Birds, Beasts, and Relatives

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The Germs They Carried


It’s been a moment since my last post, and I am here to apologize and explain. Ever since the fifth grade, when I took my birthday party to see the movie Outbreak and then read The Hot Zone thrice a row, I have been terrified of epidemics. Two weeks ago, my beloved and I returned from a week’s holiday in Mexico and immediately commenced moving our household to the other side of the country, in an automobile. We had spent the holiday in points around the state of Oaxaca, and then the last day we were in Mexico City, larking around the metro and holding hands with everybody.I know that currently public opinion finds the Swine Flu to be very passe, and we’ve all been reminded several times that regular flu kills a third of Americans every year, but three days after we returned from Mexico it was very scary to receive a phone call informing us of the new flu that was killing all these young people in the place from whence we came, and it was more scary when my beloved shortly thereafter developed a sniffle. What with my intense paranoia and the terrifying reportage on every website, I insisted we spend two days sitting in a seedy motel, taking our temperatures with a Hello Kitty thermometer which cost ten goddamned dollars yet recorded our temperatures at a steady ninety-six degrees. It was truly a long, dark teatime of the soul (for me, that is. The invalid was remarkably cheery about the whole thing), but it was only a cold that he had, and we are fine. However, all the furor, and the move and all, has limited my brain function; furthermore, most of my books are still packed away. So, friends, excuse this post, for it is budget, as budget, perhaps, as the motel in which we awaited our deaths. Here is my holiday/cross-country move reading list:1. The Magus. I have read and really enjoyed this book about four times. This time it sort of soured on me (or did I sour on it? I can never remember how that expression goes). The narrator Nicholas is, in the crude parlance of our times, a “douche.” This never bothered me before, but this time I found him sort of boring. Maybe it’s the fact that the novel, which is about a big elaborate game perpetrated on the narrator by some crazed rich people, is very mysterious and fast-paced and racy when you don’t know what’s going on, and once you are familiar with the plot you have more gray matter available to ponder how annoying the narrator is. Maybe it’s just not holiday reading. I do find it bizarre that it is on the Modern Library List (#93), while The French Lieutenant’s Woman is recognized only on the Modern Library Reader’s List (#30). The French Lieutenant’s Woman strikes me as an incredibly elegant and complex jewel in the crown of twentieth century literature, while The Magus is just kind of thrilling and has sexy twins in it. Am I being unfair here?2. The Things They Carried. Kind of contemporary for me. During my phase of reading about sad things I read a lot of novels about Vietnam, but it has been a long time since I revisited that period of American history. I thought these stories by Tim O’Brien were wonderful, but I don’t have a lot to say about them. I wept. War is awful. I don’t understand why anybody would want to send a young person off to kill people and die. We should stop having wars. Full stop.3. Garden of the Gods. The sequel to My Family and Other Animals and Birds, Beasts and Relatives. It pains to say this, but this third in the trilogy was kind of rubbish. The writing was careless and I got the distinct impression that Durrell needed to raise money quickly and decided to dash out something along the lines of the earlier successes. Although, in his defense, he probably needed the money to save a rare pink-footed equatorial mongoose, or some such. So, while disappointed with this third effort, I do not hold it against him.4. The Rise of Salas Lapham. I always wanted to read something by William Dean Howells, and now I have.5. The Bonfire of the Vanities. We stayed in a hotel in Oaxaca that had a classic example of the hotel/hostel library of books left behind by guests. Most of the books are in Dutch or German, the ones in English either have something to do with the Dalai Lama, or are by James Michener, or are a Tom Wolfe novel with the first sixty-three pages ripped out. I’ve read this before so I wasn’t worried about the first sixty-three pages, but I did miss them once I had gotten underway. I really get a kick out of Tom Wolfe. Everyone is reprehensible and there is no justice, but he doesn’t make me feel sad. Possibly contributing to the downfall of civilization, but super holiday reading.

Modern Library Revue: #70 Alexandria Quartet (Two Durrells)

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The four novels (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea) which make up Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet share the #70 spot on the Modern Library list. For various reasons I lay down on the job and only read one of them, Justine, so I am not at all qualified to talk about the series. But I do have an opinion about the first installment, and on Durrell generally, so I’ll talk about them and, god willing, get through the rest of the quartet in the future.

This first book of the four, Justine, is narrated by an Anglo-Irish fellow who lives on a Greek island and who is writing about the time when he lived in Alexandria and taught English. He seems like he has posh manners and he knows languages so one imagines that although he had no money he had a certain social cachet wherever he went. In Alexandria he had affairs and smoked and pondered heady subjects all the time (think a straight Isherwood with absolutely no sense of humor), and in odd moments managed to scrape together a pittance. Justine is one of the people he has sex with, and she is a (rather too good to be true) femme fatale, who eventually gives up her husband and lover and runs off to a kibbutz. Meanwhile, his other lover Melissa dies of TB and being two-dimensional.

