The hidden secrets of la Serenissima

By Frank Barrett, Mail on Sunday

Last updated at 12:07 25 March 2002


Where do writers get their ideas? Novelists can be vague about what sparks the beginnings of a book - but Daphne du Maurier knew exactly what inspired her finest short story.

She had taken a trip to Torcello, the largely deserted island on the fringes of the Venetian lagoon.

While she was having an alfresco lunch in the sunny garden of the Locanda Cipriani (it's still well worth taking the time to make the journey for a meal), du Maurier recalled observing a young couple at a neighbouring table.

'They looked so handsome and beautiful and yet they seemed to have a terrible problem and I watched them with sadness,' the novelist wrote later.

'The young man tried to cheer his wife up but to no avail and it struck me perhaps that their child had died of meningitis.'

A curious intuition, but du Maurier was able to spin this slender observation into literary gold.

She named the couple John and Laura Baxter and they became the central characters of Don't Look Now.

For some cities, you need to pack a guidebook. The museums of Paris, for example, or the classical antiquities of Greece will make little sense without the detailed notes of a glossy Dorling Kindersley or a Blue Guide.

For other places, you would do best to take a novel. E M Forster's A Room With A View brings Florence alive, and you would be mad to contemplate a visit to the San Fermin fiesta in Pamplona without taking Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.

And nothing quite summons up the ambience of out-of-season Venice as Don't Look Now.

In Penguin's du Maurier short stories collection, Don't Look Now runs to fewer than 50 pages, but each time I read them I am effortlessly transported to the deserted backstreets of la Serenissima.

Guidebooks lay out the menu of a place, as it were, but they don't usually tell you what to eat.

With a copy of Don't Look Now in your hand, du Maurier can guide you through her Venice. It's a pleasure worth lingering over.

Before we embark on this literary pilgrimage, we need to address the matter of the film version of Don't Look Now.

When good fiction is brought to the screen, the results are often dire (The Shipping News, for example).

Yet when the filming of Don't Look Now began exactly 30 years ago this year, it was to prove that rare creature: a film that managed to match the quality of the book.

And while films normally cut and compress fiction, Don't Look Now director Nicolas Roeg needed to extend and amplify the original story.

So, remarkably, the film and book complement each other - something that du Maurier was happy to acknowledge when she saw a special preview.

There are differences. In the film, John Baxter, played by Donald Sutherland, becomes an agnostic church restorer who travels to Venice with his wife Laura (Julie Christie) after their young daughter had drowned.

In du Maurier's story, as we know, the Baxters' daughter died of meningitis - and John and Laura are simply enjoying a short holiday in Venice.

But the central tale remains mostly intact. The main elements of the story were all observed by du Maurier on her visits to the city.

She had seen two sisters, one of them blind, and she had seen what she thought was a little girl in a coat with a pixie hood - the misapprehension that provides the awful twist in the tale.

The plot hinges on a series of episodes linked with clairvoyance and psychic precognition - subjects that fascinated du Maurier.

In a restaurant - on Torcello, of course - John and Laura meet two Scottish sisters, one of whom, named Heather, is blind and clairvoyant.

She tells Laura that she has seen her dead daughter sitting at the restaurant between her and John, smiling and happy.

The blind sister also reveals that the daughter is warning John and Laura not to stay in the city because their lives are in danger.

In a series of macabre twists - the final one being the most terrifying and unforgettable in English literature - the gripping tale is played out against the background of a largely deserted Venice.

With an economy of language, du Maurier subtly brings the city alive. The evening after their lunchtime encounter with the sisters, the Baxters have their first brush with danger.

The novelist paints a vivid picture of the spookiness of night-time Venice familiar to anyone who has visited the city.

On the way to a restaurant, they become lost. 'The canal was narrow, the houses on either side seemed to close in upon it, and in the daytime, with the sun's reflection on the water and the windows of the houses open, bedding upon the balconies, a canary singing in a cage, there had been an impression of warmth, of secluded shelter.

'Now, ill-lit, almost in darkness, the windows of the houses shuttered, the water dank, the scene appeared altogether different, neglected, poor, and the long narrow boats moored in the slippery steps of cellar entrances looked like coffins.'

Du Maurier leaves clues so that you can follow the Baxters through this 'sinister' place, which can be found as described at the back of the San Martino church near the Arsenale.

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