April 24, 2009

Daphne du Maurier: Don’t Look Now

Posted in du Maurier Daphne, NYRB Classics at 8:00 am by John Self

It’s typical of my wrongheaded priorities that the only time I’ve been inclined to read a book by Daphne du Maurier – author of Rebecca! Creator of The Birds! – was when I saw a book of her stories issued in Penguin Modern Classics. That volume – Don’t Look Now and other stories – was a collection published in her lifetime (original UK title: Not After Midnight). Other than the title story, I had mixed feelings about it. Now the du Maurier estate have clearly decided to have another crack at my defences, with a double whammy of a selection of her stories chosen by Patrick McGrath, and published by NYRB Classics.

dontlooknow

I felt the stories here – nine of them, filling 360 pages – to be of better quality than the Penguin book – which they well might be, as a sort of best-of. Having read the title story, I can see why the film it inspired – which I haven’t seen – is so famous (and not because of the realistic sex: none of that between these covers): it’s brilliantly creepy and sinister, wonderfully reducing Venice from city of romance to a tawdry, soiled backdrop for cruelty and paranoia. I knew the vague bones of the story – dead child, couple go on hols to recuperate, spooky goings-on, child in red cloak omnipresent, lots of water – and that’s all you need to know too if you’re a newcomer like me. The opening line is good:

“Don’t look now,” John said to his wife, “but there are a couple of old girls two tables away who are trying to hypnotise me.”

- and, cleverly, is actually a joke and not a sinister opening … only for it to become sinister very quickly. The only weak point is the very last sentence, which risks reducing the whole thing to bathos – it’s very badly judged and should have been removed, leaving the penultimate sentence to do its unsettling work.

Du Maurier’s other most famous story, ‘The Birds’, comes next. It’s a story that’s hard to come to fresh, so famous has the Hitchcock adaptation become (achieving the sort of cultural osmosis so that even people who haven’t seen the film know what it’s about). This doesn’t matter, as it’s quite different, and better, in written form. The build-up of atmosphere is superb, and it ends up a Wyndhamesque thing, bleak, apocalyptic and really quite frightening. And English. As with Wyndham, too, du Maurier’s characters tend to be stout, hearty types, everymen to whom strange things happen. McGrath in his intro calls ‘The Birds’ “a starting point in the popularisation of an entire genre of environmental-catastrophe narratives” – or perhaps not quite the starting point, as it was published a year after The Day of the Triffids. (‘The Birds’ in fact exceeds Day of the Triffids as a concept – where Wyndham had to blind everyone to make plants threatening, flying creatures with sharp beaks need no such assistance.)

Endings are one of the strengths of du Maurier’s stories, particularly when they open the story up further rather than closing it down. This is exhibited well in ‘Blue Lenses’ which, like many of the stories here, could be summed up in a single sentence, a high-concept pitch. The one where the birds start attacking people. The one where the woman gets her sight back but... This simplicity in summary risks making them seem one-dimensional, and some of the time I couldn’t help thinking that critics were right when they “dismissed with a sneer” her work, as du Maurier unhappily put it. Like Nevil Shute, she is a popular writer with just enough critical kudos to drift in and out of print.  But there is more here too. ‘Blue Lenses’ has a faintly silly premise, but it succeeds where others do not because it offers not only an indication of life extending beyond the story (the last lines are deliciously suggestive) but beneath the story too.

‘Split Second’, by contrast, spends most of its 55 pages treading water so that the characters can gradually catch up to what the reader had worked out early on (in fact they never do quite catch up). The same goes for ‘Escort’, a moment of crisis on a wartime ship. In a way this playing for time is a necessary motif of suspense stories – the slow building of atmosphere is an essential element of such work, and in that sense requires a little length to get going – but the problem is expectations. The sort of supernatural or sci-fi elements that arise here might be surprising in a story read out of the blue, here we know that in a du Maurier story that sort of thing is de rigueur, and so I just kept thinking, ‘Get on with it!’

