Gerald Durrell’s Corfu childhood Ark, with far more than two by two
I first read this, Volume 1 of Durrell’s Corfu Childhood books, when I was probably around the same age as the period of his life he is describing. The book absolutely resonated with me, with its love of landscape. Durrell rather ascribes almost a sentience, not only towards the ‘other animals’ which this book is largely about, but to the very mountains, vegetation, winds, waves, sunlight and rain. This was very much my own view of the natural world, so reading Durrell, as a child, was a kind of coming home to how I felt about ‘nature’
However……..at the time I read this, Durrell’s sensibilities gave me clear indication that I was, after all, not going to be cut out to be a naturalist myself. Although a clear lover of the wild, unconfined, natural world, and of the animal kingdom, he quickly made me realise that I was a definitely restricted speciesist – plants were wonderful, but my real love was for the warm-blooded furred and feathered creatures. Durrell delights in all of it, the slithering, the buzzing, the finny, the scaled, and anything which scuttles on somewhere between 6, 8 and a multiplicity of uncountable legs.
I had utterly forgotten (carefully buried the memory) from whence my shrieking horror of a species I have never met, in the flesh, came from:
Up on the hills among the dark cypress and the heather shoals of butterflies danced and twisted like wind-blown confetti, pausing now and then on a leaf to lay a salvo of eggs. The grasshoppers and locusts whirred like clockwork under my feet, and flew drunkenly across the heather, their leaves shining in the sun. Among the myrtles the mantids moved, lightly, carefully, swaying slightly, the quintessence of evil. They were lank and green, with chinless faces and monstrous globular eyes, frosty gold, with an expression of intense, predatory madness in them. The crooked arms, with their fringes of sharp teeth, would be raised in mock supplication to the insect world, so humble, so fervent, trembling slightly when a butterfly flew too close
It is (I hope) clear what a wonderfully observant, carefully crafting writing Durrell is, as well as, of course, ditto, a naturalist. He regarded his older brother, Laurence, as the writer of the family, and only began his own (highly successful) books about his idyllic, (in his eyes, as a young naturalist) eccentric, anarchic time on Corfu, and his later books about his zoological expeditions around the world as an adult, in order to make money to finance them, and his own zoo.
That quoted paragraph shows also a rather assured and filmic, dramatic sense. He surely knows how to craft a scene, to build narrative, climax, change of pace and mood. I was lulled into a deceptively tranquil, dreamy, Edenic scene, with those wafts of butterflies, before the scene darkens, and the reader can almost feel a tension rising mood music, ratcheted up to the insecty equivalent of that shower scene in Psycho!
Durrell is a wonderful writer. Here there is a mixture of no doubt absolutely precise observation of the natural world and a certain amount of writerly shaping to emphasise the entertaining aspect provided by his strongly defined, individual, family members: remarkably tolerant Mother, the almost comically artistic/intellectual elder brother Larry, with his equally Bohemian ‘set’ paying visits to what Larry was offering as open house artistic colony with sunshine, vino, and food on tap. Gerry’s other brother Leslie, the practical one, happily tinkering with building boats, cleaning guns, and shooting the wildlife, and sister Margo, defined as romantic and a bit of a magnet for local and visiting swains. There are various brilliantly structured set pieces around Gerry and a succession of arriving and departing tutors, vainly trying to find ways to teach the budding naturalist the basics of an academic syllabus, spicing the dull stuff, ‘If it takes x number of men x hours to dig a trench’ with inserts culled from the natural world – forget men and trenches, substitute tortoises looking to safely lay their eggs.
Best of all is an extended dramatic French farce sketch, involving snakes and renegade birds discovered in unlikely places, during a huge all day party, for family, visiting friends and locals. This had me snorting, chuckling and guffawing in an otherwise silent tube carriage. Irrepressibly joyous writing.
Tea would arrive, the cakes squatting on cushions of cream, toast in a melting shawl of butter, cups agleam, and a faint wisp of steam rising from the teapot spout
This book, and its sequels, was turned into a successful TV mini-series in the late 80s. One I felt unable to watch. The power of Durrell’s writing creating those images of mantid malevolence meant I was scared in case they featured in the natural history bits! There was also a later adaptation of the book.
There is such joy, such delight, such warmth in the writing, and, like the family, falling under the spell of the landscape, the reader falls in love with Durrell’s gloriously unclichéd, visceral evocation
Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen. Each day had a tranquillity, 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
I also knew that Durrell’s later life had had certain struggles (as life tends to have) so I re-read this with a sense of poignancy. There is such effervescence, joy and love in this recounting of a childhood. Maybe a certain amount of rose-coloured spectacles and maybe that childhood was not always as idyllic as set out here, though there is no doubt in the solace and excitement the young Gerry found in his ‘other animals’