sovay: (PJ Harvey: crow)
sovay ([personal profile] sovay) wrote2009-06-22 04:41 am

When the ghost of your father comes to town, what the hell else can you do?

I meant to post about this yesterday, but it got hijacked by White Heat. (And I still need to put my thoughts on FairyTale into some coherent form rather than scattered enthusiasms throughout my semi-restored e-mail.) The night before last, I read a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac called D'entre les morts (1954, published in English two years later as The Living and the Dead). The reprint lying on my windowsill, however, is titled Vertigo—this is the novel from which Hitchcock adapted his film. I hadn't even known it existed until last week. It's fascinating. The film is an amazingly faithful translation of the action from Paris in 1940 and '44 to present-day San Francisco, the novel's ex-detective Roger Flavières transposed into James Stewart's Scottie. The great-grandmother, the churchtower, the girl who cannot be who she looks like, all the pieces are there. Allowing for the changes in setting, some of the scenes match almost shot-for-shot. They are really not the same story.

The change in titles is significant. Flavières' acrophobia is far less central to the novel than his basic estrangement from the world. What I remember of Scottie is an everyman caught in the drag of a nightmare, first someone else's and then his own; half the film's effect is how readily the audience identifies with him before he begins to scare them. Flavières is never so comfortable. Pushed into police work by his family, resigned in disgrace after his colleague's death, he's a shabby lawyer with few clients and fewer social graces when his old schoolfellow Gévigne turns up on his doorstep with the unexpected, if not entirely unreasonable demand that Flavières keep an eye on his wife. He agrees, for reasons he does not examine. They might be the obligations of an old friendship it would take too much effort to evade, a kind of satisfaction in seeing the successful businessman asking favors of the failure, the fantasies through which he is already beginning to regard Madeleine Gévigne; for someone so gnawingly self-conscious, Flavières is only intermittently illusionless about himself. It is left for the reader to observe his resentful shyness, his raw nerves, the painful ease with which he fastens on Madeleine as someone he can save. He has no close female friends. He has hardly any friends. Going on forty, he's still a child peering into the caves at Saumur, clutching his dog-eared book of mythologies, haunted by the cold smell of earth and the sounds of dripping water and an illustration of Orpheus stepping from the tomb, Eurydike's hand in his hand. All his life, he's been looking for a myth to fall into. All Gévigne does is provide him with one that goes all the way down to Hades.

And that, I think, is the real difference. Where Vertigo plays Pygmalion and Galatea through a glass darkly, the presiding spirits of D'entre les mortsFrom among the dead—are Orpheus and Eurydike, the weightless image of a woman and the man who cannot keep from fatally looking back. The characters themselves identify the retelling. A Eurydice ressuscitée, Flavières signs a gift he gives to Madeleine, their mutual joke after he hauled her drowning out of the Seine. The way she eats reminds him of the Aeneid, the ghosts thickening around the blood. Sometimes he feels like the sacrifice, drained to hold a shade to the upper air: a dynamic he will reverse in the second half of the novel, as he forces Renée Sourange from Dambremont into the shape of Madeleine Gévigne from Paris, but still one shot through with the language of the supernatural. Even at his most unstable, Flavières does not imagine that Renée impersonated the woman he fell in love with. He believes her to be inhabited by the spirit of Madeleine, as Madeleine before her was inhabited by the spirit of Pauline Lagerlac: mundanely a stranger, achingly familiar in flickers as the ghost comes and goes. Dressing her as Madeleine, restyling her hair, buying her Madeleine's perfume, he hopes to trigger the same kind of full-body possession that led to her former incarnation's (as he now understands, temporary) death, sympathetic magic worked from the outside in. The results may be even more claustrophobic than Hitchcock's film. Flavières is trapped not only inside his own fears and obsessions, but inside a myth that will break them both. She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls. And when Orpheus looked back, his wife died for the second time.

I am not going to discuss the fact that the original story takes place on either side of World War II (although I actually think it's important: people disappear and reappear all the time in wars, unexpectedly killed, mistakenly believed dead, in the Schrödinger's limbo of no information; it's both a plausible and resonant backdrop for a story of literal and figurative ghosts). I am not even going to speculate what an adaptation of D'entre les morts might have looked like with a French director, or someone more interested in the mythological template of the novel and its intersection with postwar France (Jean Cocteau's Orphée was in 1949. I wonder if that had an effect). It is very late. What I am going to do is rent Vertigo and watch it again in the near future, and add Boileau-Narcejac's novel to the list of classical retellings that should be better known. And then maybe fall asleep before the sun comes up, summer-minted. A sad tale's best for winter.

ter conatus ibi collo dare bracchia circum;
ter frustra comprensa manus effugit imago,
par leuibus uentis uolucrique simillima somno.

—Vergil, Aeneid 6.700—702

[identity profile] 2009-06-22 12:53 pm (UTC)(link)
She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls.

Yeah, it's a very Alan Garner narrative, when you think about it, isn't it? (Or rather, both of them.) And it makes so much sense that Hitchcock removes the possession/actual haunting subtext; for people of his generation, Freud had become the new spiritualism.

[identity profile] 2009-06-22 02:51 pm (UTC)(link)
So does that line, "She wants to be flowers, but you make her owls," come from Alan Garner, as [ profile] handful_ofdust's remark implies? I need to reread Alan Garner.

The way you tell it, the novel sounds absolutely gripping. Did you read it in French or English?

All his life, he's been looking for a myth to fall into. Wow, huh? Turning that over in my mind... reminds me of the line from "What It Is": Everybody's looking for somebody's arms to fall into Hmm, hmmm, hmmm...

[identity profile] 2009-06-22 05:38 pm (UTC)(link)

Sometimes I think there's far too many books out there which at some point I should read.
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