Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Rating: 4 Stars

Book Club November 2011 Pick

The literary universe offers endless possibilities for those of us with a critical bent of mind; predisposed to entertain ourselves with the analysis, assessment, and evaluation of books. There are however times when we have to admit defeat. There are some books that we have read too often, loved too well, and enjoyed too much to the extent that our perspective is hopelessly compromised. Those are the times when we shut the door on that opinionated little inner voice, and surrender ourselves to the enchantment of being transported to another world, where plot conventions have no more meaning than stylistic devices. Thank God for those occasions, and how I wish there were more of them.
Published in 1956, ‘My Family and Other Animals’ is an affectionate chronicle of the adolescent years that Durrell spent on the Greek island of Corfu with his eccentric and always entertaining family. The venturesome Durrells emigrate to Greece in the 1930’s in search of some balmy weather, and literary inspiration. The move is instigated by Larry, the eldest in the family. Lawrence Durrell (who later gained literary fame with works like his Alexandria quartet) is portrayed as a provocative gadfly of a personality – brilliant, caustic, and witty. Rounding off the rest of the family is the widowed Mrs. Durrell, and Gerald Durrell’s two other siblings – Leslie and Margo. Each character is endowed with their own peculiarities that are depicted with great relish. Fans of Gerald Durrell’s style of humor will savor this unconventional family’s quirks, and their assortment of equally colorful friends.
“…It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made a grave mistake by introducing my family into the book in the first few chapters…by exercising considerable cunning…I managed to retain a few pages here and there which I could devote exclusively to animals.”
Gerald Durrell went on to become both a popular writer, and a renowned zoologist and conservationist. This book gives us a glimpse into the early propensities that made these dual careers as natural as they were inevitable.
Whether the animals are more or less diverting than the humans populating the narrative is a moot point. What colors the humor of the memoir, and lends it its irrepressible joie de vivre is the appreciation of individuality wherever it is found; and apparently it is found everywhere. What is also found in abundance is that other precious commodity – beauty. When Durrell is not delighting with his exuberant, over-the-top humor, he beguiles with writing that never fails to drown me in its loveliness, no matter how often I read this book. Whether it’s the breathtaking verve in his tale of an encounter between a gecko and a mantis that is recounted as a battle of epic proportions; or, descriptions of sumptuous family picnics and get-togethers, the details are rendered in stunningly exquisite prose.
The memoir, as I’ve said elsewhere in this blog is the most slippery of nonfiction genres. The successful memoirist engages his audience’s interest by playing a wily game of revelation and concealment, as enticing and illusive as any fan dance. This book is no different in that respect. Ultimately, the reasons I love My Family and Other Animals are complicated and deeply personal. Suffice it to say that, every time I lose myself between its covers, I rediscover with a sense of wonder and grateful relief, that what delighted once delights still. The dearest books have this in common with the dearest friends…we outgrow neither.

1 comment:

Sakhi said...

Such a wonderful personal review you have written about the book. Cannot agree with you more! Most thoroughly enjoyed the book. Thanks for suggesting it.