To the dismay of many professional biographers (and, one hopes, some of their readers), the Biography sections of most bookshop chains these days seem to display not the well-researched and elegantly written lives of interesting people, but celebrity memoirs or ‘auto’biographies of the more or less famous. Since many celebrities are famous merely for being famous, their stories are often not very interesting. A new lease of life, however, has been given to the memoir racket by the so-called ‘misery memoir’, or ‘Mis-lit’, which relates the story of a wretched childhood full of hardship, abuse and general awfulness, all recorded in graphic detail. The popularity of these books is a mystery to me. Perhaps it lies in the inspiration of heroic victory over early disadvantage. More likely, I suspect, reading about other people’s misery has become the ideal spectator sport.
If one were searching for the perfect antidote to Mis-lit one would find it triumphantly in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. First published in 1956 and in print ever since, the book is surely one of the most enjoyable English memoirs of the second half of the twentieth century. Every page is a celebration of the colours, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile sensations of the then unspoilt island of Corfu where the Durrell family arrived in March 1935 and where they lived until their expulsion from Eden in 1939 on the outbreak of war. It is beautifully written, with some astonishingly vivid and exact descriptions, whether of capturing a water snake in a stream or watching a lizard in its progress across a nocturnal ceiling, and it gets away, effortlessly, with all sorts of things one isn’t meant to get away with, not least the antics and tics of Funny Foreigners.
The twin prongs of its success are the joyful evocation of fauna and flora on this idyllic island and the acutely observed social comedy. Durrell was expert in both. Though the Durrell
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