mr Beeler stared at Mother with bulging eyes. ‘But Madame.’ He wailed in genuine anguish, ‘ what for you want a bathroom? Have you not got the sea?’ We returned in silence to the hotel.” … “Plenty of time for him to learn,’ said Leslie; ‘after all, he can read, can’t he? I can teach him to shoot, and if we bought a boat I could teach him to sail.’ ‘But, dear, that wouldn’t really be much use to him later on,’ Mother pointed out, adding vaguely, ‘unless he was going into the Merchant Navy or something.”
– Episodes. Each episode is a sort of short story well developed. Very nice, for example, that one about the Turk. “Mother had by now become quite used to Spiro’s conspiratorial air when he come to deliver some item of information about the family, and it no longer worried her. ‘What’s the matter now, Spiro?’ she asked. ‘It’s Missy Margo,’ said Spiro sorrowfully. ‘What about her?’ Spiro glanced round uneasily. ‘Do you knows shes meetings a mans?’ he inquired in a vibrant whisper. ‘A man? Oh … er … yes, I did know,’ said Mother, lying valiantly. Spiro hitched up his trousers over his belly and leaned forward. ‘But dids you knows he’s a Turk?’ he questioned in tones of bloodcurdling ferocity. ‘A Turk?’ said Mother vaguely. ‘No, I didn’t know he was a Turk. What’s wrong with that?’ Spiro looked horrified. ‘Gollys, Mrs Durrell, whats wrong with it? He’s a Turk. I wouldn’t trust a sonofabitch Turk with any girls…”
– Coherence of the whole, respect for the reader, craft precision. I read many books of memoirs, also about relocation stories. I remember one in particular about a house in Provence – neither the title nor the author’s name, sorry. This ‘My Family and Other Animals’ is different. It is not amateurish, it is not a personal diary, but it really is a lovely book that gives us an excellent cut-off of a match between two different cultures, without prejudice or judgement. All that using a positive tone and a generous quantity of humour. In the end, you also get the power and the deep meaning of the title, just because the real key of understanding the others and ourselves is a passionate, naturalistic approach, the same that Durrell used.