Book//mark – My Family and Other Animals | Gerald Durrell, 1956

 My Family and Other Animals, 1956                                                           Gerald Durrell with a barn owl

“My childhood in Corfu shaped my life. If I had the craft of Merlin, I would give every child the gift of my childhood.”

“Gradually the magic of the island settled over us as gently and clingingly as pollen.”

“Each day had a tranquility a timelessness about it so that you wished it would never end. But then the dark skin of the night would peel off and there would be a fresh day waiting for us glossy and colorful as a child’s transfer and with the same tinge of unreality.”

‘You mean he’s a philatelist?’ said Larry at length.
‘No, no, Master Larrys,’ said Spiro. ‘He’s not one of them. He’s a married man and he’s gots two childrens.”

“He sipped his tea delicately, regarding our awestruck faces with approval.”

“Overflowing with the milk of human kindness, the family had invited everyone they could think of, including people they cordially disliked.”

“Breakfast was, on the whole, a leisurely and silent meal, for no member of the family was very talkative at that hour. By the end of the meal the influence of the coffee, toast, and eggs made itself felt, and we started to revive, to tell each other what we intended to do, why we intended to do it, and then argue earnestly as to whether each had made a wise decision.”

“Oh , Mother, don’t be so old-fashioned,” Margo said impatiently. “After all, you only die once.” This remark was as baffling as it was true, and successfully silenced Mother.

“I do wish you wouldn’t argue with me when I’m knitting.”

“I said I ”liked” being half-educated; you were so much more ”surprised” at everything when you were ignorant.”

“We had never been certain of my mother’s age for the simple reason she could never remember her date of birth; all I can say is she was old enough to have four children. My mother also insists that I explain that she is a widow for, as she so penetratingly observed, you never know what people might think.”

“Then one day I found a fat female scorpion in the wall wearing what at first glance appeared to be a pale fawn fur coat. Closer inspection proved that this strange garment was made up of a mass of tiny babies clinging to the mother’s back. I was enraptured by this family, and I made up my mind to smuggle them into the house and up to my bedroom so that I might keep them and watch them grow up. With infinite care I manoeuvred the mother and family into a matchbox, and then hurried to the villa.

“Now I maintain to this day that the female scorpion meant no harm. She was agitated and a trifle annoyed at being shut up in a matchbox for so long, and so she seized the first opportunity to escape. She hoisted herself out of the box with great rapidity, her babies clinging on desperately, and scuttled on to the back of Larry’s hand. There, not quite certain what to do next, she paused, her sting curved up at the ready. Larry, feeling the movement of her claws, glanced down to see what it was, and from that moment things got increasingly confused.”

“’All we need is a book,’ roared Leslie; ‘don’t panic, hit ’em with a book.”

“Ah, you may sit under them, yes. They cast a good shadow, cold as well-water; but that’s the trouble, they tempt you to sleep. And you must never, for any reason, sleep beneath a cypress.’ He paused, stroked his moustache, waited for me to ask why, and then went on: ‘Why? Why? Because if you did you would be changed when you woke. Yes, the black cypresses, they are dangerous. While you sleep, their roots grow into your brains and steal them, and when you wake up you are mad, head as empty as a whistle.’ I asked whether it was only the cypress that could do that or did it apply to other trees. ‘No, only the cypress,’ said the old man, peering up fiercely at the trees above me as though to see whether they were listening; ‘only the cypress is the thief of intelligence. So be warned, little lord, and don’t sleep here.”

“Theodore had an apparently inexhaustible fund of knowledge about everything, but he imparted this knowledge with a sort of meticulous diffidence that made you feel he was not so much teaching you something new, as reminding you of something which you were already aware of, but which had, for some reason or other, slipped your mind.”

“Shortly afterwards, to our relief, Lugaretzia’s stomach got better, but almost immediately her feet gave out, and she would hobble pitifully round the house, groaning loudly and frequently. Larry said that Mother hadn’t hired a maid, but a ghoul, and suggested buying her a ball and chain. He pointed out that this would at least let us know when she was coming, and allow us time to escpe, for Lugaretzia had developed the habit of creeping up behind one and groaning loudly and unexpectedly in one’s ear.”

“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.”

“The Daffodil-Yellow Villa was enormous, a tall, square Venetian mansion, with faded daffodil-yellow walls, green shutters, and a fox-red roof. It stood on a hill overlooking the sea, surrounded by unkempt olive groves and silent orchards of lemon and orange trees.

The little walled and sunken garden that ran along one side of the house, its wrought-iron gates scabby with rust, had roses, anemones and geraniums sprawling across the weed-grown paths.”

”There were fifteen acres of garden to explore, a vast new paradise sloping down to the shallow, tepid sea.”

“Sometimes the fresh load of guests would turn up before we had got rid of the previous group, and the chaos was indescribable; the house and garden would be dotted with poets, authors, artists, and playwrights arguing, painting, drinking, typing, and composing. Far from being the ordinary, charming people that Larry had promised, they all turned out to be the most extraordinary eccentrics who were so highbrow that they had difficulty in understanding one another.”

“I can’t be expected to produce deathless prose in an atmosphere of gloom and eucalyptus.”

