The Flight of the Falcon (Daphne du Maurier)

Posted: April 6, 2015 in fiction
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One of the delights of reading du Maurier novels is that she knows her tradition. Rebecca, her most famous novel, is rather similar to Jane Eyre. My Cousin Rachel is close to Wilkie Collins’s Basil. Her earliest novel, The Loving Spirit, uses some ideas from Wuthering Heights. She doesn’t copy directly from the writers of the past; she uses enough material to remind us of our Gothic past, then transforms it for the twentieth century. The Flight of the Falcon is a great example of this. She pulls from the Ann Radcliffe novels of the 1790s, but changes the theme and mood at the end.

Following Mrs Radcliffe, we open in a benign situation: Armino Fabbio is a tour guide, hauling a bunch of American and British tourists around Rome (notice that we are distanced from our readers in either place or time; the time is contemporary, but our story is safely tucked away in central Italy), fielding questions, keeping the guests happy, dodging passes made by lonely men willing to pay for his time. Then he starts experiencing some cognitive dissonance, hearing a homeless woman on the street wailing his childhood nickname, wondering what connection is being formed between the present and the distant past.

Also following Mrs Radcliffe, Fabbio picks up a false sense of guilt. That guy who dropped a ten thousand lire tip trying to get him in bed? Fabbio gives the fortune to that homeless woman, and she’s killed that night. Some of his guests want to go to the police, but he doesn’t tell them about the money. When they show up later, asking for him, he assumes that he’s being accused and runs. He hasn’t done anything wrong, but he doesn’t trust the law enforcement, so he panics anyway.

An essential early step, of course, is to trap the heroine in an ancient castle or otherwise big scary house. [Sorry, Radcliffe always went with heroines – Fabbio is in a traditionally feminine role.] To get there, Fabbio leaves Rome and works his way back home, to the little village in the north where he grew up. His father had been in charge of the former duke’s estate, giving tours and maintaining the property and household goods. The father and older brother had died in World War II, and he and his mother left town. The castle is still there waiting for him, complete with a legend or ghost story about the evil man who used to live there.

The Falcon was duke five hundred years ago. He was a terrible leader; his courtiers and he grew ever more decadent, ever more violent, dismaying and upsetting the villagers who supported them. The legend is that one day the Falcon got so crazy that he climbed up to the highest tower and jumped off, something similar to the temptation of Christ only he actually did jump, proving that angels don’t protect people from stubbing their toes. The historical records are a little different: the way they tell the story of the flight, he hitched up eighteen horses and galloped through the town square on a busy market day, killing several supposedly worthless peasants. The people rioted, pulling him from his chariot, and killing him en masse. It’s not du Maurier’s style to scare us with ghosts, though; we need a real villain.

Armino’s brother didn’t actually die in the war. When his plane was shot down, he started working for the resistance. Unlike his living family, he came home after the war. While Armino was getting a degree in European languages and becoming a tour guide, Aldo Donati was also getting a couple of degrees and taking over his father’s former position. The estate is now owned by the university, so Donati has a sort of professorship. Things seem less rigidly codified in the 1960s. Every year he puts on a bit of a pageant with the university students, and the whole town gets a big kick out of it. This year he’s recreating the flight of the Falcon. He takes advantage of the existing rivalry between the modern economics majors and the more traditional arts students. He whips up the emotions with a series of pranks against leading faculty members; one of them even involves rumours of rape. I was shocked by just how casually everyone takes the supposed rape of the leading matron of the women’s dormitory. Even an educated woman, a university professor, thinks it’s funny and exactly what she deserves for being so strict. She isn’t actually raped, but she is tied up and passes out, and the boys let her think she was violated.

