Pechorin's Journal

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac

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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.

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