A few years ago, I would have skipped doing any reviews of this nature, because the books I refer to had a limited run from American publishers and are nearly all out of print now; some of them never actually had a US publication, since the author is British and they were primarily published in England. With the internet, however, it is now possible to find just about any book, given a little patience and search skills, and have it shipped to you from nearly any continent. So I can’t feel bad about making any such recommendations now.
I’ll also note that I don’t like over-generalizations; I think as a species we seek patterns and simple answers, and thus often force things to fit some overall category in which they do not reasonably belong. Much as I like many authors, there are also bad examples of their work, and much the same can be said of musicians, so I usually aim for specific works to review instead.
Gerald Durrell is an exception, primarily because he’s produced far more great works than dismal ones, but also because I cannot bring myself to choose just one book to review. There are too many gems to think selecting one is doing justice (and one should not take the image at right to be a guide – it was dictated by aesthetics, not favoritism.)
Nearly all of Durrell’s works are semi-autobiographical, in that they chronicle his experiences in naturalism and conservation, from a boy growing up on the Greek island of Corfu to establishing his own zoo and endangered wildlife trust in Great Britain. And I admit to some suspicion about embellishment (stung by much of James Herriot’s work,) since he relates a large number of peculiar characters and unique situations, which brings up a curious aspect within the genre. Authors working on pure fiction can freely use such things, since there is a suspension of disbelief when one reads those works. But non-fiction is expected to maintain accuracy, and the tales of peculiar individuals or situations within capture our attention because of their outrageousness. Few authors can resist adorning their work with not-strictly-accurate representations of encounters, conversations, and personalities, but how much is allowable?
In most of the stories within Durrell’s books, it probably doesn’t matter. Because the charm of the books isn’t solely the appeal to the animal lover, or conservationist, or naturalist, but also the distinctive way he relates his subject matter. Durrell is one of the very few writers I’ve ever come across who can describe a species not just succinctly, but accurately enough that years later, I could see a photo of an animal for the first time and confidently say, “That’s an agouti.” Nor does he limit his descriptive powers to animal identification, as he paints the landscapes and expressions of his experiences in a manner that straddles the line between illustration and poetry. From The Whispering Land, on his chance encounter with a guanaco while sleeping under their Land Rover in Argentina:
He turned his head, sniffing the breeze, and I could see his profile against the sky. He wore the supercilious expression of his race, a faint aristocratic sneer, as if he knew I had slept in my clothes for the past three nights. He lifted one forefoot daintily, and peered down at me closely. Whether, at that moment, the breeze carried my scent to him I don’t know, but he suddenly stiffened and, after a pause for meditation, he belched.
It was not an accidental gurk, the minute breach of good manners that we are all liable to at times. This was a premeditated, rich and prolonged belch, with all the fervour of the Orient in it. He paused for a moment, glaring at me, to make sure this comment on my worth had made me feel properly humble, and then he turned and disappeared as suddenly as he had come, and I could hear the faint whisper of his legs brushing through the little bushes.
That passage also illustrates his sardonic humor, as much a part of his writing (and, one would guess, his life) as naturalism. On reading the books about his youth in Corfu, it’s easy to see that he was raised in this environment, most especially courtesy of his older brother Larry, better known as the author Lawrence Durrell. It is entirely possible that his brother’s interest in literature fostered his own writing skills, though his accounts of profound resistance to any education that did not include animals seems to belie that notion. But since biting commentary is the trait of his brother’s most emphasized in those stories, one can be excused for believing this was the prime influence.
Most of Durrell’s books chronicle his efforts to collect animals for zoos in the 1950s through 1970s – after that time, obtaining animals from the wild was on the wane and endangered species programs were coming into their prime, largely due to Durrell’s own influence, and he also had a zoo of his own that he had established. But those earlier collecting trips reflect a fascinating period in many of these areas, touched only lightly by industry and technology, not yet affected by the globalization that was to come. Entire camps were transported to their destinations by ancient trains, Land Rovers, horses, and native porters, many of whom accepted cigarettes or shots of whiskey as tips. Durrell’s observations of not just the local wildlife and scenery, but the native customs (including, too often, the Customs procedures themselves,) paint exotic cultures that are next to impossible to find anymore.
Some of these portions may strike the reader as somewhat racist, especially Durrell’s renditions of local languages or his casual callousness at times – we have now grown hypersensitive to such issues. Yet his sarcasm is not restricted to natives, imparted equally to even his wife, and these aspects should be viewed through the perspectives of the time. Some of his destinations in Africa, for example, were in the last vestiges of British colonialism, and the natives really did speak pidgin English and refer to all whites as “massa.” Contrasted against Durrell’s distaste of arrogant classism, and his delight in native dances and songs, any discomfort over such passages is likely more a product of our current attitudes rather than an indication of Durrell’s.
It must be said, these are all animal books, first and foremost, and the accounts split their time equally with the rigors of caring for so many different species, and Durrell’s observations of their traits and personalities. Moreover, I need to emphasize his approach from a practical, objective standpoint – these are not books of spirituality, ‘communication,’ or seeking some connection with any particular species; those are all human traits, and nonsense ones at that. Durrell may describe animals, as above, in terms we relate to, but does not even faintly ascribe our traits to any other species, offering keen observations in place of imagined qualities – the books, even of his childhood, are from the perspective of a scientist, not a spirit guide, and he takes pains at times to correct the impressions of those who fail to understand what animal work is truly about. I was about to remark, as a wildlife rehabilitator, how appropriate I find this approach, before realizing that these books are a large part of why I become involved in rehab. And thus, for anyone interested in pursing that, or any other animal-related field, I can say that the perspective given in the books, especially those of his collecting trips and establishing his own zoo, provides an accurate expectation of the tasks and effort involved.
(As a brief aside, reminded by the ‘spirit guide’ comment, his chapter in Birds, Beast, and Relatives on attending a séance in London is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, and even delightful from a skeptic’s standpoint.)
Durrell also penned several tomes on his youth, a few collections of short stories from various points in his life, and even some works of fiction aimed at both adults and kids. Only sporadic chapters have little to do with animals, but more than a few concentrate on his interactions with family, friends, and random characters, often giving the impression that he wades through an ocean of eccentricity as the only one who can see the absurdity of it all (and relate it hilariously as well.) However, it is also not hard to find the tongue-in-cheek references to his own view on things, knowing full well that his overriding interests in animals is hardly considered normal. Yet this never takes on the appearance of obsession; Durrell is accomplished at highlighting what’s interesting about other species, and why, and it’s easy to identify with his attitudes, even when we recognize that dissecting a decaying sea turtle on the porch as a child was probably not his brightest idea.
There is no particular order one should read his books within – the progression of events is minimal – but just to see the development of his writing skills, I might suggest starting with The Bafut Beagles or Three Tickets to Adventure (named in Britain as Three Singles to Adventure,) then through either The Whispering Land or The Drunken Forest, tackling the books of his childhood – My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (in that order) – in there somewhere. In A Zoo in My Luggage, he begins the saga of his own zoo, which leads to Menagerie Manor and Beasts in My Belfry. However, starting with any book that you lay your hands on is fine.
Durrell also started the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, one of the leading organizations devoted to endangered species, and the zoo he created in A Zoo in My Luggage lives on as the Durrell Wildlife Park – there are, certainly, worse organizations to make donations to. Part of his legacy is also expressed by the existence of eight separate species named in his honor. Despite the predictions of his brothers, Durrell’s interest in animals was not something that he grew out of, thankfully, because it produced a remarkable amount of lasting impact.