Review of The Flight of the Falcon - Laura Varnam
The Flight of the Falcon was published in 1964 and it is one of the five du Maurier novels to feature a male narrator. Like Philip in My Cousin Rachel, the narrator Armino Fabbio has a powerful relationship with an older brother and it is this relationship which dominates the novel. Fabbio is a courier and tour guide and the novel opens in Rome when he and his party of tourists discover an old woman slumped in a doorway. Fabbio finds her strangely familiar and in a moment of compassion offers her money. The next day the woman is discovered murdered and Fabbio suspects that she might have been Marta, his old nurse. He resolves to leave Rome and return to the city of his birth, Ruffano, where he finds himself plunged back into his past when the charismatic brother whom he thought was dead is still alive and is Director of the Arts Council at the University. There is tension in the city because of the rivalry between the Arts students and the new Commerce and Economics students, and the planned theme for the Ruffano Festival- the mad Duke Claudio's flight- threatens to ignite the population's simmering unrest. Fabbio is immediately captivated by his brother but uneasy about the power he seems to be exerting over the students and the university elite. He is also dogged by fears that he is about to be arrested under suspicion of Marta's murder and a nagging doubt that everything is not what it seems with his brother.
The novel is set in Ruffano, is a fictionalised version of the Italian city of Urbino. The Flight of the Falcon is the only novel of du Maurier's to be set in Italy, although she did famously use Venice as the setting for her short story 'Don't Look Now'. Like Urbino, Ruffano is a university town with a Ducal Palace and an intriguing array of historical dukes with violent pasts. Du Maurier originally called the novel The Night the Falcon Fell but early in 1964 she decided to change the title to The Flight of the Falcon for, as she wrote to Oriel Malet, 'the falling part might give away what is to happen, and the flight could be a two-fold thing with a deeper meaning' (Malet, p.169). The concept of flight in the novel is multi-layered, referring both to literal flight (Aldo flies, Icarus-like, off the Ducal Palace tower at the end of the novel), and also to the metaphorical flights which both Aldo and Armino make from their past.
When she was 'brewing' (planning) the novel, du Maurier wrote to Oriel Malet that she imagined the older brother having 'Gondalled [du Maurier code-word for make believe] all his life about the past in Urbino' and his younger brother becomes 'a bit worried in case they get out of hand' (Malet, p.157). In The Flight of the Falcon make-believe and fantasy are shown to be seductive, dangerous, and potentially destructive.
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. (p.1)
The Flight of the Falcon opens with the narrator, Armino Fabbio, a courier for Sunshine Tours, arriving in Rome with a coach of English and American tourists. Fabbio is about to take them on a tour of Rome by night when two English women in the party tell him that there is an old woman slumped in the doorway of a church around the corner from their hotel. Fabbio tries to discourage them from pursuing the issue but when he catches a glimpse of the woman as their coach drives past the church, he has a sudden sense of déjà vu that he has seen her before, perhaps in his childhood. When he returns to the hotel, one of his clients attempts to proposition him, slipping him a banknote. Fabbio rejects his advances and when he goes out into the street for a walk, he comes upon the old woman again, dressed in old clothing and smelling of wine, and he impulsively decides to give her the banknote. 'Once again I was seized with that sense of recognition, that the link with the past which could not be explained. Even the hand that, warm despite the cold air, held on to mine, in gratitude awakened an involuntary, reluctant response. She stared at me. Her lips moved. I turned, I think I ran' (p.15).
Back in his hotel room Fabbio wakes from a dream, thinking he has heard someone call out to him, using the childhood nickname, Beo (short for 'Il Beato', the blessed one) which his parents and nurse Marta had given him. In his dream, Fabbio is with his brother Aldo in the side-chapel of the church of San Cipriano in Ruffano, the city in which he was born. They are gazing at the altar-piece: 'The picture was of the Raising of Lazarus, and out of a gaping tomb came the figure of the dead man, still fearfully wrapped in his shroud- all save his face, from which the bindings had somehow fallen away, revealing staring, suddenly awakened eyes, that looked upon his Lord with terror' (p.16). In his dreaming state, Fabbio confuses the image of Mary of Bethany on the altarpiece with Marta, his old nurse. Fabbio describes his terror not only of the altar-piece itself but also the game which his older brother Aldo used to make him play as a child: '"When we go home,' whispered Aldo, 'I will dress you as Lazarus, and I shall be the Christ and summon you"' (p.16). Fabbio recalls how Aldo dressed him in his father's night-shirt and entombed him in a cupboard under the stairs: '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, in some manner which he never explained, interchangeable' (p.17). He likens Aldo's brotherly kindness to that of Christ but then remembers that when he was 'wearing the dark shirt of the Fascist Youth organisation to which he belonged [...] armed with a kitchen fork, he would represent Satan, and proceed to jab me with his weapon' (p.17). In his hotel room in Rome Fabbio muses on why he had suddenly been 'transported to that nightmare world where Aldo was king' (p.17).
