Wednesday, 19 June 2013

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Memory Harbour: Jack B. Yeats

A Summer book is what we have in Ireland in lieu of a Summer but I remember once when the season kept its promise camping on a hill overlooking Coney Ireland. At night the light that guarded the channel winked from the Metal Man who points to the safe channel. Every morning after my swim I would listen to the reading of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell on the radio. I must have first turned it on by accident as this sort of memoir I would then have regarded as too light.

Gerry may well be a better writer than Larry even though he wrote for money to finance a zoo project. The beauty that infuses his writing comes not from the love of writing but the love of the experience that he recounts and the knowledge and close observation of his younger self immersed in the flora and fauna of Corfu where he and his family lived for 5 years. The moral of this is: forget the writing, make your soul and the writing will take care of itself.

His first sight of Corfu at the age of 10:

The sea lifted smooth blue muscles of wave as it stirred in the dawn-light, and the foam of our wake spread gently behind us like a white peacock's tail, glinting with bubbles. The sky was pale and stained with yellow on the eastern horizon. Ahead lay a chocolate-brown smudge of land, huddled in mist, with a frill of foam at its base. This was Corfu, and we strained our eyes to make out the exact shapes of the mountains, to discover valleys, peaks, ravines, and beaches, but it remained a silhouette. Then suddenly the sun shifted over the horizon, and the sky turned the smooth enamelled blue of a jay's eye. The endless, meticulous curves of the sea flamed for an instant and then changed to a deep royal purple flecked with green. The mist lifted in quick, lithe ribbons, and before us lay the island, the mountains as though sleeping beneath a crumpled blanket of brown, the folds stained with the green of olive-groves. Along the shore curved beaches as white as tusks among tottering cities of brilliant gold, red, and white rocks. We rounded the northern cape, a smooth shoulder of rust-red cliff carved into a series of giant caves. The dark waves lifted our wake and carried it gently towards them, and then, at their very mouths, it crumpled and hissed thirstily among the rocks. Rounding the cape, we left the mountains, and the island sloped gently down, blurred with the silver and green iridescence of olives, with here and there an admonishing finger of black cypress against the sky. 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.

It is not just the zoological but also the human specimens that Durrell renders, there are the members of his family and his various tutors who are often pals of Larry's. Dr. Theodore Stephanides is one. A reading of his Wikipedia entry will show how fortunate Gerry was to have met him.
Theodore Stephanides

He goes for French lessons to the Belgian consul:

He was a sweet little man, whose most striking attribute was a magnificent three-pointed beard and carefully waxed moustache. He took his job rather seriously, and was always dressed as though he were on the verge of rushing off to some important official function, in a black cut-away coat, striped trousers, fawn spats over brightly polished shoes, an immense cravat like a silk waterfall, held in place by a plain gold pin, and a tall and gleaming top hat that completed the ensemble. One could see him at any hour of the day, clad like this, picking his way down the dirty, narrow alleys, stepping daintily among the puddles, drawing himself back against the wall with a magnificently courteous gesture to allow a donkey to pass, and tapping it coyly on the rump with his malacca cane. The people of the town did not find his garb at all unusual. They thought that he was an Englishman, and as all Englishmen were lords it was not only right but necessary that they should wear the correct uniform.

The consul is a great cat lover who during their lessons is always springing to the open window with a powerful air rifle and despatching the horribly emaciated and diseased cats of the quarter.

He was, in fact, performing a very necessary and humane service, as anyone who had seen the cats would agree. So my lessons in French were being continuously interrupted while the consul leapt to the window to send yet another cat to a happier hunting ground. After the report of the gun there would be a moment's silence, in respect for the dead, and then the consul would blow his nose violently, sigh tragically, and we would plunge once more into the tangled labyrinth of French verbs.

It's very likely that there is no one who hasn't already read this book but if you haven't banish dull weather and enhance the sunny with this evocation of beautiful Corfu.


ktismatics said...

"It's very likely that there is no one who hasn't already read this book"


ombhurbhuva said...

Does it feature widely on school curricula in the U.S.?

ktismatics said...

I never heard of it, but of course it's possible that I wasn't paying attention in class that day.

ombhurbhuva said...

Ah. It's never been out of print since 1956 but its rather English love of animals and whimsy might make it a poor traveler. It hit me at a particular point down Memory Harbor. The BBC have done it twice, the latest is here:

Vidya said...

This was a popular/familiar book back in India though we had summer (or degrees of it) all year around. Haven't seen this one in many of the book lists in the US though.

ombhurbhuva said...

It is beautifully written and I’m not sure why it is not better known in the U.S. I see that curricula in Canada and Australia recommend/approve it. Evidently popular in India also. Do you know of The Story of San Michele by Axel Munthe which I am now reading for the first time and really enjoying. There’s a nice clean copy without scanning errors on Internet archive. In it is the same love of the animal kingdom particularly birds.

Tonia said...
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