Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Bellos)

With more than 280 books to his credit, Frédéric Dard was one of France’s most popular and productive post-war novelists. He was also a close friend of Georges Simenon, a fact which makes a great deal of sense given the similarities in style – you can read about Dard here in this interesting piece from The Observer. First published in French in 1961, Bird in a Cage is one of Dard’s ‘novels of the night’, a dark and unsettling mystery with a psychological edge. It’s an utterly brilliant noir, probably my favourite of the six Pushkin Vertigo titles I’ve read to date.

dard

As the novel opens, Albert (the narrator) has just returned to his former home in Levallois in the suburbs of Paris following a period of six years. (At first the reason for Albert’s absence is unclear, but all is revealed a little later as his backstory comes to light.) His loneliness and sense of unease are palpable from the outset – a lost soul entering a damp and empty flat on Christmas Eve, the place where his mother died some four years earlier.

When I returned after being away for six years to the small flat where Mother died, it felt like the slipknot on a rope round my chest was being tightened without pity. (p.7)

In an attempt to reconnect with life and his memories of happier times, Albert heads out into the streets of Levallois which are bustling with activity. Stopping at a shop, he decides to buy a Christmas trinket, ‘a silver cardboard birdcage sprinkled with glitter-dust’, complete with an exotic bird fashioned out of blue and yellow velvet. For some inexplicable reason, Albert feels better after purchasing the bird; it’s as if it reminds him of his childhood.

I was glad there were people inside the shop. It meant I could linger, inspect its inexpensive treats and rediscover images of my childhood that I felt in special need of that day. (p. 11)

In time, Albert goes into a restaurant, an upmarket establishment he always wanted to visit as a child but was never able to. Inside the restaurant, Albert catches sight of an attractive woman, someone who reminds him very strongly of a girl he used to know, someone from his dark and mysterious past. The woman is with her young daughter, but there is no man on the scene; in some ways, their shared loneliness strikes Albert as being even more tragic than his own. After exchanging glances a few times during their meals, Albert and the woman end up leaving the restaurant at the same time. It could be a coincidence, but maybe it isn’t…

We came together again at the exit. I held the door open. She thanked me and her heart-rending gaze hit me point blank. She had eyes I couldn’t describe but could have looked at for hours without stirring, without speaking, and maybe even without thinking. (p. 17)

Before long, Albert finds himself accompanying the woman and her daughter back to their home, an apartment attached to a book binder’s premises, a dark and creepy place served by a steel cage lift. Once inside the woman’s flat, Albert is drawn into a disorientating situation; a number of baffling events take place, the true significance of which only become clear to Albert as the night unfolds.

Right from the start there is a sense of unreality to this story, almost as though Albert is in a dream – or maybe nightmare would be a better way of describing it. As Albert enters the woman’s flat, it is as if he is stepping into an ‘unexpected labyrinth’. At certain points during the night, our protagonist wonders whether he is hallucinating, calling into question his own senses in the process.

At the centre of this story is a crime, one that is fiendishly clever in its execution. I don’t want to say too much about this, but suffice it to say that poor Albert finds himself caught in the middle of it. As this fateful night unravels, there is at least one occasion when Albert could walk away from the situation, removing himself from any imminent danger in the process. Instead, he chooses to remain close at hand, almost as though he is fascinated by this woman and everything she appears to represent.

Threaded through the novella are Dard’s wonderful descriptions of Albert’s surroundings, little touches that add to the unsettling, melancholy mood of the story. Here’s a typical example.

This Christmas morning was sinister—overcast, with a cold breeze sure to bring snow. The area felt dead and the few passers-by who hurried along close to the walls to keep out of the wind had faces even more grey than the sky. (p. 112)

All in all, this very gripping noir is a fine addition to the Pushkin Vertigo imprint. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to capture something of the essence of this strange and unnerving night. As Albert reflects the next morning:

Nightmares are personal things that become absurd when you try to tell them to other people. You can experience them, that’s all you can do… (pg. 123)

Guy and Max enjoyed this novella too – just click on the links to read their excellent reviews.

