What I’m Reading: The Flight of the Falcon, by Daphne du Maurier

The Flight of the Falcon (1965) is generally considered one of Daphne du Maurier’s less-successful works–it wasn’t mentioned in her obituary and The New Yorker called it “extraordinarily dull”–but it’s always been my favorite.

Armino Fabbio has been marking time as a tour guide for the “beef and barbarians” that come to visit Italy. (Beef is his term for the English tourist, barbarian for the American.) After a beggar woman, slumped in a corner of the palazzo, reminds him of home, Armino dreams all night: of Ruffano, the ducal palace, and the inhabitants—his parents, Marta, and Aldo. Aldo most of all.

In his dream, Armino remembers acting out the story of Lazarus with his brother. He has been swaddled in his father’s faintly-stinking night-shirt and thrust into the laundry closet to await Aldo’s voice of Christ.

The handle of the closet turned. The door softly opened. Aldo cried, “Lazarus, come forth!”

So great was my dread, so disciplined to his commands my spirit, that I dared not disobey. I came forth, and the horror was that I did not know whether I should meet with the Christ or with the Devil, for according to Aldo’s ingenious theory the two were one, and also, I some manner which he never explained, interchangeable.

Thus at times my brother, robed in a towel as Christ, bearing a walking-stick for crook, beckoned me with  smile, fed me with sweets, put his arms about me, was kind and loving.But at others, wearing the dark shirt of the Fascist youth organization to which he belonged and armed with a kitchen fork, he would represent Satan, and proceed to jab me with his weapon. I did not understand why Lazarus, the poor man raised from the dead, should so have earned the Devil’s hate, and why his friend, the Christ, should so basely have deserted him; but Aldo, never at a loss, informed me that the play between God and Satan was unending, they tossed for souls as men in the world, and in the cafes of Ruffano, threw at dice. It was not a comforting philosophy. 

Aldo is more than a little nuts. But he was killed in the war, as was their father;  Armino, the youngest of the family, has been actively forgetting it all ever since.

Still, Armino is disturbed by the dreams. Even more so when he learns that the beggar woman whose slumped figure brought it all back to his mind has been murdered in the night.

Suspecting he might know the identity of the murdered woman, Armino returns to Ruffano to find that the small university of his childhood has expanded: the university is now the focus of the city. The students in the departments of the university are deeply and violently divided—the Commerce and Economics department pitted against the Arts department in a battle that seems oddly heightened and even inspired by the faculty.

Leading the  turmoil is the charismatic and mysterious Director of the Arts Council, enmeshed in plans for the annual students’ pageant. This year their inspiration is historical: the original Duke of Ruffano’s madness. He judged and punished the secret sins of the Ruffanese, he counted himself a deity, he perished in a mad running of the horses (Pamplona-style) through the walled city. Armino is enormously surprised to find (highlight for spoiler) that Aldo, his assumed-dead brother, is the Director of the Arts.

Armino is given a temporary position in the university library, and thus gains access to some original documents detailing the events of Duke Claudio’s life and death. He is shocked to note the similarity between the events of the early fifteenth century and what has been occurring in Ruffano.

(And you’ll have to read the book for more details. And you should.)

I love this book. It is one that I’ve consistently cited (along with Possession, and Gaudy Night) as a favorite. I love the mingling of the present (well, 1960’s) problems (student demonstrations, questioning of the place of the arts in a world of commerce) with the utter timelessness of the walled Italian city. Du Maurier does such a good job of establishing the time in this novel—the events of the second world war, now twenty years in the past, are as present and as intrinsic to the plot as what happened yesterday.  And what happened yesterday arose directly out of what happened five hundred years ago.

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