Constant Reader should know by now that one of my favorite writers is Daphne du Maurier. I was a teenager when I first got my hands on a copy of Rebecca, and I have reread the book every few years ever since. Around this same time–I think I was thirteen?–I also got a copy of her short story collection, Echoes from the Macabre, and become forever also enchanted by her story “Don’t Look Now.” These short stories were kind of a revelation to me; I hadn’t read many short stories at this point outside of the ones I had to read for English classes (and quite frankly, forcing teenagers to read “The Minister’s Black Veil”, with all due respect, should be considered a violation of the Geneva Convention, as is making them read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), and her mastery of subtlety, and weaving small details that turn out to be hugely important later was one of the things I admired the most about du Maurier. Over the course of the next few years I would return to du Maurier, to read The Flight of the Falcon, Frenchmen’s Creek, The Winding Stair, Jamaica Inn, The King’s General, and Rule Britannia. I didn’t love these other novels as much as I loved (love) Rebecca, but I became an enormous fan of du Maurier and her writing style; I also loved how she subverted tropes and genre expectations with her novels. I also loved that she wrote across a broad range of genres and styles with her work; you never really know what you’re going to get when you pick up one of her novels.
I had gotten a copy of her short story collection The Breaking Point several years ago; it contains some of the same stories as Echoes from the Macabre (“The Pool,” “The Blue Lenses”–bloody fantastic story, and “The Chamois”), and opens with “The Alibi,” which I read as part of the Short Story Project a few years back (was it last year? The year before? Does time have any meaning anymore?) but the other day (was it last week? Two weeks ago? Time has no meaning anymore) when I was talking about “Death in Venice” in reference to du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” and someone asked had I read du Maurier’s “Ganymede”? I had not, so I looked it up and was most delighted to see it was included in The Breaking Point; I just hadn’t gotten into the book far enough, and it is sandwiched between “The Blue Lenses” (which you really must read) and “The Pool”; which explains when I never progressed further in the book, having already read those two stories.
So, having now read both “Don’t Look Now” and “Death in Venice”, I thought it was perhaps time for me to read “Ganymede,” which is the du Maurier tale most often academically associated with “Death in Venice”–but it is very different.
They call it Little Venice. That was what drew me here in the first place. And you have to admit that there is a curious resemblance–at least for people like myself, with imagination. There is a corner, for instance, where the canal takes a bend, fronted by a row of terraced houses, and the water has a particular stillness, especially at night, and hte glaring discordancies that are noticeable during the day, like the noise of the shunting from Paddington Station, the rattle of the trains, the ugliness, all that seems to vanish. Instead…the yellow light from the street lamps might be the mysterious glow you get from those old lanterns set in brackets on the corner of some crumbling palazzo, whose shuttered windows look blindly down upon the stagnant sweetness of a side-canal.
It is, and I must repeat this, essential to have imagination, and the house-agents are clever–they frame their advertisement to catch the eye of waverers like myself. “Two-roomed flat, with balcony, overlooking canal, in the quiet backwater known as Little Venice,” and instantly, to the famished mind, to the aching heart, comes a vision of another two-roomed flat, another balcony, where at the hour of waking the sun makes patterns on a flaking ceiling, water patterns, and the sour Venetian smell comes through the window with the murmur of Venetian voices, the poignant “Ohé!” as the gondola rounds the bend and disappears.
In Little Venice we have traffic too. Not sharp-nosed gondolas, of course, gently rocking from side to side, but barges pass my window carrying bricks, and sometimes coal–the coal-dust dirties the balcony; and if I shut my eyes, surprised by the sudden hooting, and listen to the rapid chug-chug of the barge’s engine, I can fancy myself, with my same shut eyes, waiting for a vaporetto at one of the landing-stages. I stand on the wooden planking, hemmed in by a chattering crowd, and there is a great surge and throbbing as the vessel goes hard astern. Then the vaporetto is alongside, and I, with my chattering crows, have gone aboard and we are off again, churning the water into wavelets with our wash, and I am trying to make up my mind whether to go direct to San Marco, and so to the piazza and my usual table, or to leave the vaporetto higher up the Grand Canal and thus prolong exquisite anticipation.
