Vertigo

vertigo hitchcockAlfred Hitchcock’s 1958 film, which topped the British Film Institute’s poll in 2012 for best film of all time, is deservedly famous. But how many people have read the book the film was based upon?

Well, Pushkin Press have just released a new crime imprint, Pushkin Vertigo, that features the novel along with other international crime masterworks published originally between the 1920s and 1970s. Vertigo was written by the amazing French crime duo, Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who I actually became rather interested in about a decade ago. Their books are often outrageous in premise and yet they pull them off brilliantly. Mostly they turn on a seemingly supernatural occurrence which always ends up with a logical explanation as part of a dastardly crime. So they’re both nutty and completely engrossing, a combination that always hovers around the supernatural in any case, something Boileau-Narcejac exploit ruthlessly in the knowledge that the impossible, the numinous and the inexplicable have a hypnotic effect on us.

vertigo boileauVertigo as written by Boileau-Narcejac is essentially a ghost story – or rather a Geist story, the original term from which ghost derives, meaning the spirit or soul. The story begins when ex-police detective, Roger Flavières is employed by his old friend, Paul Gevigny, to keep his wife, Madeleine, under strict surveillance. According to Gevigny, Madeleine has been experiencing periods of blackout, moments of ecstatic absence that have led him to suspect her of being possessed by the spirit of her suicidal grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac. Flavières is initially skeptical: ‘Either your wife’s ill or she’s up to some game or other,’ he tells Gevigny. However, once he has made Madeleine’s acquaintance and begun his mission of surveillance, Flavières undergoes a radical change of heart. Not only does he become convinced of her ghostly possession, but he also falls deeply in love with her. After thwarting her suicide attempt, he exchanges his role of spy for that of protector; rescuing Madeleine from her own internal estrangement becomes his raison d’être.

However, Flavières has one fatal weakness; his vertigo has already made him abandon his job in the police force after an incident in which a colleague, taking his place in a rooftop chase, fell to his death. The logic of inevitable repetition powers this story and so, when Madeleine rushes to the top of a church tower in a moment of otherworldly possession, Flavières finds himself once again unable to intervene, and once again forced to witness a death by falling.

Flavières is a curious mix of frustrated heroism and full-blown neurosis, a prickly, unstable character whose cynicism is a form of romanticism contaminated by despair.Yet his force is bound up in his determination to overcome his own phobias and to find strength and courage inside a mind tortured by its own uncertainties. When he rescues Madeleine from her attempt to drown herself, he rescues himself from his apathy and aimlessness – small wonder then, that when he loses her, he thinks: ‘She was dead. And he was dead with her.’ What a clever, tight thematic grip this narrative exerts; Madeleine is possessed by the spirit of Pauline Lagerlac, and in going to her rescue, Flavières becomes possessed by the spirit of the woman he adores. Round and round in circles we go, but it doesn’t stop there.

Intrinsic to this story is its setting at the very start of World War 2. When Flavières and Madeleine first meet, it’s the period of the phony war, when everyone is thrilled and terrified and waiting in disbelief for something to happen. And when Madeleine falls to her death, it is, of course, the moment when the war begins for real and the Germans invade Paris. Flavières decides to leave the country and he only returns when the war is over; his years in Africa have left him sick and weak, he is a broken man, returning to a broken, hapless France. It’s more than just a pathetic fallacy at work here; instead it’s a radical lack of boundaries, as the spirits of time and place as well as people, reach out contaminatory fingers, infiltrating one another. Aimlessly entering a cinema, Flavières is astonished to witness a face in the newsreel he thinks he recognises. After all, he’s just spent the past five years being obsessed by her memory. Could it be that Madeleine now lives on in someone else?

Well, we’ll leave Flavières rushing off in search of his old love. Even if you’re well acquainted with the ending to Hitchcock’s Vertigo, you’ll find the second part of the story quite different. There is a much darker, harsher, more unnerving vision at work, and Hitchcock’s movie seems quite light and cheery in comparison. The film of Vertigo is understood to be the place where Hitchcock spells out his relationship to his cool blondes most openly – his desire to control and mould them which always ends in disappointment, because his fantasy is only ever that and cannot really be made real. Whereas Boileau-Narcejac suggest that ghosts are both intrinsic and alien to our sense of the human – that our identity is to some extent a haunted house, people live on inside us, just as we inhabit the hearts and imaginations of others. For Flavières, Madeleine really does complete him, and what might seem romantic is actually pretty scary too. Hence our ambivalence over the ghost – what is psychologically real is denied as being too uncomfortable to our sense of self, and instead we play with the idea of the ghost as something that exists in a troubling way outside and beyond us.

Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac makes a fascinating companion to the Hitchcock film, and is, I think, an amazing book in its own right. I’ve got a couple more of the Pushkin Vertigo series to read and if they’re all up to this standard, it’s going to be a fabulous collection for crime lovers.

29 thoughts on “Vertigo

  1. Excellent review, and it’s made me even more keen to explore Pushkin’s new series…! I tend to be in the ‘book is always better’ camp, and I do find Hitchcock’s attitude towards women a little worrying – however, the film *is* good!

  2. I really want to read this, as Vertigo is one of my favourite Hitchcock films (out of so many favourites) – although Kim Novak is not my favourite actress. I like the sound of even more darkness and the ghosts within each of us…

    • I’d love to know what you think of this one, Marina. Vertigo is one of my favourites too (along with Rear Window) and the premise of the story is so rich and intriguing.

    • It reminds me that when you have the right story – that is to say a story whose structure is sufficiently fascinating – then the rest just follows of its own accord!

  3. I’m not a crime fiction fan but this sounds well worth seeking out. I’m also in the ‘book is better camp’. It seems to me extraordinarily difficult to capture the naunce and complexities of a book which takes many hours to read in a film which takes just two to watch. Great poster, though.

    • This is much more novelistic than your usual crime fiction – it could easily pass as a dark sinister novel (particularly when you think of the way the word ‘thriller’ is liberally applied to novels these days!) And whilst I do love Vertigo as a film, this compact little book does pack the nuance in!

  4. Pushkin Press is such a good publisher, and an imprint devoted to thrillers… be still my beating heart. ‘both nutty and completely engrossing’ is my cup of tea. I really like the premise that we are all haunted houses with people living on inside us.

    Have you ever read ‘The Pendragon Legend’ by Antal Szerb (also published by Pushkin). That is also both nutty and completely engrossing, if in an entirely different way.

    • Ooh I have a different book by Szerb – Journey by Moonlight. Have you read that one? (I confess I haven’t yet, usual story) I think I’m sold on any book that has Pendragon in the title. And you are perfectly right about Pushkin. They produce such interesting titles. Would love to know what you make of any of the new series.

  5. Fascinating review. I’m a huge fan of the film, so this is looking like a must-read for me…and I’m particularly intrigued by the prospect of the darker, more unnerving vision at play!

    The Pushkin Vertigo imprint is a very exciting development indeed – I can see a whole new obsession ahead of me.

    • Hitchcock was really clever at picking stories. I finally managed to read the Cornell Woolrich story that Rear Window was based on a couple of months ago (and had to order the book from the UL reading room – and couldn’t take it out of there, so rare and precious is the volume!!) and that was such an intriguing comparison to the film, too. Adaptations are fascinating things.

  6. I’ve had this on my piles for ages and keep on forgetting about it although I really love their writing. This is the second review of the Pushkin edition – so maybe – finally I’ll get to it. I’ll be really interested to compare it to the movie, which I find rather brilliant too.

    • Oh I love Boileau and Narcejac too. There must still be some titles by them I haven’t read and I must track them down. This makes a fascinating comparison to the movie – would love to know what you think of it.

    • Isn’t it an intriguing derivation? I had a wonderful time researching an academic book on fantasy and dream in 20th and 21st century French novels that I abandoned in the end because I gave up the teaching job for my health. But I did enjoy all the research into ghosts and the uncanny – fascinating stuff.

  7. I’ve had my eye on these books for a while now and can’t wait until they become available here. Vertigo is one of my favorite movies (alas behind Rear Window, but I love most of Hitchcock’s films). I am not surprised that his adaptation is somewhat different than the book–The Birds, the film, has little in common with Daphne du Maurier’s short story–but then I guess movies are really a new interpretation and a new work of art and should stand on their own merits. I am looking forward to reading the original book, however.

  8. Who is the translator? I read the novel years ago in a translation by Geoffrey Sainsbury which I found somewhat perverse in that it leaves phrases in French throughout the book. These are usually very basic phrases that even I could understand with my extremely limited knowledge of the language, but the practice is inconsistently applied and seems to me to undermine the reason for translating a work in the first place. At one point, the protagonist orders another drink with “Garcon, la meme chose”, but 20 pages later says “Waiter! The same again.” In another passage Madeline insists she remembers being in a certain Louvre gallery even though she’s never been there and Flavieres replies, “That’s an illusion, no doubt. It’s a well-known one, the ‘seen-it-before’ illusion, and quite common.” Certainly “seen-it-before” is déjà vu in French, perfectly acceptable and actually more idiomatic in English. And here’s an example where my basic French was inadequate to complete the translator’s job: when Flavieres recalls a childhood reading of Kipling’s “The Light that Failed” he remembers an illustration with the caption “C’etait the Barralong qui faisait route vers l’Afrique Australe…”.

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