Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac (tr. Geoffrey Sainsbury)

When Pushkin Press launched their new crime imprint—aptly named Pushkin Vertigo—back in September, I couldn’t resist buying a couple of titles: the Boileau-Narcejac I’m reviewing here, plus Leo Perutz’ Master of the Day of Judgement. I’ve yet to read the latter, but if Vertigo is anything to go by, I’ve got a treat in store.

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First published in France in 1954, Vertigo (originally titled D’entre les morts, meaning Among the Dead) is the source novel for the Hitchcock film of the same name. Even if you’re familiar with the movie, the book is well worth reading. I think the novel is darker and more disturbing than Hitchcock’s adaptation. Moreover, the characterisation feels stronger and more nuanced here. In any case, it’s a terrific read, especially if you’re interested in the themes of desire and obsession.

As the story opens, we find ourselves in Paris in 1940, and the signs of war are rumbling away in the background. Lawyer and former police officer, Roger Flavières is approached by an old friend, Paul Gévigne, who wants to ask a favour of him. Even though he hasn’t seen Gévigne for fifteen years, Flavières can tell that his old acquaintance is not entirely at ease. Gévigne is worried about his wife of four years, a lady by the name of Madeleine. According to Gévigne, Madeleine has always had a rather variable temperament, ‘up one minute, down the next’, but lately she has become prone to odd silences; more specifically, there are times when she appears to drift off into a world of her own.

‘…She’s absent-minded, as though her body no longer belonged to her, as though she had become someone else…’ (pg. 12)

Despite the fact that several doctors have examined Madeleine and found nothing wrong with her health, Gévigne remains concerned. His wife seems to have developed a strange fascination with her great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, who, unbeknownst to Madeleine, took her own life at a young age. With all this in mind, Gévigne asks Flavières to keep an eye his wife, to follow her from a distance and provide an opinion on her behaviour. Even though he suspects Madeleine is simply having an affair, Flavières agrees. He is also not terribly fond of Gévigne, which you’ll see in the following quote.

Madeleine… He liked the name. It had a gentle, plaintive sound. But how could she have brought herself to marry this stocky, corpulent man? Of course she was carrying on with somebody else… Those attacks!… Dragging a red herring across her own tracks… Serve him right. Gévigne deserved to be made a fool of by his wife. Because of his smug affluence, his cigars, his contract for building small craft—because of everything. Flavières didn’t like people with too much self-assurance—and, outwardly at least, Gévigne had plenty—though it was a quality he would have given anything to possess himself. (pgs. 22-23)

Once he sees Madeleine in the flesh, Flavières experiences a change of heart. She is beautiful, elegant and graceful, but there is something a little fragile about her, too. Flavières is smitten, and as he continues to follow Madeleine, he becomes increasingly fascinated with her.

Madeleine was like him: he felt sure of it; and he was tempted to overtake her. They wouldn’t need to talk. They would simply walk side by side watching the barges gliding through the water. It wouldn’t do, of course, and to curb the impulse he stopped altogether and allowed her to get well ahead. He even thought of going home. But there was something a little intoxicating and more than a little questionable in this pursuit which fascinated him, obsessed him. He went on. (pg. 46)   

One day, while he is watching Madeleine, Flavières is forced to step in and make contact. An incident occurs that appears to mirror something from Pauline Lagerlac’s past, an episode which suggests Madeleine is in need of constant protection. As he reflects on Madeleine’s behaviour, Flavières identifies two sides to her demeanour. On the one hand, she seems happy, lively and full of the joys of life—this is the luminous side of Madeleine’s character. By contrast, the other side is much darker and more mysterious. At times, she seems detached and somewhat dislocated—in other words, much more vulnerable and harder to reach.

Gévigne was quite right: as soon as you stopped entertaining her, holding her back into this life, she sank into a sort of numbness which was neither meditation nor gloom, but a subtle change of state. It was as though her soul might at any minute float away and gradually dissipate itself in the wind. Several times Flavières had seen her slip silently into this condition as she sat with him, like a medium whose real self has been summoned to another world. (pg. 58)

The second section of the story takes place four years later in Marseilles in an atmosphere that reminds me a little of Anna Seghers’ haunting novel, TransitAs Flavières pursues Madeleine with a feverish obsession, he becomes trapped in a nightmare of his own, increasingly fuelled by drink and a deep desire for the “truth”. I say “truth” in inverted commas because there is a blurring of the margins between reality and the imaginary.

