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2008 Reading Challenge – August’s late entry

I didn’t read a classic book for 2008 reading challenge in August because I volunteered for a group read of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun. I had a book picked out, but just didn’t get around to starting it. But now I’ve read it.

The book was My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell.

I’m a big fan of Lawrence Durrell’s writing (see here), but I’ve never read anything by his brother Gerald. This is not so surprising – Gerald Durrell is a naturalist, and that’s a topic which has never interested me. But. My Family and Other Animals is generally considered a classic, and is even included in the Essential Penguins series.

After one too many miserable summers in the UK, the Durrell family – Larry, Leslie, Margo, Gerry, Mother and dog, Roger – decamp for sunnier shores. On the advice of a writer friend of Larry’s, they settle on the island of Corfu. My Family and Other Animals chiefly details ten-year-old Gerry’s explorations of the island and its fauna, but many family incidents are also recounted. When Larry freely offers invites to his friends and acquantainces, and several decide to accept, the family moves to another villa, large enough to accommodate guests. When Great Aunt Hermione declares an intention to visit, the family moves to a smaller villa in order not to have to put her up. In between, we have descriptions of the island, the insects and animals Gerry collects, and the people he meets.

The first thing to note about this book is that it’s funny. Durrell has an eye for idiosyncracies, and a nice turn of phrase when describing them; although he does have a tendency to characterise people as grotesques rather than as realistic people. The same is true of his family – there’s something a bit clichéd about them all: Larry, the sarcastic older brother; Leslie, monomaniacal about guns and hunting; Margo, the sister who mangles proverbs and aphorisms; Mother is harried, somewhat absent-minded, and very forgiving. But it’s these characterisations which lead into the humourous episodes, so it seems a bit churlish to complain.

One of the reasons I picked My Family and Other Animals was because it features Lawrence Durrell (I’ve yet to read Ian McNiven’s giant biography). Admittedly, Larry doesn’t come across too well in the book. In fact, he seems a bit of a self-important prat. He has a bad habit of insisting that other’s achievements are hardly remarkable as they’re no more than the result of applying intelligence and sense. So when Leslie tells how he shot two doves with a “left-and-right”, and Larry claims anyone could have done the same, he is argued into proving it. With entirely expected comic results.

However, there are things which are not so good about My Family and Other Animals. It was first published in 1956, but actually describes the years 1935 to 1939. Some of the attitudes and sensibilites seem odd, if not offensive, to a modern reader, although they were common at the time. There is, for example, a blithe casualness to disturbing wild animals in their habitat which is no longer acceptable. Having said that, Durrell’s treatment of the people he meets is never less than affectionate.

Also, Durrell’s prose is a bit like a child’s birthday cake – he has a tendency to over-ornament. He’s at his best when he keeps it simple – and that’s usually when he’s describing a family incident. Some of the writing about flora and fauna is so over-laden with colourful adjectives, it slows the narrative to a stumble. Again, the book is over fifty years old, and tastes change.

Of the eight books I’ve read to date for this year’s reading challenge, My Family and Other Animals is certainly one of the better ones. Perhaps Anthony Powell’s A Question of Upbringing was a better book, but I did enjoy My Family and Other Animals. I don’t expect to read more of Gerald Durrell’s books, however. I think I’ll stick to Lawrence Durrell.

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