memory, memoir and family chronicles

Spiro Amerikanos and Gerald Durrell on Corfu, 1930s.

In order to compress five years of incident, observation, and pleasant living into something a little less lengthy than the Encyclopaedia Britannica, I have been forced to telescope, prune, and graft, so that there is little left of the original continuity of events. Also I have been forced to leave out many happenings and characters that I would have liked to describe…

Gerald Durrell, from the introduction to My Family and Other Animals, 1956.

Indeed, to create a memoir that would engage an outside audience and for the sake of narrative simplicity, Gerald altered the timeline of the events he describes, omitted people (like Nancy Durrell) who would have been an important part of the Durrell family‘s life on Corfu, and depicted his elder brother Lawrence as living in the same house as his mother and siblings, something he and his wife Nancy did for only a short time of the family’s five-year sojourn on the island.

What do we look for in a memoir? Do we expect absolute truthfulness, perhaps at the expense of the reader’s interest, or do we want a more interesting narrative that still reveals an essential truth about a person, a time and a place? We know that the witty and hilarious dialogues in My Family cannot be literally true, for example. It is unlikely that Gerald would have remembered these conversations verbatim 20 years later. Yet very probably they convey something essential about the flavour of the family’s life on Corfu, of the family atmosphere and relationships.

It certainly seems that Gerald had an ear for dialogue. His rendering of Spiro Amerikanos’ broken English, for example, is likely accurate, given that Lawrence’s close friend Alan Thomas described it in the same way in his 1937 diary. (1)

This is what Thomas has to say about My Family in his introduction to Spirit of Place, a collection of Lawrence Durrell’s letters and essays on travel:

Again and again people who came into my bookshop would ask me: “Is it true? Was it really like that?” From my own brief experience of life on the island I can certainly affirm that the book is true in essence, but Theodore Stephanides, who was in Corfu for the whole time, confirms that virtually every incident described really took place. Not necessarily in the same order, of course, not in one uninterrupted series, but it all actually happened.

And Gerald’s portrayal of his sister Margo, while clearly a caricature, is likely a good caricature; the exaggerated character traits Gerald imbues her with in My Family are discernible in her own writings in her memoir, Whatever Happened to Margo.

Gerald, of course, is not the only Durrell who pruned, telescoped and grafted his memories in the service of a memoir. In his own Corfu book, Prospero’s Cell, Lawrence Durrell does not mention that his mother, brothers and sister who also lived on the island. He also later claimed that he barely met his family during their sojourn on Corfu, though he and Nancy did visit his mother’s house regularly. Of course, it was Lawrence who suggested the entire family move to Corfu in the first place.

Remembrance, like Rembrandt, is dark but festive. Remembered ones dress up for the occasion and sit still. Memory is a photo-studio de luxe on an infinite Fifth Power Avenue.

Vladimir Nabokov, Ada or Ardor, a Family Chronicle

Notes:

(1)(See Lawrence Durrell and the Greek World, edited by Anna Lilios, Susquehanna University Press, 2004)

(2) Spirit of Place, Letters and Essays on Travel; Lawrence Durrell, edited by Alan G Thomas, 1969 (reissued 2011 by Axios Press)

Whatever Happened to Margo?

Margaret Durrell, younger sister to Lawrence and older sister to Gerald, is known to the world via her depictions in Gerald’s Corfu Trilogy and in a handful of his other autobiographical stories.

There, known as ‘Margo’, she is portrayed as a rather scatterbrained young woman, prone to malaproprisms like ‘it never rains but it snows’, and with an interest in diaphanous garments, doomed romantic encounters and skin cream.

What is rather less well known is that Margo also turned her hand to writing. Apparently written sometime in the 1960s, her autobiographical book, Whatever Happened to Margo, describes her adventures as a Bournemouth landlady in 1947. Margo also includes a good splash of Gerald-style Durrell family antics, particularly mentioning Gerald several times.

Here’s the thing, though – though the book is supposed to have been written sometime in the 1960s, when both Lawrence and Gerald had become well-known writers, Whatever Happened to Margo was published only in 1995. The story goes that Margo’s manuscript was forgotten about and later discovered in an attic.

Why was Margo’s book not published at the time? It does seem that she intended her memoir for publication. Lines like this one, addressed to ‘readers’ and referencing Gerald’s popular tome do give the impression that Margo intended her book as part of the Durrell canon.