Some of the stories resemble Roald Dahl’s adult fiction – his ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ – though lack his skittish charm. Du Maurier wrote her short works throughout her writing life, between the 1920s and the 1980s, but all have a period feel, slightly fusty and formal. Weakest of all are a couple of early works, a dozen pages or less each and pretty unmemorable.

However the last story, and longest at 80 pages, ‘Monte Verita’ is every bit the equal of ‘Don’t Look Now’ and ‘The Birds’ – and even, with its novella length, has the scope to dig a little deeper than those, and be more unusual still. Instead of Roald Dahl I was reminded of Stefan Zweig – story of two obsessions, one we can see the workings of and one we can’t. Like the others, it is best discovered page by page, so I will say nothing more of it, or of the book, except that now I’ve covered a selection of du Maurier’s short fiction, all I need now is to find a way into her novels. Any recommendations?

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22 Comments »

  1. umlaut said,

    Forget her other novels for at least a couple of hours John, you just have to see the film version of Don’t Look Now! It really is a masterpiece, with an almost literary repetition of key symbols and metaphors, two wonderful central performances, and a tone that veers seemlessly from sinister to domestic and back again – all while Venice is transformed into a single gigantic version of a Piranesi prison. One of my favourite British films of all time.

    Having said all that, I was persuaded to read Rebecca by my girlfriend a while back and – although not my typical choice of reading material by any means – it’s a very astute and gripping work. The apparent gulf(s) in status between Rebecca herself and our famously anonymous narrator is brilliantly sketched and sustains the building tension throughout the whole work.

    By the way, I’m a long-time reader, first-time poster – keep up the good work!

  2. Emma said,

    My Cousin Rachel is worth reading – D du M seems to be particularly good on paranoia, and it’s genuinely difficult in that novel to work out who/what to believe. And the way she taps in to very English worries about class and doing the wrong thing in Rebecca is very sly.

  3. I second umlaut, you absolutely have to watch Don’t Look Now. It’s a taut mix of chilling and heart-breaking. One of my favourite films.

    DuMaurier has been more than plundered by Hollywood, with varying results (Don’t Look Now and Rebecca being the examples of positive adaptations). I always felt the Hitchcock’s film of The Birds, missed out on so much of the human element of the short story.

    As for the novels, start with Rebecca if you haven’t read it, and read Jamaica Inn.

  4. Tony S. said,

    I read “Jamaica Inn” last year and enjoyed it thoroughly.

  5. Sara said,

    Definitely read My Cousin Rachel. I couldn’t put it down. It’s a spot-on portrait of a certain type of woman, and it keeps you uncertain of her essence.

    So glad you liked Monte Verita. That might be my favorite story in the collection as well.

  6. Deb said,

    If you’re somewhat lukewarm about du Maurier, I strongly recommend beginning with one of her lesser-known novels, The Parasites. It’s atypical of much of her work (no supernatural element, for one thing) and, if the comments on Amazon.com are any judge, not very well-liked by readers who love Rebecca. However, in spite of that (or, perhaps, because of that), I think The Parasites is a good place to start. Narrated by three half-/step-siblings (whose parents had a “yours, mines, and ours” situation), the novel tells the story of a talented family of artistes who travel through Europe during the first half of the 20th century. There are some wonderfully evocative scenes of popular culture on the Continent between the wars—a world du Maurier knew intimately (her father was one of the most famous actors of his age, J.M. Barrie was a close family friend, and the five sons of her aunt were the original “lost boys”), and the dynamics between the siblings are very well-written (especially the step-brother and sister, who have what is in essence an incestuous relationship).

    Give it a try, I think you’ll enjoy it.

  7. I actually have a book of her short stories but it does not include Don’t Look Now. And don’t look now ‘cuz I am going right over to Amazon.

  8. Natasha said,

    Definitely agree that if you haven’t seen Don’t Look Now you should rectify that right away. It is one of the best British films ever made. Though a personal favourite, I’ve never read the story on which it was based, might have to do something about that. Of the du Maurier I have read I’d give another vote to My Cousin Rachel. The Parasites sounds mighty intriguing.