Bird in a Cage is published by Pushkin Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

55 thoughts on “Bird in a Cage by Frédéric Dard (tr. David Bellos)

  1. Jonathan

    I’m not into crime novels as such but I tend to like them more if they are dark and/or weird. This one sounds both. I’m thinking of David Lynch.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, it’s certainly dark a story, and the twist is very, very clever. David Lynch is not a bad reference point. It would be interesting to see what he would do with something like this as a basis.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. It is rather atmospheric and suspenseful. I don’t usually write about the crime novels I read as they’re often hard to describe without giving too much away! It’s nice to do one every now and again, especially for a story as good as this. Hopefully, it might encourage one or two other readers to give it a try.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s certainly strong on mood and atmosphere, but I found it much darker than the only Modiano I’ve read to date, Villa Triste. I’ll be interested to see if Guy has any thoughts on this as he’s read several of Modiano’s novels now, plus two or three by Dard. Maybe he’ll be able to give a better view.

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    It would have made a great Hitchcock film, I was thinking. Aso, shades of Pascal Garnier (well, probably the other way round, since Garnier came after him). I’ve previously been rather dismissive of the San Antonio novels which Dard also wrote in huge quantities, but like Simenon he seems to have the gift of conveying a lot in just a few words.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Hitchcock would have had a grand old time making adaptation of this! In some ways, it reminded me a little of Vertigo, also published by the same Pushkin imprint – there are some similarities, I think.

      This was my first experience of Dard, so I’m not terribly familiar with his San Antonio stories. They sound a little different to his novels of the night, more James Bond-ey judging by the comments in that Guardian piece?

      Reply
  3. Lady Fancifull

    I had more reservations than you did about this one, which didn’t make my blog – I think MarinaSofia reflects my feeling it would have made a wonderful Hitchcock film I loved the atmosphere, and the beginning, and thought I was going to be 5 starring it, but I couldn’t swallow ‘the reveal’ as plausible. A film wouldn’t have given me time to collect my disbelief up. But, wonderful writing and characterisation and atmosphere, for sure!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, that’s very interesting, and it’s really good to hear an alternative view. I have to admit that I totally went with the explanation – but equally, I can see why others might consider it somewhat implausible. I suppose I just bought it on account of Albert’s state of mind and his level of disorientation once he found himself inside that apartment. (It’s difficult to say any more without getting into spoiler territory, which I’d rather not do.) A film adaptation would be great, though – we’re definitely aligned on that! In fact, it appears as though it was filmed back in the ’60s. A quick search on google threw up this link to Le monte-charge, which looks as if it was based on this very novel. I’m hoping that John from the Noirish blog might drop by as he may have seen it.

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0056248/

      Reply
      1. Lady Fancifull

        Yes, I agree completely re spoiler avoidance. I did review it on Amazon, but it was, for me, 3 1/2 stars which I rounded up to 4, and my rule for myself for the blog is at least clear 4 star! I think psychology is really good in it, and I did love the atmosphere, which cranked my anxiety up higher and higher, TILL the reveal!

        Reply
  4. Brian Joseph

    As you describe this it sounds so interesting. Your summery of the early parts of the plot made me initially think that this was a character study that did not involve crime.

    As per Marina’s comment, I think that this has the potential for a good movie.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      For a novella of this length (around 120 pages), the central characterisation feels fairly well developed. As Marina was also saying earlier, Dard seems to be able to communicate quite a lot in just a few sentences. His prose is quite spare but very effective.

      Reply
  5. Sarah

    Pushkin are doing such a great job with this series – doesn’t really seem to be a dud amongst them. At 120 pages it sounds right up my street. I’m trying to read shorter fiction to gain some reading momentum. Will check this one out. Thanks Jacqui!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome! I think you’ll really enjoy this one, Sarah – it feels right up your street. And yes, I agree with you about the whole Vertigo series, they’re very impressive – I’ve to encounter a disappointment. It’ll be interesting to see which other authors they’ll uncover in the future.

      Reply
  6. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Sounds fascinating, Jacqui – I’ve not read a lot of the Pushkin Vertigo books, but loved what I have. They certainly are putting out some interesting books. Interesting how the reveal can be divisive – I guess we all react differently to books, and the fact that the narrator is somewhat unreliable might make it more easy to accept!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Pushkin are publishing some interesting books, and I like way they are using the Vertigo imprint to shine a spotlight on a number of these ‘hidden’ masters of crime. You might like this one, Karen – the denouement is certainly very original.

