[Note, this article originally appeared in the spring issue of the Malaprop’s bookstore quarterly newsletter. It is being posted here because that publication is not online.]
Like many booksellers, I frequently find myself torn between the desire to read all of the newest releases and the impulse to dive down the rabbit hole following one of my obscure topics of interest. I often resist out of a perceived need to stay current so I can discuss the hottest books with my customers, but sometimes I just have to indulge my literary passions — they are, after all, what lead me to become a bookseller. Last year, a chance encounter set me on just such a path.
One idle Sunday night, too tired to read, I turned on PBS and found Masterpiece Theatre just starting. The title of the film, My Family and Other Animals, was vaguely familiar, so I settled down to be passively entertained. I hardly stopped laughing for the next hour and a half. The film is based, I later discovered, on Gerald Durrell’s classic memoir about growing up on the island of Corfu in the mid-1930s. At the time Gerald was twelve, and My Family and Other Animals details the adventures of his eccentric family: temperamental avant-garde writer Lawrence, hardy outdoors’ man Leslie, vain sister Margot and their long-suffering mother. Gerald spent the years on the island in a semi-feral state, exploring the countryside and learning a great deal about the animal world, which shaped the course of his life as he went on to become a noted naturalist. Like his more-famous brother, Gerald is a superb writer, and quite acid-tongued, which makes his family history all the more entertaining.
After reading My Family, I was hooked; I quickly read Gerald’s other Corfu memoir, Birds, Beasts & Relatives, before moving onto his brother Lawrence. I had read some of Lawrence Durrell’s fiction years ago, but never knew his real strength was as a travel writer. After the Durrell family were forced to leave Corfu by the start of WWII, Lawrence moved to Egypt where he worked for British Intelligence during the war. Lawrence’s take on the Corfu years can be found in his poetic memoir Prospero’s Cell. It is illuminating to compare the two brother’s different perspectives on the same events. Gerald delights in the minutia of the insect world, and treats his family’s interactions with the same naturalist’s eye. Lawrence obsesses about Greek history, considers the island’s connection with Homer and details the colorful life of the ex-patriot community, all rendered in the most beautiful prose and shot through with a sense of melancholy from his knowledge of the impending war that ended so many of the old customs and shattered the island idyll forever.
After the war, Lawrence moved to Cyprus, still working for the British government, just in time to live through the war between Greece & Turkey for the island. He turned his experiences during this now-largely forgotten period into the masterpiece Bitter Lemons of Cyprus, which is both a lovingly rendered depiction of the traditions and life of the pre-modern Mediterranean, and a first-hand account of the then-embryonic clash of religions that consumes the world today. Lawrence’s writing is evocative, immediate and sensuous. His poet’s eye captures the sights, sounds and smells of the island in a way that transported this reader from the gray skies of wintertime Asheville to the sun-drenched olive groves of the Greek islands.
Until lately, Lawrence’s nonfiction was totally out of print in the US, so I scoured Malaprop’s sister store, Downtown Books & News and Asheville’s many other used bookstores, and found not just the travel narratives, but Lawrence’s obscure early novels, The Black Book (recently re-released in the US) and The Dark Labyrinth, written during the Corfu sojourn. (While The Black Book belongs to that genre of youthful novels written to shock the bourgeois — along with works like Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer – and thus should not be read by anyone past the age of 25, I strongly recommend The Dark Labyrinth.)
After that, I was well and truly launched on my quest to read as much of the Durrells as I could. Both brothers were prolific writers, and though most of their books are out of print in the US, many are still available overseas. Lawrence’s poetry, for example, I ordered from the UK, and the same for his epic fiction masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet. Happily, Malaprop’s has a relationship with a British book distributor, so I was able to order the books directly through them, without the steep shipping charges usually involved in ordering internationally. Lawrence’s fiction is ambitious, but perhaps doesn’t age as well as his marvelous nonfiction. Some of his poetry suffers from its being composed at a time when one could assume the readers had a firm grasp of Latin, Greek, the classics and the Bible; but, there are still gems to be found in his Selected Poems. For example, “Alexandria,” his beautiful elegy for the youthful hopes and dreams he and his friends shared and the war destroyed. Lawrence paints the artist at his work, “upon the Alps of night,” memorializing his friends, both living and dead:
“the lucky now who have lovers or friends
who move to their own sweet undiscovered ends.”
In the face of so much destruction and pain, the poet considers that the most important, most courageous thing may simply be to remember them, to preserve those hopes and dreams despite of the worst the world can throw at one:
“…so in furnished rooms revise
The index of our lovers and our friends….
and in this quiet rehearsal of their acts
We dream of them and cherish them as facts.”
In his own less self-conscious way, Gerald also celebrates his family and their experiences through his books. Between the two of them, they provide a vivid and unparalleled portrait of the ex-patriot life in the Greek Islands in the years before and after WWII — memorializing and documenting a colonial way of life now utterly gone.
Happily for other readers, Lawrence Durrell’s marvelous travel writing has recently been republished in the US by Axios Press. Prospero’s Cell, Bitter Lemons of Cyprus and Reflections of a Marine Venus, his memoir of his time living on Rhodes, are on Malaprop’s shelves now. Sicilian Carousel will join them in September 2009. Many of Gerald Durrell’s memoirs and volumes of nature writing are available through Penguin Books, and a wonderful new Gerald Durrell collection, Fillets of Plaice, was recently published by Nonpareil Books (my review can be found here). Malaprop’s sister store, Downtown Books & News can help to track down either Durrell brother’s out-of-print books, and in case you didn’t realize it, Malaprop’s can also order many DVDs, including the fabulous Masterpiece Theatre production of My Family & Other Animals.