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.

Mr Litlove And The X(chromosome)-Files

Mr Litlove had his minor eye operation last week, and it all went off just fine. For the week or so before it took place, whenever he wanted sympathy, he’d put one hand over his eye and present a trembly bottom lip. This was effective enough in itself. When he did emerge from the eye clinic, the miracle that is laser surgery meant that he didn’t even have an eye patch. And yet….the drugs they had given him to enlarge his pupils were pretty potent and with his ears a little downturned from the general unpleasantness of hospitals, he looked exactly like Puss-in-Boots from Shrek.

puss in boots

Love me! Something BAD just happened.

For the rest of that day and most of the next, the only real side effect was the difficulty he had with bright light, not surprising with pupils the size of gobstoppers. But good news! He could still watch television.

I was a little…unnerved, however, to see him heading past me later that first afternoon with the DVD of the Sex in the City movie. As one of my friends once remarked, he is very keen on his alpha male stereotypes and not what you might call a bridge brain.

‘You’re going to watch Sex in the City?’ I asked.

‘Well you enjoyed it,’ he replied.

And I had to admit I thought: this should be interesting.

A little later, when I’d finished some work I was doing, I went through to see how he was getting on. He’d reached the part where Carrie Bradshaw gives a Christmas present to her assistant of a real Louis Vuitton handbag and she practically squeals the place down.

‘This is getting surreal,’ said Mr Litlove. (Ha! I thought) ‘That is the ugliest bag I’ve ever seen.’ (Not surprising; he has strong opinions about women’s clothing, for instance, he thinks Ugg boots are particularly aptly named.) ‘Look at it, it wouldn’t go with anything!’ (Okay, that was more metrosexual of him than I’d expected.)

I settled down to watch for a while, and tried to wipe tears away discreetly. But I really did have other things I should be doing. So I said I’d leave him to it.

‘We can’t be far off the end,’ he said.

‘There’s quite a bit more to go.’

He shook his head in disbelief. ‘It’s amazing how they can make such a long film in which nothing happens!’

Nothing happens? Carrie gets jilted at the alter, Miranda splits up with Steve and reconciles with him, Charlotte gets pregnant, Samantha does a whole host of Samantha-type things, there are fashion shows and holidays abroad and a lot of angsting over emotional intelligence-based life decisions, but, no, nothing happens. Several more hours passed before I saw him again.

‘So what did you think of the film?’

‘At the end?’ said Mr Litlove. ‘When Carrie and Big make up in that walk-in closet he’s supposed to have built for her?’

‘Yes?’

‘I just couldn’t understand how he’d got it out of the space. He must have bought the next door apartment, too, and knocked a wall down.’

On the whole it was much as I expected; he could have used subtitles. Well, life moved on and I thought no more about it, would have forgotten it entirely except that the next day, as I passed the television and Mr Litlove in front of it, a familiar face caught my eye. I looked again. Yes, it was Kirsten Stewart….in the snow…and wasn’t that boy supposed to be a werewolf?

‘Is that really one of the Twilight sequels you’re watching?’

Mr Litlove started guiltily. ‘I was just curious,’ he said.

How curious?’

For a little while I got quite excited about the potential storyline: man goes into hospital for routine eye operation, but emerges with a whole new gender perspective. You could sell it as The Snow Queen meets What Women Want. But after that there were no further cinematic surprises. Whenever I walked past the television, there were men shooting each other on it, or comedy panel shows.

Yesterday evening, Mr Litlove asked me if I had a topic for a blog post yet. Since I am ethically committed to warnings, I said, ‘Yes, you.’ He winced. ‘Now don’t be like that,’ I said. ‘Your loyal fans love hearing about your exploits, and I thought I’d tell them about the weekend of chick flicks.’

‘That just showed how low I was,’ Mr Litlove replied, gruffly.

And yet, I’m not entirely convinced. Mr Litlove was wearing his rowing gear, as he’s been competing all this week in the town ‘bumps’. Having caught up with the boat in front of them on the course and bumped, he was wearing the traditional branch of willow. But he hadn’t just stuffed it down the back of his shirt, he’d twisted it into a delightful laurel wreath, and being Mr Litlove, he’d managed to make the leaves particularly perky.

Maybe he’d learned a little something, after all.

