Friday, August 26, 2016

Friday's Forgotten Books, August 26, 2016

 (from the archives)

(Review by Deb)

This is one of Daphne du Maurier’s lesser-known works and, I would venture, one of her hardest to classify.  The novel’s Italian setting and the gothic, somewhat supernatural air might remind readers of her famous short story, “Don’t Look Now,” but the plot and characters couldn’t be more different.  There are extended flashbacks throughout the book and a very strong parallel between a city’s Renaissance past and its mid-1960s present.  I’ve read most of du Maurier’s work and I really can’t find an appropriate comparison between FALCON (published in 1965) and anything else she wrote.

The story concerns two brothers, Fabbio, the narrator, and his older brother, Aldo.  (There is a mild twist involving Aldo fairly early in the book, which I won’t spoil for those of you who haven’t read it. However, it is telegraphed rather clumsily, so few will be surprised when it occurs.)  Fabbio is employed as a guide for a company that provides package tours (which were just becoming popular at the time the book was written).  Although he performs his job with professional competence, Fabbio is a rather muted young man, lacking the passion and gusto for living often associated with the cliché of Italian manhood. When he is not working, Fabbio spends much of his time remembering his childhood during World War II in the town of Ruffano where his beautiful mother safeguarded her family by having affairs with first a German and later an American officer.  For many years, Fabbio has stayed away from Ruffano and its memories, but the murder of a former family servant in Rome leads him reluctantly back to his birthplace.

The town of Ruffano (which is entirely the product of du Maurier’s imagination, although it could be based on a number of cities in the alpine areas of Italy) possesses a mountainous geography and Renaissance architecture that make it both hauntingly beautiful and darkly ominous.  Some of the books best passages are du Maurier’s descriptions of the area’s buildings and terrain.  A palace built high in the mountains dominates the town; its highest point is a small balconied room (perhaps at one time a private chapel) which contains a 15th century painting of Christ being tempted by Satan to leap from the balcony and fly over the city.  At one point in Ruffano’s history, a mad Duke, known as the “Falcon,” actually jumped from the tower in an attempt to prove his divine nature. This rather heavy foreshadowing, coupled with the title of the book, will leave few readers guessing what the climax of the story will involve!

Fabbio’s brother, Aldo, a pilot during the war and a much more powerful and vibrant presence than his younger sibling, has established himself as a leader of the university students in Ruffano, gathering around him young people who he leads in a sort of cult of personality.  Aldo’s brand of leadership is looked upon with concern by the town’s authorities who have sharp memories of what happened to Italy during the war under the leadership of another charismatic personality. With the passion (and, some would say, the heedless self-righteousness) of the young, those under Aldo’s direction have formed a secret society that has been known to attack town leaders and people who have opposed their way of seeing things, although nothing can be tied directly back to Aldo. There is concern about an upcoming city-wide celebration and what the secret group might be planning to disrupt the proceedings.  This forthcoming event looms large over the rest of the story.

Once back in Ruffano, Fabbio (or “Beo”—“blessed”—as his childhood nickname would have it) is reunited with his brother.  Although he is supposed to be investigating the murder of the family servant, Fabbio is persuaded to quit his job as a tour guide and work in the university’s library helping to catalogue some very old books.  (For long stretches of the book, the murder that brought Fabbio back to Ruffano seems utterly forgotten.)  The library books, and the centuries-old documents found hidden within their pages, will play a role in the story as the past of the mad “Falcon” and the future of Ruffano (with Aldo as leader?) intertwine.  Aldo’s ease in manipulating his younger brother and Fabbio’s apparent passivity in the face of that manipulation will play out over the course of the novel especially in regards to two female characters:  Signora Butali, a married woman who Fabbio reverently regards as being Madonna-like, but who the reader infers is having an affair with Aldo, and Carla Raspa, a university teacher who is interested in Fabbio, who, in turn, is repulsed by Carla’s more aggressive personality and sexual experience.

The book has an odd subtext: Both homoerotic and homophobic at the same time.  There’s an obvious dominance-submission dynamic between Aldo and Fabbio, starting in their youth; several flashback passages describe the rather strange games the brothers played together—nothing of an actual sexual nature, but with a distinct erotic element.  Fabbio’s excessively uncritical admiration for and obsession with his older brother make it impossible for him to develop a mature relationship with a woman.  And yet, a minor gay character receives short shrift from Fabbio, who expresses disgust at the man’s orientation and lifestyle.  A most peculiar dichotomy—and perhaps indicative of du Maurier’s (and the era’s) own ambivalence toward the subject. It does, however, date the book badly and make it much more of a “time capsule” than many of her other books.

Eventually, the day of the celebration arrives. Various strands of the plot come together and the climax, hinted at throughout the book, takes place.  In some respects, the forces of order and civility triumph, but we’re not sure how Fabbio will eventually come to terms with what has happened.  THE FLIGHT OF THE FALCON is not one of du Maurier’s more successful novels:  The foreshadowing is heavy-handed and, despite some beautifully-descriptive passages of the Italian landscape and architecture, I would certainly not recommend it to someone unfamiliar with her work.  However, for someone who has read a number of her better-known works (such as REBECCA, MY COUSIN RACHEL, and THE BIRDS) and wants to read something completely different from the same author, THE FLIGHT OF THE FALCON would not be a bad choice, if only to show that even the most talented writer won’t hit one out of the park every time they’re up to bat.

