With the showing of the second season of The Durrells in Corfu on PBS, I pulled up my copy of The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag because it was still bugging me that though the source is supposedly Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. I’m not sure the show and the book have one story in common. I thought maybe they came from Gerald’s later books, but they aren’t really in the same style. I also tracked down my copy of My Family and finished it. I’d come very close, I don’t know why I didn’t finish it. It’s a charming book, not laugh-out-loud funny to me, though others have declared it so. Living in Corfu 1935-39 was a magical time and place for all of them it seems. Haag’s book makes it clear that at least some of the material for the show came from letters, memories of some people still living and snippets of unpublished autobiography Gerald left behind.
I almost didn’t watch the show because most of them are disagreeable, annoying, selfish people. Gerry isn’t, but one can see how his obsession with bringing home all the wildlife of the island could get on anyone’s nerves. If you read anything about the Durrells though (which I only just last year learned is not pronounced DurRELL, but DURel) you learn it’s not all how Gerry wrote it. He’s writing a light, amusing memoir of his boyhood, I suppose that’s why he left out Larry’s wife Nancy. They don’t seem to have money problems in My Family nor in Haag’s book once the bank sends their funds, but in the show she is improbably trying to pay the rent by making food and poisoning half the island. There seems to be an emphasis in the show in showing a good deal of unhappiness, which is definitely not Gerald’s emphasis. Showing reality instead of a boy’s fantasy I suppose, but there’s something to be said for boy’s fantasies.
It was the fact that two of those young men grew up to be famous writers that kept me watching and then buying the books. Haag’s book fills in some of the blanks, but neither his nor My Family has enough of the nitty-gritty I enjoy – what they couldn’t get there, how they had to adapt. Each of them has a bit of this, but not enough. And I’m not sure if any of them is true. Haag’s book makes it clear that all the Durrells would make up stories or appropriate each other’s. It also seems to be true that the show has not painted Larry or Leslie very accurately as Larry apparently had a great sense of humor and Margo describes Leslie as a ‘lovable rogue.’ In the show, you’re never laughing with Larry, though sometimes at him, he’s pretentious as hell and sense of humor is pretty much absent. Leslie is grumpy, dour, and despite being obsessed with shooting, stupidly manages to injure poor Roger.
I’m wondering if perhaps the later apparent estrangement colors the time in Corfu. From early descriptions they seem to be a merry, loving, if rambunctious family. Nancy fell in love with the whole family. I think all of these things are worthwhile – My Family and Other Animals probably being the best. Haag’s book feels a bit slight, and it annoys me that he refers to Louisa as Mother, but makes a useful companion if you want some idea of what really happened. It’s the only one which acknowledges Nancy’s existence. I might someday read the other two in Gerald’s trilogy or Larry’s book on Corfu. They were interesting people and well worth spending some time with.