My reading sort-of-resolution – to read more of the books that have been on my shelves for years and years – continues apace with Frank Baker’s 1936 novel The Birds. It was his second novel, and his third was my much-adored Miss Hargreaves – would this finally be the novel that lived up to Miss H, after many swings and misses from Baker’s oeuvre?
Well, no, but it was interesting to read nonetheless. And it’s perhaps most interesting to read in relation to Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds. Which was, we are told, based on Daphne du Maurier’s 1952 short story ‘The Birds’; she claimed never to have heard of Baker’s novel, and Baker never went through with his threat to sue Hitchcock. (My edition was published in 1964, the year after the film came out, with a woman who looks suspiciously like Tippi Hedren on the cover – and the passive aggressive publishers note ‘Written long before Daphne du Maurier’s short story…’) It’s quite possible she never read it – it only sold a few hundred copies when first published. My edition is apparently ‘revised’, though I don’t know to what extent.
I’ll be honest, I’ve never read du Maurier’s story or seen the film, but I suspect at least some of the premise is similar – birds are attacking and nobody knows why.
About as large as starlings, but different in every other respect, they were neither pink nor purple as the messenger had surmised, but an ambiguous shade of dark jade green. This colour, catching the bright sunlight, sometimes shone blue, sometimes purple. It was an almost fluid colour. Each one had a little ruff of pretty feathers round his neck which stuck out like a hat above his head. The brightest part of their colouring was in the breast, from the throat downwards, where the feathers were smooth and of a glossy sheen which seemed to reflect all colours. Their little beaks were curved, not unlike a parrot; they had sharp, very lively eyes which gave them an inquisitive, impertinent expression.
There are some vivid scenes of the birds attacking – but they do not swoop and attack in crowds from the sky. Rather, they seem to target individuals – swindlers, unkind people – and disappear once their victims have been attacked or killed. But nothing will kill the birds themselves – not fire or bullets or anything.
This central thread of action is drawn well and engagingly, and the reader wants to know the secret behind the birds activities – and there is a secret of sorts, albeit one rather clouded in a bizarre philosophical spiritualism that Baker half-explains eventually, in a cloud of vague writing. But there is a conceit of the novel that palls very quickly – it is all told by the narrator to his granddaughter Anna, after some sort of world-changing event. All the mores and customs of the old world – that is, the 1930s world the reader would recognise – have been wiped completely. And, for some reason, none of them have been brought up until now. It means that Anna apparently doesn’t know anything about politics, religion, machinery, jobs… anything at all, really. And the narrator discourses about them at length – sometimes just explaining what they are; sometimes letting Baker indulge in some cynical satire. It was all rather self-indulgent and distracting.
I love Miss Hargreaves. You know that by now. But every other novel I’ve read by Baker ends up being so stodgy. And I’ve now tried four others – but I’ll keep persisting, on the off-chance that one of them will come close to the novel I love so much.
But the link to Hitchcock’s film, however unintentional, has given this book something of a lease of life – it was republished in 2013 and, if the #frankbaker tag on Instagram is anything to go on, has proven rather popular recently as Os Pássaros. Perhaps it’s a better book in… Portuguese? (According to Google Translate, at least!) Any Portuguese speakers out there, maybe give it a go.