“The Magic of the Island”: Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals

durrell

Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquility, a timelessness about it, so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us, glossy and colourful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.

Last night my book club met for our holiday potluck and a discussion of Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals — which we all agreed had been a great choice to cheer us up at the end of what has been, for all of us, a pretty challenging year. Reading it in between our other obligations and distractions had been, as someone said, like slipping away on vacation, just for a while, to a place full of sunshine and laughter and, of course, amazing (if often disconcertingly anthropomorphized) animals.

What is it exactly about My Famly and Other Animals that makes it so delightful? When I mentioned I was reading it, a number of my friends responded enthusiastically that it had been one of their favorite books as children, which at first I found a bit puzzling: I’m not sure that as a child I would have enjoyed it, with its long descriptive passages and its anecdotal shapelessness. Reading it now, though, I loved Durrell’s word paintings:

The moon rose above the mountains, turned the lilies to silver except where the flickering flames illuminated them with a flush of pink. The tiny ripples sped over the moonlit sea and breathed with relief as they reached the shore at last. Owls started to chime in the trees, and in the gloomy shadows fireflies gleamed as they flew, their jade-green, misty lights pulsing on and off.

durrell2Lovely as Durrell’s scenery is, he’s at his best (as you’d expect) with animals:

The inhabitants of the wall were a mixed lot, and they were divided into day and night workers, the hunters and the hunted. At night the hunters were the toads that lived among the brambles, and the geckos, pale, translucent with bulging eyes, that lived in the cracks higher up the wall. Their prey was the population of stupid, absent-minded crane-flies that zoomed and barged their ways among the leaves; moths of all shapes and sizes, moths striped, tessellated, checked, spotted and blotched, that fluttered in soft clouds along the withered plaster; the beetles, rotund and neatly clad as business men, hurrying with portly efficiency about their night’s work. When the last glow-worm had dragged his frosty emerald lantern to bed over the hills of moss, and the sun rose, the wall was taken over by the next set of inhabitants. Here it was more difficult to differentiate between the prey and the predators, for everything seemed to feed indiscriminately off everything else. Thus the hunting wasps searched out caterpillars and spiders; the spiders hunted for flies; the dragon-flies, big, brittle, and hunting-pink, fed off the spiders and the flies; and the swift, light and multi-coloured wall lizards fed off everything else.

Maybe the appeal lies in the imaginative way he brings these communities to life, giving the players so much character and purpose: there is something childlike about that blurring of lines between “us” and “them,” so that (as the title of the memoir declares), people and animals are all part of the same vibrant landscape, humming and buzzing and barking and talking. There’s no sense in the book of adult Gerald watching or judging or second-guessing his younger self, but instead he seems to have done his best just to recapture the wide-eyed curiosity and patient attention of a boy set free on an enchanted island to follow his bliss.

durrell3Perhaps, then, the child’s point of view (though of course the sophistication of the writing subtly belies it) is one reason children have loved this book. Another would be its humor: when things do happen, they are usually very funny. There’s some high drama, as well: the epic battle, for example, between the gecko Geronimo and the giant mantid Cicely:

His speed and weight told, for he crashed into the mantis and made her reel, and grabbed the underside of her thorax in his jaws. Cicely retaliated by snapping both her front legs shut on Geronimo’s hind legs. They rustled and staggered across the ceiling and down the wall, each seeking to gain some advantage. Then there was a pause while the contestants had a rest and prepared for the second round, without either losing their grips.

“I wondered,” Gerald comments, “whether I ought to interfere; I did not want either of them to get killed, but at the same time the fight was so intriguing that I was loath to separate them.” This detachment surprised us a bit: of course in some ways it is the necessary attitude of the scientist, watching but not intervening, but at the same time Gerald takes all of his animals very personally and often seems more interested in their well-being than in his family’s.

We were also surprised that, at the end, Gerald took his collection of animal friends with him back to England — we had all expected he would set them free. One of the group said that this brought home to her one way in which the memoir seemed somewhat dated: she thought there was something colonial in the Durrells’ expedition, heading off to a foreign country to observe it curiously and then collect what they wanted to take back with them. I can see her point, but the book didn’t strike me that way, mostly because the curiosity and interference is quite reciprocal between the Durrells and the Greek residents of Corfu (their guide and mentor Spiros, for instance, who adopts and manages them at least as decisively as they take any part of the island as their own). Here again, I think the book’s point of view may be the real issue: we can’t help but put this “English abroad” story into the context of British colonialism, but it never occurs to (young) Gerald, and why would it?

We wondered more about the absence of any shadows of impending war: though the reason he gives for their return to England is the need for him to go to school, apparently the real reason was the outbreak of war, and it’s unusual to read a retrospective narrative about the 1930s that doesn’t include even the faintest hint of what is to come. Is this, too, part of a determination the book will be bathed in childlike innocence — and is that resolution one of the reasons it reads like such a lovely escape from reality? It would certainly be a very different book if it let history or politics, or even adulthood, play a larger role. As it is, it has a combination of buoyancy and beauty that we all found irresistible.

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4 Responses to “The Magic of the Island”: Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Your review certainly captures what I have loved about this book. It is, no doubt, a work of its time (as are Durrell’s animal collecting memoirs from his adult career)–the original copyright is 1956–but “buoyancy and beauty” are perfect adjectives for its childlike point of view. The recent TV adaptation made it from the stressed mother’s POV, mostly worrying about money, the eccentric children’s welfare, and whether she would find love again. It was a very different story, though the scenery was lovely.

    • Rohan says:

      I gather the TV show combined a few books into one. It definitely had a less bucolic air to it! I did enjoy it, though — not least for the scenery, as you say.

  2. Liz Mc2 says:

    A childhood favorite of mine! I bought a copy for my own children, neither of whom ever showed interest in it (the fate of so many of the childhood favorites I hoped to share). But that meant I could dig it out and start reading it this week when you mentioned it on Twitter, and I’m also finding it a good way to close out a long, hard year. I think I loved it for the animal “characters.” Some of the jokes went over my head (I could never figure out the joke about Boodle Bumtrinket the boat; I guess you needed to be a British child for that). Some bits show their age, but I am still enjoying it very much, so thanks for that!

    • Rohan says:

      It does have a somewhat quaint air, which I suppose is connected to the child’s point of view. We too thought it seemed dated, though it was hard to explain quite why: was it the air of innocence?

      The mother’s bathing costume was one of my favorite funny bits.

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