Saturday, August 06, 2011

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories (1971) by Daphne du Maurier

Don't Look Now
Five longish short stories linked together by their supernatural subjects, their misanthropy and the recurring motif of losing control.

Du Maurier's gift, if any, seems to be for inventing incident, but decidedly not for character, detail, or language. Her writing is adequate at best, dreary and banal at worst, with some clumsy turns of phrase here and there suggesting a one-draft writer (this last abortive ten days that ended so abruptly, or the murderers for whom the police sought). Her characters are cardboard cut-outs, defined in the most general terms, in crude strokes. But the famous twist at the end of the title story is probably no fluke: the author does seem to know how to create, at times, a striking scene, a haunting turn of events. That is certainly not enough to lift her into the first rank of literature, but sometimes enough for her subjects to linger in memory.

The story I liked best is The Way of the Cross, in which a group of English tourists from the middle and upper-middle class find themselves in Jerusalem during Passover. Through a combination of external circumstances and their own character flaws, all of them are put to a test and find themselves frustrated and failing in the performance of their social function. All have to re-examine their self-images which prove to be distinctly separated from reality. Perhaps the most striking - even bizarre - portrayal is that of the substitute vicar, who is inexperienced at guiding this sort of party, and thus completely inefficient, yet highly arrogant with his democratic ideal of a working-class parish where the 'lads' may be rough but closer to a communal Christian spirit than the more-or-less leisured Jerusalem lot. The hint of latent homosexuality is not the most disturbing thing here: the vicar suffers a man's ultimate humiliation in the Temple of the Holy Sepulchre, shitting himself due to some acute bowel disorder, and thereafter reflects that perhaps Jesus on the Cross, in his fear and loneliness, suffered it, too - and this sort of not unsubtle but certainly misanthropic black humour seems to be characteristic of Du Maurier.

Not After Midnight is an interesting story with a rather Aickmanesque subject, but resolved a little clumsily, perhaps, with the reader being told simultaneously too much and not enough. A Border-Line Case is a female sexual fantasy of sorts; it links sexuality with some darker aspects of the human nature in a curious way which does not quite work dramatically and leaves an unpleasant aftertaste, but definitely disturbs as must have been the author's intention. The last story in the book, The Breakthrough, is the most overtly fantastic - almost sci-fi - and at the same time the most conventional, with a plot which might have been borrowed from a 60s TV episode.

The title story makes a shocking impression in comparison to the film - in the sense of being shockingly inferior. It is the least atmospheric of the lot, despite being set in Venice, and its prose is commonplace even for Du Maurier. But more strikingly, it turns out that most of the incidents that fill the film are interpolations by the screenwriters. Virtually nothing of the film is present in the original: the early scene in the restaurant, much curtailed - the visit to the police - the walk back to the two sisters' pensione - and the final twist, of course, but that's it. Much of the story - and it's not a particularly short one - is filled with John's quite tedious thoughts and perceptions and with inconsequential exchanges like the long discussion of possible ways of travelling back to England. There are no visual patterns of any kind, or thematic patterns, for that matter, either. Why is a frozen pond flat? has the touch of brilliant obliqueness totally lacking in Du Maurier. Two other vital elements are missing from the story: the love and the tragedy. The death of John and Laura's daughter is only treated in retrospect, and the trauma of it is not an overwhelming presence. There is even an implication that John is not too seriously affected by the loss. Neither the love between the couple nor their love for the dead girl is in evidence; in fact, based on the story, it is not even clear that the couple have enough imagination to suffer much. What happens in the story is just a supernatural muddle, or at most a macabre joke of the misanthropic sort. In retrospect, after the other stories have been read, a certain crudeness in Du Maurier is obvious, and being stabbed by a grotesque dwarf mistaken for a child becomes an incident of the same sort as shitting oneself in church. Indeed, in the story's last line John perceives his death as a humiliation, in the same way as the vicar in the other story takes his own bizarre ordeal. The story's ending is the final insult to the film, the crowning disappointment. Instead of a rhythmical bang, a transcendence of language, such as one expects from the masters of the form, the text of the story dwindles into inconsequence just as John's life does.

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