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the Complete Review
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To purchase Vertigo

Title: Vertigo
Authors: Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
Genre: Novel
Written: 1954 (Eng. 1956)
Length: 170 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Vertigo - US
Vertigo - UK
Vertigo - Canada
Sueurs froides - Canada
Vertigo - India
Sueurs froides - France
Vertigo - Deutschland
La donna che visse due volte - Italia
  • Originally published in French as D'entre les morts; now published as Sueurs froides
  • Originally published in English as The Living and the Dead; now published as Vertigo
  • Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury
  • Vertigo is the basis for the 1958 film of the same name by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart and Kim Novak

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Our Assessment:

B+ : stylish thriller, though a bit drawn-out

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Spectator . 4/5/1956 .
TLS . 4/5/1956 Anthony Meredith Quinton

  From the Reviews:
  • "Tantalising, and quite irresistible -- like the living dead woman herself." - The Spectator

  • "It is a pure exercise in ingenuity of plot. (...) When at length it comes the explanation is shocking and brilliant but not quite sufficiently so to justify the long trudge through the preliminary story." - Anthony Meredith Quinton, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Vertigo begins in a France where the rumblings of war are everywhere in the background; it is the eve of World War II. The story begins with Paul Gevigné seeking out a friend from his university days, Roger Flavières. Although they used to even share lodgings while students, they have long gone their separate ways. Flavières used to be a police detective, but left the force and now has a law practice; Gevigné is an industrialist, ready to make a killing from the war.
       Gevigné comes to Flavières because he is concerned about his wife, Madeleine, who has been acting strangely. He wants Flavières to follow her around and see if he can figure out what's going on. Doctors have examined Madeleine and say she's normal, while Gevigné has followed her a bit and is certain she's not having an affair. However, she has these peculiar attacks that leave her absent, as if suddenly lost in a dream or sleep-walking, and Gevigné thinks Flavières might be able to get to the root of this. Suggestively, he also mentions one of Madeleine ancestors, her great-grandmother, Pauline Lagerlac, who seems to have suffered from a similar mysterious affliction -- and committed suicide when she was twenty-five, coincidentally Madeleine's age now.
       The former detective isn't that eager to take on this case, but he lets himself get talked into it. He begins investigating, and Gevigné's description of his wife's strange ways turns out to be accurate. Problematically, however, Flavières -- who has never found love -- begins to fall for her -- hard.
       Flavières became a lawyer: "to discover the secrets that prevent people living". He believes:

     The truth was that they were all like him, Flavières, trembling on the edge of a slope at the bottom of which was the abyss. They laughed, they made love, but they were afraid.
       Unfortunately, Flavières' own trembling on the edge blinds him to a great deal. The reason he left the police was because he literally couldn't face the abyss -- and another died in his stead, for which he still feels great responsibility. Indeed, afflicted by paralyzing vertigo, Flavières has trouble facing the edge of many slopes -- and it paralyzes him when he can't follow Madeleine at a critical moment: "Yes, it was possible ... For a man ! ... Not for him !"
       Vertigo is divided into two parts, separated by four years of war. Flavières fled Paris and seems to have wound up in Dakar, but at the beginning of the second part he's back in France. He's turned to drink to numb himself, and sees little to look forward to in what everyone else sees as a time of revival and return to normalcy. He still can't get over what happened at the beginning of the war.
       He tries to look up Gevigné, but he too was a wartime casualty. As it turns out, however, Flavières can't quite escape the past. He meets a mysterious woman -- and again finds himself obsessed, explaining to her:
I want you to discover yourself. Because I want to know the truth.
       The truth is finally revealed in the devastating dénouement, as it turns out that Flavières really got played. It's a lot of build up for a clever ending, with arguably too much padding, but Vertigo is a stylish thriller of obsession and weaknesses. It's not a pretty picture of humanity that Boileau-Narcejac paint here, but it's cleverly spun out -- all the more effectively because it is set against the backdrop of war and all its ugliness (permeating the work even as it is hardly shown).
       A fine, well-written dark thriller, with a powerful ending.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 May 2012

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Vertigo: Reviews: Vertigo - the film: Other books by Boileau-Narcejac under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       French authors Pierre Boileau (1906-1989) and Thomas Narcejac (1908-1998) wrote many mysteries and thrillers together, as Boileau-Narcejac.

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