L’année dernière à Manderley

I’ve long wanted to read – or to write, and I’ve tried1 – something which marries the claustrophobic atmosphere of Daphne du Maurier’s short stories (such as ‘The Birds’ and ‘Don’t Look Now’ obviously, and also ‘The Blue Lenses’), with the formal experimentation of French nouveau-romaniste Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008).

Although they both published some of their best work around the same time, what similarities they have are largely incidental.

Take du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938) and Alain Resnais’ 1961 film L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad), adapted from a script by Robbe-Grillet. Both feature an unnamed female lead character, and the events of each text occur in the shadow of an uncertain past (which are ultimately resolved in Rebecca, but not Marienbad).

There is also du Maurier’s The Parasites, which is narrated in the first person by three different people, and at no point can we tell which of them is speaking. This technique echoes those used by Robbe-Grillet’s peers Claude Simon and Michel Butor. But the similarities end there.

Much of du Maurier’s work is rooted in a definite place: usually Cornwall, and even then in a very specific locale around Fowey. But Robbe-Grillet’s early work (by which I mean up to around 1963) takes place in eerily unspecified places: an island off the French coast; a northern town; a banana plantation; a grand hotel. But if the writers were too alike, what would be the point in bringing them together? It’s the space between them that makes a marriage of styles enticing.

In their own way, the labyrinths, gyres and mises-en-abyme of Robbe-Grillet create their own atmosphere, especially in works such as In the Labyrinth with its endless, empty snow-covered streets and the “sealed, stifling world”2 of Marienbad. As he explains in the introduction to that work, Marienbad shows

“a reality which the hero creates…out of his own words…among a perfect labyrinth of false trails, variants, failures and repetitions”3.

Robbe-Grillet strips his fiction of the psychological shorthand that denotes a state of mind (such as describing what a character “thought”). He avoids, too, any attempt to explain what a character is “feeling”. Instead, subjectivity is presented in such a way that the reader cannot easily distinguish a purely mental process (a memory, a fantasy, an obsession), from what is being “experienced” at any given time: all are treated as objective phenomena. His works (especially those post-1963) actively work to prevent the suspension of disbelief which is necessary for the creation of any sort of “atmosphere” as found in a gothic tale.

Du Maurier’s work, conversely, gains much of its power from the inner workings of her characters’ minds. Think of the wilful ignorance of Philip in My Cousin Rachel, the fear of discovery which haunts the imposter in The Scapegoat, or the paranoia of Rebecca’s anonymous narrator. This latter, incidentally, at one point slips into an extraordinary imaginary conversation as if it were being lived at that moment; what Robbe-Grillet calls an “objectivised hypothesis”: “an image, if it is vivid enough, is always in the present”4.

From memory, I’d assumed du Maurier’s work was full of charged landscapes that would be anathema to Robbe-Grillet, who loathed the use of pathetic fallacy. But there is little metaphor in The Birds, for example: when the marauding flocks are described in military terms, that’s because they act with the precision and deadliness of an army. They are what they appear to be. The Venice of Don’t Look Now is a labyrinth which leads John to his death. It need not take too large a mental leap to see this sort of locale as ripe for depiction in nouveau-romanesque forms. So what might a hybrid of these authors look like? Roads taken; roads not taken but imagined; backtrackings; and all the while a sense of terror grows. Cities, but also forests or moorlands. Or the corridors and rooms of Manderley, the de Winter residence in Rebecca. Places, then, with either too much horizon or none at all, are the most suggestive. Non-spaces like this are the most fertile for a marriage of these two authors. If anyone knows of a work which achieves such a synergy, I’d love to know.


1 Maps and Legends

2 Robbe-Grillet, Alain. Last Year At Marienbad (Grove Press, 1961), p.10

3 ibid, p.10

4 ibid, p.13


photo credit: Jamie Gorman


Calder Books – a celebration

From the briefest of biographical details, John Calder would seem an unlikely revolutionary. Scion of a brewing dynasty, he once stood for election as the Liberal candidate for his home seat of Kinross. But at 90 this Scottish-Canadian publisher is still active, and still fighting against the forces of cultural reaction.

Few publishers can claim a Nobel prize winner on their backlist: Calder has over a dozen. The firm he founded in 1949 (Calder Publications) has had its share of troubles, but that it still exists today, even if only as an imprint, is thanks to his perseverance, and also to the vision of Alma Books.

That any of his authors are still in print in the UK, that least-hungry market for translated (never mind experimental) fiction, is a cause for celebration. For years Calder Books (and later Calder-Boyars) was a rare safe haven for avant-garde fiction in Britain, and their volumes would pop up in the unlikeliest of bookshops.

He courted scandal without fear: he faced an obscenity trial over the publication of Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn, and his Edinburgh conferences in the early 60s were scandalous at the time, not only for the behaviour of some of the featured writers (Alexander Trocchi) but for (shock!) the public appearance of a naked woman. His 2001 autobiography, Pursuit, is startling for its shamelessness (in the best sense of the word) and utter frankness.