“Look at Aunt Bertha, keeping flocks of imaginary cats… and there’s Great-Uncle Patrick, who wanders about nude and tells complete strangers how he killed whales with a penknife…They’re all bats.”

“The family looked bewildered.”

“There is a pleasure sure
In being mad, which none but madmen know.
Dryden, The Spanish Friar II, i”

“She would seize every opportunity to dive into the bathroom, in a swirl of white towels, and once in there she was as hard to dislodge as a limpet from a rock.”

“Well, they’re queer; but they’re all very old, and so they’re bound to be. But they’re not mental,’ explained Mother; adding candidly, ‘Anyway, not enough to be put away.”

“They were maps that lived, maps that one could study, frown over, and add to; maps, in short, that really meant something.”

“The Magenpies, obviously suspecting Larry of being a dope smuggler, had fought valiantly with the time of bicarbonate of soda, and had scattered its contents along a line of books, so that they looked like a snow-covered mountain range.”

“Well,” said Larry with dignity, “it may give you pleasure to be woken at half-past three in the morning by a pigeon who seems intent on pushing his rectum into your eye…”

“Larry was always full of ideas about things of which he had no experience.”

“At last, after much effort, there came a prolonged belch from the mud and Larry shot to the surface and we hauled him up the bank. He stood there, covered with the black and stinking slush, looking like a chocolate statue that has come in contact with a blast furnace; he appeared to be melting as we watched.”
“It was no half-hearted spring, this: the whole island vibrated with it as though a great, ringing chord had been struck. Everyone and everything heard it and responded.”

“Lying spread-eagled in the silky water, gazing into the sky, only moving my hands and feet slightly to keep afloat, I was looking at the Milky Way stretched like a chiffon scarf across the sky and wondering how many stars it contained. I could hear the voices of the others, laughing and talking on the beach, echoing over the water.”

“Aspirin is so good for roses, brandy for sweet peas, and a squeeze of lemon-juice for the fleshy flowers, like begonias.”

“At the next bend I had a brisk argument with two fat peasant ladies, balancing baskets of fruit on their heads, who were wildly indignant at Widdle. He had crept up on them when they were engrossed in conversation and after sniffing at them had lived up to his name over their skirts and legs. The argument as to whose fault it was kept all of us happily occupied for ten minutes, and was then continued as I walked on down the road, until we were separated by such a distance that we could no longer hear and appreciate each other’s insults.”

“Winter came to the island gently as a rule. The sky was still clear, the sea blue and calm, and the sun warm. But there would be an uncertainty in the air. The gold and scarlet leaves that littered the countryside in great drifts wispered and chuckled among themselves, or took experimental runs from place to place, rolling like coloured hoops among the trees. It was if they were practising something, preparing for something, and they would discuss it excitedly in rustly voices as they crowded round the treetrunks.”

“So I went instead and tasted Taki’s new white wine. Spiridion! what a wine…like the blood of a dragon and smooth as a fish…”

“When the sun sank there was a brief, apple-green twilight which faded and became mauve, and the air cooled and took on the scents of evening. The toads appeared, putty-coloured with strange, map-like blotches of bottle-green on their skins. They hopped furtively among the long grass clumps in the olive-groves, where the crane-flies’ unsteady flight seemed to cover the ground with a drifting curtain of gauze. They sat there blinking, and then would suddenly snap at a passing crane-fly; sitting back. Looking a trifle embarrassed, they stuffed the trailing ends of wing and leg in to their great mouths with the aid of their thumbs. Above them, on the crumbling walls of the sunken garden, the little black scorpions walked solemnly, hand in hand, among the plump mounds of green moss and the groves of tiny toadstools.”

“The sea was smooth, warm and as dark as black velvet, not a ripple disturbing the surface. The distant coastline of Albania was dimly outlined by a faint reddish glow in the sky. Gradually, minute by minute, this faint glow deepened and grew brighter, spreading across the sky. Then suddenly the moon, enormous, wine-red, edged herself over the fretted battlement of mountains, and threw a straight blood-red path across the dark sea. The owls appeared now, drifting from tree to tree as silently as flakes of soot, hooting in astonishment as the moon rose higher and higher, turning to pink, then gold, and finally riding in a nest of stars, like a silver bubble.”

My Family and Other Animals, Gerald Durrell, 1956
Tr. Helma Lapiņa

An autobiographical book by British naturalist Gerald Durrell. It tells of the years that he lived as a child with his siblings and widowed mother on the Greek island of Corfu between 1935 and 1939. It describes the life of the Durrell family in a humorous manner, and explores the fauna of the island. It is the first and most well-known of Durrell’s ‘Corfu trilogy,’ together with Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, 1969 and The Garden of the Gods, 1978.

Alexia Stephanides and Gerald Durrell at the Daffodil Yellow Villa, Corfu, c 1937
(her father Theodore Stephanides, a doctor, a zoologist and walking encyclopedia, became Gerry’s mentor.)
Gerald Durrell and Roger, Corfu, 1930’s                       Margo Durrell with a donkey, Corfu, 1930’s
Spiro Americanos cooks an eel in tomato sauce for Gerry Durrell, Corfu, 1930s
Margaret, Nancy, Lawrence, Gerald and Louisa Durrell at the Daffodil Yellow Villa in Corfu, 1930’s

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