Fabbio falls asleep again and dreams of another painting from Ruffano, the Temptation of Christ from the ducal palace in which the face of Christ had been 'drawn by the daring artist in the likeness of Claudio, the mad duke, named the Falcon, who in a frenzy had thrown himself from the tower, believing, so the story ran, that he was the Son of God' (p.18). Fabbio's father had worked as the superintendent at the palace and he remembers Aldo encouraging him to climb a stairway up to the turret where Duke Claudio had thrown himself to the ground: '"This was where the Falcon stood', Aldo would say. 'This was where the Devil tempted him. "If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down; for it is written. He shall give his angels charge concerning thee; and in their hands they shall bear thee up, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone"' (p.18). Aldo used to tell Fabbio that Claudio flew like a falcon but in his dream, Fabbio runs away into the comforting arms of Marta who, in his dream-state, smells of wine and old worn clothes.
The next day Fabbio discovers that the woman he saw at the church has been found stabbed and he fears that she was murdered for the money which he had given her. The two English women who had drawn her to his attention convince Fabbio to conduct them to the police station and while there, Fabbio agrees to identify the body as the woman they had seen the previous day. He leaves the police station without mentioning the money but after he has seen the body he is certain that his sense of recognition was genuine: 'there had been recognition in her eyes the night before, and she had called Beo as I ran away across the street. I had not see her for over twenty years, but it was Marta' (p.26). Fabbio realises that he should have spoken up but worries that his motives for giving the woman the banknote might arise suspicions and that the police might suspect him of her murder. He decides to go to the office of his tour company and asks for a substitute to be found to conduct his party on to Naples as he wants to travel north. Still preoccupied that the money and Marta's cry of 'Beo' 'made me a murderer too' (p.28), Fabbio returns to the hotel and the next day discovers that an alternative job has been found for him as guide to a German couple on a sight-seeing tour. Fabbio accepts and they set off in the direction of Ruffano.
En route Fabbio remembers his departure from Ruffano in 1944, aged eleven, with his mother and her lover, the German Commandant. Fabbio drives into the city through the porta del Sangue, 'the Gate of Blood', through which the mad duke Claudio 'drove his captives to their death' (p.34). Fabbio and his clients check into a hotel: 'I felt as a phantom would, returning after death' (p.35). Fabbio explores the city, seeing the statue of the good duke Carlo, brother of Claudio, and finally coming upon the ducal palace, the setting for much of his childhood: 'I lifted my head to the palace roof and saw brooding there, above the entrance door, the great bronze figure of the Falcon, emblem of the Malebranche, the ducal family, his head snow-capped, his giant wings outspread' (p.38). Walking past the university and then past his father's house, Fabbio feels like a ghost, 'a disembodied spirit of long ago, and that there, in the darkened house, Aldo and I lay sleeping' (p.38). Back at the hotel, Fabbio thinks about the past, his brother receiving his pilot's wings, his mother's lovers (including the Italian, Enrico Fabbio, who gave him his name).
The next morning Fabbio guides his German sightseers around Ruffano. At the ducal palace memories of Fabbio's family merge with Malebranche dukes and he recalls Aldo's taunts that the Falcon was waiting to seize him and carry him off. He sees the painting of the Temptation of Christ and slips away to attempt to climb the turret staircase but one of the guides calls him back. When the German couple have finished exploring the palace, Fabbio drives them to the statue of Duke Carlo and informs them that he will no longer by their guide. Back in the city, Fabbio reads in a newspaper that the woman found murdered in Rome may have been from the provinces and that enquires were being made. Fabbio wonders why Marta might have left Ruffano and then reflects that while she had given her whole life to his family, when he left Ruffano with his mother and the German Commandant, they slipped away in secret when Marta was at mass. Fabbio recognises a man in the piazza whose sister had been a friend of Marta's and engages him in conversation but does not confess his own identity. At lunch he is joined by a lecturer from the university, an attractive and alluring woman called Carla Raspa, whose overt sexuality Fabbio finds unnerving.
While chatting over lunch, he tells Carla Raspa that he might be staying in the area and she tells him that she might be able to find him some temporary work in the university library. After lunch Fabbio visits San Cipriano and looks at the altarpiece of Lazarus. When he sees the sacristan he suddenly asks whether he might see the baptismal entries from the year of his birth. Fabbio sees his own entry and then asks if he might look further back, to the year of Aldo's birth. To his surprise he finds two entries: 'Aldo. Son of Aldo Donati and Francesca Rossi', followed a few days later by 'Aldo. Son of Aldo Donati and Francesca Rossi. Godparents, Aldo Donati, father, Luigi Speca, Francesca Rossi' (p.56). Fabbio has no memory of a Luigi Speca and when he asks the sacristan whether being baptised twice is normal, he is told that it is highly unusual, although it could have been the case that if the child in question was seriously ill then a hasty baptism might be performed, followed by another ceremony when the child had recovered. Fabbio muses that if Aldo had known he had baptised twice, he would no doubt have 'turned [it] to good advantage. "I was doubly blessed", I could imagine him telling me' (p.57).
