Thursday, 18 December 2014

The final piece of the puzzle: The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier

The Rendezvous and Other Stories by Daphne du MaurierThe Rendezvous and Other Stories (1980) by Daphne du Maurier

The Rendezvous and Other Stories is, or rather was, the only volume of Daphne du Maurier's short stories I hadn't read. It also seems to be the least popular; it has the fewest ratings on Goodreads, and I didn't even know it existed until recently. It is a collection of du Maurier stories from various points in the author's life, including several very early ones, though in terms of original publication date it was the last collection of her stories to be published (prior to the discovery of those included in The Doll). No exact dates are included, but I found a rough chronology here which suggests that many of these stories were written in du Maurier's early 20s, with four tales dating from later in her career. It's fair to say, then, that this is far from the strongest collection of the author's short fiction, but as I've read all her other stories, I simply couldn't resist the opportunity to be a total completist.

No Motive
A mystery: a woman shoots herself for no apparent reason, having seemed previously content, and her distraught husband employs a private investigator to establish her motive. The investigator, Black, rakes through the woman's past and discovers a multitude of secrets. Well-formed, fast-moving and intriguing, taking in a number of settings and characters, this is an effective tale which, unlike some of the others included here, feels complete.

A man and a woman arrive in Paris, on what appears to be an illicit weekend together, although they don't seem to like each other very much. This scenario is familiar from some of the author's other stories, as is the narrative device of switching from one character's point of view to the other, showing them both to be having different negative thoughts about the situation. The pair take a room in a distinctly shabby backstreet hotel, and then disaster strikes. There is an inevitable twist at the end, but it's almost too predictable. I would have preferred to have some more context to the couple's relationship and what might have led them to embark on this trip.

The Supreme Artist
After finishing a show, a stage actor is visited by a woman he doesn't recognise, though she claims to have known him well in the past. He pretends to remember her and they talk, their conversation gradually revealing that they had a romance he has forgotten entirely. I was expecting a bigger punchline to this, but it's still an enjoyable story: the conversation illustrates the actor's tendency to turn any interaction into a performance, and his perception of the woman makes him keenly aware of his own mortality.

Adieu Sagesse
A man known to be particularly dull shocks his family and acquaintances when he has a sudden change of character and decides to embark on a boat trip. More of a social satire, this story wasn't that interesting to me and I found the rendering of local dialect in some characters' speech extremely annoying.

Fairy Tale
A sweet story about an impoverished couple who face destitution. (It's nice to read about a genuinely happy couple in a du Maurier story for once, even if they are so poor they're on the verge of starving...) The husband spins a vision of a warm, welcoming room and a delicious feast to make his wife feel better, but is it fantasy or fact?

The Rendezvous
As you would expect given that it lends its name to the title, 'The Rendezvous' is one of the longest, most developed stories here. An arrogant, but somewhat lonely, writer strikes up a written correspondence with a young female fan, and arranges to meet her during a trip to Geneva. Anticipating the start of an affair, he is disappointed to find she already has a lover, and the rest of the story is predictable but very entertaining fare - the writer agonising about the situation but ultimately doing nothing, the girl manipulating him; a mostly internalised power struggle and an eventual moment of clarity.

La Sainte-Vierge
The atmospheric, sad tale of a naive, loving wife. Though one of the shortest, this is particularly evocative and sadly ironic.

Leading Lady
Like 'The Rendezvous', this is about an arrogant man and a manipulative woman, but it is much lighter and more comic in tone. A pompous producer attempts to persuade a successful actress to work with him, envisioning the two of them embarking on a campaign to 'purify' the theatre industry, little suspecting she has been involved in various permutations of the immoral affairs he hates so much.

I really liked this, partly because it's a ghost story so... obviously I did; but also because its themes and general sense of atmosphere made it stand out from the rest. In wartime, a British merchant ship is threatened by a German submarine, only to be approached by a strange, unidentified ship which offers to provide an escort home. This would have benefited from being a bit longer, I think, but it still manages to convey a wonderfully sinister ambience.

The Lover
A stinging portrait of a man who seduces various women, telling the same lies to all of them, yet blaming their weak natures for the fact that they believe in what he says. While it's an effective portrayal of a character, there is no actual plot here and it doesn't go anywhere.

The Closing Door
A dark and rather dispiriting story which begins with some abstract and somewhat surreal descriptions: 'perhaps the room was furnished as a reminder that life was already a dead thing, waving a hand in farewell behind the closed door.' A man is told he is terminally ill and is likely to suffer full paralysis, albeit slowly. He then goes to meet a woman (his girlfriend, lover?) who unwittingly makes things worse with her careless words.

The narrator sets out to illustrate the terrible consequences 'a moment of indiscretion' can cause. Recounting the story of a woman who swindled him to a happily engaged work colleague, he discovers an unfortunate overlap between their affairs.

Angels and Archangels
This features the Reverend James Hollaway, a character also at the centre of 'And Now to God the Father', one of the tales in The Doll. As with that story, this snapshot of church society didn't do anything for me and I felt it was one of the least effective stories in the collection (though I should emphasise that's due to the fact that the subject matter wasn't to my taste, not because it's badly written).

Split Second
The longest story in the book - and it becomes evident, albeit gradually, that the best has been saved for last. 'Split Second' starts off seeming uninteresting - a portrayal of a widowed woman with a nine-year-old daughter, it's very domestic, spending several interminable pages describing what she does around the house and how she dotes on her child. But everything changes when the protagonist has a brush with death, and returns to find circumstances at home have bizarrely and inexplicably changed. Though it's easy for the reader to guess the twist, the characters never quite catch up, which makes for a delicious and beautifully paced unfolding of events rife with confusion and anguish.

I found this collection generally less compelling than du Maurier's others, of which Don't Look Now and The Birds are the best. Many of these tales focus on relationships, lacking the weirdness and hints of the macabre that define her finest short stories, and occasionally The Rendezvous and Other Stories does feel like it's made up of leftover scraps. That said, the scraps are still perfectly engrossing in their own right, and 'Split Second', 'Escort' and 'No Motive' are memorable. If you haven't read any of the author's stories before, I wouldn't suggest that you start with this, but for me it felt like a satisfying final piece of the puzzle.

I've written story-by-story reviews of du Maurier's other short story collections on Goodreads: Don't Look Now; The Birds; The Breaking Point; and The Doll.

Buy the book on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

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