My Family and Other Animals

British Naturalist Gerald Durrell’s Corfu trilogy begins with My Family and Other Animals (1956) and is followed by Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (1969) and The Garden of the Gods (1978). These are books you read entirely for the pleasure of it, but the writing is also insightful in its colorful descriptions of animal behavior and the mind of a budding genius.

It is hard to imagine a more ideal childhood than that of young Gerald, who was set free to roam the hills of the Greek island of Corfu just as his love of Zoology was awakening. His mother tries to supplement his natural education with a series of eccentric tutors. First there is George, an Oxford friend of Gerald’s older brother, who merely:

…ransacked his own library and appeared on the appointed day armed with a most unorthodox selection of tomes. Sombrely and patiently he taught me the rudiments of geography from the maps in the back of an ancient copy of Pears Cyclopædia, English from books that ranged from Wilde to Gibbon, French from a fat and exciting book called Le Petit Larousse, and mathematics from memory.

They also produce “maps that lived, maps that one could study, frown over, and add to; maps, in short, that really meant something.” George learns that, “by seasoning a series of unpalatable facts with a sprig of zoology and a sprinkle of completely irrelevant detail, he could get [Gerald] interested.”

Gerald’s other tutors are less successful educators, but no less eccentric. First, there is the Belgian diplomat who often stops mid-lesson to shoot at the cats around his house. He is followed by an Ornithologist with a house that features a gigantic aviary and his eccentric mother, who can believes that flowers talk and has simple advice for taking care of clippings:

Aspirin is so good for roses. Drachma pieces for the chrysanthemums, aspirin for roses, brandy for sweet peas, and a squeeze of lemon-juice for the fleshy flowers, like begonias.

Durrel’s passion is describing the lives of his animal friends. My favorite is his explanation of tortoise sex:

The wedding night – or rather day – of a tortoise is not exactly inspiring. To begin with, the female performs in a disgracefully coy manner, and becomes heavily skittish in evading her bridegroom’s attentions. She irritates him in this way until he is forced to adopt cave-man tactics, and subdues her maidenly antics with a few short, sharp broadsides. The actual sexual act was the most awkward and fumbling thing I had ever seen. The incredibly heavy-handed and inexpert way the male would attempt to hoist himself onto the female’s shell, slipping and slithering, clawing desperately for a foothold on the shiny shields, overbalancing and almost overturning, was extremely painful to watch; the urge to go and assist the poor creature was almost overwhelming, and I had the greatest difficulty in restraining myself from interference.

But by far the most delightful parts for the reader are the dialogues between his family and the many friends they acquire. His mother is an Englishwoman doing her best to keep some semblance of order in an earthly paradise without rules. His sister Margo is always looking for love and imperfect aphorisms. And his two brothers represent the spectrum of intellect: Leslie the non-nonsense hunter obsessed with guns and Larry, the pompous writer who can’t stand “the way this family carries on over animals; all this anthropomorphic slush that’s drooled out as an excuse.”

Great irony there, since Lawrence Durrell wrote some of the worst anthropomorphisms in the English language, and was celebrated for it.