Reviewed by Simon
Slightly Foxed Editions often introduce me to books I know nothing about – hidden gems waiting to be unearthed – and that is wonderful. What they’ve done this time, with Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals is introduce me, instead, to a book that has been hovering on my peripheries as long as I can remember. Perhaps I would never have actually got around to reading it if it hadn’t arrived in this beautiful packaging (and Slightly Foxed Editions are unrivalled in their compact elegance), and my life would certainly have been the poorer for it. My Family and Other Animals (1954) is an absolute joy; a real laugh-out-loud book.
Let me forestall any doubters from the outset. Perhaps the title, or the author’s reputation, will make you think that this memoir is for natural history enthusiasts alone. I can reassure you. Few people could be less interested in natural history than me – certainly not in the insect world that fascinates the infant (and adult) Gerald so absolutely – and I loved more or less every moment of this book. Durrell opens his introduction to the book thus:
This is the story of a five-year sojourn that I and my family made on the Greek island of Corfu. It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters. It was only with the greatest difficulty, and by exercising considerable cunning, that I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.
Well, thank goodness for that ‘mistake’ (which, I am sure, is disingenuousness on Durrell’s part), as any page which discusses his family is rich in humour and delight. True, there are sections which are occupied instead with the habits of tortoises, geckos, or terrapins, but these did not have half the appeal (to me, at least). His family are a series of brilliant creations. I use the term advisedly, as they are (as Simon Barnes’ affectionate introduction explains) rather exaggerated and selective portraits. Gerald – Gerry – is the youngest of four siblings, who have moved to Corfu with their widowed mother (although nowhere does the narrative mention this widowhood; thank goodness for introductions). The others are Larry, Leslie, and Margo. This passage comes quite late in the book, but serves as a very good introduction to the interests and activities of the others – as Larry attempts to advise them on their areas of expertise. (Larry, incidentally, is the author Laurence Durrell.)
Larry was always full of ideas about things of which he had no experience. He advised me on the best way to study nature, Margo on clothes, Mother on how to manage the family and pay off her overdraft, and Leslie on shooting. He was perfectly safe, for he knew that none of us could retaliate by telling him the best way to write. Invariably, if any member of the family had a problem, Larry knew the best way to solve it; if anyone boasted of an achievement, Larry could never see what the fuss was about it – the thing was perfectly easy to do, providing one used one’s brain. It was due to this attitude of pomposity that he set the villa on fire.
Isn’t that a sumptuous closing line to the paragraph? This memoir is one bizarre adventure after another, tied together with the credible dynamics of a family who love each other – for, if they did not, they would not spend a moment in each other’s company.
Truth be told, although I came to love them all myself, rather, I would have found any of them monstrous in person. Well, perhaps not monstrous; just monstrously selfish. Larry (as we see) is depicted as cocky and indifferent to the struggles of others; Leslie hunts (which is enough about him); Gerry regularly introduces wild or poisonous animals to the house with no concern for the others and their lack of enthusiasm. Margo is merely superficial and flighty, while Mother is a perfect paragon of patience.
The broad brushstrokes with which these brothers and sister are painted is doubtless not fair to them, but provides a great deal of amusement. Larry’s insistence that they move house to allow for more house guests (“it’s common sense”) is amusing; the tattered remains of a dinner party that ends with guests and dogs soaked and covered with feathers is hilarious. Throughout, Durrell is a master of understatement, dryly undercutting his outlandish anecdotes so that they feel like mere exasperation at family members being eccentric. And that somehow makes it all the more amusing. As does his belief that, say, bringing a scorpion and her babies to the dinner table is an entirely reasonable action.
Those five years on Corfu seem nigh on paradisiacal, and reading them is like being invited into that paradise. There is simply no moment of gloom or sadness – which is astonishing, given that the Second World War was taking place, and their father had died seven years earlier. Instead of seeming irresponsible, it is the perfect depiction of a halcyon moment in a young boy’s life. And it is our great privilege to be able to share it – and an even greater privilege to be able to do so in that pinnacle of publishing, the Slightly Foxed Edition.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors and draws the line at cats.
Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (London, Slightly Foxed, 2014) ISBN 9781906562700, hardback, 380pp.