Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (1956)
If cold and darkness are getting you down, I have a prescription for you: Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, an excellent antidote for the winter doldrums. The third of the delightful Slightly Foxed Editions that I’ve been pleased to review recently, it’s an artfully crafted, lightly fictionalized memoir of the author’s childhood years spent on the magical Greek island of Corfu. As he tells it, his family (which consists of Gerry, his three quite-a-bit-older siblings, and their much-enduring, widowed mother) simply couldn’t endure the bleak British weather for one more moment, and decamped forthwith to a sunnier clime.
There, for a few short years their dreams came true, whether those were to potter in the garden, sunbathe and swim, or be left in peace to write novels. (You might recognize eldest brother Larry’s name — he’s best known for the Alexandria Quartet.) Young Gerry was able to indulge his fascination with the natural world, getting up close and personal with a number of exotic pets as well as roaming freely through the countryside. This self-education had unfortunately to be interrupted by a number of tutors — whose idiosyncrasies he affectionately but ruthlessly lampoons — but nothing could dampen the passion for nature and its wonders that made him, in adulthood, a prominent conservationist. Fortunately, he found one genuine naturalist and educator who became his friend and guide, and through him ours as well.
As I read it was sometimes difficult for me to reconcile Gerry’s obvious love for nature and its creatures with his unthinking, casual cruelty. For example, he tore two baby magpies from their mother, then put them in a cage when their thieving habits became inconvenient; he transferred an enormous tortoise from its proper habitat to a tiny tub in the backyard. He also was not at all bothered by his brother’s bloodthirsty hunting for sport. Perhaps in adulthood his attitude changed, or perhaps at the time sensitivity to animal rights was very different from today’s. I had to accept that he was attempting to give his experiences as they were at the time, without interrupting them with political or ideological commentary.
Gerry’s family, though occasionally objecting to finding snakes in the bath and having their ankles nipped by seagulls under the dining table, are on the whole a wonderfully tolerant bunch, and amusing in their own right. Scenes detailing their “natural behavior” are placed alongside those describing the flora and fauna of the island, a sly and subtle reminder of our kinship with all creatures.
This is in fact a remarkably many-faceted book, in equal measure comic and serious, firmly anchored in a child’s perspective yet mature in the artistry of its language. It’s buoyant and sometimes flippant in tone, but underlying all the absurdity is a sharply observant naturalist’s eye. Durrell brings the island and its inhabitants before us with grace and precision, making them as unforgettable as they clearly were for him. And so from the depths of our dull, colorless lives, we are transported to an island of vivid, vital sensations, one that may help awaken us to the wonders that surround us all every day.
Cheerfully bound in cobalt cloth with lemon endpapers, the limited-edition volume from Slightly Foxed is, as usual, a treat to hold and to read. I hope it might take its place on your shelf, and provide for you, as it does for me, a window into a sunnier world.