Fabbio walks back past the ducal palace and comes upon his parents' old house, from which he can hear the sound of someone playing the piano. He walks up towards the university, full of students going to lectures or riding off on their vespas, and he feels caught between two worlds: 'the one the via dei Sogni of my past, with all its memories, but no longer mine; and this other, active, noisy, equally indifferent. The dead should not return. Lazarus was right to feel foreboding. Caught, as he must have been, betwixt past and present, he evaded both in horror, seeking the anonymity of the tomb- but in vain' (p.59). Carla Raspa suddenly appears and Fabbio finds himself accepting her offer of arranging work. They go to meet Signor Fossi at the library, with whom it becomes clear that Carla Raspa is having an affair, and Fabbio is taken on as a temporary librarian. Carla Raspa gossips about university politics: the Rector, Professor Butali, is ill in Rome and the heads of department- Professor Rizzio of Education and Professor Elia of Economics and Commerce- are quarrelling again. Fabbio chats to the library clerk, Toni, who tells him about the great festival of Ruffano, in which the students put on a grand performance in the city, and the rivalry that was brewing between the Arts and Commerce and Economics (C & E) students. When he goes to arrange accommodation in the city, Fabbio discovers that the Rector and his wife live in his old home and that it was Signora Butali whom he heard playing the piano. Fabbio chooses to rent a room in a house on the same street as Carla Raspa; his housemates are C & E students, including siblings Caterina and Paolo. Over dinner the students tells Fabbio more about the rivalry between the C & E and arts faculties. '"I tell you,' said Mario, 'one of these days it will come to a fight, and I know who'll win' (p.69). Out for a walk after dinner, Fabbio has a strange encounter when a boy runs past him in full flight and almost falls headlong down some steps. Fabbio tries to help the boy but he appears frightened and runs away. When Fabbio then finds himself walking past his old home he sees the figure of a man being let into the house by the Rector's wife: 'the street lamp by the side of the wall shone fully upon his face. He passed through and closed the door behind him. I stood motionless, drained of all energy, all feeling. The man was surely no stranger, but my brother Aldo' (p.70).
The sight of his brother bewilders Fabbio because he thought that Aldo had been shot down by the Allies during his war. He remembers his mother reading the telegram and his own response of disbelief: '"It isn't true,' I kept saying between sobs, 'it isn't true. They can't kill Aldo. Nobody can kill Aldo"' (p.72). Fabbio thinks that his vision of his brother must have a mistake, 'this was what had happened to the disciples when they looked, as they thought, upon their Lord, the risen Christ...' (p.72). Back at his lodgings, Caterina and Paolo tell Fabbio about a secret society within the university that according to rumour has been seizing, even torturing, students. Fabbio is dismissive of their story but agrees to heed their warning to be careful when out in the city at night.
At the library the next day, Fabbio browses through a book about Duke Claudio which the Rector has requested be sent to him in Rome. He finds a description of Claudio having recruited a group of disciples who terrified the citizens of Ruffano by night and when accused of such acts, 'Claudio retaliated by declaring that he had been divinely appointed to mete out to his subjects the punishment they deserved. The proud would be stripped, the haughty violated, the slanderer silenced, and viper die in his own venom. The scales of heavenly justice would be thus balanced' (pp.79-80). Fabbio delivers the books in person to Signora Butali, eager for the opportunity to step inside his childhood home once again. He listens to her playing the piano in the room which was once his mother's bedroom and when he leaves, he sees a local couple being taken away by the police to identify the body of the dead woman in Rome. A passer-by tells him that the police suspect her to be a local woman: 'she used to drink, and she disappeared days ago [...] everybody in the quarter is wondering, can it be the same, can it be poor Marta Zampini?' (p.86)
Fabbio goes back to the library, burdened with guilt at the thought of the banknote which he had given to Marta, perhaps instigating her murder. He wonders why Marta, who had always been so fastidious, had become a 'huddled drunken figure' (p.86). Carla Raspa then appears at the library, telling Fabbio that she has two passes from the Director of the Arts Council which will get them into the ducal palace in the evening where they might find out about the plans for the festival which is to be organised entirely by the Director due to the Rector's illness. Carla Raspa tells Fabbio that the previous year the students and staff had enacted the visit of Pope Clement to Ruffano, with Signor Butali playing the Pope, Signora Butali the Duchess, and Professor Rizzio the Duke. When they arrive at the palace that evening, they enter into a room lit by flaming torches and filled with a crowd of expectant students. A man enters flanked by a bodyguard and the crowd press forward to greet him. Fabbio cannot get a clear view and when he asks who it is, a young student replies: 'Why, Professor Donati, of course, the Director of the Arts Council' (p.93). Fabbio steps back into the shadows in astonishment. 'For me the tomb had opened. The heavens roared. Christ had come again in all his majesty. The stranger in the via dei Sogni the night before had been no phantom after all, and, if I still dared to doubt it, the name alone was conclusive [...] Aldo lived again. Aldo had risen from the dead, and my world was rocking' (p.93).
