Every paradise is lost. That’s kind of the point. Loss is the diagnostic feature of every paradise ever lived or imagined. But for five miraculous years and 120,000 miraculous words Gerald Durrell sustained a vision of paradise with joy in every day and every page. Most evocations of paradise dwell on the eventual loss: not here. My Family and Other Animals is a tale of uninterrupted delight. It finishes with a brief, almost apologetic admission that all such things come to an end – but in truth the book doesn’t really end at all. It is just politely euthanized, a beloved family pet tactfully and efficiently put down by a trusted vet. It’s an account of five years that Durrell and his family spent on the Greek island of Corfu, departing in 1939 just ahead of the war. They left England on this mad jaunt ‘like a flock of migrating swallows’ and had what really was the time of their lives. It was the making of Gerald – Gerry in the book, the youngest of four, mad for wildlife and agog for all other kinds of life as well – and the book makes that abundantly clear. ‘It was intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family in the first few pages.’ The family, riotous, bohemian, noisy, excessive, included Larry, or Lawrence Durrell, who later wrote The Alexandria Quartet – though I believe that My Family is a more important and ultimately a more serious work.
I first read it as a boy and I lived it and loved it like a boy. I was Gerry among the rock-pools, Gerry climbing the swaying branches, Gerry lost in the wonders of the wild world, Gerry forever out of step with his own family – isolated by age and his unshared passion for the wild world – but Gerry enviably certain of perpetual love and support. I was also, though I didn’t realize this at the time, Gerry discovering what life is all about and what really matters. That is to say, wildlife and family. The book adroitly balances these two things as if there were immense tensions between them, shifting from one subject to the other effortlessly, and with such skill that with each shift you are both satisfied and left wanting more. But at base the two subjects are united – in the title, in Gerry’s love, and above all in that both are indispensable ingredients of paradise: ‘“Chairete,” he called in his deep voice, the beautiful Greek greeting, “Chairete, kyrioi . . . be happy” . . . How could one be anything else in such a season?’ These two great subjects of wildlife and family life are brought together against the backdrop of the island of Corfu and the people who live there. Descriptions of landscape are notoriously skippable things, especially in a fattish book, but not here. I remember the mixture of awe and fellow-feeling when Durrell sees Corfu for the first time and the sea ‘turned the smooth enamelled blue of a jay’s eye’. I realized at once that this wasn’t a book at all, in the normal sense of the term: it was a letter addressed to me personally, written with a deep, intimate knowledge of the sort of person I was and the sort of things I liked. I don’t think this is a unique experience, either. It’s that kind of book.
It reads like a book of innocence, innocence of a rather knowing kind. Gerry is discovering the great wild world, but not without a little background knowledge. He is also discovering the great grown-up world and is allowed to share it far more than is usual for a child. He is extraordinarily privileged, then: privileged to have the wild world quite literally on his doorstep, and privileged to live in a family that allows him so many liberties. He is a child among grown-ups but never left out and never lonely; he is a child free to go where he pleases in the wild world and is always at home there. His readers are invited to share this double privilege and that is what makes the book so peculiarly intoxicating.
It reads like a great outpouring of love, flowing like a pellmell mountain stream, unstoppable, ungovernable, random, untamed and utterly spontaneous. It doesn’t read as if it had been written by a writer at all: it’s as if it sprang fully formed from the mind of a rather knowing child, as if Durrell the author had taken dictation from Gerry the child. And while something of that is the case, it is by no means the whole story. My Family and Other Animals, published in 1956, is the work of a very fine writer at the very peak of his powers. This was Durrell’s sixth book; he was an established bestselling author who really knew his craft. The book is constructed with immense and conscious skill, with a complex double chronology few writers could bring off. The passage from one villa to the next punctuates the five-year time-span of the family’s stay on Corfu, while the movement of the seasons of a single year gives the loose aggregation of incidents a natural rhythm that unites the book from front to back.