Vertigo is a short novel, and thoroughly absorbing with it, so I’m wary of saying too much about the plot for fear of revealing any major spoilers. I would like to mention something about the characterisation, though. It is clear from the opening chapter that Flavières has troubles of his own. He is haunted by an incident in his past when, during his days as a detective, his fear of heights prevented him from pursuing a suspect who had taken refuge on a rooftop. When Flavières’ colleague, Leriche, stepped in to help, the officer slipped and fell to his death. Consequently, Flavières still holds himself responsible for the loss of his former colleague, a story he shares with Gévigne during their initial meeting.

He always encountered the same bewildered incredulity when he told his story. No one ever took it seriously. How could he ever make them hear Leriche’s scream, which went on and on, passing from a shrill note to a lower one with the distance? Perhaps Gévigne’s wife too was burdened by some gnawing secret, but it couldn’t be half as hideous a one as his. Were her dreams torn by a scream like that? Had she allowed someone to die in her place? (pg. 20)

For me, this is one of the key passages in the novel as the themes expressed here reverberate and echo through the narrative. Flavières is more than a little vulnerable himself. His health is failing and his mental state fragile. Is Flavières simply chasing an idealised image of Madeleine, a fantasy figure he has created in his own mind, or will he find the real Madeleine in the end? And just how significant is Madeleine’s connection with her great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac? I’ll leave you to discover the answers to these questions for yourselves should you decide to real this excellent, mind-bending novel.

Before I wrap up, just a few words on the Pushkin Vertigo edition. It is beautifully produced and comes with an interesting afterword on Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who collaborated together under the nom-de-plume Boileau-Narcejac. Tired of traditional British crime fiction and the hardboiled style of American detective novels, they sought to create a new kind of mystery which placed the victim at the heart of the story (albeit a victim who might not realise the true extent of their position). To my mind, that’s exactly what they have achieved with Vertigo.

Several other bloggers have reviewed this novel. Posts that have caught my eye include those from FictionFan, Guy and LitLove, some of which go into more detail about the differences between the book and Hitchcock’s film.

Vertigo is published by Pushkin Vertigo. Source: Personal copy.

29 thoughts on “Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac (tr. Geoffrey Sainsbury)

  1. MarinaSofia

    The Hitchcock version is one of my favourite of his films and I’ve been meaning to go back to the book, as I know Hitch was always somewhat free in his use of the original. It sounds truly compelling and dark, I’ve been reading all of the reviews you mention above and am now determined to seek it out!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I was wondering if you had read the novel! Yes, do go back to it – I would love to see your take on it. The film is a classic, but I think I preferred the book. Hitchcock’s adaptation seems to accentuate the vertigo aspect, probably for increased dramatic/cinematic effect.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    I love the film. As you point out, it is usually well worth reading a book even if one is familiar with the movie. Sometimes I am surprised to find that classic films are actually based on books.

    One pitfall of reading such books is that I picture the actors from the film as the characters in the book. This is something that I had rather not do.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s hard to avoid seeing the actors in your mind if you watch the film before reading the novel, particularly with something as iconic as a Hitchcock film! I couldn’t help but picture James Stewart and Kim Novak as I was reading this, even though Stewart plays the Scottie Ferguson role somewhat differently to my impressions of Flavières. It’s been a while since I last watched the film (I like to leave a decent gap between he two forms) so I’ll be interested to see how it stands up next time.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    I love these Pushkin Vertigos! I did like the Hitchcock film, but I think I’m not familiar enough with it to let that spoil my reading of this. Definitely going to be looking out for this – lovely review as always, Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They’re great aren’t they? Definitely something different from the standard mysteries we’re all fairly familiar with. I wouldn’t mind owning the complete set!

      Great to hear you’ll be looking out for this one. I’m fairly confident you’ll enjoy it, Karen. :)

      Reply
  4. Guy Savage

    This book sits well in my memory. The intervention of WWII added a nice twist.
    It certainly lives up to the idea the writers had of ‘a nightmare that never ends.’ I particularly liked the way that the main character has a second chance but takes a certain approach which guarantees his unhappiness. I asked myself what I would I do under the circumstances….

    I have Master of the Day of Judgement too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I liked the way the two halves of the novel complemented one another. The wartime setting seems to add to the sense of displacement and anxiety in the second half of the story…and I couldn’t help but think of Anna Seghers’ novel Transit, particularly given the Marseilles setting. Did you come to any conclusions as to what you might have done had you been in Flavières’ position?

      The Leo Perutz sounds very intriguing, doesn’t it? I’m looking forward to that one.