      Reply
  7. realthog

    Spiffy review, Jacqui! As you’ll have guessed, I’m aching to get my mitts on this — likewise the other Pushkin Dards. I’m afraid I haven’t seen Le monte-charge (1962), but onto my wish list it has gone.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, John. This is definitely a book I would recommend to you, so it’ll be fascinating to see what you make of it as and when you take the plunge. The screen adaptation sounds very intriguing too, hopefully a candidate for the full Noirish treatment – I shall await your verdict with great interest!

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    I also loved this and went on to read The Wicked Go to Hell which I didn’t like quite as much. I also have Crush – I hope it’s not going to be the law of diminishing returns!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it great? I’m so glad you enjoyed it as well. Did you review it by any chance? I couldn’t see anything in my list of saved reviews, but let me know if I’ve missed it as we can add a link. I was thinking about trying The Wicked Goes to Hell as my next Dard. Hmm…maybe I’ll leave it for a while to see how you fare with Crush. Do keep me posted on that – I’ll be very interested to hear!

      Reply
  9. BookerTalk

    280 books to his credit and i’ve never heard of this author! Where has he been hiding I wonder and did he and Simenon have a race to see who could finish writing their books first?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes – I can imagine there being a little healthy competition between the two of them. It’s good to see Pushkin returning some of these lost authors to us. They seem to have a knack for doing this with both the Vertigo imprint and the Pushkin Collection series itself.

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I included a link to that piece at the beginning of my post – you probably didn’t see it as the hyperlink is quite short. Thanks anyway!

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      No worries, Simon. I know this isn’t going to appeal to everyone. There’s quite a strong psychological flavor to the story, so it might interest a few occasional readers of crime fiction.

      Reply
  10. Caroline

    I think this will be my first Dard. I already liked Guy’s and Max’ review and yours makes it sound even better. I doubt all if husband 280 books are of the same quality but many are, I think.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’ll be very interested to see what you think, particularly in relation to other noir novels you may have read from this era. Yes, it’s hard to imagine any author being able to maintain a high level of quality once they get above a few dozen books, never mind two or three hundred. Hopefully Pushkin are cherry-picking some of his best here.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! I do love a good novella, especially one as suspenseful as this. It’s a good book to bear in mind if you’re in the mood for something dark and intriguing. I’d never hard of Dard either until he appeared in the Vertigo range – all credit to the Pushkin team for winkling him out!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re welcome. Thanks for writing about Dard in the first place – on the strength of this alone, he seems a real find. I’m glad you liked the The Wicked Go to Hell as I was thinking of making it my next Dard. Grant was less on it, but I guess we’re all going to end up with different favourites.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s good one to bear in mind if you’re in the market for something dark and suspenseful. Marina’s comment on the potential for a Hitchcock film is a useful reference point.

      Reply
  11. madamebibilophile

    There’s a real sense of the atmosphere of the story just from the quotes you’ve pulled, which is really impressive writing! I really must seek out some of these Pushkin Vertigo titles – I don’t think I’ve read any…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad the sense of atmosphere came across in those quotes. It’s a very suspenseful little story – as Marina was was saying, Dard seems to have a knack for conveying a great deal in just a few brief sentences. Bird in a Cage would be an excellent place to start if you’re looking to take the plunge with these Pushkin Vertigo titles – I though it was very impressive for such a slim novella.

      Reply
  12. Max Cairnduff

    Also very glad you liked it. It’s a winner isn’t it? And so much character and atmosphere packed into so little space.

    I do see why some find it gets a bit implausible, but I think that’s part of the genre. Hitchcockian usually to me suggests some fairly unlikely stuff going along.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, really terrific. I wouldn’t normally post on a crime novel that you and Guy have reviewed as you both do such a great job at covering these stories, but I enjoyed this one so much that I just had to write something about it. As you say, the characterisation is excellent – you really get a feel for the sense of desolation surrounding Albert when he returns to Levallois. And yes, I agree about the denouement. I couldn’t help but think of Hitchcock’s adaptation of Vertigo – there are some similarities between the two, I think.

      Reply
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