My Family and Other Animals
by Gerald Durrell
Available at Amazon
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Gerald Durrell’s ‘My Family and Other Animals’. To mark the event, ITV has adapted The Corfu Trilogy (of which this book is the first part) for television. ‘The Durrells’ provides delicious Sunday night escapism and has resurrected an interest in the story. Spurred on by Edith Shaeffer, my husband and I have started reading it to each other.
At the end of 2015, in anticipation of the anniversary, Simon Barnes wrote in The Independent:
‘Joy is at the heart of everything that Durrell wrote, but most especially it is at the heart of My Family and Other Animals. Here is a book that celebrates the wild world more thoroughly and more vividly than anything else ever written. It is at the same time funny and deeply serious; and it is a poor person who believes that humour compromises seriousness. It has reached people and moved them to laughter and other emotions, all [of] them deep, powerful and packed with meaning. It has been a set book for exams and it has taught the joys of reading along with all the other joys. The book tells us that we humans are not complete alone: that without the wild world we are less than ourselves.’
‘My Family and Other Animals’ is perhaps Gerald Durrell’s most well-known book. Many of us will remember having read it at school. Few, I suspect, at that time in their lives, will have appreciated the exquisite quality of Durrell’s narrative. Each sentence is so finely sculpted that an aspiring writer would do well to learn from his style.
Take, for example, the opening sentence of the first chapter:
‘July had been blown out like a candle by a biting wind that ushered in a leaden August sky.’
Metaphor, simile, personification and at least two adjectives to describe the main noun! However irregular Durrell’s education, he seems to have turned out alright in the literary department.
Or let’s take a look at some of his descriptions of the animals he adopted. Achilles the tortoise, for example, is ‘an intelligent and loveable beast, possessed of a peculiar sense of humour.’ At the sight of wild strawberries the reptile becomes ‘positively hysterical…lumbering to and fro, craning his head to see if you were going to give him any, gazing at you pleadingly with his tiny shoe-button eyes’. More charming still is the description of how, if you were lying out sunbathing, Achilles would approach you, ‘pause, survey you thoughtfully, and then choose a portion of your anatomy on which to practise mountaineering.’
Friends made on the island of Corfu where the family lived for a time during ‘Gerry’s’ childhood, and in the five years leading up to the outbreak of World War Two, are described with comparable detail and memorability. Such attention to minutiae testifies to the author’s delight in the natural world around him. He notices everything. He sees what we, in our rush and bustle, overlook too easily. He observes, though without realising it, what God has put there for us all to enjoy: ‘wine red roses’, ‘chameleon like crab spiders’, ‘carpenter bees, (whatever they are) like furry, electric-blue bears, zigzag[ing] among the flowers, growling fatly and busily.’
I am reminded of the Welsh poet William Henry Davies’ poem:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
‘Stand and stare’ is what Durrell excels at and in re-reading his book I am delighted by his vividness of detail in describing humanity and nature. Though it was not his intention, Durrell’s narrative puts me in mind of the Author of authors who first created ‘every living and moving thing with which the water teems, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind.’ (Genesis 1:21)
How many are your works, O LORD!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.’ (Psalm 104:24)
The natural world is not all that Durrell observes, however. Humour plays a big part in both the book and the TV series. Banal family conversations are mischievously recalled and noted down with irreverence.
‘That’s the trouble with this family,’ said Larry (Gerald’s eldest brother) bitterly; ‘no give and take, no consideration for others.’
‘You don’t have much consideration for others,’ said Margo. (his sister)
‘It’s all your fault, Mother,’ said Larry austerely; ‘you shouldn’t have brought us up to be so selfish.’
‘I like that!’ exclaimed Mother. ‘I never did anything of the sort!’
‘Well, we didn’t get as selfish as this without some guidance,’ said Larry.
‘Larry’ is Lawrence Durrell who first encouraged his youngest brother to write and was himself a successful writer, most notable for ‘The Alexandria Quartet’.
The TV version does not pretend to be very faithful to the original text but the photography is wonderfully evocative and the casting delightful which together make for enjoyable evening’s viewing. And if the series gets people reading the book once again and appreciating the natural world around them, then it’s done a good job.