I was wary of this novel. First, for a shortish book, it is long on boring paragraphs about astonishing feelings which the narrator seems to assume are universal. I have seen some other fiction of this period when everyone wanted to talk about sex and psychology and call gay people “inverts” and frankly it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the first-rate (which Justine evidently is) and the awful. Second, the parts I like I suspect I only like because they appeal to the less edifying aspects of my own nature – basically, the orientalist and dirty-minded ones. (Although, in the case of this novel, “dirty” is in fact the operative word. The sexy bits convey nothing so much as a VD free-for-all taking place in an enormous ash-tray.) Third, for some obscure reason I just dislike Durrell and wanted him to apologize for things, even at moments when I was enjoying the book.

I think part of this dislike is founded in a pointless jealousy. I was a foreign service brat and I have been a lot of places and I used to marginally identify with the annoying Citizen-of-the-World thing Durrell has going on, but there is a duality to the identification. On the one hand, people like him (through no fault of their own) make me feel like a poseur and that I should have lived fifty years earlier in a really disgusting flat and fraternized with people who owned limousines, and I should have known about child prostitution and smoked more cigarettes, and been a man. Instead of being seven and going to school and putting all of my stuffed animals into a wagon. On the other hand, I resent his pretentiousness and his orientalism and his claims on the city of Alexandria and I think, ugh, horrible expat, and roll my eyes. Hypocrite lecteur and all that.

Ultimately, I like for reading to be a pleasurable activity, and reading Justine made me feel too much like I had to put on my Serious caftan. I chose to talk about it here so that I could mention two of the loveliest books I’ve ever read, which were written by Lawrence’s brother Gerald and which are the antidote to all things icky.

They are Gerald’s memoirs of the Durrell family’s sojourn on the Greek island of Corfu from 1935-1939, beginning when Gerald (Gerry) was 10, Lawrence (Larry) 23, brother Leslie 19, sister Margo 18, and their widowed mother “old enough to have four children.” The first book is called My Family and Other Animals, and the second is Birds, Beasts, and Relatives. (I have only just learned that there was a third Corfu book called Garden of the Gods, which is out of print but which I am acquiring second-hand with all possible haste.) The Durrells went to Greece to escape England’s appalling climate, and Gerry, who later became a very well-known and beloved naturalist, writer, and advocate for endangered species, spent his formative years running about in the island looking at bugs, collecting animals, making friends, and being educated after a fashion by friends of his doting family.

Historically, foreign people, especially British ones, have liked to come to Greece and perpetrate arty things in or about it. I think it is because the Greek climate is wonderful, and because Greece has temples and Homeric associations, and because it used to be cheap, and because everyone there was supposed to be virile and mustachioed. Gerald Durrell’s books are delightful because they convey the island’s beauty so well that one feels it viscerally, while remaining free of self-conscious artiness and condescension for their subject. Above all they are full of fun, written by someone who sounds as if he were a kind-hearted person who loved all animals and most people. Gerry calls out the various family members for being absurd, but in a nice way; I believe that they remained close in Gerry’s adulthood, and that it was Larry who eventually encouraged Gerry to write. On page one, Gerry describes his older, literary brother:
It was Larry of course, who started it. The rest of us felt too apathetic to think of anything except our own ills, but Larry was designed by Providence to go through life like a small, blond, firework, exploding ideas in other people’s minds, and then curling up with cat-like unctuousness and refusing to take any blame for the consequences.
The books are full of similar fond tributes. I’m trying to find more rousing ways to say how much I love them, but it’s difficult. They are just happy and heartwarming, is all. I’ll leave you with a characteristic passage (from My Family and Other Animals), which doesn’t include any of Gerry’s numerous wonderful descriptions of the island’s flora and fauna, but which is a good window into the various qualities of the Durrell family. (I know it smacks of the Patriarchy, but it was the thirties, and Margo ends up fine.)
As the summer drew to a close I found myself, to my delight, once more without a tutor. Mother had discovered that, as she so delicately put it, Margo and Peter were becoming ‘too fond of one another.’ As the family was unanimous in its disapproval of Peter as a prospective relation by marriage, something obviously had to be done. Leslie’s only contribution to the problem was to suggest shooting Peter, a plan that was, for some reason, greeted derisively. I thought it was a splendid idea, but I was in the minority. Larry’s suggestion that the happy couple should be sent to live in Athens for a month, in order, as he explained, to get it out of their systems, was quashed by Mother on the grounds of immorality. Eventually Mother dispensed with Peter’s services, he left hurriedly and furtively and we had to cope with a tragic, tearful, and wildly indignant Margo, who, dressed in her most flowing and gloomy clothing for the event, played her part magnificently. Mother soothed and uttered gentle platitudes, Larry gave Margo lectures on free love, and Leslie, for reasons best known to himself, decided to play the part of the outraged brother and kept appearing at intervals, brandishing a revolver and threatening to shoot Peter down like a dog if he set foot in the house again. In the midst of all this Margo, tears trickling effectively down her face, made tragic gestures and told us her life was blighted. Spiro, who loved a good dramatic situation as well as anyone, spent his time weeping in sympathy with Margo, and posting various friends of his along the docks to make sure that Peter did not attempt to get back on the island. We all enjoyed ourselves very much.
So did I.

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