|Oct/Nov 2005 Book Reviews|
I was eating up some used book credit a couple of years ago when I saw a beaten up Penguin paperback sitting on the shelf for $2.95. When I opened it up, there was a comment from a previous reader: "The silliest book in the most British way—I love it!" As a huge fan of BBC comedies (all of As Time Goes By on DVD and hopelessly addicted to Keeping Up Appearances as well), I took this note as a sign from the book gods that I needed to own this somewhat abused edition of My Family and Other Animals. The rest, as they say, is reading history. I am now a confirmed fan of author Gerald Durrell and determined to read anything and everything that he has ever written.
In his most excellent biography, Gerald Durrell, author Douglas Botting traces the life of the famous conservationist from childhood until his untimely death at the age of seventy in 1995. The publication of My Family and Other Animals was a seminal moment in Durrell's life, as its popularity allowed him to embark on his lifelong mission of breeding endangered animals in captivity at his zoo in Jersey. My Family is an autobiography (that has admittedly been a bit dramatized), recounting the adventures of Durrell, his mother, and three siblings after they moved to Corfu, Greece, in 1935. Durrell was actually born in India, the son of a British civil engineer. In truth both of his parents (and maternal grandfather) were born in India, but in the era in which they lived, being born in India really meant nothing if ethnically you were British. The separateness that the two groups carefully maintained made life very difficult for the Durrell family when Lawrence Durrell died suddenly in 1928. The family returned to England, a place none of them had ever known, and set about acting and living as British citizens. It didn't work, and the long strange quest to find a place to call home began.
The decision to move to Corfu was largely at the instigation of the eldest Durrell sibling, Larry. It was Mrs. Durrell that needed to be convinced the most, but as Botting recounts, "there wasn't much to keep any of them there [in England], for they were all exiles from Mother India, and none of them had sunk many roots in the Land of Hope and Glory." They all set forth soon enough and made quite the motley crew. "Lawrence was writing, Margaret was rebelling about returning to school, and Leslie was 'crooning, like a devoted mother, over his new collection of firearms.' As for Gerald, though he was tender in years, he was already a great animal collector, and every washbasin in the house was filled with newts, tadpoles and the like."
Durrell went on to write extensively about their years in Corfu, both in My Family and Other Animals and later in Birds, Beasts, and Relatives. These books captured the public's imagination, and while the Durrell family was forced to live down being part of a spectacle, their fans could not get enough of the family's crazy adventures. At the center, collecting bugs, birds, and whatever swam past him, was always Gerald Durrell. In many ways he lived the childhood that any breeze loving, sun basking, curious kid could hope for. The fact that he continued into adulthood on a path he set for himself at the age of six is really not surprising. The way he did it though, and the amazing success he found there, is the stuff I just can't get enough of.
Botting's biography is riveting stuff, as it follows Gerald from the bucolic days in Corfu and back to England and the Second World War. He finds love and a partner in his adventures with Jacquie, whom he married in 1951. More importantly even then that, though, is the career he forged first as a collector for zoos and wildlife parks and then as the developer behind the Jersey Zoo and the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust. His books kept him in the public's eye and brought much needed attention and funds to his dream of captive breeding of endangered animals. Durrell never wavered in his conservationist ideals, even as he struggled through a dying marriage and a writing career that paid the bills but never came easily to him. (His books certainly read like they came easily; in fact I leave each one feeling as if I've spent a few days chatting with an old friend whom I dearly love.) The politics behind establishing his zoo on the island of Jersey are mind boggling and were sheer torture for someone who simply wanted to save animals but all too often found himself buried in the details and paperwork of that mission. And then, of course, there was his family. The Durrells were complicated and close, and their presence was a constant in his life, even when he didn't understand them or they didn't understand him. (This is the parts where readers everywhere nod their heads in agreement as they bond over the memory of Thanksgiving dinners past.)
For any fan of Durrell's books, I can not recommend Botting's biography enough. He had full access to the family archives and Durrell's private papers, and he used these resources to follow his subject around the world and through fifty plus years of learning about and protecting nature. And although Botting is clearly a fan of Durrell, he spares him nothing and recounts the drinking that was a disastrous family trait, and the difficulties on both sides that ended the marriage with Jacquie. This is a true, complete portrait of a larger than life writer and man who set out to change the world and then, miraculously, managed to do just that.
In a lot of ways I am just a neophyte in my love of Durrell's works. There is My Family and Other Animals of course, and its companion Birds, Beasts and Relatives, but Penguin also just reissued A Zoo in My Luggage, recounting his expedition to the Cameroons in 1957. Zoo is considered one of the most popular of Durrell's books and when originally published garnered much praise from The Daily Telegraph: "He [Durrell] has a novelist's ear for dialogue and a poet's sensitivity to the mood of the African landscape. He has, too, a genuine humorist's awareness of the incongruous and tells many very funny stories."
I read Durrell because his love for animals and commitment to conservation are clear in every word he has written, including (and most especially) in his works about growing up. Beyond that however, it is his sheer joyful exuberance at life, at the art of living large and loud and happily, that endear him to me. He was not perfect, and he did have black, dark moments, but in the final tally, his life stands easily as one that was well-lived, from beginning to end. Read his books, read them again and again, to remind yourself why the world around us matters and also why a child should always be encouraged with their interests, no matter how fantastical they might seem. ("They [family and friends] felt that if they ignored my oft-repeated remarks about owning my own zoo, I would eventually grow out of it," writes Durrell in Menagerie Manor.) He was a great and wonderful man who made the world a better place by living in it. Read his books, and you will fall in love with him as well. Read Botting's biography and it just might change your life.
Gerald Durrell, The Authorized Biography.
Carroll & Graf. 1999.
My Family & Other Animals.
Birds, Beasts & Relatives.
A Zoo in My Luggage.