When We Were Very Young

For reasons that escape me, a number of years ago I bought a boxset of Daphne Du Maurier novels. I must have thought this was good plan, because I then bought a second, and a couple of novels not included in either. I also bought the collection which contains the story that was the basis for ‘Don’t Look Now’. The most Hitchcockian of novelists – with perhaps the thought that Du Maurier was a Cornish Patricia Highsmith. The grand plan, being anal, was to read the novels in chronological order of publication, but that never happened and the boxes sat by my bed, gathering dust. So I picked another one at random. Du Maurier Plaque

Daphne du Maurier, I’ll Never Be Young Again (1932)

I’ll Never Be Young Again is very much a book of two halves. In the first, Call-Me-Dick is about to throw himself into the Thames, having been estranged from his Famous Author Father for writing pornographic poetry. For the sake of the first person narration, he is rescued by Jake, a young man recently released from jail having served a sentence for manslaughter. The two decide to go to Scandinavia — partly working their passage, partly tourists. Call-Me-Dick is plainly a dick, he being miserable and contrariwise half the time and it’s a wonder that Jake doesn’t drop him in the nearest fjord at the fjirst opportunity.

In the second half, he settles in Paris, initially adrift, sacked from job after job, pretending to be a writer, and set up at first by selling his rights to the pornographic poems. Think Henry Miller without the explicit sex scenes. Somewhere along the line he picks up an American music student, Helva, who becomes his partner and muse and is generally messed around by Call-Me-Dick.

It’s a brave thing, to have a protagonist and first person at that who is such a whiny. It’s pretty episodic, of course, with a vague theme of growing up and becoming accepted by one’s father. Jake isn’t sure he wants Call-Me-Dick to grow up — perhaps he’s a bit of a manchild too.

What would have made the characters grow up? There’s no shadow of war on the scene — assuming CMD is twenty in 1932 (when the novel was published), he would have been two to six when it took place. Too young to fight, obviously, but still a shadowy memory? If it’s set even earlier, then even more of a memory. I began assuming that there was a Victorian setting — the manslaughter, the fog on the Thames — but there’s a gramophone and then there’s cars and the characters go to the cinema. Early twentieth century then? Are there mentions of phones at the end? It’s all a little … closed in.

Inevitably, there’s some amateur psychoanalysis to undertake – du Maurier, the bisexual, putting herself into the viewpoint of a man who moves from effete to pugilist (Jake was a boxer, who defended a young woman’s honour, incidentally.) there’s a sense of CMD being picked up by Jake and an odd love-hate attitude to the sailors, a sense of CMD throwing himself at the ladies that I don’t think Jake echoes.

The novel, in that alibi-ing, disavowing dance, even has a character ask CMD:

“Are you a sodomite?” […]
“No, I haven’t sufficient rhythm.”

Oscar Wilde was accused of “Posing as a sodomite” (or, rather, a somdomite, the Marquis of Queensbury being presumably better at rules than spelling). Late in the novel, we learn that CDM’s dialogue in his novel (or is it his play?) is meant to be Wildean. Hmm.

This is a mixed bag — some exciting scenes of action, some dull scenes of domestic life, a very weird ending where the joke seems to be on Dick. But, after all, this was her second novel.

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