 

 

Mwah-ha-ha To You, Too

night filmThis isn’t the kind of book I’d normally read, but lately I’ve been drawn to stories with a horrific or extreme edge to them. I fear I’ve finally turned into the kind of person who reads about situations worse than their own for comfort. The ethical jury in my mind is still out on this; I’ll get back to you when the verdict comes in.

So Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a whopper of a book, almost six hundred pages interspersed with mock pages from internet sites and magazines like Rolling Stone that must have had the collective knickers of the publisher’s Right’s Department in a twist, so genuine do they appear. Already we can begin to spots the signs of a postmodern imagination at work, yet the narrative also draws heavily on the old-fashioned hardboiled thriller. That same slightly awkward juxtaposition will be at work in the content too, which reaches for the outermost edge of contemporary horror film making, whilst falling unashamedly into the tropes of the scary ol’ ‘B’ movie.

The story begins with the ‘accidental’ death of young, beautiful and talented Ashley Cordova, whose body is found at the bottom of a lift shaft in an abandoned Manhatten warehouse. She was the daughter of the notorious and reclusive film director, Stanislas Cordova, whose eccentric life is legendary. The family occupied a huge and isolated estate, surrounded by a twenty foot high perimeter fence, in whose extensive grounds Cordova shot his fifteen films. Those films are only screened in select underground viewings – in the dead of night, in pitch darkness and often in condemned buildings. You can see where we’re going with this, and I hope you can hear the tremulous chords of the electric organ playing something portentous… Cordova’s films have spawned an impressive cult following, and his fan club hold their website on the onion, a black market version of the internet (is this for real?). The films are supposed to provoke the most terrifying viewing experience that has ever been created, and Cordova has been celebrated as a genius and reviled as a madman possessed of an evil, sick mind.

Enter stage right investigative journalist Scott McGrath. McGrath was researching a book about Cordova when he received a clandestine call from a man claiming to be the family’s ex-chauffeur, and suggesting that Cordova was involved in child abuse. This so rattled McGrath that when he appeared later that evening on a television interview program, he went so far as to suggest that ‘someone needs to terminate [Cordova] with extreme prejudice. The lawyers of the great man were instantly galvanised into action and McGrath has for some time now been a disgraced investigative journalist, unable to retain his credibility. Naturally the death of Cordova’s daughter awakens all his instincts, and he doubts the verdict of suicide. He also begins to believe that he saw Ashley shortly before she died. He was jogging around Central Park late at night when a ghostly vision in a red coat appeared to him in the shadows, and seemed to flit about the park following him at a supernatural speed.

Scott becomes engrossed in an unofficial investigation that soon brings him two young side-kicks, Nora Halliday, a would-be actress working as a coat-check girl in a restaurant, and the handsome young Hopper, a druggie with surprising capabilities. Together they start to patch together a timetable of Ashley’s final days, starting with her break out of a mental institution, and ending with her fall from the roof of the warehouse. Everywhere they turn they uncover more and more disturbing accounts of Ashley’s behaviour, that seem to indicate some kind of demonic possession. And the deeper they delve into the Cordova family’s murky past, the more dangerous their investigation becomes.

This is such a mixed bag of a book. The first 250 pages had me absolutely gripped, and then, when I reached the 400 mark, my interest began to flag. This could be me – I struggle with big books and this one did not do anything to dissuade me that anything over 500 pages has at least 200 pages of padding in it. But then it picked up a lot at the end, which is remarkably clever and inventive and finds Scott being chased through a series of old film sets on the Cordova estate, beset by the nightmareish visions they awaken, and by the menacing loss of distinction between fantasy and reality. In parts, the writing is excellent and wonderfully creative; for example, an image I loved of birds on a telegraph wire: ‘seven tiny black notes on an otherwise empty piece of sheet music, the lines and bars sagging.’ But the reader must contend with Marisha Pessl’s obsession with italicising words and snippets of phrases, two or three per page. This can become quite the irritant. Much about the plotting and the general idea of the book is extremely innovative; the characters of Scott and Nora and Hopper run the perpetual risk of dissolving into cliché.