Aldo makes some good speeches, though:

It is essential that every volunteer should believe in the part he plays, should think himself into his creation. This year you will be the courtiers at the Falcon’s palace. You will be that small body of dedicated men. You, the Arts students of the university, will, by your very nature, become the élite. You are so already. For this you are here in Ruffano, for this you have your reason for living. Yet you are a minority in the university, your ranks are small, the immense numbers swamping the other Faculties are barbarians and goths and vandals who, like the merchants of five hundred years ago, understand nothing of art, nothing of beauty. They would, if they had the power, destroy all the treasures we possess in the apartments here, perhaps even pull down the palace itself, and put in its stead . . . what? Factories, offices, banks, commercial houses, not to give employment and an easier life to the peasant who lives no better now than he did five centuries ago, but to enrich themselves, to better themselves, to own more cars, more television sets, more biscuit-box villas on the Adriatic, thus breeding ever greater discontent, poverty and misery.

And, to the other group of students:

If they could get rid of me they would. Just as they would get rid of you, the whole fifteen hundred of you, if that’s what you muster – I haven’t the figures before me, but it’s near enough. Why do they want to get rid of you? Because they’re frightened. The old are always frightened of the young, but you represent a threat to their whole way of life. Any one of you who passes out of this university with a degree in Commerce and Economics is a potential millionaire, and, more than that, he will have a chance of helping to run the economy not only of this country but of Europe, possibly the world. You are the masters, my young friends, and everyone knows it. That’s why you’re hated. Hatred is bred of fear, and your contemporaries who haven’t your brains and your technical knowledge and your enthusiasm for life as it will and must be lived tomorrow are frightened of you. Frightened blue! No schoolteacher, no grubby lawyer, no chicken-livered so-called poet or painter – and that’s what the students of the other faculties are trying to become – will stand a chance beside you. The future’s yours, and don’t let any half-baked set of decaying professors and their pathetic dwindling band of followers stand in your way. Ruffano is for the living. Not the dead.

He’s playing both sides, working the crowds into a frenzy, with things getting complicated by the little family drama of his baby brother, supposed dead, appearing in town just before his moment of triumph. Family is very important to Aldo; du Maurier extends this to all Italians. I’m not saying it is or it isn’t, but it seems like a stereotype. The emotionally violent Italian is also a stereotype that du Maurier perpetuates, much as she defies their supposed tendency to physical violence. This book starts as a murder mystery, but all the stuff between Armino and Aldo distracts from the murder for a while. The book is short enough, though, that she keeps things moving along fairly quickly. It starts a little slow, but it doesn’t stay at that pace.

I’ve been running into my own problems with past and present. Five years ago, I lived in a little place with the ex-wife and kids, and we stored stuff with her parents and my parents and friends and left little pieces of ourselves scattered about the South. Then we split up and I left the country for a while. I got a storage unit and gathered stuff from my parents’ places – after coming out of the closet, the less I rely on them the better – so everything was either in the shed or with me. Now I’ve cleared out the storage shed and everything I own is finally in one place. I’m surrounded by things I hadn’t thought of in so long I had forgotten I owned them, as well as recent acquisitions. It’s like all the pieces of my life are jumbled up together, a temporal pastiche, gifts from Saudi students and the brother who disowned me, postcards from the Mapplethorpe exhibit in Paris last spring and letters from when I was a missionary in Brazil when I was nineteen, and then there’s the painting of a teddy bear that my mom did the night before I was born, the blanket I slept on as a baby, the blanket I carried around for far too long as a child, the dragon blanket I got as a teenager, and the afghan I made last week. Possessions used to belong to times and places, and now they’re all here and now. It’s even more disorienting than facebook. Despite some internal confusion, it’s good for me. It’s a way of demonstrating that I’m finding peace with all the different people I have been. I am still all the people I have been, and I don’t hate any of them. I’m learning to be healthy.

The Flight of the Falcon starts a bit like a regular murder mystery, but du Maurier follows an older model. It may not be what you expect, du Maurier shows more faith in humanity than most mystery writers, but it’s still satisfying. She writes beautifully as ever, though this novel is more plot-driven and less nature-loving than some of her other novels, significantly less nature-obsessed than Radcliffe herself. It’s good, fairly typical of this stage of her career. Read it, it’s nice.

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