23 year old Daphne du Maurier's novel I'LL NEVER BE YOUNG AGAIN either makes readers think and reflect or judge it a very ordinary, somewhat incoherent tale. Dashed off June-July, 1930 in London, I'LL NEVER BE YOUNG AGAIN is told by unlikeable anti-hero Richard/Dick, 21 years old at novel's beginning and only four or five years older at its conclusion.
Richard is the son and only child of England's greatest living poet and a mother who devoted almost all her time and energy to her genius husband. Richard himself, it turns out, is no genius and no writer, so he later is wasting two years in Paris largely trying to outdo the great poet in his own field.
His father's publisher, aging Ernest Grey, has known Dick since childhood. Here is how, toward novel's end, Grey sizes up our anti-hero after reading personally the manuscripts of Richard's first novel and first play:
"It seemed to me, from the very first page, that you were dominated by the thought of your father. ... you could not escape from the idea of his greatness. ... You were writing as though you wished to be his echo. ... It was false, Richard, it was insincere. ... Your father sits alone, Richard, a genius ... caring for nothing and no one, while you live and love, and hurt yourself and are miserable, and are happy, and you aren't a genius, Richard, you are only an ordinary man" (Part II, Ch. VIII).
This passage gives readers something to think about. Geniuses sometimes beget ordinary sons, take them for granted, virtually ignore them. And such sons can grow up bitter, resentful, self-absorbed, selfish suicidal.
Which brings us to the easily summarized, superficially shallow, sometimes plodding plot of I'LL NEVER BE YOUNG AGAIN. Late on an early summer's evening on a bridge overlooking the Thames Basin, a stranger named Jake prevents Richard from leaping to his death by drowning. Richard clings initially and for some time to Jake as to a non-judgmental, seven years older savior. Jake sees Dick's problem as simply coming to terms with youth and inexperience. Buck up, Dick! Take a grip on yourself!
"Being young, he said, is something you won't understand until it's gone from you, and then it will come in a flash, leaving you a little wiser than before. You won't be lonely, you won't be unhappy, possibly, there will be a great peace and security. You'll go on, you see, as others have gone on, just that and no more." (Ch 2)
Whatever Jake chooses for the both of them to do, Richard gladly does. They pass a few weeks at sea working together on a freighter. Jake tells Richard that eight years ago, when he was Richard's age, he had deliberately killed a male friend in a boxing ring because that friend had corrupted a young woman who later became a prostitute and died of consumption. That friend had laughed to confirm what Dick had learned elsewhere. Richard thinks (foresees?) that he is that other friend who was justly deprived of life for evil deeds. Jake was convicted of manslaughter and served seven years in prison. In prison Jake thought through his life and determined henceforth to find contentment in calmly appreciating flowers, sunsets and not feeling sorry for himself.
The two men, saved and savior, silently ride horses into the high mountains of Norway. Sublime, thinks Richard. Then they ride down to a fjord, board a tourist ship, and internally rudderless Richard promptly forgets Norwegian mountain serenities and joys and takes to the fun-filled, brainless lives of five American tourists aboard ship, especially to one shallow red-headed girl.
Jake at once begins to lose his idol status within Dick's amoeba-like soul. In a later working ship's wreck on the Brittany coast, Richard is the sole survivor. He migrates to Paris to prove himself a writer, falls into bad company and deliberately corrupts the morals of a naive but dedicated English music student named Hesta. Relentlessly Richard demands sex of her. She reluctantly gives in because she loves Dick but tells him she wants marriage and children. He scoffs. Marriage would make them lose their freedom. Dick even suggests that true freedom for Hesta might someday entail prostitution and sexual promiscuity.
After months of intense rutting with Hesta, finally, suddenly, inexplicably, Dick absorbs himself in serious writing to "show" his father. Within not more than a year he produces a novel and a play and takes them to his father's publisher in London. Meanwhile he has demoted Hesta to being a mere comforting taken for granted backdrop to his self-absorbed writing. She is no more than a comfortable chair or sometime bed mate. Richard persuades Hesta to resume music lessons (and stop pestering him). There for the first time, she allows music to take second place and begins to make friends among fellow music students and staff.
In London, with no explanation, Dick suddenly wants marriage and children. The publisher turns down his works. Richard returns to Paris to find that Hesta has moved out. In a final scene she tells him that she is moving in with Julio, a violinist. She does not intend that relationship to last but means to go on forever from man to man, let her music be damned. Fun, fun, fun! Hesta is what Dick has turned her into.
Still in his Paris apartment, nursing his new self-assessment as an ordinary man with a new longing for domesticity, Dick is at a sudden loss what to do next. Then arrives a telegram telling of Dick's father's unexpected death. At home in London he learns that his mother wants to live on in their big home and turn it into a shrine to memory. A surprised Dick also learns that his father has left him all his considerable weatlth. He accepts advice and help from wise old publisher Ernest Grey, clerks for a financial firm and joins Grey's social club.
Five or six years after Jake's death, Richard is living comfortably, stodgily but considers himself content enough and as having put behind him the problems of unresolved childhood and unsatisfactory young adulthood. He hears a bird singing in his garden and interprets it as Jake once had, "I'll never be young again -- I'll never be young again."
What to make of this second novel by 23-year old as yet unmarried Daphne du Maurier?
Autobiographical echoes are here that will return in a score of future writings: difficulty breaking free from earliest relationship with a father, a mother who neglects child for husband's career and glory, sense that there are (at least) two personalities within each person struggling for dominance, and more.
Jake tells Dick that the first person to corrupt an innocent young women deserves punishment. Dick briefly relives King David's "Thou art the man" moment (2 Samuel 12:1-15) but later never sees himself as also an evil corrupter and spoiler of Hesta. Richard is a classic anti-hero. He has no redeeming characteristics except the ability to tell his awful story. He flits from mood to mood like a butterfly. He tries first to imitate his savior Jake then repudiate Jake's example for a life of pure fun among wastrels. He hates writing. Then dives into it. He turns Hesta into a libertine, then her example makes him offer her -- too late -- marriage and a settled, contented life with children. He has no religion, no traditional moral code. He is a conditioned reflex, an ethical amoeba.
I'LL NEVER BE YOUNG AGAIN is a better than average second novel. Its content is sometimes memorable -- descriptions of nature, water, boats and ships, movements with the psyche -- but weakly organized. Form is wobbly. Thank heavens, better is going to be delivered by Daphne du Maurier!
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