      Reply
  5. Tom Cunliffe

    Pushkin books are always so beautifully produced aren’t they. I haven’t yet seen this new range but will look out for them. I think Vertigo sounds the more appealing of the two to me. Your reviews are excellent and provide everything I need to make a choice!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you. Well, they’ll be fairly easy to spot in a bookshop as the cover art is very striking! I like the whole concept of this Pushkin Vertigo imprint – it bodes well for lovers of intriguing crime fiction.

      If you’re at all interested in more info on Master of the Day of Judgement, there’s a review at Max’s blog (Pechorin’s Journal).

      Reply
  6. FictionFan

    Thanks for the link! Glad you enjoyed this one too – these Pushkin Vertigos are great, aren’t they? I can feel an addiction coming on. I too thought this one was darker than the film, and evn though I’m a huge fan of Hitchcock, I think in this case the book is actually better. If you haven’t read the book of Psycho, I’d thoroughly recommend it too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome – thanks for tempting me to take the plunge with it in the first place! And yes, I agree, in this instance the novel edges it. There’s more depth to Flavières’ character here, plus the book delves into territory that isn’t really explored in the film.

      Thanks for the recommendation of Psycho – I’ll definitely take a look at it.

      Reply
  7. roughghosts

    I think of all the books in this new series, this is the one I would like to read. I must say though that even now that I have seen some in the “flesh” so to speak I still find the covers to be very difficult to read. If covers sometimes draw you in (perhaps even deceptively so), these covers just turn me off. Oh well, enough books fall off the shelves into my arms every time I walk into a bookstore as it is, so maybe I should be grateful! :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, I can certainly recommend this one. If nothing else, it will give you a feel for the Pushkin Vertigo imprint…plus it’s short, so if you don’t take to it you won’t have wasted much time! :)

      I really like the cover art, but the combination of angles and the use white type does make it rather difficult to see the author’s name. In the case of Vertigo, the overall effect is remarkably fitting for the novel – that dizzying sense of distortion fits the story perfectly!

      Reply
      1. roughghosts

        You know I saw one of the series in a book store the other day and I cannot remember what it was, I just remember thinking it was as unreadable in person as on the screen. That is the risk, to my mind, is that the author or title does not register with a browsing shopper.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Good point – that is a risk with browsers, especially if they’re not particularly familiar with the titles or the authors. Maybe the cover art alone will be enough to encourage people to pick them up for a closer look? Those covers are very impactful!

          Reply
  8. litlove

    I am so glad you read this and thrilled that you enjoyed it! I completely agree with you – the characterization is one of the strongest parts of the novel, and your take on Flavieres is very insightful. He is grappling with a number of demons: guilt, low self-esteem, a sort of grinding resentment that can make him lash out. And yet we’re aware too how much he longs to rise out of this particular murky mindset and find something real and beautiful to live for. Perhaps that’s the key to his character – he needs the adorable Other to balance out his own emptiness and despair; alone he feels too incomplete. As you can see, Jacqui, your reading has sparked off lots of thoughts for me! Excellent review as always. Oh and I loved that Leo Perutz, too.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Your review was brilliant, Victoria, and I especially liked your analysis of Vertigo as a Geist story! It’s such an intriguing novel, isn’t it? All those themes of obsession and possession running through the narrative…I think I preferred it to Hitch’s film (although it’s been a while since I last saw it, so a rewatch is long overdue).

      Also, I’m delighted to hear you loved the Perutz as well. I’ve seen two or three reviews of it (all positive), so it bodes very well for the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. :)

      Reply
  9. Séamus Duggan

    I’ve had this book for a few years now but was always a little dubious about whether it only had a reputation because of the film. You’ve pushed it well up the pecking order..

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, great. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the book. I do like the film, but the novel gave me a better insight into Flavières’ character (Scotty Ferguson in the screen version). I also liked the way the two halves of the novel complimented one another. It’s a good one if you’re in the mood for something with a psychological edge.

      Reply
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  13. Emma

    I’m catching up on posts starting from the bottom of the in-box, so here I am!
    I’ve read several reviews of this after it was published in English. I really need to get a French copy.
    Your review reminded me of Belle de Jour by Joseph Kessel. Have you read it? (it was published before the Boileau-Narcejac, btw)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you for taking the time to drop by! I really enjoyed this one, Emma, and I think there’s a good chance that you’ll like it too. There’s a very interesting contrast between the two halves of the novel.

      I haven’t read Kessel’s novel by the name rings a bell, possibly on a account of Brunel’s film. Thanks for that – I’ll take a look. :)

      Reply
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