Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac

Vertigo, by Boileau-Narcejac and translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

Like I suspect a lot of people I had no idea Hitchcock’s Vertigo was based on a book. The film, if you’ve not seen it, is easily among Hitchcock’s best and is a masterpiece of mood and obsessive desire. I’m a big fan of it.

When Pushkin Press recently launched their new crime imprint they named it Vertigo, after this book (or more properly after the film, since the book’s title roughly translates as Among the Dead). No surprise then that it was one of their initial release titles.

It’s classic Pushkin material. We’re talking mid-20th Century underappreciated European fiction here, and if that’s not Pushkin’s beat what is?

I’m going to write this review on the assumption you’ve not seen the film, though anyone reading this probably has.


Before I start, that photo above doesn’t really do the book justice. The new Pushkin Vertigo range have a simple but very effective graphic design – relatively few elements but with a nicely judged off-kilter sense of unease.

Paris, 1940. Roger Flavières is a former policeman turned lawyer. His practice hasn’t taken off and his life hasn’t gone as he’d hoped. “He was one of those people who hate mediocrity without themselves being able to scale the heights.” He’s a damaged man, crippled by guilt over a colleague’s death that he blames himself for and which caused him to quit the police.

As the novel opens Flavières  is contacted by old acquaintance Paul Gévigne, a successful industrialist who needs somebody he can trust to watch his wife, Madeleine. Gévigne claims that Madeleine has become oddly distant, that she seems to go into increasingly frequent trances and extraordinary as it might seem that she may be being influenced by the spirit of a dead ancestor. Gévigne wants to take care of her, but with war in the offing he’s too busy expanding into the arms trade and putting himself in position to profit from the coming conflict.

Flavières finds Gévigne repugnant and is reluctant to get involved, but he agrees at least to take a look at Madeleine. From the moment he does so he’s sunk.

… his thoughts lingered over her eyes, intensely blue, but so pale that they didn’t seem quite alive, eyes which certainly could never express passion. The cheeks were slightly hollowed out under prominent cheekbones, just sufficiently to harbour a faint shadow which suggested languor. Her mouth was small with hardly any lipstick on it – the mouth of a dreamy child. Madeleine – yes, that was undoubtedly the right name for her. […] She was unhappy, of course.

Flavières begins to follow Madeleine, but soon moves from being an investigator to a sort of paid companion. Gévigne encourages Flavières to spend all his days with her, even when Flavières admits he’s developing feelings. Gévigne doesn’t care, argues that’s to the good as it’ll make Flavières all the more diligent. The situation reeks, but Flavières ignores the warning signs as the more time he spends with Madeleine the more he idolises her and the less he can bear the idea of being apart from her.

Let’s look back at that quote above. Flavières’ never been good with women, and now he has Madeleine with her “eyes which certainly could never express passion” and her “mouth of a dreamy child”. He loves her, but his love is worship of a goddess, not desire for a woman.

Meanwhile in the background the war continues. Early on nobody takes it that seriously – the press is full of opinion pieces about how the German army is hopelessly ill-equipped to advance and of the folly of German aggression. Both France and Flavières are in denial, but the sun is shining, Flavières is in love and the German menace is distant and not to be taken too seriously.

For me easily the most audacious part of the novel was the mirroring of Flavières’ fortunes and those of France itself. As he begins to worry how long he can protect Madeleine from herself and her increasingly otherworldly moods, the news from the front becomes more disquieting. The press remains upbeat, yet the fighting keeps getting closer to Paris. Neither situation can last.

It was known now that the German armour was advancing on Arras, and that the fate of the country was in the balance. Every day more cars drove through the town, looking for the bridge and the road to the South. And people stood in the streets silently staring at them, their hearts empty. They were more and more dirty, more and more ramshackle. With a shamefaced curiosity, people would question the fugitives. In all this, Flavières saw the image of his own disaster. He had no longer the strength to go back to Paris.

The novel then jumps forward four years, to a ruined France and equally ruined Flavières. The personal and the public are here inseparable; one a mirror to the other. Flavieres believed Madeleine long dead, but then sees her in a post-war newsreel; he’s already lost her once, he won’t let it happen a second time.

Vertigo is a clever and psychologically astute examination of desire and obsession. Flavières’ character is expertly realised, and the slow unravelling of what’s really going on with Gévigne and Madeleine is masterfully handled. If you have seen the film you’ll know much of the gist, but the film changes a lot too and there are subtleties here which it can’t equal (much as I love it).

The afterword explains that writing duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac wanted “to develop a new kind of crime fiction”, less whodunnits and more victim-focused nightmares. On the strength of Vertigo they succeeded, and while I received this book as a review copy I’ll definitely be buying Pushkin’s other Boileau-Narcejac.

I’ll end with a small note on the translation. Generally it reads smoothly and the language is effective and evocative. I can’t say how true it is to the original, but it reads well. Very occasionally however translator Geoffrey Sainsbury leaves a phrase in French, presumably for flavour but I found it slightly jarring as in my imagination at least the whole thing is in French (and on one occasion I actually didn’t know what a phrase meant which seemed needlessly irritating). Still, despite that complaint if Sainsbury has translated the other Boileau-Narcejac I’ll still be pleased to see his name (tucked away in the copyright page as it is).

Other reviews

Lots and lots of them. I noted both Jacqui’s review from her Jacquiwine’s Journal, here and Guy’s review from His Futile Preoccupations here. Both of those are sufficiently good as to make mine rather redundant. However, I’m sure I’ve also read others which I’ve since lost the link to so as always please feel free to link me to them in the comments.



Filed under Boileau-Narcejac, Crime, French, Pushkin Press, Pushkin Vertigo

18 responses to “Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    The film is powerful, but it sounds from the reviews I’ve read that the book might be even stronger. Plus the setting is intriguing – another one for the wishlist.

