The Flight of the FalconDaphne Du Maurier
THE FLIGHT OF THE FALCON
Daphne du Maurier
Foreword by Amanda Craig
Table of Contents
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The Flight of the Falcon was published in 1965, coincidentally the year my own family moved to Italy, to the very city where the novel opens: Rome. The shadows of the Second World War, and the appalling poverty that made Italy so vulnerable to Fascism, were on the wane. Rome was incomparably lovely, a place where artists still came to learn from antiquity, where the privileged enjoyed the dolce vita celebrated by Fellini’s film of that name, and the less privileged were desperate for American dollars. Mass tourism was in its infancy then, and the kind of tours that du Maurier’s hero, Fabbio, takes around Italy were more innocent, less commonplace and less world-weary than one suspects they are now. Those were the days in which the waspish whine of a Vespa in the Eternal City carried young couples as beautiful as Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, not a pair of muggers out to rob the unwary walker. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.
Curiously, The Flight of the Falcon is the only one of du Maurier’s novels to be set in Italy—though “Don’t Look Now,” her masterpiece short story, had Venice for its setting. Du Maurier loved Italy and visited it many times, though it is uncertain whether she went to Urbino before she wrote The Flight of the Falcon, for which she seems to have used a researcher. Her son, Kits Browning, visited the city with her in 1964 to check on the details after the novel was completed, and remembers being asked to take “lots of stills” of it.
Fabbio is a Germanicized Italian, shamed by his mother’s wartime affairs with German and American officers. He begins his story with a small bet and ends it with a desperate gamble for freedom. A tour guide, or courier, he is good at his job, which involves impressing his charges by sheer force of personality in acting as their shepherd, conductor and mediator. His elder brother, Aldo, is meanwhile plotting a much more sinister kind of leadership, revolving around the cult of personality all too familiar to survivors of the War. There are still elderly Italians alive today who complain that the country has never functioned so efficiently or so proudly as in the time of Il Duce, Mussolini. If du Maurier’s plot can seem too Gothic, too improbable in its conflict between the good brother and the bad, it may not seem too extreme to those who remember how nations have been swayed to commit and justify acts of atrocity under the influence of a single charismatic leader.
What I particularly admire about The Flight of the Falcon is the way its drama seems to spring from a geography and architecture that exist in real life. Just as the second Mrs. de Winter’s tale is indelibly marked by Manderley, and Cornwall, so Ruffano is intrinsic to The Flight of the Falcon. Du Maurier’s city is virtually indistinguishable from Urbino, the remarkable city east of Florence and south of Bologna, transformed and largely built by Federigo da Montefeltro. Montefeltro was a supremely successful soldier who had his marriage celebrated in a famous double painting by Piero della Francesca, featuring the Duke and Duchess in profile on one side, and shining white horses, representing Fame and Virtue, charioteered by cupids across an idyllic Umbrian landscape on the other. Montefeltro became Florence’s favorite mercenary, and poured the wealth and plunder he obtained from war into expanding and beautifying his native city of Urbino. His Ducal Palace is a marvel of Renaissance architecture, largely paid for by decades of ruthlessness as a hired soldier. The Duke was a true Renaissance man, whose enthusiasm and genius as a condottiere, or hired general, was matched by an intelligence as subtle as it was fine. The greatest pupil of the greatest teacher of his age, Vittorino da Feltre, he personally conceived his Palace’s architecture and design. You cannot walk through its rooms without being struck by the beauty of their proportions, their rare combination of taste and opulence, their theatrical sense of drama and restraint.
Certainly, du Maurier’s description of the Ducal Palace is one that many visitors to Urbino will recognize:
The silhouette might be that of some fantastic back-drop at a theater… Fragile, ethereal at first view, the true impact came later. These walls were real, forbidding, with all the ingenuity of a fortress, concealing strength within. The twin turrets above their encircling balustrades pierced the darkness like sharpened blades. Beauty was paramount, menace lurked within.
