Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
First published in France as D’entre les morts, 1954
First published in the UK as The Living and the Dead, 1958
This edition: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd, 1997
Source: M. & A. C. Thompson Books, Wymondham
As is obvious from the Saul Bass cover of this edition, this is the Vertigo (originally known as The Living and the Dead) which inspired the Alfred Hitchcock movie.
The Californian setting of Vertigo the movie is so familiar that it is a little jarring to find the original story was set in 1940s France. As the book opens, the French are still in the early, ‘phoney war’ phase of World War Two. The Germans have not yet invaded but France is gearing up for war, not that this the central character Flavières is paying much attention. Flavières, to be honest, pays very little attention to anything except himself. He is an ex-cop (he left after his crippling fear of heights caused the death of a colleague) and now a lawyer. He is one of the more self-absorbed heroes I have encountered. Vertigo contains page after page of this:
With his chin in his hands, he looked coldly at himself. What did he know about love, he who had never yet loved anybody? Of course he had hankered after it, like a poor wretch gazing into a shop-window; he had, so to speak, made passes at it. But there had always been between the good things of life and himself a sort of cold, hard obstacle.
Meanwhile, Gévigne, an important industrialist vital to France’s mobilisation, is troubled by the odd behaviour of his wife Madeleine. She has begun to go into trances.
‘She’s absent-minded, as though her body no longer belonged to her, as though she had become someone else. Oh, I know it’s ridiculous, but I can’t put it better than that: she’s someone else.‘
One of Madeleine’s ancestors was a woman named Pauline Lagerlac who had been prone to convulsions and visions before killing herself. Gévigne fears the same could happen to Madeleine and asks Flavières to look after his wife while he, Gévigne, looks after his business. Flavières almost immediately falls in love with the beautiful and mysterious Madeleine.
He had to admit, as he got into his car and slammed the door, that he had almost from the first regarded himself as Madeleine’s husband. Gévigne was only a usurper.
The two begin driving into the countryside around Paris, until they eventually find themselves outside a remote church tower… and so finishes part one of the book. If you know the film, the second part of the story follows roughly the same structure, although the ending is different.
In tone and content, this reminded me of a Simenon romans durs from 1953 called The Iron Staircase, also narrated by a neurotic man with issues about women. I found Flavières tiresome company, but the story has just enough mystery to keep you reading despite him. Still, a tough one to recommend.