When Aldo addresses the crowd, he tells them that mad duke Claudio had been driven to his death by the people of Ruffano. He tells them that the duke had wanted to collect around him men devoted to the arts and culture but that the citizens were dedicated to commerce and to lining their own pockets. 'Five hundred and twenty five years have passed and I believe the time has come to reinstate the Duke. Or rather, to do honour to his memory [...] I have decided to enact the uprising of the city of Ruffano against their much misunderstood lord and master, first duke, and called by all- the Falcon' (p.95). The celebration is to be called 'The Flight of the Falcon'. Aldo continues that the arts students are to be the duke's men, the elite, who are already a minority in a university dominated by philistines who little understand the power and beauty of art. Two of Aldo's bodyguard then perform a display of duelling and he asks for volunteers amongst the men present. Fabbio and a few others leave and he hears some of the students muttering uproar amongst the C & E students when they discover the Director's plan. Many then wish to volunteer, 'anything to have a go at that lot!' (p.98), and even Carla Raspa wishes that could join in, 'it could be that this is what I'm looking for. A purpose. A cause.' (p.99). Carla Raspa then returns to her house and Fabbio immediately looks up Aldo's address in the city and decides to pay him a visit. Aldo is not in but just as Fabbio goes to leave, he sees Carla Raspa appear, asking for his brother. She pushes a letter through the door and leaves.
When Fabbio goes to mass the next day he meets Signora Butali. He offers to walk her home and sounds her out about Aldo. She rehearses Aldo's past- his mother running away with a German commandant, taking his younger brother with her- and she suggests that Aldo's concern for the university students is as a result of the loss of his brother. Signora Butali insists that Fabbio join her and her guests for a drink, as Aldo is sure to join them. Fabbio is anxious to excuse himself but finds he cannot. He answers the door to Aldo but his brother does not recognise him. When eventually Aldo speaks to him, he asks if he might have seen him before. Fabbio replies: 'It's possible that if I disguised myself in a winding sheet and hid in the linen closet upstairs you might recognise me. My name is Lazarus' (p.114). Aldo is astonished. 'It was my supreme moment. For the one and only time in his life the disciple had shocked the master' (p.114).
Aldo and Fabbio leave the party and drive out into the hills. Fabbio tells him about his life after he left Ruffano, their mother's death from cancer, and his own job as a courier. When Fabbio asks him what he does, Aldo replies: 'You saw last night. I am a puppeteer. I pull the strings, the puppets dance. It requires great skill' (p.117). They return to the house and Aldo suggests that they should refrain from revealing their relationship to the rest of Ruffano. Aldo mentions that he had employed Marta to clean for him before she 'took to drink. Then it was hopeless. I had to send her packing' (p.120). Fabbio confesses that just before Marta was murdered in Rome, he had seen her and given her money. Aldo rings a friend of his in the police and finds out that they are about to make an arrest in Rome, but this does little to ease Fabbio's conscience. They reminisce further about the intervening years and Aldo describes the moment when his plane was shot down: 'I was climbing at the time and I knew what it was- the explosion and my release in the sky, happened almost simultaneously, and the moment of triumph, of ecstasy was indescribable. It was death and it was power. Creation and destruction all in one. I had lived and I had died.' (p.125).
Aldo goes to a meeting at the ducal palace and leaves Fabbio translating some passages from a German history of Ruffano. He reads about Duke Claudio's death when, attempting to drive eighteen horses through the streets of Ruffano, he was set upon by the citizens and killed. Aldo takes Fabbio to dinner at Signora Butali's and he quickly realises that once again he is playing a part in one of Aldo's games as he watches his brother flirting with the Rector's wife. They begin to discuss the festival and Aldo declares cryptically that 'my opening scene [...] takes place off stage, or should do, if we wish to be discreet' (p.134): 'the seduction of the lady, what my German translator calls 'the profanation of the leading citizen's wife' (p.135).
The next day, back at the library, Fabbio learns from his colleagues that there had been a break-in at the women's hostel and all the female students had been locked in their rooms. The incident is being blamed on the C & E students and there are rumours that Professor Rizzio is threatening resignation unless Professor Elia apologises on their behalf. When Fabbio goes to lunch with Carla Raspa she tells him with relish that Signora Rizzio was raped during the break-in. Professor Elia then enters the restaurant and he recounts the story of the Signora's humiliation with laughter and mockery. By the end of the day the blame seems to have been laid at the door of the C & E students and there is trouble brewing. When Fabbio goes to transport some books from the library some of the students through a stone at the windscreen of their van. He remembers the passages from the history of Ruffano in which it described the rising of the populace after the profanation of the leading citizen's wife and he recalls Aldo's cryptic remarks the previous day. As Fabbio walks home some C & E students threaten to throw him in the fountain. When he returns to his lodgings the Pasquales tell him that Aldo has invited all of the C & E students to participate in the festival 'as a gesture to show his faith in all of us' (p. 150) and that there is to be a meeting that evening.
