Secondhand Rows 

Join Stephen Reid, our secondhand maestro, every month here as he takes a closer look at a couple of titles from his shelves.

Spring has sprung.

 - Friday, October 04, 2013
The Corfu Trilogy by Gerald Durrell $15.00, PB. Good condition. Spring has sprung. In fact, after the warmest, driest Winter in Sydney since 1859, it feels like it has been around for weeks already.
I write on Election Day, but truly, I am 'politicked out' at present. So, this month's second hand selection will be read on the sun lounger, transporting me back to the island of Corfu between 1935 to 1939 and the comic life of the Durrell family. This book contains Gerald Durrell's three autobiographical accounts of the his time spent in Corfu from age 10 to 14. They are: My Family and Other Animals (1956), Birds, Beasts and Relatives (1969), and The Garden of the Gods (1978). Who has not read Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals? It was on the High School reading list back in the 70s. The only title that made me laugh out loud while I read it. It still does.
The two other volumes are reworkings of the first—adding additional family anecdotes and naturalist adventures of the author. My Family and Other Animals begins with the author's apologetic Speech for the Defence. The book 'was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made the grave mistake by introducing my family in the first few pages ... It was only with the greatest difficulty that I managed to retain a few pages here and there that I could devote to animals'.
The Durrell family consisted at that time of young 'Gerry', Gerald Durrell (1925–1995); his older siblings, 23 year old 'Larry', Lawrence Durrell (1912–1990); 19 year old Leslie Durrell (1918–1983); 18 year old 'Margo', Margaret Durrell (1920–2007); their widowed 'Mother', Louisa Durrell (1886–1964); and Roger the dog. Their father Lawrence Samuel Durrell had died in India in 1928.
The book divides into three sections: The Strawberry Pink Villa, The Daffodil Yellow Villa, and The Snow-White Villa. These were the three houses the family stayed in. Upon arrival the Durrells are taken under the (very) protective wing of boisterous taxi driver Spiro Halikiopoulos (nicknamed 'Americanos' because he spent eight years in Chicago), who becomes devoted to Mother. The comic episodes of the family provide much humour: aspiring novelist Larry being regularly  disrupted by the numerous animals Gerry brings home; Margo kissing the feet of the mummified remains of Saint Spiridion during a religious procession and coming down with flu; gun owning and sailing enthusiast Leslie attempting to convince everyone that young Gerry's future lies in shooting and sailing—'A healthy outdoor life is what he needs!... if he learned to shoot and sail. ..'
As it turns out Gerry's real lifelong passion is nature. His enthusiasm is encouraged by Dr Theodore Stephanides who gives him his first microscope. Soon, fireflies, crab spiders, sea slugs, butterflies, mantids, earwigs, Geronimo the gecko, Achilles the tortoise, Ulysses the owl, two puppies called Widdle and Puke and the Magenpies are all observed, wonderfully described and often brought back to the three villas.
The third character of the book is the island of Corfu itself. The people, the folklore of the island and the seasons are vividly recalled in the most memorable manner:  
Eventually the warm wind and rain of winter seemed to polish the sky, so that when January arrived it shone a clear, tender blue ... the nights were still and cool, with a moon so fragile it barely freckled the sea with silver points. The dawns were pale and translucent until the sun rose, mist wrapped, like a gigantic silkworm cocoon and washed the island with a delicate bloom of gold dust .... With March came the spring, and the island was flower-filled and scented and aflutter with new leaves ... the cypress trees now stood straight and sleek against the sky ... the gloom of the oak thickets was filled with the dim smoke of a thousand blue day-irises ... Even the ancient olives, bent and hollowed by a thousand springs, decked themselves in clusters of minute creamy flowers, modest yet decorative as became their great age.
When I first read this book as a 15 year old, I wanted to travel to Corfu straight away. Well, forty years later I still haven't managed it, but really, all I need to do is re-read these three classic memoirs of a childhood spent on an island paradise ... and I am there. Stephen Reid

