On Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Emil Cioran’s The Trouble with Being Born, and Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel
The best storytellers, I find, surprise without appearing to try. I wrote last week of Sound of Metal, whose director and writer, Darius Marder, effortlessly avoids a minefield of genre clichés, thereby telling one of the finest tales of addiction and redemption to recently hit the screen. Two of my favorite novels from earlier this year—Jenny Offill’s Weather and Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves—omit tropes in a similar fashion, trading familiar twists for narratives that settle upon quieter, harder truths. Set against the perpetual escalation of popular media, the arms race of shock and awe that Netflix originals and literary nobodies alike appear intent on seeing through to its anticlimactic end, stories of this sort—that are quiet; that orbit; that do not reflect, but refract—are proving increasingly necessary. It has always been the prerogative of the best of fiction to ask difficult questions, and to do so without providing answers, easy or otherwise. This is as true as ever in today’s pre-apocalyptic milieu, and it’s harder than ever before.
Informed by this dearth of genuine narrative substance, I went into Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca without expecting much. I knew that it was a classic; I knew that Hitchcock had adapted it into a more famous film; I knew that a certain subgenre of contemporary Gothic thrillers had Rebecca’s sequence of story beats coded into their DNA. And so I read the first two acts with a certain (and somewhat earned) skepticism. The setup, after all, is painfully familiar: the unnamed narrator, a naive girl of twenty-one, is swept (quite literally) off her feet by Maxim de Winter, the mysterious owner of Manderley, a locally famous estate on the Cornish coast. Within days, she has become the new Mrs. de Winter, marrying the much older widower in a breathless rush, falling into her new life as one might plunge from a sun-limned cliff. Very quickly, though, Maxim grows distant, disappearing for days at a time, retreating into a silence she’s unable to penetrate. Haunted by the specter of Rebecca, Maxim’s recently deceased wife, the narrator begins to suspect that he remains in love with her. Reinforcing this suspicion are her own shortcomings: she is too young for him, too innocent, too unrefined. She’s an intruder of the worst sort, having originally been invited in. She’s as in love with him as ever—but he’s not in love with her. He’s only pretended to be. Which summons up the true ghost of Manderley, the actual engine of Rebecca’s first two-thirds, the only question that ever matters: why?
Where I expected the narrative to proceed from here is anyone’s guess; my only certainty, laughable in retrospect, was that I would be disappointed. A series of unexplained bloodstains and cryptic notes would lead the narrator to a cellar, where she would find out what her new husband truly was. Alternatively, Rebecca would remain alive, say, and allied with Maxim, in which case our protagonist would be nothing but a pawn, a sacrifice in a larger scheme. Or our narrator, unbeknownst to even herself, might have played a role in Rebecca’s demise, and all the good fortune to come her way has served to set up an elaborate form of revenge. Or, simplest of all, it’s all a hallucination: Maxim is the one who’s actually dead. Or it’s aliens. (The possibilities are infinite; see your preferred streaming subscription for more options.)
Rebecca’s twist, though, if it can be said to have one, is one the narrator herself creates. After a passing ship disturbs the wreck in which lies Rebecca’s corpse, the truth rises to the surface: Maxim never loved Rebecca. Their marriage was a sham. She was in it only for the status and power their union conferred. He was in it because he felt he had no respectable way out. It was for this reason that he shot her, then concealed the evidence of his crime by staging a shipwreck. The source of their mutual misery lies not in wait, but in their past. It’s not that Maxim doesn’t love the narrator—he does, and with a ferocity that shocks her—but that their doom has been fated from the beginning. “The thing I’ve always foreseen,” he tells her, moments before confessing both his crime and his love, “[t]he thing I’ve dreamt about, day after day, night after night. We’re not meant for happiness, you and I.” It’s at this moment, upon realizing that she was wrong, that she’s projected her insecurities onto the world, that real romance is neither darker nor lighter than what she was led to believe, that life exists in shades of dusk: only now does she at last become an adult. Both perfect happiness and perfect tragedy have fallen forever out of reach. The next morning, reflecting upon this state, she observes, “I was aware of no feeling at all, no pain and no fear, there was no horror in my heart.” Her love is reciprocated, but the object of her love is in a more complicated bind than she could have ever dreamed. Her victory is an armistice. Her triumph is exclusively internal. She has quieted her doubts, survived the ceaseless writhing of her mind. The investigation to come serves only to test this peace, and she rises to the challenge.