  2. Well-paced review so now I want to read the book. Seems the film maintained the strength of the book. Thanks!

  3. It has the strengths of a book over a film if that makes sense. I love the film, and I think it’s tremendously well executed, but it can’t go inside characters in the way a book can. I don’t know then about stronger, but worthwhile certainly.

    Re the setting, I was actually quite taken aback by how sanguine the Parisians of 1940 are shown to be in this, as they read their equivalent of Guardian Comment is Free pieces about how the Germans have no hope and are mad to even think of attacking. I’d have assumed they’d have been living in a state of dread, but the book was written in 1954 so 1940 to then is like 2001 to us, most of the readers would remember it so I suspect it’s probably accurate.

  4. Kinna, it’s definitely well paced. It’s inevitably a book of two halves given the four year jump, but they’re both equally strong and well judged halves so it works well.

  5. Great review as ever, Max, and thanks for the link. I like the way you’ve brought out the mirroring between Flavières’ fortunes and developments in France at the time. That aspect of the story is completely absent from Hitchcock’s film…I guess he decided to focus on other elements instead.

    Much as I enjoyed the Leo Perutz, I think I preferred this book, primarily because of the central relationship between Flavières and Madeleine – I just found it completely fascinating.

  6. The first thing that comes to my mind when I think of Boileau-Narcejac is children literature, as I read several volumes of the Sans-Atout series.

    I must be the only one who hasn’t seen the film, so I’m glad you refrained in your review. I should put my hands on it though.

    Guy, Jacqui and now you. I need to find a copy of the French original.

  7. Sainsbury has translated Simenon too, I believe.

  8. I came >this< close to picking up a pocket-sized copy of Sueurs Froides (the original French title) when in France recently, and regret having decided that I had no room for another book of any size.

    Emma, the French original is everywhere – you’ll have no trouble getting a copy. And after your having been to San Francisco, you must see the film!

  9. That was the aspect that most impressed me in some ways Jacqui. Interesting re the Perutz. This won’t be on my end of year list when I do it, but the Perutz might be (haven’t formed the list yet, am trying to get a bit further into the blog backlog before I do).

    Emma, it’s one of the key San Francisco films. Scott knows whereof he speaks. Well worth catching, and the book is sufficiently different that one doesn’t really spoil the other (key plot developments, but not the nuance which is where the real meat is).

    Guy, interesting, I should check the Simenons I have to see if he did any of them.

    Scott, you could always grab this edition, though if you can read the French I imagine that’s the better choice. I’d be interested in hearing what a French reader made of the original. Same comment goes for Emma of course.

  10. Howard Curtis

    As one of the translators of the new Penguin Simenon series, I think I should say something about Geoffrey Sainsbury. One of the reasons Penguin have decided to re-translate all the Maigrets and a selection of the non-Maigrets is that many of the old translations (including a large number done in the 30s and 40s by Geoffry Sainsbury) were, let us say, rather free with the original material. When at the end of the 1940s Simenon had learnt enough English to read the translations, he was so horrified at the liberties Sainsbury in particular had taken, including making cuts, eliminating characters, even changing the plots slightly, that from that point on he took a closer interest in the English translations of his work. I don’t know if Sainsbury took similar liberties with Boileu and Narcejac, though I remember reading his translation of “Vertigo” many years ago and finding it a tad clunky. If I may generalise wildly, I’d say that translators these days are a lot more faithful than they were in the past.

  11. To Howard Curtis:
    The same thing happenned the other way round: early French translations of The Postman Always Ring Twice or Little Sister are truly awful.

  12. It sounds remarkably good and just the sort of thing I like to read. Should I start to blag review copies again? Nahh. It will have to go on the back-burner for a while until my book budget is replenished by imminent cash-back from my credit card.

  13. Howard, thank you for an enlightening comment. Mercifully I didn’t find it too clunky, save for the untranslated elements I mentioned which did throw me out of the text rather. I have no idea of course how accurate it was, I’ve only managed to do an accuracy review with translations of Clarice Lispector – and that was more testing some passages for accuracy to the original as best I could tell. I think you’re right that older translations often aim more for the spirit than the text, and then tend to be freer in their interpretation of what that spirit is…

    Of course capturing the balance between spirit and text is a classic debate. The Eugene Onegin I’ve reviewed here isn’t I understand that faithful in terms of text, but captures poetic rhythm well. I knew that when I read that copy and Eugene Onegin is particularly challenging with regard to having to make in its particular case a rather binary choice between the two objectives. Still, a decision to prioritise spirit over text doesn’t remotely justify “making cuts, eliminating characters, even changing the plots slightly”. If he did that to Simenon, sadly there’s no good reason to think he might not have done the same here.

    Poor old Jules Verne I understand suffers particularly from this issue too, to the extent that while I thought I read him as a kid I read something closer to English language pastiches.

    Incidentally, I have one of yours reviewed here, your translation of Izzo’s Garlic, Mint and Sweet Basil ( Have you translated other Izzo?

    Tom, I’ve already choked back on taking review copies, which I think I only did because I was chafing under #TBR20. Once you have them they sort of own you.

  14. Howard Curtis

    Thanks for pointing out the Izzo review, Max, I seem to have missed that one! I think I’d agree with you that it’s very slight as a book.

    As it happens, I translated all five of Jean-Claude Izzo’s novels for Europa Editions: Total Chaos, Chourmo and Solea (collectively known as the Marseilles Trilogy), plus The Lost Sailors and A Sun for the Dying.

  15. Marvellous. I have The Lost Sailors and the Marseilles trilogy, though I haven’t read them yet. I read Total Chaos a while back, pre-blog, and was hugely impressed. I plan to restart the series when I go back to it and read it through this time.

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