Above all there is the small room overlooking a drop of over a hundred feet to the ground below. What precisely was this room? Was it a tiny private chapel, as some think? It contains virtually nothing but Piero della Francesca’s haunting painting, The Flagellation of Christ, which John Mortimer observed in his novel, Summer’s Lease, is “undoubtedly the best small painting in the world.” In The Flight of the Falcon, the Palace’s great painting (by an unnamed artist) is of an imaginary Temptation of Christ, in which Christ is shown being tempted by his double, the Devil, to fly down to the rooftops of Ruffano. This parable will be reenacted for real in the climax of the novel, when Aldo’s evil madness becomes irresistible. Temptation and guilt, rather than suffering and self-sacrifice, are what set du Maurier’s imagination alight. She was drawn to polar opposites, often of a domineering sexual nature but also of a familial kind, and her fiction is almost always concerned with the liberation of a secret or hidden self which emerges through conflict. It is easy to see how in Urbino such a combination—a controlled, profoundly beautiful meditation on suffering, and a balcony whose height invites thoughts of flying and falling—could have inspired her to write what is essentially a Gothic tale set in Umbria. The rivalrous bond between the two brothers is as old as myth, but here, too, Montefeltro’s history may have suggested her plot.
Born the illegitimate son of the Count of Urbino in 1422, Federigo da Montefeltro inherited his father’s title at the age of twenty-two following the murder of his legitimate half brother, Oddantonio. His people, as rugged and resilient as the landscape they inhabited, had their taxes kept low, which may account for Federigo’s confidence that he could walk about his city without bodyguards or fear of the kind of assassination attempts that haunted other leading Italian families. (Du Maurier’s duke has a very different attitude to his people, and is guarded accordingly.) Montefeltro’s iron discipline over his troops ensured a minimum of bloodshed and destruction during conquest. His rule was informed by a superb intelligence and scholarship: the library he created now belongs to the Vatican. Perhaps it was the creation of this library, once one of the best in Europe, that gave du Maurier the idea for Fabbio’s job as a temporary librarian’s assistant in the Ducal library.
The pattern of many of du Maurier’s novels is to set up an opponent, often fiercely desired or admired, who turns out to be a Lucifer-figure. Du Maurier experienced intense feelings for her charismatic actor-manager father, Sir Gerald du Maurier, and was herself overwhelmed by the memory of his commanding presence, so it is tempting to see her novels as a means of playing out an eternal fluctuation between love and hatred. Between these two magnetic poles, the world of her story spins into eventual disaster before coming to rest. If the usual sexual attraction between victim and predator is missing here, the fraternal bond more than makes up for it. Abel to his brother’s Cain, Fabbio (or “Beo,” short for beato or “blessed” in It
alian) is, in fact, almost puerile in his lack of sexuality. He has, as we later learn, literally been usurped by his older brother. He is the opposite of the stereotypical Italian male, and the driver of his coach tour jokes that they should change places, so that Fabbio can drive while the driver makes love to the clients. His most passionate relationship is still his bond with the past, and his adored brother, Aldo. Their childhood games involved the younger brother dressing up in dirty linen and pretending to be Lazarus, raised from the dead by Aldo as Christ—or, tellingly, dressed as the Devil in the dark shirt of the Fascist Youth organization to which he belonged. “He was my god, he was my devil too,” Fabbio realizes. Where Aldo is two-faced and double-natured, Fabbio, like the nameless heroine of Rebecca, has grown up in his brother’s shadow and has barely enough personality to make an impression on those he meets. Doubles haunt du Maurier’s stories, but Fabbio is surely the most colorless until, fighting back, he finally acquires some style. He notices women if they possess a Madonna-like beauty, like Signora Butali, but otherwise they are to be feared and despised, like Carla Raspa. Sexually attractive women are rarely rewarded in du Maurier’s world, perhaps because of her troubled bisexuality, yet this portrait is a savage one.
