By Gerald Durell
ALL POSTS CONTAIN SPOILERS
I’d like to mount a defense of charm.
Charm, you might argue, is not under attack. Charm is charming; everyone likes it. Sure, fine, charm is not aesthetically controversial, that’s true, but many people consider it…superficial. Most people would agree that it is an attractive characteristic, but most people would not consider it a substantive quality.
Certainly, it’s not a high literary quality. When we discuss Great Books, we don’t usually describe them as “charming” and, if we do, it’s orthogonal to the quality of the book, a nice surprise but not dispositive. We expect Great Books to move us, instruct us, or enrich us – we do not expect them to charm us.
The subtle implication is that charm alone will not justify a work. It’s great if a book is charming, but only as long as it is also educating, or moving, or impressive in some other way. Charm alone does not deserve our time.
‘My Family and Other Animals’ is the first of Gerald Durrell’s Corfu Trilogy. Durrell was the youngest son in what must have been an extremely eccentric English family. Born in India, his family moved to the Greek island of Corfu when he was a young boy. His three memoirs of that period of his life made him famous; ‘My Family and Other Animals’ is the first chronologically, and the best known.
Part of the charm of ‘My Family and Other Animals’ comes from the fact that Gerald’s family is worthy of a memoir all their own. Gerald had three living siblings: Margo, his spotty and self-absorbed older sister; Leslie, his martial-minded older brother with a penchant for detonating munitions near the house; and Lawrence, the novelist, a pompous braggart who is responsible for 90% of the best laugh lines in the book:
“It was Larry, of course, who started it. The rest of us felt too apathetic to think of anything except our own ills, but Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with catlike unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.” (p. 3)
However, most of the attraction of this book comes from Durrell himself. Gerald Durrell would grow up to become a naturalist, and ‘My Family and Other Animals’ is the memoir of a child already in love with nature. Durrell spends the book wandering over Corfu, recording his close observations of its animal life. Insects, fish, bird, and mammals: nothing escapes his notice, and, usually, his interference. A shockingly large number of these animals will be captured and let loose in his family’s home. Durrell’s obsession with animal life is beating heart of the book.
‘Our attempts at history were not, at first, conspicuously successful, until George discovered that by seasoning a series of unpalatable facts with a sprig of zoology and a sprinkle of completely irrelevant detail, he could get me interested. Thus I became conversant with some historical data which, to the best of my knowledge, have never been recorded before. Breathlessly, history lesson by history lesson, I followed Hannibal’s progress over the Alps. His reason for attempting such a feat and what he intended to do on the other side were details that scarcely worried me. No, my interest in what I considered to be a very badly planned expedition lay in the fact that I knew the name of each and every elephant. I also knew that Hannibal had appointed a special man not only to feed and look after the elephants, but to give them hot-water bottles when the weather got cold. This interesting fact seems to have escaped most serious historians.” (p. 46)
‘My Family and Other Animals’ is as low-stakes as it gets. Certainly, there is no profound dramatic tension; there isn’t really even a plot. No one is threatened, no one comes to harm, no one learns or grows. The books has no philosophical or moral agenda. It does not even make an argument about the preservation of nature. Though Durrell would go on to become a naturalist, his childish enthusiasm for the animals in his environment are not preservationist; on the contrary, as Durrell seemed inclined to capture and bring home any interesting animal he found on the island, he was probably a destructive force on Corfu, all things considered.
All of which is fine. Actually, it’s better than fine – it’s great. ‘My Family and Other Animals’ is a beautifully written, funny little book that will cause its readers not one minute of stress. It is a light-hearted memoir of an eccentric family in a beautiful place. It is completely, and only, charming.
Which does not mean that it is unworthy of your time, or of serious thought. Charm, I think, is good for the soul. Charm helps to heal our psychic wounds. It soothes and comforts us. And the more unsettling the state of the world, the more we need these pools of quiet charm, peaceful places where we can go and rest and be reminded that effortless, inconsequential joy still exists in the world.
Reading ”My Family and Other Animals’ is a joyful experience. It makes me happy (that’s why I do it every few years, when I feel low). It’s a lovely book, full of air and light. There is no darkness, no dire consequence to be afraid of, but it’s not boring for that lack. For all its plotlessness, the world is compelling: compelling in its happy sunlit quality, happy in its cast (though nothing of import really happens to any of them), happy in its small, inconsequential misadventures. It stands as a good reminder that books needn’t have high stakes to affect us; sometimes, a few light and charming moments can mean more to a reader than all the seriousness in the world.