  9. John Self said,

    Thanks for the suggestions, everyone – and welcome to those who haven’t commented here before. Looks like my first task is not to read another du Maurier at all, but to seek out a copy of Roeg’s Don’t Look Now.

  10. nico said,

    No, John, please go on with more Du Maurier, ‘My cousin…’, ‘Jamaica…’ and ‘Rebecca’, all of them so pretty and atmospheric. And if you have the time, proceed with her finest heir: Josephine Hart. I don’t think there’s any review of her in your blog?

  11. John Self said,

    No there isn’t nico, and how interesting to hear you (as someone whose opinion I would trust) recommend her. I have an unthinking prejudice against Hart after reading some real stinkers of reviews of her early novels in the 1990s. Just goes to show how those things can stay with you. I will now have to reconsider!

  12. Demob Happy said,

    Hi John,
    Interesting post. Love the creepy red-herring of the opening Iines that you quoted. I was completely unaware du Maurier had also written The Birds and Don’t Look Now – her contribution to this kind of psychologicial horror is much greater than I thought. I have read ‘Rebecca’ of course (and seen the Hitchcock adaptation) – and can recommend them – though somehow the film version of Don’t Look Now seems like a more rewarding prospect. Susan Hill wrote a number of novels in a du Maurier style, including one of several sequels to ‘Rebecca’ itself penned by different authors. But honestly I found the West End theatrical adaptation of The Woman in Black much more frightening than the book.
    James

  13. sharon alexander said,

    Coincidentally, I just finished reading Geoff Dyer’s terrific new novel ‘Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi’ after reading your interview with him (really fascinating interview by the way). It seems it’s not just Mann whose footsteps Dyer is following. On p.138 Jeff and Laura are sitting on the terrace of a café:

    ‘Don’t look now,’ said Laura, pausing for effect. ‘But Jay Jopling and Damien Hirst have just arrived.’

  14. Christopher Enzi said,

    “Realistic sex” is SUCH an understatement for the performances of Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland! It’s acting, not porn. The sex is a breakthrough two long married parents have after months of grief. Oh, and chances are that anyone who talks about the shocking ending actually missed the really shocking part of the ending in that somebody actually does have psychic powers. It’s a film for adults, not an adult film. Nic Roeg does time shift/displacement better than anybody. DON’T LOOK NOW is brilliant and disturbing film!
    As far as other du Maurier… just pick up a few of her books for the first page test until you come to this line…”Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay.” Read THAT one.
    I’m with nico in urging anyone with a taste for McGrath and other unreliable narrators to pick up Josephine Hart. I thought that her books were all pretty crafty literary jewels.
    ps- is the baby a photographic representation of the latest incarnation of Self? Cute.

  15. Rob said,

    So… you’ve had a month now, John. Seen the film yet?

    • John Self said,

      Provided you have no supplementary questions: Yes.

      • Rob said,

        Oh… so what am I supposed to do with all these questions I had lined up?

  16. Clara said,

    The only book of Du Maurier’s that I’ve read so far is Rebecca but I truly adore it. I can’t decide if it’s serious literature or just a trashy roaring Gothic romp, but I don’t really care because it is such fun: fun to read and fun to make up theory for.

  17. John Self said,

    Thanks for your comments Clara. I think du Maurier probably is mostly trashy, but trash that persists for a long time acquires a certain respectability; and as you say, she’s fun to read.

  18. Don’t Look Now is, in my extremely partial opinion, the best film ever made.

  19. John Self said,

    Thanks Nicholas. All opinions are partial, so that’s OK.

  20. samjordison said,

    I disagree about the last line of Don’t Look Now! I really didn’t mind it. I thought it was rather good, even…

    Agreed, otherwise. A most atmospheric book. (Although I did have doubts about the psychic elements…)

    Can recommend Rebecca and My Cousin Rachel. They’re pretty daft, but if you’re willing to suspend cynicism, tremendous fun.


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