The Durrell menage had fled Bournemouth in the thirties to bask in the magic of a Greek island… the appealing account by my brother Gerald in My Family and Other Animals will surely entice any reader to do likewise.

It presumably was not meant to languish unseen in an attic for decades. What happened?

Whatever Happened was published in 1995, the year of Gerald Durrell‘s very sad death, when presumably there would have been a surge of public interest in his life. The book also contains previously unpublished photographs of Gerald, and other members of the Durrell family, which one can imagine to have been warmly received by Gerald’s many fans.

Perhaps this is why Margo’s book finally saw the light of day. Perhaps in the 1960s or whenever she  wrote it, the book was eventually deemed unworthy of publication, and shelved? Or perhaps this manuscript is a first draft that never got any further.

Whatever Happened is definitely amusing, and there are plenty of weird and wonderful characters, in the form of Margo’s lodgers and her overbearing relatives, to fill the pages.

The problem is that the end result is just not engaging. The dense and frequently disorganized prose is hard to wade through, and I found myself skipping over several pages. There are some funny dialogues, but unlike Gerald Durrell, Margo doesn’t do speech well and her comic timing is off, so the jokes are flubbed or drawn out too long.

Another issue is the characters. Gerald knew how to sacrifice veracity for literary neatness, cutting Lawrence’s wife Nancy Myers out of the Durrells’ life on Corfu for example. Margo has included everyone. As a result, there are so many characters so its hard to keep track of them all, and some of them are just not interesting. The narrative thread gets tangled in parts, too – there is no sense that each chapter has its own story to tell;

It’s a shame, because Margo’s memoir reads like a first draft that, had someone taken the time to edit ruthlessly, could have been much better. Here’s a sample:

“Gerald is always saying “gorgeous” to some animal or some female: I’m sick of him. Leslie’s quite right, a bullet would take care of either,'”  I said wickedly, feeling daringly voluble, now sustained by liquor.

Mother interrupted me nervously. “Don’t encourage Leslie to murder, please. Shooting someone between the eyes is not a matter for joking. You’d better pour me another gin. How I’ve managed to live so long with you children is a miracle….”

“Well, Gerald shouldn’t say gorgeous to everything. Last time he called something tangible gorgeous, it was that droopy blonde who sat about with her hair flowing in a silvery cascade of abandon down her neck, while we were left to do the housework. Do you remember, Mother?”

But Mother refused to take sides.

“She was a natural blonde, however dumb. That was one thing in her favour,” Leslie said reflectively.

As it is, the book appeals only to those who are looking for further tidbits about the Durrell family. It’s hardly a standalone book, the way My Family and Other Animals is – Gerald’s book is worth reading even if you did not know or care who he was. That’s not the case with Whatever Happened.

Margo does share her brother’s penchant for flights of fancy (as Gerald points out in his preface) – one does wonder how Margo managed to recall details of conversations that supposedly took place twenty years earlier).

A note on that, though – Margo’s story often strays onto the gossipy side. While Gerald did lampoon his family mercilessly, he always portrayed them with affection and good humour. Margo includes personal information about brother Leslie that he might not have wished to be made public.

On the positive side, though, Margo’s character does shine through her writing. She’s enterprising, although scatterbrained. She has a penchant for odd malapropisms. She’s interested in diaphanous garments. I believe face cream is mentioned. (She also has a crush on a man several social classes beneath her. Like the infamous Turk she dated in My Family, Margo’s new crush seems a bit of a bore.)

Especially poignant is Gerald Durrell’s preface to the book. Dated 27 November 1994, just two months before he passed away, he once again refers to his childhood memories of Corfu:

And yes, sharing again the charms of Corfu, looking for and finding the deserted olive groves and sea caves where we were all so happy.

My Family and Other Animals, 1987

I recently rewatched the 1987 BBC version of My Family and Other Animals, a wonderfully indulgent adaptation of a wonderfully indulgent book. I was an avid viewer of the series when it first came out, which was my introduction to Gerald Durrell‘s books as a child.

Gerald wrote three books in total about the magical five childhood years he spent with his family  on Corfu – and experience which according to his elder brother Lawrence helped shape his future path as an animal collector, zoo owner and conservationist. Gerald’s first and most famous Corfu book, My Family and Other Animals, was written in about two weeks in 1956; he returned to his childhood in Birds, Beasts and Relatives in 1969 and again in Garden of the Gods in 1978. All the books follow a similar pattern – tales of Gerald’s encounters with the local flora and fauna of Corfu interspersed with amusing incidents with his various family members and family friends, particularly Theodore Stephanides.

