Linley Boniface recalls what Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals meant to her growing up in the “anti-Corfu” of 1970s Palmerston North.
The territorial skirmishes of marriage manifest themselves, at my house, in bookcases.
We have always had too many books and not enough house. At some point during each of our frequent moves, my husband and I have stacked the cardboard boxes marked “books” beside our pitifully few bookcases and begun negotiations on whose books will go on the shelves and whose will be relegated yet again to a rain-splattered garage or rat-infested attic.
My husband is a serious reader. He likes complex, challenging stories fringed with bleakness and torment, ideally written by an author who was either executed by firing squad or confined to a psychiatric ward before the book could be published. When I am looking for a book to buy him as a present, I scan blurbs for the phrases “existential angst”, “meaningless void” and “downward spiral of despair”.
My own tastes are altogether frothier. While I have the odd book that my husband is not altogether ashamed to shelve alongside his own, the majority of my collection consists of biographies of Antarctic explorers, ripping adventure yarns from the 1930s, and crime novels narrated in the first person by dogs.
In truth, I don’t particularly care whether my books are on display or not, and continue the debate only for the sheer freewheeling pleasure of arguing that the latest Man Booker Prize winner is less deserving of shelf space than, say, Dick Francis’ Slay Ride. But there is one book whose presence on the bookshelf in the lounge is non-negotiable. I have kept no toys, photos or trinkets from when I was growing up: this book is the only material object that made the transition with me from childhood to adulthood. Every page of it is so familiar that even catching sight of another book with a similar mustard-yellow jacket gives me an instant jolt of pleasure.
My Family and Other Animals was written by a man who did not like writing, did not want to write, and, even after his 37th bestseller, regarded writing as his secondary occupation. Gerald Durrell saw himself first and foremost as a conservationist, and wrote only to fund the animal-collecting expeditions that kept his Jersey zoo stocked with endangered species.
“Right in the Hart of the Africn Jungel a small wite man lives. Now there is one rather xtrordenry fackt about him that is that he is the frind of all animals,” wrote Durrell as a schoolboy. He had a few years to wait before he made it to Africa, but at the age of 10 he and his family moved from a cheerless English seaside town to the Greek island of Corfu – where he did, indeed, become the frind of all animals.
Originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, My Family and Other Animals was almost immediately hijacked by Durrell’s long-suffering mother and three older and considerably more eccentric siblings: Larry, a pugnacious and self-absorbed literary type (who went on to write the celebrated Alexandria Quartet); Leslie, a macho gun bore; and Margo, a teenage flibbertigibbet interested only in diets, sunbathing and inappropriate men. The friends they make as they forge a new life for themselves in this sunshine-drenched paradise are as curious and exotic as the island’s wildlife, and all are described by Durrell with a naturalist’s precision.
Freed from the constraints of formal schooling or anything resembling adult supervision, Durrell and his mongrel, Roger, roam the olive groves and cyclamen woods and low-lying reefs in search of wildlife. There are saucepans laden with water snakes, matchboxes teeming with baby scorpions, water-pistol fights with loaded sea slugs, moonlight picnics lit by fireflies, tortoises drunk on strawberries, and feasts of brandysnaps “brittle as coral and overflowing with honey”. Even the most mundane of creatures is described in fabulous detail (Cecily, a praying mantis who pits herself against a gecko, “turned her head from side to side and looked about with an air of grim interest, like an angular spinster in an art gallery”).
I can’t think back to reading My Family and Other Animals without recalling the physical sensation of having to hold my forearm over my mouth to muffle my laughter. There seemed be so many situations, back then, when it was unwise to be caught laughing at a book: in school, where laughing indicated you were wasting time that would be better spent absorbing facts about fractions or Bismarck; at church, where you were expected to spend every spare moment growing closer to God by colouring in yet another picture of Joseph’s tedious multi-coloured coat; in bed, where the hours between 7.30pm and midnight were unaccountably expected to be frittered away in sleep.
Palmerston North in the 1970s was a kind of anti-Corfu, yet often I’d pack a few jam jars into my school backpack and wander through the service station forecourts and empty paddocks and tractor sales yards in search of flora and fauna to be entranced by. Once, I found a water beetle in a friend’s Para Pool. That was pretty much as good as it got, although on another occasion I was chased all the way from Miro Street to Tremaine Ave by a dog that looked a bit like Roger.
My Family and Other Animals was written from a child’s viewpoint, with all of the light and none of the shade. Only as an adult have I come to understand why Durrell began his book with the following epigraph, from As You Like It: “It is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, which, by often rumination, wraps me in a most humorous sadness.”
And there was plenty to be sad about. Durrell’s father, never mentioned in the book, died of a brain tumour when Durrell was three. Louise Durrell was so grief-stricken by his death that she resisted suicide only for the sake of her youngest son. The family moved to Corfu not just for the climate, but because they were afraid of running out of money. And they reluctantly left Greece not so Durrell could continue his education, as he suggests, but because of the looming spectre of WWII.
Corfu shone so brightly for Durrell that he managed to squeeze three books out of the five years the family spent there. Life would never be as easy again. An alcoholic, Durrell constantly struggled for money and became increasingly weighed down by the futility of breeding endangered species for habitats that shrank by the day. He died in 1995, after a liver transplant.
Unfashionably, My Family and Other Animals contains no messages whatsoever. There is no moral to the story. None of the characters grow, or change, or learn anything about themselves. There are no quests, no touching reunions, no grand romances, no tragic deaths; no dramatic incidents of any kind, unless you count Cecily’s fight with the gecko.
But what Durrell understood so well is that happiness comes from the simplest of experiences. From a firefly at a picnic. From a sea snake in a saucepan. And, sometimes, even the memory of happiness is enough to get you through.