The Books of a Mad Naturalist
January 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
“The child is mad.”
– Lawrence Durrell, 1931
A study of Gerald Durrell’s life informs me that unlike his more illustrious brother Lawrence, Gerald didn’t love writing, and in fact, wrote only in order to raise funds for his work as a naturalist. This is nowhere apparent from the bubbly, fizzy books that he is known and loved for around the world.
In some ways, Gerald Durrell was to natural history what Jeremy Clarkson is to automobiles. Both combine a deep expertise and passion for their subjects with a penchant for traveling around the world doing crazy things that normal people don’t dream of doing, while keeping up a steady, side-splittingly hilarious banter with a bunch of equally crazy people. For both Clarkson and Durrell, much of the humor is written for a British audience and directed at foreigners with ‘funny’ ways. In a long and chequered career, Clarkson has managed to aggravate Romanians, Mexicans and others, and while I am not aware of any criticism levelled at Durrell on this score, I must admit that I found some of his descriptions of Greeks, Turks, Mauritians and Cameroonians uncomfortably patronizing, but then he was writing in the mid-twentieth century, when attitudes were vastly different, and I suppose we must make allowances for that. In any case, Durrell’s tone is more affectionate than it is mocking, and it is far less racially tinged than in the BBC 1970s sitcom Mind Your Language – a program I enjoyed as a child and find severely shocking as an adult.
But there is more to Durrell’s humor than poking fun at people, more to Durrell’s writing than humor, and more to Durrell’s work than his writings; and there is a common streak across all of them. They owe their origin to Durrell’s outstanding powers of observation and description. As a naturalist, Durrell sees tiny birds, bats, geckos and fish – things that most of us would never notice – as significant creatures in their own right, whose survival and well-being are worth fighting for. As a writer, he has an indefatigable ability to describe the minutest details that he sees. As a humorist, he has an unerring knack for identifying the funny side of trivial day-to-day incidents that I suspect weren’t nearly as funny as he makes them sound.
All this allows him to see and describe baby palm trees as being shaped like Chianti bottles and looking ‘like strange pot-bellied people’ (‘when their fronds moved in the breeze, it seemed as if they were waving at you’). The sound made by Tropic birds reminds him of a noise made by ‘somebody having difficulty in getting a champagne cork out of a bottle’. And even when rendered speechless by the beauty of the coral reef in Mauritius, he can’t help observing ‘curious purple-colored land-crabs with pale, cream-colored claws which they waved to and fro, looking like bank clerks who had sent their lives endlessly counting other people’s money and now could not stop the reflex action of their hands…’ To see things as noone else can, and to evoke in his readers a vivid image of what he describes – if these are the primary goals of an author, then Durrell succeeds, admirably.
Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons documents Durrell’s madcap efforts to save the creatures mentioned in the title (as well as an assortment of skinks and snakes) from an endangered existence in Mauritius in the late 1970s, while the Fillets of Plaice, a slightly older book, is a collection of animal-free anecdotes from Durrell’s youth and early career. Together, they give the reader an excellent perspective into how Durrell’s career as a naturalist intersected his career as a writer.
And yet, as I mentioned before, there is a lot to Durrell’s life that is not apparent from his books. He struggled for much of his early career, during parts of his life that he has written extensively about – parts that he makes sound like a barrel of laughs. Many of his childhood anecdotes concern the escapades of his large family of colorful characters in Corfu – yet he never once mentions his brother’s wife, who was apparently there all the time. And during the late 1970s, precisely coinciding with his riotous jaunts to Mauritius in search of bats and pigeons, he was battling work-related stress, alcoholism and a failing marriage. To be able to write so well and with such wonderful humor in spite of this – well, it could not have been easy.
An outstanding ability to notice and describe things in great detail makes Durrell’s books extraordinary; so, paradoxically, does his omission of certain important facts from his narrative.