Everyone in The Flight of the Falcon is obsessed by someone else, mostly Aldo, and Aldo himself is obsessed with the Duke of Ruffano, known as “the Falcon.” He insists that, contrary to reason, the wicked Duke flew from the balustrade of his palace when tempted by Lucifer to show himself as the Son of God. Aldo became a pilot, believed to have been killed in a flying accident during the War. His return and rebirth as the city’s Director of the Arts Council makes him appear more than mortal, a Lazarus or Lucifer. Ostensibly a good citizen, Aldo has modeled his behavior on the first Duke of Ruffano, a character whom we are told “cast off his early discipline… and dismayed the good citizens of Ruffano by licentious outrages and revolting cruelties.”
Fabbio’s emotional and spiritual entrapment by his brother, his desperate attempt to hold on to sanity and virtue, are also foreshadowed by the fictitious history of the ducal brothers. If Duke Claudio was mad and bad, his half brother Carlo was known as “the Good”; it was he who rebuilt the city and made Ruffano famous. Du Maurier split the character of the real-life Montefeltro into two, which, given that he fascinates us by embodying violently contrasting natures, one regrets—but her fiction needed opposites to spark its dynamics. As it is, The Flight of the Falcon is du Maurier’s most political novel, one in which the consequences of breaking the accepted order of things is not solely a personal, emotional choice but has repercussions on a small society. Though they fought in the Resistance against Fascism, Aldo’s followers want to rid Ruffano of “scum.” They accuse the old of hypocrisy, abuse of power and lack of passion. They fail to see that there are other virtues, without which a civilization cannot continue to exist and develop. Du Maurier, who had written The Glass-Blowers, a novel set against the background of the French Revolution, was perhaps thinking of where such attitudes can lead. In order to punish those who fall short, Aldo’s followers carry out acts of cruelty and violence which cannot possibly be justified—or do they?
“Don’t imagine I’m here to bring peace to this city…” Aldo says. “I’m here to bring trouble and discord… to bring all the violence and hypocrisy and lust and envy into the open.” His words echo those of the deranged Duke, or Falcon: “The proud shall be stripped… the haughty violated… the slanderer silenced, the serpent die in its own venom.” Ironically, the person who seems to partake of these vices most of all is Aldo himself.
At the start of the novel, Fabbio knows he is engaged in a “flight without purpose.” It is only when he is forced to fly for his life that he discovers what really matters to him is not the past but the future, not the soaring glamour of insanity but the earthbound humility of the sane. His initial mistrust of the present, “slick, proficient, uniform, the young the same the world over, mass-produced like eggs,” and his fascination with the past, “that sinister and unknown world of poison and rapine, of power and beauty, of luxury and filth,” has been felt by many visitors to Italy. Du Maurier, for all the high drama of her imagination, always surprises the reader by ultimately turning away from passion and elation. Aiming too high, in her fiction, is the prelude to catastrophe and downfall. It is the humble, almost anonymous characters, poised between the sweetness of hope and the bitterness of experience, who survive to tell their version of the story before us.
The Flight of the Falcon is a work of fiction. Although Ruffano was inspired by an existing Italian city, the topography, the events described, the inhabitants and every member of the university are purely imaginary.
We were right on time. Sunshine Tours informed its passengers on the printed itinerary that their coach was due at the Hotel Splendido, Rome, at approximately 1800 hours. Glancing at my watch, I saw that it wanted three minutes to the hour.
“You owe me five hundred lire,” I said to Beppo.
The driver grinned. “We’ll see about that in Naples,” he said. “In Naples I shall present you with a bill for more than two thousand lire.”
Our bets were continuous throughout the tour. We each kept a book, checked the kilometers against the time, and then settled up when either of us felt like paying. The latter generally fell to me, no matter who had come out on top with the betting. As courier, I received the larger tips.
