I owe Bil Keane a royalty for stealing his great comic’s title today, but there’s almost no other way in American English to describe and encapsulate the lives of the Durrell family–Lawrence, Gerald, Margo, and Leslie–who retreat to Corfu, among other places, to care for their alcoholic mother, Louisa. Gerald made high comedy of the experience in My Family and Other Animals; Lawrence used it to meditate upon life and beauty in Prospero’s Cell. A forthcoming biography of the family by Michael Haag will reveal the genuine, serious purpose for getting away from England those many years ago, but my sense is that the author will try to convey the high spirits the family did maintain in making the move.
Families do what they have to do in order to prosper and survive. The sojourn away from England released something in both Lawrence and Gerald. I remember reading passages from Lawrence, I think it was, in middle-school, and saying to myself, “Hoo, boy, this guy can write.” I studied those sentences, wondering if I’d ever be able to put together a set of them as well as he did. Gerald also wrote well, with an imaginative bent toward fiction, but that different sort of gift from his brother’s is nonetheless a gift. There’s a slender thread of comedy running through even the most tragic periods in all of our lives, and Gerald found it. While it is true he never said anything about his mother’s drinking or her breakdown, he never forgot the reality of moving from one place to another and the jolt that such a move brings. He knew, I believe, that being an outsider in society is rooted in being outside oneself, displaced mentally and emotionally, searching for a way back to ourselves, and home.
In this way, the travel works of the Durrell brothers are related to two other books I’ve commented upon recently: Katherine Dunn’s novel, Geek Love (1989) and Geoff Dyer’s White Sands. All of them are worth reading. Each of the books speak to each other in their own way, and every one of them will bring a smile to our face as we read it.