As Constant Reader knows, I spent a mere twenty-four hours in Venice on our trip to Italy back whenever that was (2014? 2015? Time has certainly ceased to have any meaning), and it was certainly not enough. Our trip was timed beautifully to avoid crowds of tourists I expected to see in Venice, Florence, and Pisa; it wasn’t planned that way but simply worked out for us. We arrived in the city on a bright sunny early afternoon; lugged our bags through the narrow streets to find our hotel, which was a charming family business on a back canal, not far from the Rialto Bridge and a very short walk to the Piazza San Marco. It did turn gray and start drizzling a bit as we walked around exploring the beautiful city, and I was completely enchanted by it; twenty four hours was certainly not enough. I did stand in the Piazza San Marco and say, quoting Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “ah, Venice.”
I’ve also been writing a story set in Venice, which I’ve been wanting to do since I was there–and probably should have done before now. It’s called “Festival of the Redeemer,” and in some ways it’s yet another homage to “Don’t Look Now”, but it is also it’s own story–it was kind of inspired by “Don’t Look Now”, but as I write it it’s become something else entirely. So, I wanted to reread “Don’t Look Now”–and then of course moved on to “Death In Venice,” before coming around to “Ganymede.”
I can see why the latter two stories (“Death in Venice” and “Ganymede”) are academically linked; there are similarities between the stories: two older men coming to Venice on a holiday; the city wasn’t either’s first choice of vacation spot; and soon after their arrival they find themselves obsessed with a beautiful teenaged boy. In the Mann story, his main character is a rather stuffy and pompous author whose successes and literary brilliances have earned him an honorary nobility in Germany; in the du Maurier, he is a classics scholar, an utterly unbearable pretentious snob, and basically a pedophile with a taste for post-pubescent boys. In the Mann story, Aschenbach’s obsession with teenager Tadzio is portrayed as both something noble and pure and beautiful; no lust, nothing impure, nothing to see here; it’s an aesthetic and pure admiration for the young man’s classical and breathtaking beauty, which inevitably leads to Aschenbach’s death because he has become aware of the cholera outbreak but he cannot bear to leave his beautiful young man behind. The story has thus been embraced by academia as a classic–even though the entire story rings with a hollow inauthenticity that renders the entire thing a pointless masturbatory exercise on Mann’s part: by trying to make a bold sentence about aging and death and the pursuit of beauty and love in a pure form, it overlooks the simple, basic thesis that Aschenbach is drooling over the good looks of a fourteen year old. Aschenbach is nothing more than another Humbert Humbert, convinced that his “love” for a child is something noble and pure rather than its tawdry reality.
Du Maurier doesn’t have that same sentimentality and nobility of purpose than Mann apparently had when undertaking his tome; she saw right through it and saw the story for it was, and her pastiche–if it was indeed influenced by the Mann story, and not something she thought up herself–lacks sentimentality and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it actually is: the self-justification of a pedophile for what happened to him in Venice–and the damage his peculiarity of taste causes. But du Maurier’s unnamed narrator (another trick of which du Maurier was fond; not naming her main characters) reads much like Humbert Humbert; he is trying to justify his tastes, predilections, and desires for young boys as something noble–but du Maurier exposes the tawdriness underlying his unsavory tastes. The object of his obsession also goes without name other than Ganymede; which our pedophile starts calling him once he sees him waiting tables in the Piazza San Marco, and is reminded, not only by what he does for a living but by his youthful beauty, of the myth of Ganymede–the only time in Greek mythology in which the beauty of a young man so moved Zeus that he brought him to Olympus, made him divine, and replaced his female cupbearer, Hebe, with him. And so the young man becomes Ganymede in the myth being spun by our narrator.
Nor is our narrator the only villain in this tale; Ganymede’s uncle notes the narrator’s interest in Ganymede and thus prepares to exploit the attraction; one is never certain whether Ganymede himself is in on the scam, or is an unwitting prop in his uncle’s procuring. The story, of course, concludes with a tragedy–most du Maurier tales do–but unlike Aschenbach, our narrator does not die in Venice; but causes the death of his obsession. The story concludes with our narrator back in London, living in his two-room flat in Little Venice, remembering his experience and remembering his Ganymede and the tragedy that ensued…but the story closes with him talking about another young waiter at another restaurant, in this “little Venice”, one who reminds him of Ganymede and the delusions he built up around him; he is doing the same thing with this new shiny object that has crossed his path…it is clearly, as du Maurier makes plain, his pattern.
I greatly enjoyed this story, and while I can see the parallels, as I said, with “Death in Venice”, I feel du Maurier took a more honest and realistic approach to telling her story than Mann did with his. I will reread this story again–its a great story–and will probably dive into some more du Maurier this summer.