Book Smart: Forgotten Classics


Nov 19, 2008 at 6:00 am
Don’t Look Now

By Daphne du Maurier. New York Review Books; 336 pgs., $15.95.

Technically, this isn’t “the” classic — it’s just the latest selection of du Maurier’s short fiction. Every few years, a new collection is brought out. That’s not too much dust gathering on stories from more than a half-century ago, especially considering that du Maurier wasn’t much for modern prose style. Even in short stories, she takes her time with description. Or at least she seems to.

As pointed out in the perceptive introduction by Patrick McGrath (author of disturbing suspense novels that owe much to Dame Daphne’s legacy), the foundation of the woman’s reputation is historical novels (“Rebecca,” “Jamaica Inn”). Also odd: Some of the best of the nine stories here turn on the frisson of clairvoyance, which has faded from interest in recent decades. So why wade through page after page where English people live modestly and almost always speak carefully and politely?

The answer lies in the little exceptions and unexpected turns. They may start out small, but watch out: du Maurier wrote from a crossroads of old and new — and if you can settle yourself in with these stories, they’ll grab you in gentle places but shake you, too. The ultimate trip here is surely “The Birds,” much more potent on the page than in Hitchcock’s film version. This author was unique in how she set people’s attempts to be civilized and fair against the ravages of nature and the deceptions of intimacy — both of which can attack from within as well as without.