This Sunday night, public television’s Masterpiece Theatre begins “The Durrells in Corfu,” a six-part adaptation of c that will run each week through November 20. Drawn from three humorous memoirs of Gerald Durrell’s childhood years on the Greek island shortly before World War II, the new Masterpiece series is inspired by Durrell’s stories but only loosely based on them.
That’s all the more reason for readers to check out Durrell’s books for themselves. Gerald Durrell was a British naturalist who lived between 1925 and 1994. He was always interested in animals, but his passion blossomed when his oddball family, headed by his widowed mother, decided to leave England for Greece, hoping for milder weather, new adventures, and a cheaper cost of living.
The young Durrell found Corfu a paradise of plants and animals, and the experience helped him grow into a world-renowned zoologist, wildlife preservationist, and nature TV host for the BBC. He also became a popular author, penning some two dozen books about his zoological adventures, of which his Corfu books are the centerpiece.
A primary theme of Durrell’s sharply funny narratives – think Bill Bryson by way of Sir David Attenborough – is that of all the odd creatures in the world, humans are the oddest. That vision is aptly reflected the titles of Durrell’s first two Corfu books, "My Family and Other Animals," and "Birds, Beasts and Relatives." They were followed by an equally charming sequel, "Garden of the Gods," later published by David R. Godine as "Fauna and Family."
Godine has done much to keep Durrell’s legacy alive in recent years by reissuing some of his books in handsome new editions. Along with "Fauna and Family," Godine has also reprinted "Fillets of Plaice," a smattering of his travel adventures, and the small publishing house is releasing "Beasts in My Belfry" soon.
In Durrell’s books, the landscape looms brightly as an abiding character in the story. He’s a poet of place, as in this memorable passage about the Durrells’ home in Corfu:
The villa was small and square, standing in its tiny garden with an air of pink-faced determination. Its shutters had been faded by the sun to a delicate creamy green, cracked and bubbled in places. The garden, surrounded by tall fuchsia hedges, had flower beds worked in complicated geometrical patterns, marked with smooth white stones. The white cobbled paths, scarcely as wide as a rake’s head, wound laboriously round beds hardly larger than a big straw hat, beds in the shape of stars, half-moons, triangles, and circles, all overgrown with a shaggy tangle of flowers run wild. Roses dropped petals that seemed as big and smooth as saucers, flame red, moon white, glossy and unwrinkled....
Durrell’s brother Lawrence, who figures prominently in his Corfu books, was a writer, too. Lawrence (1912-1990) was primarily a novelist, known best for a series of Egypt-based fictional works called "The Alexandria Quartet," but like his brother, he was an accomplished travel writer. Axios Press has a fine reissue of "Bitter Lemons," Lawrence Durrell’s beautifully rendered account of his three years in Cyprus in the 1950s, and many of his descriptions of Cyprian locales are keepers as well.
Watch “The Durrells in Corfu,” a lavishly executed production in the Masterpiece tradition, but read Gerald and Lawrence Durrell’s books, too. They offer pleasures that promise to endure long after this public TV series is through.
Danny Heitman, a columnist for The Baton Rouge Advocate and an essayist for Phi Kappa Phi Forum, is the author of "A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House."