Fabbio attends the meeting with the Pasquale siblings. When they arrive there is a band playing and after a while Aldo takes over on the drums. The C & E students are impressed by his performance and by his speech in which he explains that the hostility of the arts students and the university authorities is due to jealousy and fear. 'The future's yours, and don't let any half-baked set of decaying professors and their pathetic dwindling band of followers stand in your way. Ruffano is for the living. Not the dead' (p.154). Aldo then tells them that he believes the attack on Signora Rizzio was a deliberate attempt to discredit the C & E students and that they should take part in the festival and use it as an opportunity to fight back and take their revenge. He says that the arts students playing Duke Claudio's courtiers will be armed but that they should equip themselves with sticks and stones and fight back. Fabbio leaves the meeting, convinced that his brother is still the same as he was when they were children: 'the only difference was that, where he had once played upon the imagination of a sibling and devoted ally, he was now playing upon the raw and feverish emotions of fifteen hundred students' (p.156). But Fabbio still wonders whether the confrontation will end in disaster or instead will clear the air between the two sides.
The next day Fabbio reads in the newspaper that the police have arrested a man who confessed to stealing the money from Marta but denied murder. At the library, Fabbio hears that Aldo has reconciled Professors Elia and Rizzio and that he is to give a dinner at the hotel in the evening for both of them. While shelving some books in the library he finds one with the name Luigi Speca written on the inside cover but he cannot remember where he has heard the name before. When he returns home he finds a note from Carla Raspa, suggesting that they go for dinner at the hotel that evening: 'They say Professor Rizzio and Professor Elia haven't spoken for a year. I want to see the impact. Besides, any party given by Aldo Donati is worth watching. Just to hover on the fringe would be a stimulant' (p.162). At the hotel Carla and Fabbio manage to infiltrate the drinks party but Aldo receives a message from an anonymous caller suggested that he should go to Professor Elia's house. He leaves immediately and Fabbio and Carla follow.
When they arrive at the Professor's house, they find Elia naked and bound to the statue of Duke Claudio outside in the municipal gardens. A crowd gathers and Professor Rizzio and Aldo free Elia and get him into the car. Elia was not gagged but Fabbio realises that Elia did not call for help because he was felt ashamed. Carla Raspa thinks that it was a superlative 'rag' but Fabbio is disgusted at the treatment of Elia and of Signora Rizzio the previous day. She attempts to kiss Fabbio in the car but he slaps her face. He drives her home and then returns to Aldo's house. While he waits for his brother he sees the passage from the history of Ruffano which he had translated: 'the proud would be stripped, the haughty violated, the slanderer silenced, the viper die in his venom. The scales of heavenly justice would be thus balanced' (p.173). The phone rings and it is Signora Butali. She mistakes him for Aldo and tells him that her husband is insisting that he return from Rome: 'Dearest... for God's sake, tell me what to do. Aldo, are you there?' (p.174) Fabbio puts the phone down. When Aldo returns, Fabbio confronts him, asking him if he is trying to deliver heavenly justice, like Duke Claudio. He suggests that the incidents with Professor Elia and Signora Rizzio were too well planned to have been organised by the students but Aldo does neither confesses or denies involvement. Nor is he concerned at Elia and Rizzio's humiliation and loss of authority: '"Authority is bogus", he said, "unless it comes from within. Then it is inspiration and comes from God. "' (p.176). Aldo then tells Fabbio that while the police in Rome have arrested the thief who stole from Marta, they now believe that the same man was not her murderer. Fabbio is terrified that the police will come after him but Aldo tells him to forget about it. He then gives Fabbio a pass to get into the ducal palace the next evening. Fabbio goes back to his lodgings and then he wakes up in the morning, he suddenly remembers that he had seen the name Luigi Speca on his brother's baptismal entry in the records at San Cipriano.
Back at his lodgings the Pasquales interrogate Fabbio about what happened to Professor Elia but he doesn't answer their questions. On his way to the library Fabbio passes by the church and sees the policeman who interviewed him in Rome. He thinks the policeman recognises him and he runs away. At the university rumours are flying about what happened to Professor Elia but Fabbio is distracted when the librarian gives him a letter which he had found in an old book. The letter is from Fabbio's father to Speca, thanking him for his 'great kindness, sympathy and friendship in our moment of trouble, now happily behind us' (p.185). Fabbio's father concluded with a postscript praising Marta's abilities as a nurse and cook to the family. Fabbio concludes that Speca must have been a doctor who attended Aldo when he was ill.
A curfew has been put in place for the students but Fabbio obtains a special pass because he has an invitation to the ducal palace that evening. Inside the palace, Fabbio finds twelve men, all dressed as sixteenth-century courtiers and wearing the insignia of the Falcon. In the Duke's bedroom Fabbio sees the painting of the temptation of Christ in which Christ is depicted in the likeness of Duke Claudio. Aldo enters and presents Fabbio to the twelve courtiers: '"Here is our Falcon,' he said, 'He can play Duke Claudio at our Festival"' (p.191). Aldo threatens to turn Fabbio out into the night without his pass, where he will no doubt be picked up by the police, if he does not cooperate. 'The voice that came from me was not my adult voice, but sounded to my ears like the ghostly echo of a child of seven, who, wearing the blanket robes of Lazarus, was thrust into his living tomb. "What do you want me to do?"' (p.192).