I turned round, smiling, to my load of merchandise. “Welcome to Rome, ladies and gentlemen,” I said, “the city of popes, emperors, and Christians thrown to the lions, not to mention movie stars.”
A wave of laughter greeted me. Somebody in the back row cheered. They liked this sort of thing. Any facetious remark made by the courier helped to establish the relationship between passengers and pilot. Beppo, as driver, may have been responsible for their safety on the road, but I, as guide, manager, mediator and shepherd of souls, held their lives in my hands. A courier can make or break a tour. Like the conductor of a choir he must, by force of personality, induce his team to sing in harmony; subdue the raucous, encourage the timid, conspire with the young, flatter the old.
I climbed down from my seat, flinging wide the door, and saw the porters and pages hurrying from the swing-doors of the hotel to meet us. I watched my flock descend, sausages from a machine, fifty all told—no need to count the heads, for we had not stopped between Assisi and Rome—and led the way to the reception desk.
“Sunshine Tours, Anglo-American Friendship League,” I said.
I shook hands with the reception clerk. We were old acquaintances. I had been on this particular route for two years now.
“Good trip?” he asked.
“Pretty fair,” I replied, “apart from the weather. It was snowing in Florence yesterday.”
“It’s still March,” he said. “What do you expect? You people start your season too soon.”
“Tell them that at the head office in Genoa,” I answered.
Everything was in order. We held block bookings, of course, and because it was early in the season the management had fixed my whole party on the second floor. This would please them. Later in the year we should be lucky to get the fifth, and tucked away in the rear of the building at that.
The clerk watched my party file into the reception lounge. “What have you brought us?” he asked. “The holy alliance?”
“Don’t ask me,” I shrugged. “They joined forces at Genoa on Tuesday. Some sort of club. Beef and barbarians. The usual treatment in the restaurant at seven-thirty?”
“It’s all laid on,” he said, “and the relief coach ordered for nine. I wish you joy.”
We use certain code words for our clients in the touring business. The English are beef to us, and the Americans barbarians. It may not be complimentary, but it’s apt. These people were running wild on pastureland and prairie when we were ruling the wo
rld from Rome. No offence intended.
I turned to greet the respective leaders of my Anglo-American group. “Everything’s fine,” I said. “Accommodation for all on the second floor. Telephones in every room. Any queries ring down to the desk and they’ll put you through to me. Dinner at seven-thirty. I’ll meet you here. The reception manager will now show you to your rooms. O.K.?”
Theoretically, this was where I laid off for an hour and twenty minutes, found my own small lair, had a shower and collapsed, but it seldom worked that way. Nor did it today. My telephone buzzed as soon as I’d taken off my jacket.
“It’s Mrs. Taylor here. Utter and complete disaster! I’ve left every package bought in Florence in that hotel in Perugia.”
I might have known. She had left a coat in Genoa and a pair of overshoes in Siena. She had insisted that these things, almost certainly unnecessary south of Rome, must be telephoned for and forwarded to Naples.
“Mrs. Taylor, I’m so sorry. What were in the packages?”
“Breakables, mostly. There were two pictures… a statuette of Michelangelo’s David… some cigarette boxes…”
“Don’t worry. I’ll take care of it. I’ll telephone Perugia right away and see that your packages get to our office in Genoa, and are waiting there for your return.”
It depended on how busy they were at reception whether I left them to put through the call and make the inquiry, or dealt with it myself. Better do it myself. It would save time in the long run. I had sized up the Taylor woman as a package-leaver as soon as she joined us. She trailed belongings. Spectacles, head-scarves, picture postcards kept falling out of her outsize handbag. It is an English failing, a fault of the species. Apart from this, beef give very little trouble, though in their desire to seek the sun they blister more readily than other nationalities. Bare-armed, bare-legged, they’re into cotton frocks and shorts the first day of the tour, turning brick red in the process. Then I have to conduct them to the nearest chemist’s shop for salves and lotions.