“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.
Gévigne’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 After four years of marriage, she’s become withdrawn.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