(1959 Penguin edition of My Family and Other Animals)

The books were very successful – particularly My Family, which has not lost its charm even half a century after it was written. (There were negative consequences to this success though; when Corfu became a popular tourist destination in the 1980s, and thus lost much of its unspoiled charm, Gerald fell into depression, railing in a 1987 newspaper article against what he called the ‘disease of tourism’.)

The BBC series, which also came out in 1987 (perhaps Durrell’s article was written on the back of it?) is excellently done in many ways; the casting and acting  are spot on, particularly the young Darren Redmayne as Gerry. The BBC took great pains to incorporate some of the book’s memorable animal scenes into the filming. The photography shows Corfu as an unspoiled idyll, with plenty of lingering shots of beautiful blue seas, olive groves and crumbling villas. (Quite an achievement in itself.)

The screenplay, interestingly enough, incorporates material from all three of Durrell’s Corfu books, including a dialog from Garden of the Gods in which ‘Mother’ reminisces about the glory days of her life in India, where all four of the Durrell children were born.

In following the books, the screenplay also includes Gerald’s liberal use of artistic license. Lawrence Durrell is depicted as a bachelor (he does not have even a hint of a relationship), who lives with the rest of his family. In reality, he was married to a painter, Nancy Myers, and most of the time lived separately in a villa in Kalami, rather a distance from his mother and siblings.

Though the Durrell family were Anglo Indians who did not really feel a great connection with England,  the TV series portrays them as unswervingly English: the single dialog about Mother’s past in India notwithstanding, the family describe themselves as being ‘from Bournemouth’. While young Gerald is shown learning Greek and befriending locals, the others maintain their aloof Englishness throughout – although according to Gerald’s biographer, Douglas Botting, the whole family joined in enthusiastically with life on the  island.

When Gerald wrote ‘My Family‘ in 1956, he gave  concerns over his education as the main reason for the family’s return to England in 1939. In the other books, he is more overt in mentioning the impending threat of World War II and the family’s growing financial issues. The series also does not mention the War – and since having the entire family remove to England ‘for Gerry’s education’ would be rather implausible, the screenplay also has Lawrence mention the family’s money troubles.  Perhaps a discussion of the war would be too depressing a note on which to end such a delightfully escapist series. In any case, the final episode has the entire family leaving together. (Actually, Margo, depicted by Gerald as a rather scatterbrained young woman, and in the series as a demure and rather insipid young lady, was by all accounts considerably more independent and Bohemian. When Gerald, Leslie and Mother left Corfu in 1939, she had already departed for England alone, but returned a few months later to live with a Greek peasant family; she looked after Henry Miller during his visit to the island, before departing Corfu with a British airforce pilot, Jack Breeze, whom she later married.)

One problem the series has is in depicting the length of time the family live on Corfu; since the young actor playing Gerald appears to be the same age throughout, it is hard to determine the series’ timeframe. It seems that the family spends just a few months on Corfu rather than five years.

the colossus of maroussi

Pontikonisi and Vlaheraina monastery as viewed...

Pontikonisi and Vlaheraina monastery


The 'White House' in Kalami, now available for rent as a holiday home, and inaccurately dubbed 'the Corfu residence of Authors Gerald and Lawrence Durrell'

In 1939, Henry Miller visited Lawrence and Nancy Durrell in Corfu, and stayed with them in the ‘White House’ at Kalami (oddly, the house today is erroneously billed as the place where Gerald Durrell wrote My Family and Other Animals). In 1941, he published a book about his travels, The Colossus of Maroussi, in which he mentions Lawrence and Nancy frequently, offering some interesting glimpses into Nancy and Lawrence’s relationship and life on Corfu:

Durrell, and Nancy his wife, were like a couple of dolphins; they practically lived in the water.

(In Prospero’s Cell, Durrell describes Nancy as being like “an otter”, another water animal).

And later, during a trip to the Greek mainland, Miller records an exchange between the couple when their car breaks down, stranding them:

“Why don’t you try to do something?’ said Nancy. Durrell was saying, as he usually did when Nancy proffered her advice, ‘Why don’t you shut up?”

Miller also remarks on some of the Durrell family‘s friends familiar to readers of Gerald’s autobiographies – notably Spiro Amerikanos (Miller mentions Spiro’s son, Lillis – Gerald does not mention Spiro’s family at all) and Theodore Stephanides, both of whom seem to have made quite an impression on Miller.

