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‘If she didn’t live in a big house how could it be a question of her having rooms to spare? If she were not amply lodged you’d lack ground to approach her. Besides, a big house here, and especially in this quartier perdu, proves nothing at all: it’s perfectly consistent with a state of penury. Dilapidated old palazzi, if you’ll go out of the way for them, are to be had for five shillings a year. And as for the people who live in them – no, until you’ve explored Venice socially as much as I have, you can form no idea of their domestic desolation. They live on nothing, for they’ve nothing to live on.’

Right that’s it. I am decided. I will never travel to Venice. Only bad things happen there. As for evidence, I present you with Death in Venice; Don’t Look Now; the city’s a literary death trap! Plus I hear Venetians don’t like tourists and I look just like a tourist. Even when I am at home.

So this book’s setting earns a black mark from me, but also its author. I have had a troubled history with Henry James. I tried to read The Portrait of a Lady when I was a teenager (I believe the Nicole Kidman film had just come out). I did not make it past the second chapter. The prose just killed me, it was far too dense. I have since managed to read The Turn of the Screw (an excellent book that has been adapted into an equally excellent film – The Innocents), but that was nice and short, not long enough for James’ prose style to hurt my fragile brain.

This book is equally short and I am quite grateful for it.

The Aspern Papers is concerned with the efforts of our nameless narrator, a poetry devotee, to worm his way into the affections of two ladies who may in possession of missing material belonging to the dead poet Jeffrey Aspern. Pretending to be an innocent lodger, the narrator moves into the home of Miss Juliana Bordereau, a former lover of Aspern. Attempting to feel out how she would respond to his request for information about his literary hero, he discovers that her reserve is unaffected by his obsequious entreaties. Instead he turns to her niece, Tina, who proves more amenable to his advances.

A curious game of cat and mouse emerges, bound up in wordplay and the limits of politeness. As Miss Juliana’s health begins to fail, the narrator becomes more desperate to become the beneficiary of his literary hero’s legacy. How far is he willing to do.

I have to say I actually found myself enjoying the prose of my nemesis with this book. James invests an incredible amount of psychological detail into his characters. The narrator’s treatment of Tina is quite cruel, but she is revealed to have hidden stores of strength, taking him by surprise before the story’s conclusion. Miss Juliana might be a Dickensian Miss Haversham (certainly in the narrator’s covetous eyes she is), were it not for the fact that she has lived a full life and now simply wants to be left to her memories. What right does this book thief have to plunder them?

A civilized battle of wits, with a satirical bent. Surprisingly enjoyable for me.

“Darling”, she said, “I know you won’t believe it, and it’s rather frightening in a way, but after they left the restaurant in Torcello the sisters went to the cathedral, as we did, although we didn’t see them in that crowd, and the blind one had another vision. She said Christine was trying to tell her something about us, that we should be in danger if we stayed in Venice. Christine wanted us to go away as soon as possible.”

Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg is one of my favourite films. Easily in the top ten. Along with Visconti’s Death in Venice it has successful convinced me never to visit that European tourist mecca.

This collection of short stories by Du Maurier comes with an excellent introduction by novelist and editor Patrick McGrath. He describes how Du Maurier had an impressive number of cinema adaptations of her work, with Alfred Hitchcock returning to the font a number of times. However, his version of The Birds, which is also featured here, not only transposed the setting to America, but lessened the apocalyptic feel of the story itself. McGrath reports that the author was most pleased with Roeg’s attempt, a fugue of visual associations that matches the supernatural paranoia of the novella.

The title story’s grieving couple try to escape the trauma of their daughter’s death by travelling on holiday to Venice. John and Laura play games over meals at their hotel, such as making up stories about the fellow guests. John delights in returning his wife’s smile to her face, erasing the worried frown that has haunted her since their child Christine died of meningitis.

Then one evening John notices two women staring at him from across the restaurant. He tries to include them in his comical banter with Laura, but feels uneasy. Despite comparing them to doddery old Australian spinsters, or more outrageously drag artists, the intensity of their stare disturbs him. Laura leaves to go to the bathroom and returns, suddenly elated. One of the women, Scottish sisters from Edinburgh, approached her with a message. Their daughter Christine is with them, standing in between them laughing.

John angrily dismisses any suggestion that these women have any kind of psychic gift and ignores their warning that the couple must leave Venice. They also insist that John himself has the gift of second sight.

The stage is set for a perculiarly unsettling supernatural tale of marital dischord and paranoia, with John’s growing anger at the sisters clouding his judgement. Du Maurier captures the two voices of Laura and John perfectly, as well as the sleeping hysteria that follows the death of a child, always moments away from being unleashed. The dark alleys of Venice are cloaked in menacing shadows, with the guileless blundering of tourists through the winding passageways leading them onward into danger.