This was never intended as a literal account of the events of the Durrell family on Corfu. The material is arranged for literary convenience in the way that an architectural painter will make judicious omissions and alterations to what he sees in front of him. This is not cheating, for literalness can obscure meaning. Rather, this is a careful rearrangement that reveals a greater truth than mere facts. For example, brother Larry’s wife Nancy is written out of the book. She and Larry mostly had their own establishment on Corfu, but for literary purposes Larry is single again and back with the family. The book is full of additions, subtractions, reimaginings, exaggerations; in the two later Corfu books, Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods – pleasant reading, very pleasant, but not the masterpiece we have here – these become quite shameless.
Durrell had been talking and more importantly thinking about the book for years before he wrote it. He finally sat down to do so in the knowledge that this was the best material he would ever have and he would never be in better shape to write it. He did so mostly in a frenzied six-week period in Bournemouth in a room in the boarding-house run by his sister Margaret, Margo in the book. The book was meticulously planned, and each character had his character-notes. (‘Larry: unctuous, posey, humorous. Mother: vague, harassed.’) There was nothing flukey about My Family. Its spontaneity is the result of conscious craft. It was written by an accomplished author writing in the sure and certain knowledge that in more than one sense he was writing the book of his life.
Durrell often found writing a bit of chore: a necessary task that helped with what he saw as far more important work: making wildlife collecting expeditions and, subsequently, running the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (now the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust) which uses the zoo he established on Jersey as a base for all kinds of practical conservation. My Family was the great exception: it was a book he wrote with joy. You don’t need to read Douglas Botting’s excellent biography (called simply Gerald Durrell: The Authorized Biography) to know that. My Family and Other Animals is about learning, and so it is also about teachers. There are the false teachers, the tutors who seek to force formal education on a boy who would far sooner be out in the olive groves looking for caterpillars. But there are also the real teachers. The most obvious is Theo, Corfiot, doctor and naturalist, who shows Gerry how to organize his wild enthusiasm into a coherent understanding of the wild world. Gerry’s mother is herself an education in tolerance, indulgence and love. The third great tutor exists only in hints: Larry, the great writer – in real life his brother’s constant encourager – shows him that writing is something that matters, and something that can be attacked by those with the will to do so.
When you read the book in maturity – and it is a book to be read again and again, and then read to your children – you naturally find new things. Behind the robust family parties, the glorious swathes of wild landscape and the wild creatures who live in it and invade the family home, you find a book about fragility. Two different sorts of fragility, in fact. The first is childhood: all childhoods, however glorious, must end: childhood happiness is by definition doomed. The second is the fragility of the wild world. Neither of these is much touched on – it’s as if both could go on forever – but both are there in the book’s heart. The fragility of the wild world is something we all live with these days. This was something Durrell understood long before most people, and he dedicated his life to the protection of the wild world: ‘People think I’m trying to look after fluffy animals,’ he once said. ‘I’m actually trying to stop the human race from committing suicide.’ This great issue was to bring Durrell to despair and breakdown, later to recovery and renewal in his second marriage. Durrell was a great writer, but he would hate to be remembered as such. He was also a great conservationist, and his sense of mission drove everything he did. In his view, his writing was good insofar as it helped conservation: by spreading his ideas and by telling the world about the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. He often wrote in strong and campaigning terms about the state of the world and he did as much to spread the notion that wildlife conservation matters as any one who ever drew breath.
But one of his greatest contributions to the conservation movement is My Family and Other Animals. It is not about conservation save by implication: what it does is to tell us – vividly and unforgettably and joyously – that the world and the people who live in it are infinitely richer for the wild places and the wild creatures we share it with. The wild world completes us, makes us whole, and brings us joy. The wild world is – or should be – what truly completes the family circle.
This preface to My Family & Other Animals also appears in Slightly Foxed Issue 44, Winter 2014 © Simon Barnes