RESURRECTED CLASSICS
by Stephen Reid
Friedrich Reck - Diary of a Man in Despair. Paperback. $22.00 
In Munich in 1920, an unknown Austrian born artist, war veteran and self styled political agitator named Adolf Hitler forced his way into Villa Lenbach, and into a reception hosted by Clemens von Franckenstein, the director of the Bavarian Court Theatre, on the pretext of discussing set designs  for operas. An eyewitness recalled the scene:
He had come to the house ... wearing gaiters, a floppy, wide-brimmed hat and carrying a riding whip. Hitler sat there, the stereotype of a head waiter—at that time he was thinner, and looked somewhat starved—both impressed and restricted by the presence of a real, live Herr Baron; awed, not quite daring to sit fully in his chair, but perched on half, more or less ... not caring at all that there was a great deal of cool and elegant irony in the things that his host said to him, but snatching hungrily at the words, like a dog at pieces of raw meat.
Eventually he managed to launch into a speech. He talked on and on endlessly. He preached ... we did not in the least contradict him or venture to differ in any way, but he began to bellow at us. The servants thought we were being attacked and rushed in to defend us. When he had gone we sat silently confused and not at all amused. There was a feeling of dismay, as when on a train you suddenly find you are sharing a compartment with a psychotic ... Finally Cle stood up, opened one of the large windows and let the warm spring air into the room ... the fresh air helped dispel the feeling of oppression. It was not that an unclean body had been in the room, but something else: the unclean essence of a monstrosity.


This is just one of the kaleidoscopic glimpses of Germany recorded by Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen (1884–1945),  a ferociously anti-Nazi Prussian aristocrat. The son of a conservative landowner, Reck-Malleczewen studied medicine and later became a literary critic, travel writer and successful author of several light, entertaining  novels.


This is an extraordinary, almost unclassifiable book. Compiled as a diary between 1936 and 1944 it contains eyewitness accounts, rumours and gossip of Nazi atrocities and everyday experiences—all written with both furious outrage and black humour as Reck chronicles his 'life in the pit'. His loathing of the Nazis was immediate and total. While no supporter of the ill-fated Weimar Republic, Reck saw that the mass-irrationality of  National Socialist dictatorship would inevitably lead Germany to catastrophe.


His literary talent is employed to find ever more savage and amusing bon mots to describe Hitler: 'that forelocked gypsy type', 'the power drunk schizophrenic', 'a raw vegetable Genghis Khan', 'the Chief Eunuch', 'a figure out of a German ghost story', 'a headwaiter closing his hand around the tip', and, perhaps best of all, 'a middle-class antichrist'.


As a safeguard, after completing each new diary entry he would seal the diary in a tin container and then bury the container in the woods on his land.


Midway through the diary, Hitler vanishes as Reck turns his gaze upon the Germans themselves. In 1936, he sees a Hitler Youth member a fling a crucifix into the street with a cry of 'Lie there, you dirty Jew!' For protection, the author now carries a loaded revolver as he walks the streets of Munich. By October 1940, despite military successes aplenty: '...Germany, drunk with victory is sick. The language one hears... makes the blood run cold.'


In 1942:  'The winter has changed the war ... the spectre of Russian retaliation is rising from the snowy wastes. My honest countrymen are now trying to drown out their fear by believing in miracles that will change everything ... a gas that will destroy all life in a large country in ten seconds. A fantastic bomb ... three of which would sink the British Isles ...'


In March 1943 he reports on the execution in Munich of student activists, brother and sister Hans and Sophie Scholl, for the crime of distributing anti-Nazi leaflets: 'Their bearing before the tribunal, especially the girl, was inspiring. They flung their contempt for the court into the faces of the judges and declared that those who were persecuting them would within a year be called to judgement before the throne of God.'


On 21 July 1944, after hearing of the attempted assassination of Hitler by a group of army officers, Reck praises the deed and their courage, but in the next sentence: 'Now really gentleman, this is a little late ... you made this monster, and as long as things were going well gave him whatever he wanted. You turned Germany over to this arch criminal ...'


The last entry is dated 14 October 1944. It is an account of Reck's arrest for refusing to join the Volkssturm—the newly created civilian militia of all males aged between 16 and 60. He was released. It was a brief reprieve. He was arrested again in December 1944 for the charge of 'insulting the German currency', having complained in a letter to his publisher that inflation was eating away at the value of his book royalties. He was sent to Dachau concentration camp, where he was shot on 16 February 1945.


Although warned by his close friends of the dangers of writing  such a diary Reck- Malleczewen was undeterred: 'I must ignore the warning and continue these notes, which are intended as a contribution to the cultural history of the Nazi period'.
Diary of a Man in Despair was first published in 1947. It appeared in an English translation in 1970. Went out of print. Reappeared again in 1996, suffered the same fate and  has now been reissued in this handsome New York Review of Books Classics paperback. It includes an informative afterword by historian Richard J. Evans (not introduction as the cover says). Stephen Reid