Monday, November 18, 2013

Three Du Maurier Stories from Don't Look Now

Collection: Don't Look Now: Selected Stories of Daphne du Maurier
Author: Daphne du Maurier

For some of the stories, I didn't accept the premise; sometimes there was an over-reliance on coincidence and clairvoyance. But even in those cases, I enjoyed the atmosphere of the story.

Du Maurier is great at upending reality and writing about people who, in one way or another, are trapped in their own minds. They perceive a reality that they can't communicate to others; other people don't want to (or can't) understand them or believe them. Everywhere they go, they're failed by family, friends, the police, doctors, everyone we usually think can help. She understands this kind of terror and isolation. Even when one of her characters experiences clairvoyance, which you'd think would give them a greater understanding of what's going on around them, they're still blind in all the ways that matter.

Her stories will definitely stick with you. These are the three I liked best:

Title: The Blue Lenses
A woman undergoes surgery to save her eyesight. For weeks afterwards, she recuperates in a nursing home with bandages over her eyes. At last, the day comes when she can be fitted with some temporary lenses that will help her make an adjustment back to full sight. But something strange happens when she gets these new lenses. She sees the head of an animal on everyone around her. One nurse has a cow's head, another is a weasel. Her surgeon has the head of a Jack Russell terrier. She thinks it's a joke at first, that they're all trying to test her vision by wearing masks, but soon realizes that these aren't masks. But what do the animal heads mean? Do they reveal each person's character?

The story is funny and horrifying and could easily have been adapted into a Twilight Zone episode. And I love the psychological insights here, into how people often find it easier to be blind and are willing to sacrifice themselves to hold onto illusions that comfort them.

Title: Monte Verità
When I started this one, I was confused about what was going on. One of the characters is reminiscing about people and relationships from years ago, and what he says makes sense only after you've read the story in full. Once I got past the initial confusion, the story drew me in. It starts before WWI and takes you to the site of a remote mountain temple in Europe run by a mysterious priestess and her fellow worshippers. There are many rumors about them - the main one being that they're immortal. But few can glimpse what goes on behind the walls of the temple.

Breaching the walls violently will reveal nothing. Love and a sense of wonder will reveal more of what goes on, but if the love is built in part on illusions and idealizations, there will be limits to how much of the temple you can access. What the worshippers all seem to have is a love that's completely accepting - no dreams, no illusions, no need to make each other prettier than they are. What they perceive is wondrous enough as it is. This is a comment on relationships too - do we love the people in our lives, or only the dream of them? There's a woman and two men in this story who love each other in different ways, and their relationships play out in the final days of the temple on Monte Verità. Does the modern world, with its disillusioned people and powerful weapons, have room for places like Monte Verità and the kind of perceptions experienced by the worshippers? It's a place with clean air, clean sunshine and moonlight, and a clean descent into a crevasse.

Title: Split Second
A widow goes for a walk and returns to find strangers living in her home. Everything is gone, no one seems to know who she is, and her attempts to explain her predicament to the police make them think she's insane. She has a daughter who attends a boarding school, and a housekeeper who irritates her. Maybe they can be reached?

It's a poignant story, told in suspenseful detail. The main character seems helpless, and her struggles to be understood are agonizing. Nothing in her civilized life could have prepared her for this. But she doesn't give up her hope of reaching her daughter.