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[personal profile] mtvessel
May 2007
The Corfu Trilogy - Gerald Durrell - Penguin, 2006
* * * * *
Everyone, I think, has their personal paradise, the landscape that they see in their mind’s eye when they imagine somewhere where they might be perfectly happy. For some it may be the rolling English countryside, a tropical palm-fringed beach, the buzzing metropolis of New York or the peaks of the Himalayas (for my friend Hugo, who has a snowman in his ancestry, it’s probably the Arctic). My personal paradise is Greece and in particular the Greek islands, and I think it is Gerald Durrell who is largely responsible for imprinting this landscape on my imagination. I read Birds, Beasts and Relatives, the middle volume of his Corfu trilogy, at a very tender age, and was so taken with its depiction of his idyllic naturalist’s childhood and hilariously eccentric family that I re-read it over and over again. In fact I think it’s the book that I have re-read the most. It was some years later that I got round to its more famous predecessor, My Family and Other Animals, which perversely I didn’t like as much.

Re-reading books we enjoyed in our early years can be an exercise fraught with peril. As Terry Pratchett has remarked: “At 17, if you don't think The Lord of the Rings is the greatest contribution to literature, there's something wrong with your head (...) If you still think that at 50, there's definitely something wrong with your head.” I therefore approached the task with some trepidation. Would the written-out hesitations in Theodore’s dialogue now be annoying rather than endearing? Would Durrell’s affectionate but satirical depictions of his relatives now seem crass or puerile? Would the third book, The Garden of the Gods, which I hadn’t read before, prove to be an inferior sequel that took the shine off its predecessors? Would, in short, my personal paradise be destroyed? The answer, I am pleased to report, is no. These books are classics and transcend the law of diminishing re-read returns.

That said, they are not entirely as I remember them. All the scenes which stick in my mind and which I could have sworn were in Birds, Beasts and Relatives, like the episode where Margo kisses the feet of a mummified saint in an attempt to cure her acne and gets ‘flu, or the story Theodore tells about the heroine of Tosca and the bouncy mattresses, turn out to be from My Family and Other Animals. Therefore I have to concede, reluctantly, that it is probably the better book as regards characterisation. Though I’m not sure that Durrell’s family would agree (and, if the hilarious prologue to Birds, Beasts and Relatives is a reliable indicator of their feelings, they definitely didn’t). The family members are all brilliant fictional creations, but you get no sense of their interior worlds. There has to have been more to Leslie than an obsession with guns and I can’t believe that Margo was the aimless body-obsessed layabout that she is depicted as being. And Larry must be spinning in his grave at the fact that he is probably better known as the louche, loquacious, witty and annoying character in Gerald’s books than as the author of the Alexandria Quartet. At least Durrell does not exclude his ten-year-old self from the mockery, presenting the narrator as just as thoughtless and careless of the feelings of others as the rest of the family. I do however recommend the low psychological cunning he displays in manipulating his relatives into doing what he wants as an object lesson to all ten year olds. I certainly learned a lot about family-wrangling from him.

By comparison, Birds, Beasts and Relatives is a quieter book with fewer good stories about the family but better depictions of Corfu and its wildlife. Durrell has been accused of anthropomorphism in his descriptions of animal behaviour and certainly there is no David Attenborough-like scientific detachment, but the loss of objectivity is more than compensated for by the powerfully evocative scene-painting. Take this paragraph, picked at random:

“In the cool olive shade the tiny ants, black and shiny as caviare, would be foraging for our left-overs among last year’s discarded olive leaves that the past summer’s sun had dried and coloured a nut-brown and banana-yellow. They lay there as curled and as crisp as brandy-snaps. On the hillside behind us a herd of goats passed, the leader’s bell clonking mournfully. We could hear the tearing sounds of their jaws as they ate, indiscriminately, any foliage that came within their reach. The leader paced up to us and gazed for a minute with baleful, yellow eyes, snorting clouds of thyme-laden breath at us.” (p 394)

If that hasn’t sent you into a Mediterranean reverie, then you’re a better man than I am, Gungadin.

Stylistically, The Garden of the Gods is somewhere between the previous two books, with each chapter balanced between naturalistic descriptions and family stories. It has what for me is the funniest story of the entire trilogy (the one with the owlets and the visit by Mrs Vadrudakis the animal lover), which illustrates Durrell’s other great strength as a plotter of farce, with the elements introduced earlier in the chapter leading inexorably to the hysterical final scene. The description of the party in My Family And Other Animals is another example.

I have no intention of ever visiting Corfu; like so many other Greek islands, its tranquillity and beauty have probably been destroyed by tourism. However the Corfu of my imagination, as described in these splendid books, is somewhere to which I will return again and again. If I am lucky, perhaps I will die there.

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