A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This is an exhaustively researched biography of the Durrell family (Gerry, Larry, Margot, Leslie and Mother, for those who know them from Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals). It’s also a useful history of how the Durrells reached Corfu, and why. Haag’s project was to synthesise a digestible account of the story behind My Family. He quotes vast amounts from other people’s writing, and apologises, a little disingenuously, for not giving adequate sources.
So many stories in this book fill out Gerald Durrell’s fantasy retelling in My Family and its sequels, but the family does seem to be of the same character: relaxed and insouciant, and happily settled in a location where they could really work on developing their eccentricities. Corfu’s welcoming and generous citizens give them the scope to settle into becoming imaginary, literary beings.
Haag manages to uncover some irritating facts. Gerald, for example, removed Larry’s wife Nancy completely from My Family, thus giving himself the space to embroider Larry’s love life (his eccentricity didn’t need much help). Margot, depicted by her younger brother as an airhead, was nothing of the sort, and Mother had simmering psychiatric problems. All the other women of their island lives were airbrushed out, or only kept in to be ridiculed. Gerry was not, and could never have been, a feminist, and Larry wasn’t much better. Women were dispensable for the Durrell men, and, interestingly, they tended to be left by women, due to their self-absorption and obliviousness.
On the other hand, one warms to the Durrells’ attitude of social inclusiveness, when we read the extraordinarily disapproving account by a local Anglo aristocrat who objected to the their lack of class position, or any other discernible status (they were Anglo-Indians of no particular account). Their neighbourly freedom with the Corfiotes they lived amongst was also a problem, since the aristocrat considered, crossly, that this encouraged the peasants to forget their place. Leslie – who seems to have been as stupid in real life as he was in My Family – took up with a Greek girl so often that the Durrells had to send her to England when her family decided to kill her to save their honour. She later had Leslie’s son, but he barely acknowledged her or the boy, and she lived the rest of her lonely life in exile. That’s a colonial arrogance that eccentricity can never excuse.
Michael Haag, The Durrells of Corfu (2017, Profile Books), ISBN 978-1785173721, £8.99
As an irritating elder sister Kate read her brother’s Christmas present copy of My Family and Other Animals before he got to it, and was sent out of the room for laughing so much. She has never recovered, and her younger daughter now has the same habit.