Here Miller quotes from a letter Lillis wrote about the dying Spiro:

There was one other person whose presence I missed and that was Spiro of Corfu. I didn’t realize it then, but Spiro was getting ready to die. Only the other day I received a letter from his son telling me that Spiro’s last words were: “New York! New York! I want to find Henry Miller’s house!”. Here is how Lillis, his son, put it in his letter: “My poor father died with your name in his mouth which closed forever. The last day he lost his logic and pronounced a lot of words in English…He died as poor as he always was. He did not realize his dream to be rich.’

At the time of Miller’s wartime visit to Corfu, the rest of the Durrell family had already left the island – apart from Margaret Durrell, Lawrence’s younger sister, who had made up her mind to “sit out” the war with her Greek friends. When Lawrence and Nancy left for Athens, Miller stayed alone on Corfu and Margaret was charged with looking after him. She recalls (in an interview with Sue and Ian MacNiven recorded in Lawrence Durrell and the Greek World edited by Anna Lillios):

Henry was up in the north with Lawrence, and Henry stayed on after Lawrence went to Athens, and Lawrence asked me to look after him and he said ‘Don’t let anybody swindle him,’ which I thought was a typical Lawrence remark at that point.

Durrell and Miller, many years after Miller’s visit to Corfu.

Amateurs in Eden

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(Louisa Durrell, Nancy Myers Durrell (second from left) with Lawrence, Gerald and Margo on Corfu on the veranda of the 'Daffodil Yellow villa' near Kontoali, 1935)

Virago will publish a new biography of Nancy Isobel Myers Durrell, Lawrence Durrell’s first wife, next February, to coincide with the centenary of Lawrence Durrell’s birth. The biography, titled Amateurs in Eden, is written by Joanna Hodgkin, Nancy’s daughter by her second husband, Edward Hodgkin, whom Nancy met and married in Jerusalem in 1948. Hodgkin, who has written several novels under a different name, received a grant from the UK’s Arts Council to write the biography.

Lawrence and Nancy, an artist, married in London in January 1935, and a couple of months later, they left for Corfu, closely followed by the rest of Lawrence’s family.

When war broke out, the Durrell family left for England, but Lawrence and Nancy stayed behind. They escaped Corfu for Alexandria, Egypt in 1940. The marriage broke down, and the pair split up in 1942. In 1947, Lawrence remarried an Alexandrian woman, Eve (Yvette) Cohen.

Remarkably little is known about Nancy, who must have been such an important figure in the lives of the Durrells on Corfu and presumably influenced Lawrence Durrell during the most important years of his development as a writer. Durrell does mention Nancy in his travel memoir about Corfu, Prospero’s Cell. Henry Miller, who visited the Durrells on Corfu in 1939, makes several mentions of Nancy in The Colossus of Maroussi, his record of that trip.

Who was Nancy? Anais Nin described her as a woman of silences, “I think often of Nancy’s most eloquent silences, Nancy talking with her fingers, her hair, her cheeks, a wonderful gift. Music again.'”

According to Lawrence’s sister Margaret Durrell, Nancy was a gentle and quiet woman loved by the family. In a conversation with Ian and Sue MacNiven, Margaret says of Nancy that “We used to stay with her and Larry in the White House at Kalami and we all loved her very much; she was very gentle, a lovely person.”1

Nancy, however, is omitted entirely from Gerald Durrell’s famous memoir of the family’s Corfu years, My Family and Other Animals. Perhaps this is for narrative simplicity, since much of the book’s humour comes from the interactions between “brother Larry”, whom Gerald portrays as living with the rest of the family for the duration of their sojourn on the island.

Hodgkin’s new biography of her mother purports to shed light onto Nancy’s life, including of course what happened to her after her split from Durrell, when she lived in Jerusalem.

1 Margaret mentions Nancy again in her own memoir, Whatever Happened to Margo?, written about her adventures as a landlady in the late 1940s; but it seems she confuses Nancy with Lawrence’s second wife, Eve Cohen. Margo refers to a risque painting that ‘Lawrence and Nancy left behind [in Margo’s house in Bournemouth], you know, the one Nancy did an embroidery from when she was here and expecting?’. Nancy’s only daughter with Lawrence was born in 1940 in Greece; the couple later split up in 1942, and did not visit the Durrells in England.