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)