In the audience room of the palace, Aldo introduces his twelve courtiers, all arts students and all of whom lost their parents when very young: Aldo calls them 'the lost and the abandoned. The despised and the rejected' (p.193). He begins to describe his plans for the festival when there is a knock at the door and a C & E student who has been wandering the streets after curfew is brought in. Aldo, Fabbio and the courtiers all don masks and Aldo begins taunting the student. He threatens the student with a punishment from the Ruffanese history book- to have his head set on fire- and two of the courtiers drag him out of the room screaming. Fabbio protests but Aldo declares, 'Renaissance man had not compassion, why should we?' (p.198). Aldo relates the student's screams to the pain and horror of the second world war prison camps where two of the courtiers were born. Fabbio argues that Aldo cannot torture present students for what happened in the past but Aldo assures him that the student will not harmed, just frightened a little. He then tells one of the courtiers to relate to Fabbio the truly story of what happened to Signorina Rizzio: she fainted and when she came round the five courtiers were stood in the doorway. 'The sequel was what she made of it herself' (p.200). Another of the courtiers confesses that they were responsible for the shaming of Professor Elia and Fabbio realises that Aldo is meting out justice to the population according to the laws of Duke Claudio. The C & E student suddenly bursts back into the room with a bucket on his head filled with fire-crackers. Aldo taunts him for his cowardice but Fabbio worries about the trouble which the student will stir up as a result of his humiliation. Aldo replies, 'Don't think I'm here to bring peace to this city or to the university. I'm here to bring trouble and discord, to set one man against the other, to bring all the violence and hypocrisy and envy and lust out into the open [...] Only then, when it bubbles and seethes and stinks, can we clear it away' (pp.202-3). Fabbio suddenly thinks that Aldo is insane, a dangerous fanatic, but when he challenges him, Aldo says that he might have been when he rescued all the orphaned boys whom he made into his courtiers, boys who reminded him of his own lost brother. Fabbio shows him the letter he found in the library but Aldo makes no reply and makes an abrupt exit.
The next day Fabbio receives an urgent message from Aldo that the Rector, Signor Butali, has returned from home. Fabbio sets out to see Signora Butali to urge her to cancel the festival but when he speaks to her about Aldo, she brushes his worries aside. He meets the Rector who tells him that one of the students had been found dead after having fallen down the steep steps in the town. The student was the same one which Aldo had been taunting that evening. The Rector then begins to question Fabbio closely about his time in Ruffano and before that in Rome. Fabbio's voice reminds him of some anonymous telephone calls which he had received while in hospital in Rome which alluded to Aldo. Fabbio tells the Rector that he knows nothing of such calls. When he returns to the pension he catches sight of the plain-clothes policeman and he quickly crosses the street and knocks at Carla Raspa's apartment. There is no reply but the door is open and he goes in.
Fabbio waits in Carla Raspa's apartment and eventually she comes home. He confesses that he is hiding from the police and mentions his connection to the murder of the old woman in Rome. He asks her to take him to Aldo's house and she suspects, wrongly, that there is an illicit relationship between them. 'This was a curious conjecture which no one would appreciate more than Aldo' (p.227). Fabbio does not disabuse her of her notion and she agrees to take him to the house. When they get there they find that Aldo is out, but he has another visitor waiting: Signora Butali. While the three wait, Carla Raspa relentlessly baits the Signora. When Aldo arrives he talks to the Signora in private and then when he re-enters the living room and Carla Raspa taunts him about his close relationship with Fabbio, he reveals their true relationship as brothers. '"I didn't know", she said, "I hadn't realised... Armino said nothing." She looked from one to the other of us, overcome, and then, to my consternation, burst into tears. "I lost both brothers in the war", she said "Much older than me, but I loved them dearly... I'm very sorry. Please forgive me"' (p. 238). Aldo tells Carla Raspa some harsh truths about her relationships with men and she tells him that she would do anything for him. She leaves and Aldo tells Fabbio to stay in the house until Cesare, one of the courtiers, arrives. He apologises for Carla Raspa and Signora Butali meeting together at Aldo's house but Aldo is nonplussed. 'They both wanted one thing only. Carla Raspa happened to be more honest about it' (p.240).
Aldo leaves and Fabbio chats to Jacopo who tells him how much Aldo prizes all the old family possessions. He describes Marta's behaviour before being dismissed from Aldo's service. She had been drinking and also increasingly wanting to know everything that Aldo was doing. One evening after a dinner at the house hosted by Aldo and Signora Butali, just after Aldo's birthday, Marta had an argument with Aldo and the next day she left to live with the Ghigis, the couple whom Fabbio had met in the town. Jacopo says that the argument upset Aldo greatly: 'He took the car and went off alone for about five days. He said he went to the sea. When he came back he told me briefly that he didn't want to discuss Marta or what had happened, and that was that' (pp.242-3). Jacopo suggests that Marta was jealous of Aldo's relationship with Signora Butali and Fabbio wonders whether it was Marta who made the phone calls to the Rector in Rome. The Rector had told him that there had been no phone calls for over a week, since Marta's body had been discovered. 'Now, for the first time in the ten days since it had happened, I was glad that she was dead. The Marta who had died was not the Marta I remembered [...] In a sense, it was retribution. The slanderer had been silenced, the serpent had died in its own venom ' (p.243). Fabbio suddenly asks Jacopo when Aldo was last in Rome and he discovers that the dates coincided with the murder. 'I sat down on one of the kitchen chairs, staring in front of me. Aldo could have killed Marta' (p.243). Cesare then arrives and tells Fabbio that Aldo has told him to get out of Ruffano. Fabbio wonders whether his flight from Ruffano is as his brother's surrogate. In the car Fabbio asks Cesare why he follows Aldo and what the episodes with the Rizzios and Professor Elia had achieved. Cesare replies that they have learnt humility. Cesare drops him near the bay and Fabbio gives him a message for Aldo: '"Tell him," I said, "that before the proud were stripped or the haughty violated, the slanderer was silenced and the viper died in its own venom"' (p.247).