In The Trouble with Being Born, the other text to dominate my thinking over the last week, Emil Cioran takes Daphne du Maurier’s Gothic fatalism to its logical extreme. For him, it’s not that perfect happiness can be fumbled out of reach—it’s that the possibility of such peace departs the moment one enters the world. At the end of the first section, he writes, with uncharacteristic fervor, “Not to have been born, merely musing on that—what happiness, what freedom, what space!” For beings cursed with an abundance of consciousness, nonexistence must be preferable to existence. The fatal flaw of the intelligent mind is its inescapable tendency to fixate, to relentlessly revisit, to dwell. Anxiety possesses the vicious capacity to transform all joys into sources of pain. “Paradise,” he writes, “was the place where everything was known but where nothing was explained. The universe before sin—before commentary…” The advent of thought tolled the bell that signaled our species’ doom. The pain of Rebecca‘s narrator stems not from her new husband’s past, but from her worry over his past. The moment his crime comes to light, the weight on her soul lifts. An instance of Man at His most animal—one human killing another, lashing out in rage and fear—has freed her. Her relief, of course, as Cioran himself might have reminded her, is only temporary: the weariness of life will soon reassert itself. Once more, Death will rear Her lovely head. Her victory is fleeting, a fact of which du Maurier is well aware: after Maxim has been (incorrectly) exonerated, the pair of lovers return to Manderley to find the mansion in flames. Once more, the past has come back to haunt them. They remain human, and therefore cursed with the capacity to remember. The escape from one’s memories can only be brief.
Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel, the latest (and fastest, and probably my favorite) of my recent reads, borrows a page from Rebecca and steers clear of narrative twists. We begin, as Mandel herself puts it, at “the end: plummeting down the side of the ship in the storm’s wild darkness.” Vincent, the novel’s primary narrator, is dead from the start. And in the wake of her death, The Glass Hotel’s narrative breaks apart, fracturing into flotsam, spreading out from the end of her fall in unwitnessed ripples. As the more recent of the two tales (The Glass Hotel released in 2020, eighty-two years after Rebecca’s first printing), I won’t spoil its plot, but I will say that its similarity to the earlier work runs deeper than the cross-generational relationship at each story’s heart. Like the marriage that Rebecca opens with, the Ponzi scheme orchestrated by Vincent’s partner (the shipping magnate Jonathan Alkaitis) thrusts a spectrum of dichotomies into overlapping conflict. The past infects the present. The rich ruin the poor. The virtuous succumb to vice. And casting a pall over the mess is a sense of resignation that Cioran would have found admirable. Try as The Glass Hotel’s characters might, their destinies are set. The best they can hope for is to cope.
From these three texts, two quotes stand out to me as the emblematic of the sort of writing I aspire to. The first is lifted from a middle section of The Trouble with Being Born. “I have spent my whole life,” Cioran says, “wanting to be something else… anything, except what I was.” The second occurs near the end of The Glass Hotel. Years after seeing Vincent for the final time, Paul, Vincent’s half-brother, expresses regret over never attempting to get back in touch: “The condition of having landed in an unimaginable life was something he thought she might know something about.” Each features a person, alone, struggling to come to terms with an irremediable situation. Each of our lots is our own; no other might bear it, as much as they might be willing to try. No one can save us save ourselves. The best and only thing another can do to help is to be there, to bear their own burden in tandem, to refuse to leave even when—especially when—the bearing becomes too much. My most recent shorthand response when someone asks me the Unanswerable—what do you write about?—has been this: heroic pessimists. Put less elegantly: those who know that their lot (like the lots of most) is inescapably awful, but who attempt to better it nonetheless. Put more concisely, or at least less self-consciously: self-destructive survivors. People like Rebecca‘s unnamed narrator, like Emil Cioran, like Vincent and Paul, who do their damnedest to claw their way out of their self-made wreckage. People like us.