Vertigo: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac (1954)

“Everything was the colour of the past, the colour of memory. What feast of the dead had he come here to celebrate?”

Regular readers know that I’m fascinated by the film-book connection, so it was a matter of time before I read Vertigo, a novel written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. This title is one of the first, appropriately, to be released in the new Pushkin Vertigo line, and this is exciting news for those of us who enjoy intelligent crime novels.

Vertigo (French title: D’Entre Les Morts) begins in 1940. War is in the background–taking place somewhere else off stage, and curiously the novel’s action takes a parallel thread to the war.

The novel opens in the office of former detective, now lawyer, Roger Flavières, who is talking to Paul Gévigne, a man he knew fifteen years earlier “at the Faculté de Droit.” Flavières didn’t like Gévigne then, and he likes him even less now. Gévigne has grown plump and bald, yet he’s clearly affluent whereas the last fifteen years haven’t been kind to Flavières. Flavières is extremely thin and he carries an air of anxiety following a tragic accident in which his partner on the police force was killed. He blames himself for the incident which was rooted in … vertigo.

vertigo vintageGévigne’s air of bonhomie seems a little forced, but then he reveals that he’s worried about his wife, Madeleine. After four years of marriage, she’s become withdrawn. There are also some unexplained absences and other times when Gévigne has discovered that she wanders to strange destinations–almost as though she’s in a trance. Flavières wonders if this can be explained by worry or illness, but Gévigne dismisses these arguments and insists that something strange is going on. He claims she’s become “someone else”

At first I too thought there was something at the back of her mind troubling her–some unreasoning fear provoked by the war, for instance. She would suddenly relapse, into silence and hardly hear what was said to her. Or she would stare at something–and I can’t tell you what a queer impression it made. I know this sounds absurd, but it was as though she was seeing things invisible to the rest of us… Then, when she came back to her normal self, she would have a slightly bewildered expression on her face, as though it took her a little time to recognize her surroundings, and even her own husband…

Gévigne isn’t convinced that his wife is mentally ill, but he’s concerned that she’s become obsessed with a dead ancestor– a woman who committed suicide. He persuades Flavières to follow his wife and report back what he sees….

Since Flavières doesn’t like Gévigne and certainly doesn’t consider himself a friend, he’s initially reluctant to become involved in Gévigne’s marital problems, but he agrees to watch the couple at the theatre, and once he sets eyes on Madeleine, he’s entranced.

Flavières couldn’t see her features clearly, but he had the impression she was pretty, with something a bit fragile about her. That might have been due to her abundant hair which seemed too heavy for her face. How could a man like Gévigne have procured a wife of such elegance and grace? How could she have put up with his advances?

Flavières, who’s always been a failure with women, decides that the delicate, fragile Madeleine must be repulsed and bored by her husband, and so from fascination, a growing obsession, and a sense of chivalry, he begins to follow Madeleine. Eventually Flavières has reason to question whether reincarnation is possible.

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss, and for those of us who’ve seen the film, well we more or less know what is going to happen next. The fact I’d seen the film version didn’t spoil the book in the slightest; this was still an intense, completely fascinating read. It’s been years since I saw the Hitchcock film, but the book is different enough that I only found one or two old screen shots running through my head. In the film, the role of Flavières is played by perennial screen hero James Stewart (John “Scottie” Ferguson) and Madeleine is played by Kim Novak. The book is a great deal more cynical, more nuanced and much darker. Plus Hitchcock’s film, which capitalizes, as it should on visuals, is set in America while the novel is set in WWII France. When the novel opens, Gévigne, an industrialist with new government contracts, refers to the impending “phony war” and everyone predicts it will be over quickly. The action in the novel parallels the build up to war, and the displacement due to the German takeover explains why some of the characters pick up their wrecked lives four years later.

Finally a note on the authors: There’s an afterword at the back of the book which explains the Boileau/Narcejac collaboration and how they “wanted to try and develop a new type of crime fiction.”

Boileau-Narcejac had one golden rule: the protagonist can never wake up from their nightmare.

That is certainly true in Vertigo, a compelling psychologically complex novel which explores the dark, shifting boundaries of fantasy and reality, and the way our minds fill the gaps in questionable narratives to suit the version we want–the version that feeds our desires and our egos. Vertigo is the story of the twisted obsession of one man who gets a second chance, and yet driven to the edge of madness by reality, can’t accept it as the gift it is.

Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

Review copy

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23 Comments

Filed under Boileau Pierre & Thomas Narcejac, Fiction

23 responses to “Vertigo: Pierre Boileau & Thomas Narcejac (1954)

  1. Great review. Definitely a title I’ll have to look out for when I’m on my next book hunt. Vertigo has been one of those novels/films that I’ve known about and heard people speak of, but not really known what it is about. But this review has been helpful in giving me some idea of what its about without revealing any spoilers. If you had to pick, would you say the film or novel is the best/ most enjoyable?

  2. I’m a little bit ashamed to say I haven’t explored much of Boileau-Narcejac.
    I should read this, thanks.

    PS : “Faculté de Droit” I wonder why the translator didn’t use “law school” to translate this..

  3. I love visiting your blog anyway, but this review in particular has me wanting to read this book and that’s despite it having many aspects, such as the belief in reincarnation, that would normally mean instant dismissal. I’m so glad to hear the authors don’t allow anyone to wake up from the nightmare!

    • The novel is devilishly clever, and you’ll see what I mean about reincarnation if you read it. Can’t say too much more w/o spoiling this one. Just finished The Mistake I Made BTW–a good ‘un.

  4. This new imprint from Pushkin has much promise. I’m wanting them all already, but this one will be top of the list – great review.

  5. Fantastic! I’m very excited by the prospect of this new imprint from Pushkin as their choices sound right up my street. It’s good to hear that this novel offers something different to the film adaptation – that’s often the case, but I’m glad there are more nuances and layers to look forward to here.

    • Annabel & Jacqui: of the new line, I ordered She Who Was No More. I’ve already read & reviewed I Was Jack Mortimer. I just finished the Disappearance of Signora Guilia and I’m passing on The Tokyo Zodiac Murders at this time as it sounds gruesome.

      • I read I Was Jack Mortimer when it appeared in the Pushkin Collection – loved it. Signora Guilia caught my eye as I was scrolling through the list so I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts on that one.

  6. I’ve read and reviewed Diaboliques which was terrific. I’m glad for the nudge to pick this one up as it’s somewhere on my piles. I love the mood they create. It’s very unique.

  7. I love the film. The book sounds so very good.

    Several of my favorite movies are based on books by Pierre Boileau. I really should give him a try.

  8. I’m a huge fan of the movie, so this is a must-read. Darker than Hitchcock’s version? Wow, am intrigued.

    I hadn’t heard about the Vertigo line from Pushkin, I have to say they all sound appealing.

  9. It does sound an excellent choice as first release from Vertigo, though law school does seem such an obvious translation I do wonder why it wasn’t used.

    The film to my mind is extremely dark, a bleak tale of sexual obsession. This sounds dark in a different way, but equally rewarding.

    Thanks Guy. A must read.

  10. Coming back to this now I’ve read it myself, you capture it well Jacqui. Ideally I’d just link to yours given how far behind I am in my own reviews, but I had a review copy so I need to give it a decent go. Ultimately I did prefer the movie, philistine that I am, and I found the habit in the translation of leaving some words randomly in French quite irritating (as Emma picks up above re law school).

    There’s a certain audacity in paralleling a doomed relationship with the collapse of a country which I found interesting. I didn’t love it as you did, but I do plan to read the next Boileau-Narcejac they release still.

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