Marco, whose boat Fabbio will be
travelling on, tells him that Aldo came to sea with him just after his
birthday and that he told Marco that he had had a terrible shock. This
puzzles Fabbio as if Marta had berated him for having an affair with a
married woman, this might not have come as a shock to him. Marco goes to
get the boat ready to sail and Fabbio sits drinking his beer and
looking at the scenery. He sees a nun with a group of children and she
tells him that they are orphans and that this is their first visit to
the sea. The nun tells Fabbio that she is from the Foundling Hospital at
Ruffano, although they might be moving premises soon because the
Superintendent had passed away. She tells him about the orphan children
and that sometimes when a young couple have lost a child they come to
the foundling hospital for another child to bring up as their own. '"But
that", she said, 'requires a great confidence between the bereaved
parents and the superintendent of the foundling hospital. The record
remains a secret forever afterwards. It's better for everyone
concerned"' (p.251). She tells Fabbio that she too had been a
foundling at Ruffano many years ago but that things were much stricter
then, despite the kindness of the superintendent, Luigi Speca. 'Suddenly
I perceived. Suddenly I knew. My father's letter and the double
baptismal entry were made plain. Aldo had been a foundling too. Their
son had died, Luigi Speca had given them Aldo. The secret, held for
nearly forty years, had been betrayed by Marta last November. Aldo,
proud of his lineage, proud of his heritage, proud of all he held most
dear, had learnt the truth and kept it to himself these past five
months. It was Aldo who had been stripped and violated. Aldo who had
lost face, not to the friends who did not know, but in his own eyes'
(p.252). Fabbio is determined to go back to Ruffano. 'Tomorrow was the Festival, and I had to be with Aldo when the Falcon fell' (p.252).
Fabbio goes to the bus station, thinking over what he has learnt. He realises that Aldo must have killed Marta because she had threatened to reveal his secret. Fabbio is determined to tell Aldo that it doesn't matter and that they are still brothers. Fabbio gets a bus part of the way to Ruffano and then meets the Pasquales on their vespa. He tells them that he was on the run from the police but now he needs to get back to Ruffano. Caterina and Paolo tell Fabbio to exchange his couriers suit for their normal uniform of jeans and t-shirt and after a haircut at a local barbers he barely looks like himself. Paolo drives Fabbio back to Ruffano and as he enters the city he considers the fact that if Aldo had not be adopted by his parents then perhaps he, Fabbio, would have been the eldest son. 'Instead of growing up in Aldo's shadow, fearful, overawed, docile to his command, the whole course of my life must have been otherwise' (p.258). They arrive in Ruffano and fighting has already broken out between the arts and C & E students. Fabbio decides not to go to see Aldo immediately but instead to sleep the night in the part and wait for the festival to begin.
The next morning as Fabbio waits for the festival to begin he feels a sense of foreboding. 'This Festival was neither play nor pageant, nor a mock representation of medieval splendour, but a summons to destroy. I could no more stop it than any single man could stop war' (p.264). Fabbio walks through the city and sees eighteen horses ready to take part in the Festival and he realises that Aldo is going to attempt to repeat Duke Claudio's feat of driving the horses through the city. Fabbio is terrified and as he blunders through the city he runs into Aldo's car. Aldo picks him up and Fabbio tells him that he has returned to tell him that he understands about why he killed Marta. Aldo walks away from Fabbio and sees to the horses who are being harnessed to a great chariot. Aldo asks Fabbio if he will still play the role of the Falcon and Fabbio accepts. He will be Duke Claudio and Aldo will be the charioteer. 'The flight of the falcon had begun' (p.271).