Although Calder’s passion is for opera, he will be remembered for bringing a certain type of (chiefly) French fiction to British readers. Books published by the Olympia Press, or by Les Éditions de Minuit were translated by the likes of Christine Brooke-Rose and Richard Howard, and published under the Calder name. These introduced an anglophone audience to the nouveau roman (New Novel – which aimed to forge a new type of fiction appropriate to a post-war world) and its proponents: Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon and Marguerite Duras.

I stumbled across his books by a chain of luck and coincidence. By chance I saw a TV interview with John Hurt who at the time was playing in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Intrigued, I sought out anything I could find by Beckett – of whose work my only previous encounter was a single lecture at University – in my local library. However, they had none of his plays: only a book of short fiction, published by Calder. I borrowed it anyway. Beckett’s stories were like nothing I’d ever read: skeletal, stripped to the bare essentials of what might be recognisable as fiction, and also darkly funny. But the volume contained no reference to other books from the publisher, so I didn’t make any connection: there seemed nothing to connect to.

A few months later, scanning shelves in the Piccadilly Waterstone’s, I saw the Calder Books oak tree logo on the spine of some books by a writer I’d never heard of: Alain Robbe-Grillet. Deciding to give The Erasers a go, and seeing the Calder backlist on the inside of the front and rear covers, I realised there was a whole realm of experimental fiction I’d never previously suspected, and which seemed so deep under the radar I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to find them, had it not been for that chain of events. Over the months and years I hunted down other authors he published: Sarraute, Robert Pinget, Elspeth Davie (whose Providings is one of the great unsung Scottish books, by an unsung Scottish writer) and Raymond Queneau. If I was unable to articulate exactly what it was about these books that I liked, part of it was that they were undeniably European, and that was a good thing.

The new millennium saw John Calder open the Calder bookshop on The Cut, near Waterloo station. More recently though, he sold the rights to Beckett’s fiction to Faber (there are worse fates), and much of his list to Alma Books, who re-released some books under their Oneworld classics imprint. In 2015 they published Calder’s own translation of Robbe-Grillet’s debut novel A Regicide for the first time in English, and 2017 will see their relaunch of the Calder name, with (among others) Michel Butor’s Changing Track (la Modification). Long may it flourish in the twenty-first century.

If these names are new to you, or you’ve heard-of-them-but-can’t-think-where, explore your nearest library, go to the Alma website or the Calder shop, and keep Calder’s vision alive.

photo credit: Jamie Gorman

“There’s been a breakdown at the BBC”: the rural horror of Daphne du Maurier’s ‘The Birds’

It’s my birthday today. I’ve always liked that I share it with two favourite writers: poet and nature writer Kathleen Jamie (born 1962), and the master of mid-20th century English gothic, Daphne du Maurier (1907-1989).

I’m going to take a brief look at du Maurier’s short story The Birds, which can be read as an almost idiomatic text within the related – though not necessarily interchangeable – areas of rural horror and hauntology. It could have been written in 2017 as a pastiche – or homage – to the idea of the hauntological. It utilises every trope and ticks every box you’d care to name. Benevolent State institutions? Check. Malevolence manifesting itself through natural forces? Check. Et cetera, et cetera.

The Birds was first published in 1952. The world it depicts is that of the post-World War 2 settlement: an era – almost unimaginable now – in which nationalised industries were taken for granted, the welfare state was seen as a necessary part of a civilised nation, and homes were being built for a booming population (“the new council houses”). This era’s death-knell was sounded with Thatcher’s election victory of 1979, but the cultural assumptions and attitudes displayed within the story would have been recognisable to a reader in the early eighties.

The basic premise is simple, and familiar to those whose only knowledge of du Maurier’s story is via the Hitchcock adaptation: people, and the places where they shelter, are attacked when birds – all birds – turn on mankind in a systematic onslaught. People die, off-scene but still horribly. Gannets plunge in suicidal divebombings. Beaks peck out eyes; talons wrench at barricades.

Nat Hocken, the protagonist, is a war-disabled farm labourer. Both intelligent and imaginative, he is the first in the locality to spot the behaviour of the birds, to link it to the action of the tides, and to understand the threat it poses.

The folk horror resonances should be obvious from the start. I say “folk horror”, as although there are no instances of folklore or occult magic, the faith which the cowering populace place in the possibilities of science is still faith, and the central act of Nature turning on mankind is enough to place it squarely within the rural horror tradition. This is – or appears to be – nature as Other, bringing terror from the fields, skies and seas of rural Cornwall.

The deference to institutions of state – the fidelity to the BBC and the (civil service) scientists whom Nat assumes are working on a solution to the crisis – dates from a period when society viewed science and progress as not only intertwined, but as a galvanising force for civilisation.

That such an attitude should seem (from the viewpoint of today’s hyper-capitalist dystopia) quaint and almost touching, is key to the hauntological narrative. Hauntology is nostalgic in the true sense of the word, but its sense of longing is for a future which never actually occurred. It holds within it a recognition that the narrative was wrenched aside in 1979, and that something has been lost in the years since Britain was, at a fundamental level, reconfigured according to monetarist principles.

