For Christmas one year (back before the dawn of time when I was in college), my mother gave me a boxed set of “The Alexandria Quartet” by Lawrence Durrell. I was crazy about these four books, so full of lush description, intrigue and words I had to look up. Little did I know that, eons later, I would encounter Lawrence, along with his eccentric family, in the PBS Masterpiece Theater series, “The Durrells in Corfu,” or that this second meeting would lead me to another set of books written by Lawrence’s youngest brother, Gerald. Talk about serendipity!
Gerald, or “Gerry” as he was called, was only 10 years old when he arrived on the little Greek island of Corfu with his widowed mother, three nutsy siblings and their dog. His fascination with the fauna and flora he discovered during the four years he spent there would result in a career as a reknowned naturalist and conservationist. Lucky for us, he also would follow in his brother’s footsteps and become a writer. Gerry’s three memoirs are collected under the title “The Corfu Trilogy” and the first book, “My Family and Other Animals,” was later adapted to become the basis for the first season of “The Durrells in Corfu.”
Gerry and his eldest brother must have swum in the deep end of the Durrellian gene pool since the middle children, Leslie and Margo, are portrayed as loveable dim bulbs. Gerry, however, turned out to be as much of a wordsmith as his big bro, able to evoke, in a strikingly similar style, images of the natural world he adored, telling portraits of the people he met and the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures of Corfu. As if this were not enough, Gerry is screamingly funny. He made me chuckle, giggle and laugh out loud. Even more amazing to me was that Gerry, although writing as an adult looking back on this time, could recapture the sense of wonder, freedom and joyous curiosity of his childhood.
Because the author was blessed with a wonderful imagination, great treats are in store for his readers. One that stands out is Gerry’s musing on what a trapdoor spider might hear as she lies in wait for her prey behind her cleverly constructed door. He imagines that “a centipede would sound like a troop of cavalry. A fly would patter in brief spurts, followed by a pause while it washed its hands – a dull rasping sound like a knife grinder at work. The larger beetles, I decided, would sound like steam-rollers, while the smaller ones…would probably purr over the moss like clockwork motor cars.”
The humans who become part of his life also are lovingly painted. Spiro, their self-appointed taxi driver, guide and intermediary, quickly becomes an invaluable friend and protector. His comical English, acquired during a long-ago visit to Chicago, is rendered so believably that we can almost hear him speaking. As Gerry describes him, Spiro was also their protector. “Like a great, brown, ugly angel, he watched over us as tenderly as though we were slightly weak-minded children. Mother, he frankly adored….” And it’s a good thing somebody does, since the kids treat her with disdain, the older boys especially claiming she has never done anything for them and that, as Leslie says, “She’s really not much good as a mother….” Why they’re so dismissive of her is hard to figure out. Despite being broke most of the time, she manages to feed and house them, treat them with kindness and diplomacy, and give them the freedom to get on with the business of growing up. Gerry, at least, must have appreciated and loved her since he dedicated “My Family and Other Animals” to her.
Just as he captures the essence of his characters, Gerry also renders Corfu with a painter’s eye. Admittedly, his description is often overly rich and, to avoid a case of verbal indigestion, I had to ration my reading to a chapter at a time. Fortunately, the book is episodic in nature, so I could even dip into it at random without feeling I’d missed some important plot line. Still, taken in smallish doses, Gerry’s painterly images made me feel as if I were experiencing first-hand the beauty of Corfu and the waters that surround it. From the deck of the ship that brings them to the island, Gerry watches as “the sea lifted smooth blue muscles of wave…” and “the sky turned the…enameled blue of a jay’s eye.” Later, he talks about the seasons changing and spring coming to the island, saying, “It was no half-hearted spring, this: the whole island vibrated with it as though a great, ringing chord had been struck.”
There’s so much more I’d love to quote, but I’m going to avoid the temptation to provide you with verbatim descriptions of the family’s hilariously chaotic arrival on Corfu, when Roger (their dog) has to be restrained from attacking hordes of furious island canines, or of Mrs. Durrell’s monstrosity of a bathing suit, to name just two of the many scenes that made me cackle. I’ll leave you to experience these pleasures for yourself.
Having finished only the first of the three books that make up “The Corfu Trilogy,” I’m looking forward to reading the others. After a year that often seemed filled with bleak news, isn’t it nice to know we can start the new year curled up with some feel-good books that will warm our hearts and raise our spirits? Here’s hoping your New Year will be happy, peaceful and filled with joy.
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