As part of Bas Bleu’s 2017 Book a Month program, each month we’re offering discussion questions, author interviews, or other bonus material about our Bluestocking BAM selection to enrich your reading experience—for book clubs as well as thoughtful individuals. (We’ll do our best to avoid plot spoilers, but you should proceed with caution!)
Gerald Durrell is renowned throughout Great Britain for his work as a naturalist, conservationist, and zookeeper. But at Bas Bleu, he’s best known for the Corfu trilogy, a series of humorous memoirs about his childhood on the Greek island of Corfu. The third book in the trilogy, Fauna and Family, is our April Book a Month selection. Today in the Bluestocking Salon, we’re offering a brief biography of Durrell—for those curious to learn just where little Gerry’s Greek adventures led him later in life—along with a short list of discussion questions about Fauna and Family.
Gerald Malcolm Durrell was born in Jamshedpur, India, in 1925, the fourth and youngest child of Lawrence and Louisa Durrell. Though of British and Irish descent, respectively, both Lawrence and Louisa were born in India and considered themselves “Anglo-Indians” rather than “British.” Gerry was still a toddler when he visited his first zoo, an experience he would later credit with shaping his lifelong passion: “Having been there once, nothing could keep me away.”
In 1928, Gerry’s father died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Though his career as an engineer left his widow and children financially well off, the emotional toll of his death was devastating. Soon after, the Durrell family left India for England, where Louisa and her children would eventually settle in the coastal town of Bournemouth. Seven years later, Louisa and her three youngest children “moved house” again, abandoning England for Corfu, Greece, where Gerry’s eldest brother Lawrence was living. There, ten-year-old Gerry found himself in paradise, freely roaming the island and indulging his love of the animal kingdom under the tutelage of Greek poet/doctor/naturalist Theodore Stephanides, who frequently appears in Durrell’s Corfu trilogy.
By 1939, with the world on the brink of war, the Durrells returned to England. Gerry worked odd jobs at an aquarium, a pet store, and a farm, eventually earning a spot at the Whipsnade Zoo after the war ended. By 1947, twenty-something Durrell had embarked upon the first of what would become a series of wildlife expeditions to Africa and Central and South America, building a reputation for his passionate devotion to the conservation of small, lesser-known endangered species. A natural storyteller, Durrell chronicled one of his animal-collection trips in his first book, The Overloaded Ark, in 1953. Three years later, he published My Family and Other Animals, the first installment in his Corfu trilogy, which helped catapult the young naturalist to fame.
In 1959, Durrell established the Jersey Zoo on the island of Jersey in the English Channel. By 1963, Durrell’s burgeoning writing career enabled him to create the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust (today the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust), focused on saving rare and endangered species from extinction. A governing council was tasked with running the day-to-day business of the Trust and zoo, leaving Durrell free to continue “antagoniz[ing] the British zoo establishment with what it considered his ‘peculiar’ notions of breeding threatened species for conservation.” (Durrell.org)
Over the course of his career, Durrell wrote more than three dozen books, including Fauna and Family, originally published in 1978 as The Garden of the Gods. His writings inspired a generation of zoologists, and more than a thousand biologists, veterinarians, naturalists, and zoo architects have trained at his Jersey zoo (now known as the Durrell Wildlife Park). He worked tirelessly on behalf of animal and land conservation around the world, writing in 1960’s A Zoo In My Luggage, “To me, the (destruction) of an animal species is a criminal offence, in the same way as the destruction of anything we cannot recreate or replace, such as a Rembrandt or the Acropolis.”
Gerald Durrell died of septicemia in 1995, at the age of seventy. His ashes were buried at his beloved zoo, beneath a quotation by American naturalist William Beebe:
“The beauty and genius of a work of art may be re-conceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”
1. Modern readers might blanche at the laissez-faire nature of Gerry’s upbringing, yet he describes the experience as “a very important part of my life and the thing which, unfortunately, a lot of children nowadays seem to lack, which is a truly happy and sunlit childhood.” How could Durrell have turned out differently if raised in the late twentieth century? How would you have turned out differently if raised in a crumbling villa on Corfu?
2. Durrell’s dialogue is utterly charming and often laugh-out-loud funny, yet the chances of it being accurately reconstructed from his childhood memories seem slim. How do you feel about “artistic license” taken in books presented as nonfiction? Does it devalue the storyteller’s authority, or can you overlook it in favor of entertainment value for memoirs not relying on historical accuracy? In the case of memoirs and autobiographies, is the writer’s perception and response to his experience more important than accuracy?
3. It’s probably safe to say that most of us, at one time or another, have fantasized about leaving behind urban (or suburban) chaos for a simpler life on a Mediterranean island. How do you think reality would stack up against the fantasy? Would it be better or worse in 2017 than it would have been in the 1930s? How?
4. Did you watch Masterpiece’s recent miniseries The Durrells in Corfu? If so, did it color your enjoyment of Fauna and Family, which served as (some of) the source material for the show? Why or why not?
5. If you were an animal in Gerry’s menagerie, what animal would you be? (Bas Bleu’s brand manager CH would be an ostrich; our director of marketing AG would be a sea lion, and our social-media director KG would be a cat!)
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