But the post-war era was not an idyll, and The Birds betrays its Cold War origins. The Russians are suspected of being to blame. The reference to “foreign birds” shows the island mentality which initially extends to the Cornish peninsula, but soon to all of Britain and ultimately “all Europe”, with the desperate hope that America will come to the rescue. Britain’s own “back-room boys” have failed the test.

Communication breaks down: news reports become sporadic, then cease. People are trapped inside their homes. Only the birds are connected: “[species of crow] were bound on some other mission. “They’ve been given the towns”, thought Nat. “They know what they have to do.””

At the end, Nat, his two children, and his curiously unnamed wife are barricaded inside their house. There is a moment of bathos in the face of extinction when his daughter Jill berates her brother: “you should learn to wipe your mouth”. Nat saves a final cigarette for “a rainy day”, but realising that such a day has dawned, he is smoking it as the story ends. And it ends in utter hopelessness as he turns on “the silent wireless”. The death of the BBC is the end of civilisation.

I said earlier that the story “appears to be” about mankind facing a malevolent Other, which must be tamed, destroyed or banished. But it is clear that through mankind’s scientific progress it is we who have become the Other. That Nat belongs to the very countryside that is rising against him – he knows his birds, knows the weather, knows the tides – makes it all the more horrifying.

The story will always be overshadowed by Hitchcock’s loose adaptation (though it’s easy to imagine a version set in Cornwall such as Hammer might have made in the early 70’s: how cheap the effects! how very red the blood!), and Virago are to be commended for their efforts in repackaging and – for want of a better – rebranding du Maurier over the last decade. Their smart reprints have also done much to restore her reputation after the awful Arrow editions, the covers of which would lead the casual browser to expect a West Country Catherine Cookson.

Du Maurier herself said she only wrote one romance (Frenchman’s Creek, though her debut The Loving Spirit is a kissing cousin), and there is a bitterness and darkness to much of her work that is profoundly unsettling. Few epiphanies that her characters experience will feel like a blessing and – unlike much gothic or horror fiction – where there is an Other (birds, a malignant apple tree) often it is neither conquered nor purged, but in the ascendant. She is a far from reassuring writer, and in this respect is more transgressive than many writers whose superficially more gruesome work became popular in the 1980s “horror boom”.



Du Maurier, Daphne. The Birds and Other Stories (Virago, 2004).

photo credit: Jamie Gorman

“What’s that man doing, Mummy?”

There have been times when, stuck for inspiration but desperate to keep the wheels turning, I’ve turned to a something that I’m interested in to use as the starting point for a story. This has happened more than once. Want to hear about stories you’ll never read by an author you’ve never heard of? Read on.

Twitch was a story about enmity between a pair of birdwatchers, and was set among the towering reedbeds of the Tay Estuary near where I grew up (I still think they’d make a great location for an eerie story). I like birdwatching but the trigger for this was a visit, deliberately in search of something to spark a story, to the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. At the time there was a huge diorama on the ground floor, of stuffed animals that had once roamed Scotland. One of the birds, stalking through a small forest of dead reeds, was a purple heron. This became the focus of my story. However, a friend helpfully told me that the story’s end was telegraphed pages in advance (thanks Steve) and on reflection, the story never took wing (sorry). The use of something I knew and cared about stifled any hope of bringing the characters to life. It remains unpublished, as lifeless as the exercises in taxidermy that inspired it.

Nicholson, Wood, Wallis was probably both the zenith and nadir of my self-indulgence, and cautioned me forever off using a personal interest as the germ of a story. There’s nothing wrong with writing about something you like, but it shouldn’t be the onlie begetter, and shouldn’t be at the expense of what makes a story breathe. The story was, as the Ronseal title makes clear, about the St. Ives artists, and specifically the day in 1928 when Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood (ironically, themselves artists in search of inspiration) happened across the amateur – “primitive” – painter Alfred Wallis.

The story, then, was a dramatization of a real event, and it tried to do all sorts of clever things with time, projecting into the artists’ near-future and destabilising their present. It fell to pieces: literally, because I cut pages up to re-order the paragraphs. But what worked for William Burroughs didn’t work for me. Nonetheless I remain secretly fond of Nicholson, Wood, Wallis while being at the same time deeply embarrassed by it. The story had no point and achieved nothing a good blog post couldn’t have done, with better economy.

I’ve written several stories which used professional cycling (another interest) as a scaffold. Again, the stories were without purpose. They circled slowly inwards, dragged down by the weight that my interest in cycling – and the imparting of information about that sport – imposed on the story. They weren’t about cycling per se (in the way that Tim Krabbe’s peerless The Rider is); they were about the characters’ love of cycling and, really, about my own love of cycling.

That, I think, is the problem which connects the stories I’ve mentioned. They all owed their existence to a personal interest, and never managed to achieve any distance from it. That distance is needed for a story to become something that another person would find value in.

Such exercises – for that is all they are – are fine, as long as you recognise them as such. They are warm-ups, primers, stretches; they are the clearing of your throat. But to foist them on other people? That’s like flashing.


photo credit: Jamie Gorman