The Birds also focuses on an English family caught up in a distressing situation, although Du Maurier describes a far more apocalyptic, post-WWII scenario. Nat tries to protect his wife and two children from an inexplicable rise in attacks from a host of birds on their small country farm. It quickly becomes apparent that the whole country is suffering similar attacks and unprepared for the savagery of the innumberable attackers, the authorities are quickly rendered powerless. Nat’s attempts to keep his family’s spirits up even as their supplies decrease and the emergency broadcasts on the radio are silenced makes for the emotional backbone of this story.

The imagery employed is brutal and bloody. Nat fights back against attacking birds in the upstairs bedroom by wielding a blanket like a club. Soon the flower is covered with the corpses of a multitude of birds. In attempting to repair the cottage’s defences he begins to stuff the bodies of dead birds into the cracks in the glass windows and damaged planks of wood (a macabre touch I thought would have suited the film quite nicely).

McGrath includes several other shorts by Du Maurier, including the ghostly fable Escort and a tale of tragic infidelity in a small Breton coastal village La Sainte-Vierge, where once again, as in Don’t Look Now,  a mystical vision is mistaken to mean something quite different.

These stories are perfectly poised, delicate and unwavering in their quiet sense of doom. An excellent collection from an unassuming master of supernatural horror.

I would also like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I hope Santa brought you plenty of good books!

Who has not battled a fleeting shudder, a secret dread and anxiety upon boarding a Venetian gondola for the first time or after a prolonged absence? That strange conveyance, coming down to us unaltered from the days of the ballads and so distinctively black, black as only coffins can be – it conjures up hush-hush criminal adventures in the rippling night and, even more, death itself: the bier, the obscure obsequies, the final, silent journey.

Luchino Visconti’s film of Death in Venice was always a favourite of mine, with its use of Mahler and beautiful Venetian scenes. I never got round to reading source material though, Thomas Mann’s classic novel about artistic frustration and obsession. Now I realize Visconti conflated elements of two of the German writer’s books – Death in Venice and Doctor Faustus – changing the main character’s profession of writer to music composer, presumably as the themes of the novel are more easily translated to film if the subject is music and not literature.

Gustav von Aschenbach is a celebrated author who has received commendations from his king, his writing selected as class texts for school children and now in his fifties, enjoys a high level of fame and privilege. One day as he takes an afternoon constitutional through his home town he sees a strange man who catches his quizzical gaze and embarrasses Aschenbach by glaring back at him. Caught up in these feelings of embarrassment and shame, the writer’s calm is thrown off-balance and he is suddenly seized by a desire to travel. His orderly existence is too predictable and tiring, he needs a holiday to refresh himself. Some weeks later he sets off, eventually arriving in Venice in the grip of an unpleasant heatwave.

With the city’s canals rising and the humidity pressing upon Aschenbach’s delicate constitution, he decides to leave shortly after checking into his hotel. However, he happens to see a family of Poles dine in the hotel and is amazed by the startling appearance of a fourteen year old boy in the group. While the boy’s three sisters are dressed conservatively and obediently follow their governess, their sibling has long golden hair, wears less formal clothing and seems to be the most spoiled of the children, the constant centre of attention. Aschenbach learns that the boy’s name is Tadzio and begins to find excuses to spend his days down at the beach to watch the his object of obsession at play, even choosing to have his meals at the same time in the hotel. Even as the city’s climate continues to become more oppressive, with officials ordering restrictions that no one seems able, or willing, to explain, the celebrated German author ignores his suspicions, allowing his new obsession to take over.

Thomas Mann commented that this story was an effort to discuss the ‘dignity of the artist’, and the current translation by Michael Henry Heim contains an interesting introduction by Michael Cunningham that argues all books are in effect translations, attempts to capture the idea dreamt up by the writer’s mind with the written word. Aschenbach is troubled by the thought that he has become conventional. He enjoys his fame and national renown, but underneath he is aware that it is a poor recognition of his desire to achieve perfection in his art. He is obsessed with abstractions, ideal forms and “particulars”, becoming more divorced from life by his philosophical musings.

Mann introduces several odd individuals who are very particular indeed, robbing the author of his philosophical poise. First there is the stranger visiting his home-town, who inspires his sudden feelings of wanderlust. Then there is a fellow passenger on the boat to Venice, an aging dandy, whose face is heavily made-up. Then the cartoonish musician, with the mocking uncontrollable laughter that may in fact parody the effects of the pestilence the Venetian authorities are covering up. I would argue that Tadzio is yet another of this group, a ‘particular’, that Aschenbach’s philosophy cannot reduce to theses or antitheses. His sudden admission of ‘I Love You’, is a complete loss of self-control, a statement that is made with no one else present to witness it.

Death in Venice is a book about love, or rather desire. Aschenbach abandons all his hard-won professorial airs and has a barber dye his hair and plaster his face like the dandy on the boat. All to make himself look young enough for Tadzio.

A beautiful, tragic fable.

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