They get into the chariot and process into the piazza. Fabbio wonders if he should pray and Aldo quotes Nietzche to him: 'He who no longer finds what is great in God will find it nowhere; he must either deny it or create it' (p.272). The horses begin to race and the crowds who are gathered chant 'Donati, Donati!' as they race past. Aldo and Fabbio achieve the impossible and arrive safely at the Ducal palace with the charging horses. The crowds are cheering and Aldo cries 'Here is the Falcon! Here is your Duke!' (p.275). The people continue to shout for Aldo and he suddenly dives through a side door into the palace. Fabbio follows him and meets the Rector who says that according to Aldo the finale of the festival was to follow the chariot race. Fabbio runs through the palace trying to find Aldo. He enters the doorway behind the tapestry and climbs the spiral stair. He climbs outside onto the balustrade and cries out for Aldo: 'The patch of sky, brilliant with the sun, distorted vision. I thought I saw the spread wings of a bird, its body darkening the open door, and crawling blindly on, dizzy with nausea, I gripped the topmost stair and peered about me, recognising nothing' (p.277). Fabbio realises that he has climbed further up and is on a small parapet beneath the minaret. Aldo drags him out onto the small ledge and they talk. He tells Fabbio that he made a great gamble with the chariot race: 'If we and the horses had crashed, if we had failed, they'd have been murdering each other now, each faction screaming sabotage' (p.278). Fabbio is amazed but Aldo tells him that 'the first and last lesson someone directing any spectacle had to learn: make your audience one' (p.279). Aldo tells Fabbio that he has remade his will and that if anything is to happen to him that he has left him all his money. Aldo then tells Fabbio that the thief in Rome confessed to murdering Marta. Fabbio is astonished but Aldo says: 'I killed her by despising her, by being too proud to accept the fact that I was her son. Wouldn't you say that counts as murder?' (p.279). Aldo then reveals his final plan. He has made a pair of wings with which he intends to fly from the tower. He says that he tested them in the hills outside the city and they cannot fail. Fabbio tells him its suicide and that he has already proved himself once that day and why must he do it again. 'Once is never enough [...] You must always risk a second time, a third, a fourth, no matter what it is you want to achieve.' (p.281). Aldo gets ready for flight and then launches himself from the tower. 'I watched for him to pull the rip-cord of the braking parachute, as he had described. He did not do so. Instead, he must have kicked his body free, letting the apparatus which he had helped to build drift on without him. He threw himself clear, spreading his arms wide like the wings he had discarded, then, bringing them to his side, he plummeted to earth and fell, his body, small, and fragile, a black streak against the sky' (p.282).
The novel concludes with an extract from the Ruffano Weekly Courier in which the Rector describes Aldo's life and death. He writes that Fabbio suggested that his brother 'in mid-air, had a sudden vision, some sort of ecstasy blinding him to danger. It may be true. Like Icarus, he flew too near the sun. Like Lucifer, he fell. We, the Ruffanesi who remain, salute the courage of a man who dared' (p.283).
The novel was serialised in Good Housekeeping magazine in America but the contract insisted that du Maurier rewrite the ending. The English version of the novel concludes with the Rector's brief obituary after Aldo's death but for the American version, du Maurier added a final chapter in which Fabbio, like the good duke Claudio, vows to unite the city and finish the work which Aldo started: 'I'll stay here with you here in Ruffano... I'll help in whatever way I can. Now that the Rector is back again, he can advise us. First and foremost, I believe Aldo would wish us to continue his work among the poorer students, amongst orphans like yourselves' (quoted p.95, Auerbach). This rather trite ending sits uncomfortably with the sinister and divisive tone of the rest of the novel and Nina Auerbach even goes so far as to call this additional chapter a 'pious mess' (Auerbach, p.94).
Margaret Forster writes that du Maurier had intended for the novel 'to appear to be a thriller but, in fact, to be an allegory' (Forster, p.336). Forster explains that the 'allegorical meaning was to do with the Jungian idea of psychological predestination which had fascinated her for so long. She wanted to identify "that link with the past" in which lost childhoods are part of one continuous pattern until the whole of life is seen as "an unending journey"' (Forster, p.336). This she attempted by paralleling Aldo and Fabbio's relationship in the present narrative with the power-plays which had characterised their sibling rivalry as children and also, more historically, by depicting Aldo almost as a reincarnation of mad duke Claudio.
In her biography of du Maurier Judith Cook argues that the novel is 'written as if her heart is not it in' (Cook, p.238). I would argue, conversely, that the novel is one of du Maurier's most powerful and gripping narratives, due in great part to her depiction of Aldo Donati. He is a charismatic yet dangerous figure in the mould of George du Maurier's Svengali or even du Maurier's own Rebecca de Winter. He is at turns saviour and destroyer, Christ and Lucifer, Cain and Abel, and he exerts a powerful influence not only over his brother but also over the citizens of Ruffano and the readers of the novel.
Richard Kelly describes the novel as having 'the texture of a nightmare', a description which captures the interweaving of dream and memory, fantasy and mythology, past and present in the novel. When Fabbio walks the streets of Ruffano he experiences the Ruffano of the present through the lens of the Ruffano of the past, both his own personal past and the historical past of the Ruffanesi Dukes. When Aldo plans to re-enact the mad flight of duke Claudio, the historical city is resurrected in the present day, rather like the return of the fourteenth-century in du Maurier's time-slip novel The House on the Strand. Dick Young, like Aldo and Fabbio, also wanders about in the present but with his head in the past.
The Flight of the Falcon (Gollancz 1964).
The Flight of the Falcon is currently in print, published by Virago (2005).
Page references in this review are taken from The Flight of the Falcon (Penguin 1969, reprinted 1980).
© L. Varnam 2010.