Towering ‘Monte Verità’ by Roger Dobson
Saying anything about Daphne du Maurier’s story ‘Monte Verità’, in an attempt to whet readers’ appetites, risks ruining its spellbinding effects. The only injunction necessary is: Don’t miss this one. More haunting than Rebecca, more bizarre than ‘Don’t Look Now’, with echoes of Picnic at Hanging Rock and ultimately as enigmatic, this novella is one of the most enchanting productions of du Maurier’s pen.
A fantasy, dealing with the quest for truth in the modern world in the form of an unforgettable love triangle, the tale opens in New York, the skyscraper blocks of which reflect the ‘holy mountain’ theme of the story, with the unnamed narrator (à la Rebecca) musing on the strange events that unfolded in his youth many years earlier, in 1913 and in the 1930s. To the luminously beautiful faces he sometimes sees in the New York crowds he longs to cry, ‘Were you among those I saw on Monte Verità?’
Years before, the narrator’s great friend Victor has married a Welsh beauty, Anna, who possesses ethereal, unearthly qualities and cares nothing for material possessions. Staying with them at Victor’s estate in Shropshire, the narrator finds Anna’s bedroom is as bare as a nun’s cell. One night he sees Anna standing barefooted on the frosty lawn gazing at the moon. Her peace affects the house itself. The narrator tells her:
‘You have done something to this house. I don’t understand it.’
‘Don’t you?’ she said. ‘I think you do. We are both in search of the same thing, after all.’
For some reason I felt afraid . . .
‘I am not aware,’ I said, ‘that I am in search of anything . . .’
‘Aren’t you?’ she said.
The story, as can be seen, has echoes of Rebecca, in that the heroine becomes the lady of the manor, but we are never allowed into Anna’s mind. She is more unfathomable than the first Mrs de Winter. Victor and Anna holiday in a mountainous region of Europe, but the narrator cannot accompany them, and regrets his decision for the rest of his life.
Du Maurier’s narrator is deliberately vague about the setting: ‘There are many mountain peaks in Europe, and countless numbers may bear the name of Monte Verità.’ When the couple scale the Mountain of Truth, Anna leaves Victor behind and climbs to the summit alone. It is her destiny, and Victor’s undoing. Once the reader has encountered those who dwell on the mountaintop, the sacerdotesse, they will never be forgotten. A young village girl tells how she met the beings:
"I was with my companions on Monte Verità. A storm came, and my companions ran away. I walked, and lost myself, and came to the place where the wall is, and the windows. I cried: I was afraid. She came out of the wall, the tall and splendid one, and another with her, also young and beautiful. They comforted me and I wanted to go inside the walls with them, when I heard the singing from the tower, but they told me it was forbidden . . . They were more beautiful than the people of this world. They led me back from Monte Verità, down the track where I could find my way. Then they went from me. I have told all I know."
And that is more than enough . . . At the finale the mystery at the heart of the story remains intact and unexplained, but many readers will find this welcome rather than regrettable; just as a woman in a swimsuit can be more alluring than one naked as Eve (though, of course, it all depends on who the woman is).
Du Maurier herself perhaps gives too much away in the prologue, for the story begins with the climax and then flashes back. The reader would be better starting the story several pages in, at the paragraph beginning ‘We were boys together, Victor and I . . .’ (This pioneering Lost Club technique is known as ‘creative reading’. You should hear about the impudent and blasphemous manner in which we recommend The Lord of the Rings be read.)
‘Monte Verità’ was first published in The Apple Tree (Victor Gollancz, 1952), retitled, for obvious commercial reasons, in Penguin, Pan and Arrow paperback, as The Birds and Other Stories. Though superior to ‘The Birds’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’, not much critical attention seems to have been paid to the story. Margaret Forster’s biography Daphne du Maurier (1993) devotes half a page to it, focusing solely on its erotic aspects (yawn), suggesting that intimacy between men and women was, in du Maurier’s eyes, unsatisfactory: a facile tie-in with the theory concerning her (unconsummated?) affair with Gertrude Lawrence. Fiction writers create scenarios at their peril. Some critic will always arise to take the themes of a story literally and apply them psychologically to the author’s life.
As Kingsley Amis commented — and his words should be inscribed in letters of gold above every critic’s desk — ‘Where there are no mysteries or hidden cross-references in a writer’s work they must be invented. The favoured technique is that of trivial/accidental association, whereby anything in the text that reminds the critic of anything else, however uselessly, is fair game.’ Amis relates the story of the student ‘who is supposed to have remarked that the first two words of the phrase “to be brutally frank” was reminiscent of Hamlet’s soliloquy’. Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre without the necessity of keeping a mad wife in the attic at Haworth. Tolkien spent half a century writing about elves; does this mean he believed in their existence? As Anthony Powell has a character say in Books Do Furnish a Room (1971): ‘X. [Trapnel] said that no reader ever believes a novelist invents anything.’
The only really significant revelation in the du Maurier biography regarding ‘Monte Verità’ is that Victor Gollancz suggested a rewrite when, in the original version, Anna was transformed into a — but see the biography. Some hints of du Maurier’s original plot twist appear in the story, but revealing them would spoil readers’ pleasure.
(This is the first of a planned series of short articles by the late Roger Dobson, originally intended for further issues of The Lost Club Journal, and, so far as we know, previously unpublished. Thanks to Ray Russell for converting this material from obsolete disks).