Friday, September 24, 2010

Marrying Off Mother and Other Stories by Gerald Durrell

Rating: 3 Stars

The British are famous for one kind of humor, but then there is also another, which is somewhat …less dry. Gerald Durrell’s boisterous stories are each one a rollicking madcap farce. His delight in the absurd will not be new to readers who are acquainted with his memoirs of his early years in Corfu, and his wildly unconventional and ever entertaining family.

This book, Marrying Off Mother, is (mostly) a collection of humorous stories detailing his travels, peopled by a host of oddball characters parading a dazzling array of eccentricities. Durrell’s richly colorful language invokes images dripping with vividness. Here’s his description of ‘Miz’ Magnolia –

“…like a thread of smoke clad in chiffon and scent, tinkling with jewels, fragile as a will-o’-the-wisp, blue eyes big as saucers, the delicate skin of her throat hanging down like victory banners of her successful survival.”

            Whether he’s trying to understand the intricate social order of the American South, or attempting to find the wellsprings of mirth in his earnest young German friend, Durrell’s sense of humor is always revelatory of a robust exultation in the quirks of humans, not to mention animals. His description of the truffle-hunting porker, Esmeralda, has a tenderness and detail that an Art Historian might reserve for a Renaissance Madonna.

            Like many other humorists, there is an undercurrent of tragedy in his work too. There are certainly some examples of those here; and then, there is the macabre “The Jury”, that’s startlingly reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe.

            ‘Fact’ is a thorny issue when it comes to memoirs. There are some stories here that seem to lack first person authenticity, and some that are decidedly suspect. Could they all possibly be true? The author makes a charming disclaimer about that at the beginning of the book. After all, lying is one thing, but creatively fictionalizing the truth? Well, that’s the art of writing.

            One disadvantage that a humorist faces is that our idea of ‘funny’ changes with time. While Gerald Durrell might find feather-brained females amusing, today’s readers might be able to relate to it on the same level as Marilyn Monroe’s dumb blonde act - it’s dated. There are other wince-worthy moments too - perhaps in some distant era, one could have looked at the enabling of alcoholics, and the antics of pedophile priests with an indulgent eye. Now, we’re merely embarrassed for the writer.

            Comics are hardly ever politically correct, but in one way, Gerald Durrell was way ahead of his times. All his life, he was an animal lover; and most of his adult life, he was a zoologist and conservationist, championing the rights of “the great voteless and voiceless majority”. Much of the profits from his books went towards supporting his cause – the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

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