Reading and re-reading

My family and other animals

Some people can only read a book once, because – they say- they know what’s going to happen. There are some books I would never read again. There are some that I can’t even finish; in fact, I find the measure of a good book is how long it takes me to stop reading and look at the last few pages.

But there are also those that I read again and again. I leave enough time between the reading for the memory of the exact wording to fade, so that when I do read them again it’s like meeting an old friend after being away for a while.

One is My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell (1956). I bought a copy in a station bookstall about forty years ago. I didn’t know what it was about; I thought it would be a textbook on the natural world, perhaps not the most exciting thing to while away a three hour journey, but more interesting than the scenery on the London to Liverpool line.

Actually, it’s a memoir from the mid to late nineteen thirties, of the time from the ages of ten to fifteen when Durrell lived in Corfu with his mother, sister, two brothers and so many animals that when they left a customs official issued a pass for “one travelling circus and staff”. It describes a world that probably no longer exists, and it is the detail of the descriptions that makes the book one that I come back to time and again. Place is as important to life writing as it is to fiction, and the setting is a major character in the book. Characters are often best realised through being shown to be involved with their surroundings. Here’s an example:

‘Lying beneath the shade of the olive-trunks, you could look out over the valley, a mosaic of fields, vineyards, and orchards, to where the sea shone between the olive-trunks, a thousand fiery sparkles running over it as it rubbed itself gently and languorously along the shore. The hilltop seemed to have its own breeze, albeit a baby one, for no matter how hot it was below in the valley, up in the three olive-groves the tiny wind played constantly, the leaves whispered and the drooping cyclamen flowers bowed to each other in endless greeting.’

And

‘…the immensely fat and cheerful Agathi, who lived in a tiny tumbledown cottage high up the hill. She was always sitting outside her house with a spindle of sheep’s wool, twining and pulling it into coarse thread. She must have been well over seventy, but her hair was still black and lustrous, plaited carefully and wound round a pair of polished cow’s horns, an ornament that some of the older peasant women adopted. As she sat in the sun, like a great black toad with a scarlet head-dress draped over the cow’s horns, the bobbin of wool would rise and fall, twisting like a top, her fingers busy unravelling and plucking, and her drooping mouth with its hedge of broken and discoloured teeth wide open as she sang, loudly and harshly, but with great vigour.’

The book was written twenty years after Durrell left Corfu – how he could have remembered it all in such detail?  It’s made me wonder where autobiography ends, and fiction begins. Durrell preserves his impressions even if some events are not true and the chronology is not always right. He says, in the preface, about memoir writing: Be selective in what you include: ‘telescope, prune and graft’.

Here is an example of speech from the book:

‘Take flowers,’ she said, pointing at the blooms that filled the room. ‘Have you heard flowers talking?’ Greatly intrigued, I shook my head; the idea of flowers talking was quite new to me. ‘Well, I can assure you that they do talk,’ she said. ‘They hold long conversations with each other … at least I presume them to be conversations, for I don’t understand what they’re saying, naturally. When you’re as old as I am you’ll probably be able to hear them as well; that is, if you retain an open mind about such matters. Most people say that as one gets older one believes nothing and is surprised at nothing, so that one becomes more receptive to ideas. Nonsense! All the old people I know have had their minds locked up like grey, scaly oysters since they were in their teens.’

How can Durrell remember conversational exchanges verbatim from twenty years earlier, when it’s hard to do so even from yesterday? He uses the novelistic convention of dramatising exchanges and giving direct speech to characters and in this way, energises his writing. The reader is engaged by feeling that they are being invited in to see the habits, thoughts and way of life of the characters on show. By using techniques of fiction writing, he brings the story alive. He creates a sense of a life of episodes, and the silence between them is intriguing. In this sense, it’s accurate because how could he have written everything down? He’s used the novelistic convention of dramatising exchanges and giving direct speech to characters, to convince the reader that what they are reading is real. Does this go beyond the bounds of true biographical writing?

There are many ways in which lives can be imagined, remembered and investigated – and many ways in which they can be represented. Durrell, in this book, does so in a way that makes me want to come back to it again and again.

Durrell, G. (1956). My Family and Other Animals. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

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