Sergio Angelini, HOUSE OF EVIL, Clayre and Michael Lipman
Yvette Banek, THE EYE OF THE ABYSS, THE IRON HEART, Marshall Browne
Joe Barone, STEWBALL, Peter Bowen. JESUS, INTERRUPTED, Bart D. Ehrman
Les Blatt, MR. CAMPION'S FAULT, Margery Allingham
Michael Carlson, HANDS OF A STRANGER, Robert Daley
Bill Crider, CROSS THE RED CREEK, Harry Whittington 
Martin Edwards, INSOLUBLE, Francis Everton
Richard Horton, STAMBOUL NIGHTS, H.G. Dwight
Jerry House, THE DAY HE DIED, Henry Kuttner and C.I. Moore
George Kelley, DETECTIVES A to Z ed, by McSherry, Greenberg, and Waugh
Margot Kinberg, BIG LITTLE LIES, Liane Moriarity
Rob Kitchin, THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH, Richard Flanagan
B.V. Lawson, TROUBLEMAKER, Joseph Hansen
Steve Lewis/Barry Gardner, ANGELS IN HEAVEN, David M. Pearce
Robert Arthur, editor
J.F. Norris, AS OLD AS CAIN,  M.E. Chaber 
Matt Paust, SOMETHING HAPPENED, Joseph Heller
James Reasoner, MIAMI PURITY, Vicki Hendricks
Richard Robinson, SAMSARA, by John Hamilton Lewis
Kerrie Smith, PLAY DEAD, Angela Marsons
Kevin Tipple/Barry Ergang, HAIL, HAIL, EUPHORIA, Ray Blount, Jr.
TomCat, A CHILD'S GARDEN OF DEATH, Richard Forrest


Todd Mason said...

Very interesting assessment, Deb...I've only known the title of this one, hadn't pursued it. Perhaps Du Maurier noted some of the concerns that such colleagues as Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith, Joan Aiken, "Vin Packer" and Muriel Spark (and Robert Bloch, Richard Condon and Cornell Woolrich) were bringing to their suspense fiction of the era, and thought she should give this kind of (somewhat more outre) character study in the suspense novel a try, a partially successful experiment. Hell, the Theodore Sturgeon novel in my anthology choice for today might well have been driven by a similar desire on its author's part...

An engaging lot, as comes my post.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I think that the homoerotic aspects are those that perhaps tie it most evidently to the rest of her work. Ultra small point, Fabbio is the surname of the character, not his Christian name (which is 'Armino'). However, Fabio (with just one 'b') is a very popular first name in Italy.

Yvette said...

Running late today, Patti. But my FFB post is finally up. Phew!!

Charles Gramlich said...

More good stuff to read. just what I need

Todd Mason said...

As you probably know, Sergio, the Italian emigre Fabio, mononymed after his great success posing for romance-novel covers led to wider exposure, has fixed that version of the name firmly in the US collective least for a while longer, most likely...

Up, sorry for the delay: FFB: Robert Arthur, editor: ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS: STORIES MY MOTHER NEVER TOLD ME (Random House, 1963)

J F Norris said...

Mine's up now: As Old As Cain by M. E. Chaber

J F Norris said...

It's not a "peculiar dichotomy" at all if you're gay. The self-loathing gay man who is repelled by the openly gay man not only exists in real life in abundance, but is very prevalent in genre fiction dealing with gay men and their sexual relationships whether written by straights or gays. Gore Vidal's books are riddled with men like DuMaurier's, for example. Part of the exploration of LGBT people coming to terms with themselves as sexually expressive people is the struggle to accept "gayness" in others. That struggle has always been depicted in hundreds of novels and short stories dealing with gay and lesbian identity. Not to mention one of the reasons that we still have such a high rate of suicide among LGBT teens.

Mathew Paust said...

I've not read anything by Du Maurier, yet, but Deb's review has enticed me to check out Flight of the Falcon in spite of her caveat to first-time Du Mauriers.

Anonymous said...

Mathew--I'd still reccomen starting with one of du Maurier's better-known works. If you start with FALCON (truly a minor work), you might not be interested in reading one of her more famous (for a reason) books. If you really want to start off the beaten path, I'd recommend my favorite du Maurier (one of my favorite books, period), THE PARASITES.

JF--I meant no disrespect in my assessment of the subtext in FALCON. It's likely that my perspective was somewhat blinkered. I just found it odd that a character whose entire world seemed to be obviously filtered through that of another man would be so disgusted by someone who was "out"--and rather flamboyantly so (in a very mid-sixties way). I hadn't considered the concept of the self-loathing gay male--and I wonder if du Maurier intended that. She was, apparently, very attracted to other women (I believe one of her sisters was an out lesbian), but she married and had several children and seemed always to be fighting her same-sex attractions--which she worked out on paper in a variety of ways.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you did a lesser-known du Maurier, Patti. She had a lot of dimensions to her writing, and it's nice to see some of the ones we don't see as often. And thanks for including my post in this week's links.

Mathew Paust said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Deb. I've ordered a book containing three of her novels--King's General and House on the Strand in addition to Falcon. Now I'll keep an eye out for The Parasites.