Three years ago The Guardian ran some excerpts from an upcoming edition of Susan Sontag's journals, and despite being at that time little more to me tThree years ago The Guardian ran some excerpts from an upcoming edition of Susan Sontag's journals, and despite being at that time little more to me than a massive literary reputation, I was dazzled by her penetrating, often brutal self-dissection of her own personality and intellect. I even dared think I recognized a sensibility shockingly similar to my own. Fast-forward through several years and the journals, a compilation of her earliest, are here, and yes, my suspicions have been borne out. Not that I'd at all equate our intellectual abilities, but I recognize (and in a sense, sympathize over) the slavish desire of creating and shaping an entire identity out of intellectual engagement and a systematic and largely self-imposed exposure to art and the humanities, a desire always at war with the cravings for intense personal experiences.
The "reborn" of the title hints at one of the main underlying themes of these journals: the self-creation Sontag undertakes from being the precocious teenager who graduated high school at 15 and had studied at both Berkeley and University of Chicago before she was 20, to the woman on the brink of superstardom as a public intellectual by her early 20's. These journals document a stunning amount of stuff and happenings--exploring and embracing her lesbianism, a whirlwind marriage and motherhood, divorce, escape to European bohemia, and, of course, the steady evolution of her intellectual abilities and persona. Inevitably, this leads to some uneveness in tone and content, with drastic oscillations between cool academic analysis and rather hysterically-pitched recounting of personal drama (she seems to have modeled her romantic yearnings on the European art films she adored or, as she records a friend of hers commenting, on the characters of Nightwood). But frankly, that's how my, and probably all our journals of those years read too, no?
And so that long wait for the next volume to be released...
"My reading is a hoarding, accumulating, storing up for the future, filling the hole of the present. Sex and eating are entirely different motions--pleasure for themselves, for the present--not serving the past + the future. I ask nothing, not even memory, of them."
For any good cinephile the standard line is that on its way to the screen Vertigo (1958) radically transformed its original source material, the (relaFor any good cinephile the standard line is that on its way to the screen Vertigo (1958) radically transformed its original source material, the (relatively) obscure French mystery novel written by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, most commonly known by the portmanteau moniker “Boileau-Narcejac.” This transformation directly resulted in what many feel is not only Alfred Hitchcock’s most deeply and intensely personal film, but one of the greatest films of all time. This is more or less what I expected, but it is not at all what I got.
What I discovered instead was an extremely interesting psychological mystery, and nearly all of major plot points and narrative events included in Hitchcock’s film originated within its pages. As some research demonstrated, I’m not the only one to feel like Boileau-Narcejac’s has received a critical short shrift. As Peter Lev writes in a thoughtful consideration of the connection between novel and film: “D’entre les morts is a thoughtful and innovative work of mystery fiction that deserves study both in its own right and as the precursor to the film Vertigo.”* I highly recommend Lev’s essay and some other scholarship that has emerged on this topic for deeply considered analyses, but for the sake of a review I offer several cursory thoughts and observations.
[Technically some of what will follow could be considered spoilers, though this shouldn’t be an issue for anybody who is even cursorily aware of the film’s plot.]
To begin, the commonalities: the aforementioned similarity in the basic narrative and plot, the central character of a former police detective (named Flavières in the novel, Scottie in the film) who becomes obsessed with his client’s wife, as well as the name of “Madeleine,” who becomes the object of Flavières/Scottie’s desire and obsession. It is this last attribute that most immediately interests me, as it nicely evokes what Carol Mavor (who is herself invoking the ideas of the late, great Chris Marker) describes as “the Proustian inflection of Scottie’s pursuit of Madeleine in Vertigo.”** For reading the novel after seeing the film–which is, I presume, the case with the vast majority of the novel’s reader’s today–is to experience involuntary recall, with memories of the movie’s lush imagery constantly materialize with a potency attributed to the madeleine by the narrator of À la recherche du temps perdu. But for me this is far from a bad thing, but instead creates an ideal site where a film and a literary text can and should be read as being in dialogue with each other, and a consideration of this type in turn reveals a number of insights, gaps, and resonances that can deepen and complicate understanding of both texts.
Because more than the similarities, what fascinated me most were the elements that appear in one text but not the other, as these often were the things that would often open up unexpected vistas of possible meaning. A particularly good example: D’entre les morts is overtly intertextual in a manner the film never is. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice figures prominently in the narrative–so much so that Flavières’s affectionate pet name for Madeleine becomes “little Eurydice” (I had never considered Vertigo as an explicit retelling of the Eurydice myth. It seems so obvious now). It also references the cinema at a key point as well, as Flavières “rediscovers” his Eurydice when he glimpses her on a larger-than-life movie screen after he aimlessly wanders into a Parisian theater one afternoon. Considering that Vertigo is often characterized as an implicit meditation on cinema itself, it is interesting to note that these seeds seem to have (at the very least) been planted in the original novel. On a completely different level, while Vertigo is a depiction of one man’s obstinate descent into obsessive desire, the novel uses these personal experiences to explore the larger social trauma experienced by the French during WWII, which is perhaps why it leads to a darker conclusion than Hitchcock dares (though on a dramatic and emotional level, the film’s conclusion is far superior).
This review has amplified the novel’s strengths; I could further explicate the many areas where the film exceeds Boileau-Narcejac’s vision (the dream-logic of the narrative, the general oneiric quality it evokes, the representation of space, the creation of the supporting character of Midge to form a heartbreaking love triangle, etc.). Vertigo was crowned “the greatest film ever made” in the most recent Sight & Sound poll, and there’s a reason for that–it a legitimately great film, yes, even one of the great films. And this is a level of distinction that Boileau-Narcejac’s novel never comes close to achieving itself. But just because it’s not one of the all-time great mystery novels doesn’t at all detract from the fact that it’s very, very good. And this is something Hitchcock scholarship has tended to downplay–often to the point of deliberate obscuration–but much like the story of “the sad Carlotta Valdes” or her textual equivalent Pauline Lagerlac, in any consideration of Vertigo Boileau-Narcejac’s novel lingers like a mysterious specter, implying backstories and whole alternative histories that might well be repressed, but never fully erased.
Mishima has long been one of the major blind spots in my ongoing exploration of queer lit, something rectified this year with my reading of ConfessionMishima has long been one of the major blind spots in my ongoing exploration of queer lit, something rectified this year with my reading of Confessions of a Mask. Alas, I was left surprisingly… indifferent by the experience. I fully admit that I often struggle with texts where suicide and other kinds of violence–towards the self or otherwise–are afforded prominent thematic positions, and I suspect this general disinclination was compounded by some fundamental problems with what feels like a dutiful but lumpy translation by Meredith Weatherby.
That all said, there was one great passage in the book that I still vividly remember read it one morning on the MUNI on my way to work: in two relatively short paragraphs Mishima managed to concisely explain how it is possible to have and maintain a split consciousness in regards to one’s sexuality, at once aware that his body is responding in a certain way and yet at the same time “never even dream[ing] that such desires… might have a significant connection with the realities of [his] ‘life.'” This one passage alone was enough for me to intuit that I should not write Mishima off completely, and so at the present I have filed both the author and his text under the category of “to return to someday.”