Fear of Heights


Our Daily Correspondent

From a 1952 edition of “Monte Verità.”


Those who go to the mountains must give everything. That’s all there is to it. —Daphne du Maurier, “Monte Verità”

Everest is opening in theaters across the country, bringing with it much CGI, apparently stunning vistas, and the sort of relaxation that can only come from knowing the worst from the outset. For those of us who like a different sort of thrill, I recommend another mountain-climbing story: Daphne du Maurier’s “Monte Verità.”

Originally collected in 1952’s The Apple Tree, “Monte Verità”—really a short novella—can now be found in Don’t Look Now and Other Stories, with a trenchant introduction by Patrick McGrath. “Monte Verità” is about mountain climbing and about spirituality and sexuality, any more than that would be giving it away. Writing about the story, the late Roger Dobson put it this way:

Saying anything about Daphne du Maurier’s story “Monte Verità,” in an attempt to whet readers’ appetites, risks ruining its spellbinding effects. The only injunction necessary is: Don’t miss this one. More haunting than Rebecca, more bizarre than “Don’t Look Now,” with echoes of Picnic at Hanging Rock and ultimately as enigmatic, this novella is one of the most enchanting productions of du Maurier’s pen.

To this list of comps I would add William Henry Hudson’s problematic romance Green Mansions, and, more explicitly, James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. Indeed, the debt to Hilton’s 1933 best seller—in which a bunch of travelers stumble upon the mountain paradise Shangri-La—seems obvious, although the mythology from which both draw is pretty universal. And whereas the earlier novel is frankly goofy (see the Frank Capra adaptation for proof), du Maurier, for all her own unapologetic melodrama, takes its themes to a less literal and more sinister level.

As McGrath writes,

Clairvoyance hints at the existence of a supernatural realm, but can only offer glimpses of it. Du Maurier … attempted boldly to go deep into this territory, convinced perhaps, that if we humans share so much with the apes then it’s not unreasonable to suppose we have something in common with the angels, too.

Which isn’t to say the story’s flawless. There are clumsy moments, bits of too-legible allegory, and the dark psychological undercurrents that mark all the good “productions of du Maurier’s pen.” (Once you’ve read the story, be sure to check out Slavoj Zižek on du Maurier, particularly as regards female masochism.)

In a letter to a friend written around the time of the story, du Maurier reminisced about a recent mountaineering expedition:

One of the best holidays I’ve ever had. I had a heavenly time. I wasn’t sure how I would get on, you know, with a rucksack on my back, and tramping the road, and sleeping at different places each night, but I adored every moment. My companion was an easy-going Cornish friend who had done an immense amount of walking in out-of-the-way countries, so we lived like two tramps, iron rations of cheese and chocolate mid-day, and a shaving-mug of glacier water to make Nescafé over a camp fire!

The Rhone is quite beautiful, when it is still a mountain torrent, and the strange thing is I found a village up a side valley so much like the valley village in the story, and a great rocky mountain that could have been Monte Verità. I tried to get up it but it defeated me.

In fact, there was a real Monte Verità –a site near Lake Maggiore that served as the location of a range of utopian communities. At various times, the Mountain of Truth and its mystical bohemian enclave played host to Hermann Hesse, Isadora Duncan, Rudolf Steiner, and Carl Jung, to name only a few, and would naturally have been a familiar name to du Maurier. But her story is not rooted in fact so much as feeling. And as her narrator tells us, preemptively,

One word of warning. There are many mountain peaks in Europe, and countless numbers may bear the name of Monte Verità. They can be found in Switzerland, in France, in Spain, in Italy, in the Tyrol. I prefer to give no precise locality to mine. In these days, after two world wars, no mountain seems inaccessible. All can be climbed. None, with due caution, need be dangerous. My Monte Verità was never shunned because of difficulties of height, of ice and snow. The track to the summit could be followed by anyone of sure and certain step, even in late autumn. No common danger kept the climber back, but awe and fear.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.