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Growing up in America, my only association with the Durrell family involved Lawrence and a beautiful set of The Alexandria Quartet on my parents’ bookshelves. In the 1960s, when my family moved in moderately intellectual Boston circles, I spent a bookish childhood nosing into novels I couldn’t possibly understand.
I picked up Justine when I was 12, about the time the Anouk Aimée/Dirk Bogarde film came out. Book and film both promised sexual enchantment, risque pleasures, the sultry mysteries of Cairo. So I dived in, expecting enlightenment, titillation, adult pleasures – all of which failed to materialise. I remember the frustration of trying to make sense of Durrell’s adult prose. Worse, this sexually progressive (ie, obscene) novel seemed to have no sex scenes in it. I never revisited The Alexandria Quartet, though I am tempted to do so now.
Fast forward to 2008. My daughter is nearly 11, her academic talents scientific and mathematical, her desire to pick up a book limited. So I read to her even though she has begun to feel too old for the ritual.
But now, with sharp sorrow, I realised that the biological clock on our reading time together was running out. So I searched for a book smart and funny enough to eke out a few more months. On my husband’s recommendation, we decided to try My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell – because we both love animal stories (and had recently finished a long, happy spell of James Herriot) and because word on the street was that it was funny.
Funny turned out to be an understatement. The weeks passed in a haze of glorious hilarity. We were lost from the moment the Durrells arrived in Corfu and piled into a horse-drawn cab. Pursued through the streets by 24 howling dogs “in a solid panting wedge”, they spectacularly failed to achieve the dignified, majestic entrance into town they so fervently desired.
“‘Why doesn’t somebody do something?’ asked Larry, raising his voice above the uproar. ‘This is like a scene from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’” A few pages later, the imperious eldest brother accuses their mother of bringing them all up to be selfish. When she protests that she’s done nothing of the sort, Larry sniffs, “Well we didn’t get this selfish without some guidance.”
It was at that moment the penny dropped: Larry (whose voice I interpreted as a painful combination of David Niven and Frankie Howerd) was the future Lawrence, the impenetrable darling of the moderately intellectual Boston set. And thus was his connection with my family sealed. I rejoiced, as if in discovery of a long-lost relation.
The start of a new prime-time TV dramatisation can only be a good thing if it introduces a new generation to this family of talented oddballs, but it will have to work hard to reach the heights of Durrell’s comic masterpiece.
The enduring joy of the book resides in reading about a bohemian family when you have never been part of one yourself (see also Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith). One night I laughed so hard I slipped out of bed, whacking my head on the nightstand, after which I waited for the stars to subside and continued to read. Night after night we shared tales of Quasimodo, the walking pigeon, or Achilles, the tortoise (stumbling off “at top speed” to eat wild strawberries in private), Margo insisting that “a change is as good as a feast” and, funniest of all, the outrageous Larry – comparing his mother’s new bathing costume to “a badly skinned whale” and christening Gerald’s handmade boat the Bootle Bumtrinket.
So while I sincerely wish the TV adaptation well, I do so with one qualification: if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading the book, preferably with a child, please do so first.
• The Durrells is on ITV on Sunday nights at 8pm. To order My Family and Other Animals for £6.39 (RRP £7.99) go to bookshop.hafta-ichi.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: If you haven’t read My Family and Other Animals, do so – preferably with a child | Children and teenagers