Encounters With Animals

Originally published in January 2005, in 3 parts. Book 48 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Gerald Durrell
Year published: 1958
Pages: 180
Genre: Memoirs, animals and animal collecting
Where got: Bought it somewhere

This is a collection of essays about animals that naturalist Gerald Durrell recorded for the BBC in the 1950’s. Some of the essays are original material, and some are about animals he had written about before in his books, so this will be partly a new reading experience for me and partly a return visit to old friends (I've read about 90% of Durrell's non-fiction books). Part of the book is about animal habitat and animals in general, part is about specific animal characters (some or all of which he has written about in his other books), and part is about interesting people.

My love-affair with Gerald Durrell’s books
It’s strange to read Gerald Durrell’s wonderful books knowing that he hated writing and only did it to finance his animal collecting expeditions and his zoo. It certainly does not show in his writing (well, at least not his early writing. Some of his last books feel a bit rushed). His style is beautiful and he had the gift of being evocative in his descriptions of animals, people and places. To read his description of a bower bird decorating his bower for a non-existent mate and a bird of paradise displaying his singing and dancing skills in front of an unappreciative audience (Encounters with Animals) is in some ways a more alive experience than watching the same scene unfold in a nature documentary.

I was ten when I first read Durrell’s classic memoir, My Family and other Animals, and I have read it approximately once a year since. It was brilliantly translated into Icelandic and the translator was able to capture perfectly the style and humour of the original. It was 6 years before I read another one of his books (in English), and after that I was hooked. So was my mother, and between us we own most of his non-fiction books, and a couple of his novels.

Durrell is one of the authors who awakened in me the desire to travel to exotic places. I know of course that the countries he describes don’t exist any more as he describes them, and although I get a glint in my eye whenever someone mentions the Greek island of Corfu (the setting for My Family and other Animals), I am not sure I want to visit it, knowing it has become a tourism magnet and party island. I would much rather keep the unspoilt, pre-WW2 image of it.

Patagonia (The Whispering Land), which at the time of Durrell’s visit was relatively unspoilt and certainly not a tourist destination, is now a popular place for backpackers to visit, thanks partly to Bruce Chatwin and Paul Theraux. I do want to visit it, but I fear the magic Durrell found there may be gone. Guyana (Three Singles to Adventure), Cameroon (The Bafut Beagles, The Overloaded Ark), Paraguay (The Drunken Forest) and Mauritius (Golden Bats and Pink Pigeons) are all on my “want to see” list and so is the more mundane destination of Jersey (Menagerie Manor, The Stationary Ark). I would not have considered any of these places as desirable destinations (well, maybe Mauritius) if Durrell had not described them so beautifully.

Gerald Durrell tried his hand at writing novels, but they were not in the same league as his non-fiction. Rosy is my Relative is a funny and farcical book, based on true events, and the best of his novels that I’ve read. Big brother Lawrence was the family novelist, and has left his tracks in British literary history. Gerald will be remembered for his autobiographical naturalist/travel books, and it remains to be seen which brother will be the more enduring author.

As I mentioned earlier, this is a collection of essays/scripts for talks which Durrell recorded for the BBC. It is about animals, places and people that he has come across, and starts out with two descriptions of animals and their habitat, goes on to discuss animal courtships, architecture, warfare, inventions and endangered animals, specific animals Durrell met and liked, like The Bandits (kusimanses), Sarah Huggersack (anteater), Wilhelmina the whip-scorpion and Pavlo the marmoset, and ends with two portraits of people Durrell met on his travels.

Technique and plot:
Durrell was a born storyteller. He wrote beautifully and evocatively about subjects dear to him, among which were animals, nature and nature conservation and interesting people. This book gives a taste of each subject, and would, I think, make a nice introduction to Durrell for someone who has not read anything by him before. It is the best of his collections that I have read, as it has a theme even if it is not a single story. The other collections contain essays and short stories that have too widely different subjects to be really good.

Rating: A good introduction to Gerald Durrell’s writings and a good read for amateur naturalists and children who are interested in nature and animals. 4 stars.


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