Readers may think they have already read Gerald Durrell's "Fauna & Family." They have and they haven't for it is preceded by "My Family and Other Animals" (1956) and "Birds, Beasts and Relatives" (1969), both of which are also sun-filled, funny accounts of this English-writing family's five pre-war years on the Greek island of Corfu. Author-naturalist Durrell, who claims he just had to leave out a lot from that happy childhood in his previous volumes, is still and again 10.
With collecting jar and net he stalks wildlife once more, irritating his older siblings as before by filling the family villa with birds, snakes, rodents and by converting the veranda to sick bay and dissecting theater. His most acrimonious critic, brother Lawrence, on the way to writing the "Alexandria Quartet" and with a room opening onto the veranda, complains that his own quarters smell like the interior of Ahab's boot. Life with Gerald is "like the bloody creation all over again, only worse." $"In those days, living as we did in the country, without the dubious benefits of radio or television," Gerald explains, "we had to rely on such primitive forms of amusement as books, quarreling, parties and the laughter of our friends . . . " All again are entertainingly offered here -- as well, such remembered figures as the colonel whose table talk runs to hippo flatulence, the retired mariner of lecherous habits and chanteys, and quite especially the beloved tutors. Dr. Theo, grave, encyclopedic, paces the deges of water ditches with his young companion, "patient as any wading bird," dipping with his net for the egg sac of a great silver water beetle. Hunchbacked Kralefsky excuses his pupil from committing to memory "the glittering pageant of English history" till the two have fed some infant jays.
As it turns out, a convalescent hoopoe bird takes on the feedings. Attracted somehow by the timbre of the calls, the hoopoe rams grasshoppers down the jays' throats. The babies wheeze, scream, flap their wings in delight.
How blessed Durrell is in his education -- and in an allowance to cover the fish and meat bills run up by his pets and patients! The schoolchild-reader may be pardoned for turning peevish with envy. Peasant neighbors ply this boy with food, gossip and bruising kisses from gums as hard as a tortoise's mouth. His family sharpen pencils for him while he -- flat on stomach -- observes some elegant and resourceful aspect of animal behavior.
Several chapters are built around new characters -- foppish count, boorish Turk, overeager suitor -- who come under the heading of tiresome houseguests, and Durrell does not bring off the trick of describing them without becoming tiresome himself. For what the statistic is worth, this is the first of the Corfu books over which I did not laugh aloud, though I could see I was expected to. In an afterword the author -- who has a sanctuary on the British island of Jersey for breeding rare animal species -- urges readers to join his work by writing for details (donations forms?) to the Wildlife Preservation Trust.
Some fans may choose to reread "My Family and Other Animals" and forward the cost of the new book to the Trust. Others of us, willing to spit out the episodes of forced humor, will browse with pleasure through the rest. We'll savor the moons and dragon-green skies, the stupefying Mediterranean meals (see book-jacket portrait for evidence of author's continuing passion for food) and all the quick, marveling depictions of fauna. Memorable are a baby gecko downing its lacewing fly; turtles mating to the sound of Pekinese-yaps and the crashings of shell on shell; Eresus niger, a spider, hanging out her balloon of eggs encapsulated in a web; the tale of pup Lazaarus, resurrected; perhaps most surprising of all; a mother and eight dormouse babies caravaning so that (each grasping a tail) they whisk across floors like an animated scarf.