by Gerald Durrell (1956)
About twenty years ago I read My family and other animals, Gerald Durrell’s memoir about his childhood with his family in Corfu. I loved the book and recommended it to a lot of people. Despite reading it only once, I would happily tell people that it was one of my favourite books.
That was until recently, when I picked up The Corfu Trilogy at the local book exchange, consisting of My family and other animals, and its sequels, Birds, beasts and relatives and The garden of the gods, bound in one volume. I looked forward to rereading my old favourite and following the further adventures of young Gerald and his eccentric family.
I suppose a lot has changed for me over the past twenty years and a lot has changed in the world in general since Durrell published the first book in the trilogy in 1956. And those changes meant that I found the book both tiresome and objectionable. Reading from the perspective of someone who’s moved with my family to southern Europe, albeit 80 years after the Durrell family left the UK for Corfu in the 1930s, I found the ease and privilege with which they made their move both annoying and troubling. Upon arrival in Corfu, they are unconcerned by their rudeness to the locals, making fun of them, or putting them out to suit their own convenience. When Gerald’s brother Larry, novelist and memoirist Lawrence Durrell, decides he wants to invite some friends to visit, the whole family simply ups and moves house because the house they’re living in is too small for so many guests. Every anecdote involving young Gerald’s family reveals a bunch of people generally oblivious to their privilege, and to their sense of cultural, social and racial superiority over their hosts.
Larry is objectionable, always getting what he wants, no matter the consequences to others, while Margo, Gerald’s older sister, is not much better, spending her days obsessing about her figure and her clothes. It could be argued that the reader sees these annoying and shallow older siblings through the eyes of young Gerald, but their overall lack of redeeming characteristics makes them not comical, but horrid.
Only Gerald, wandering with his dog through the Corfu countryside while developing his passion for nature, is likeable. He’s writing about himself, after all. He describes in minute detail the spiders, ants and preying mantises that he spends hours observing, lying on his belly on hillsides and in fields, getting down to their level, so that he can meet them eyeball to eyeball. Yet, I found the descriptions dull and lacking magic. I love nature writing, but these long-winded descriptions failed to move me.
I struggled on for 100 pages, hoping to find the magic that had so moved me twenty or more years ago. There are some books I have returned to at different times in my life and they always bring me joy, my experiences in the intervening years only serving to make the narrative richer. To kill a mockingbird comes to mind, and Anne of Green Gables. Other novels, such as On the road and Catcher in the rye, enjoyed when I was a teenager, had thoroughly lost their lustre by my late-20s. My family and other animals sadly belongs to this latter category. Not only have I changed too much for this book, the world has changed too much. After 100 dreary pages, I gave up and returned the trilogy to the shelves of the book exchange.