The reason for this is due, I think, to the awkward juxtapositions I spoke about earlier. This is a book that can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a jolly, spooky romp of a thriller, a kind of adult version of Scooby-Doo, or a serious, postmodern story about the merger of fantasy and reality. Pessl has a game stab at making it both. I enjoyed it and admired it and sometimes rolled my eyes at it, but I’m glad I read it. One final thought: if you really do like the sort of filmmaking that Cordova is supposed to specialise in, give this book a wide berth. Its edges are too soft to be satisfying. But if you like horror-lite, and thrillers, and the idea of mismatched teams brought together through force of circumstances, there’s every chance you’ll love it.

Beautiful Ruins

beautiful ruinsApril 1962, Porto Vergogna, a tiny village straggling up the cliff in the least famous of the Cinque Terre resorts. In the sun-drenched waters, Pasquale Tursi is trying to make the best of his inheritance in the hospitality industry by means of Sisyphean tasks: constructing a beach that won’t get washed away, and cutting a tennis court out of the cliff, blissfully oblivious to the fate of the tennis balls. But here he is, up to his chest in water, carrying rocks into the waves, when he sees a small boat puttering its way up to the landing stage. In it, the most beautiful woman he has ever met, tall, blonde, a goddess, and miraculously headed towards his hotel. She is Dee Moray, an American actress who has been hastily smuggled off the set of the ill-fated film, Cleopatra, and brought to this isolated place, supposedly to die. Pasquale adds a third hopeless task to his already ambitious schedule: he will love this woman silently and loyally for the rest of his life.

Hollywood, California in the present day. Claire Silver is a former film studies graduate whose dream job working with legendary producer, Michael Deane is coming apart in her hands. Claire loves film, it’s her passion, and so to be forced to see what it has come to in these times, the relentless onslaught of zombie-vampire-cowboy mash-ups, interspersed with sordid reality shows of unbelievable banality, has been almost enough to put her off the medium altogether. She is on the point of accepting a job as curator of a film museum, but has made a deal with fate. She’ll stick with Michael if this Friday – her day for hearing back-to-back pitches – one good idea walks through the door. Fate has its own ideas about cutting deals. Shane Wheeler, a young writer who has managed to turn optimism into a sort of rocket fuel, will shortly be stirring up Claire’s world with what may be the worst pitch in cinema history. And tangled up in this meeting will be a polite, elderly Italian gentleman, who has come for a final reckoning with Michael Deane over the fate of a woman he fell in love with fifty years ago.

Jess Walter’s fabulous novel, Beautiful Ruins, offers these two points of lift-off – the end of the story and its forgotten beginnings, and the narrative will weave and zig-zag back and forth over the intervening decades, gradually revealing the story of his characters and all that has happened in their lives. We are taken to an amazing array of vividly etched locations – Edinburgh and the fringe festival to follow the fortunes of a washed-up alcoholic singing comedy songs to his own guitar accompaniment who just happens to be Dee Moray’s son; to Rome, where the filming of Cleopatra is draining dollars like a sinkhole and Michael Deane has been sent to limit the publicity damage caused by Burton and Taylor’s volatile affair; and to Seattle, where the would-be writer, Alvis Bender, remembers the days spent not writing but drinking in a small Italian coastal resort, and the strange circumstances that led the only short story he ever wrote to win him the unexpected prize of a beautiful wife.

Whilst this is fundamentally a story about passion in its many forms, it is also a clever and sensitive disquisition on the art of telling stories. Woven into the narrative action we find the poignant short story that Alvis wrote, Shane’s mind-blowing film pitch, and the first chapter of Michael Deane’s autobiography, a narrative so dreadfully that it was eventually salvaged by turning it into a self-help book. But it’s not just about form. Jess Walter is brilliant on the way that stories tunnel their way insidiously into our expectations for life, embodied by Shane and

his generation’s profound belief in secular episodic providence, the idea – honed by decades of entertainment – that  after thirty or sixty or one hundred and twenty minutes of complications, things generally work out okay.’

and yet also, touchingly, on Pasquale’s long and complicated quest to find out the fate of his greatest romance:

Technology may have shrunk the epic journey to a couple of short car rides and regional jet lag… but true quests aren’t measured in time and distance anyway, so much as in hope. There are only two good outcomes for a quest like this, the hope of the serendipitous savant – sail for Asia and stumble on America – and the hope of scarecrows and tin men: that you find out you had the thing you sought all along.’

Art and life negotiate, compromise and have a lot of fun with one another in this wonderfully entertaining and heartfelt book. What can I say? I loved it. Straight onto my best of the year list.