Organizing years worth of computer files, I came across this review, probably written about six years ago or so. I have to admit it didn't make as muc...moreOrganizing years worth of computer files, I came across this review, probably written about six years ago or so. I have to admit it didn't make as much of a lasting impression as I had expected it would:
I'm not exactly sure what drew me to this rather large novel in the first place, as solider narratives are typically not my thing (it probably has to do with the bad experience I had in high school with Crane's The Red Badge of Courage). But[i] Journey to the End of the Night[/i] presents more than a gritty look at the tortures of war, but provides a clear demonstration on how dramatically WWI altered how its participants (both military members and civilians alike) viewed the world. Though Céline apparently weaved fiction into his novel, Journey is obviously autobiographical, and puts us right into the main character's head through a semi-stream of consciousness technique that eventually achieves a brutal power through Céline's rather artless prose. A relentlessly bleak view of the world and humanity, Céline vividly paints the progression as indeed a journey into the indifferent darkness of night. Haunting. (less)
For any good cinephile the standard line is that on its way to the screen Vertigo (1958) radically transformed its original source material, the (rela...moreFor 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.
Please note that the above star rating is less indicative of the quality of the novel than of my shortcomings as a reader: I realize in retrospect tha...morePlease note that the above star rating is less indicative of the quality of the novel than of my shortcomings as a reader: I realize in retrospect that what I wanted was an engaging, gossipy yarn dissecting the sexual practices of the affluent and/or artistic circles Colette moved in in the fifty years spanning from the fin de siècle to her death just past the midway point of the 20th century... What I got instead was a nuanced, diffuse and delicately textured meditation on love, sexuality and sexual practice. And even though she is particularly interested in various "deviant" sexualities, the author—to her great credit, of course—is less interested in recounting details of lascivious excess than in trying to understand the motivations and psychology of sex in all of its diverse forms. In the end, there's hardly any sex to speak of.
The main reason I took up this novel was for its now-famous chapter devoted to poet and author Renée Vivien, who was Colette's neighbor and (in a loose sense of the term) friend in the years leading up to Vivien's early, tragic death. And one can see why Natalie Clifford Barney was appalled by the portrait—Vivien comes off as eccentric if not actually mentally unbalanced, and much of the rather sensational mythology that sprung up around her certainly has many of its roots here. But it's also not nearly as vicious as Barney regarded it as either, as Vivien comes off as a complex individual, lively and vivacious and intensely melancholic in turn. If it does come off as a rather sad depiction in the end, it's also deeply sympathetic and even a bit moving. And it's certainly the most vivid and absorbing section of the novel, perhaps because its the most concrete in its sharply-observed details (something Colette is masterful at) and the least ruminatory in nature.
I fully intend to return at some point with my expectations recalibrated and more attuned to the intricate complexity of Colette's project. And when I do, I expect that it will yield a higher star rating. (less)
An experiment, and one ultimately doomed to failure; its failure, however, is also its greatest strength. It's essentially an extended list of details...moreAn experiment, and one ultimately doomed to failure; its failure, however, is also its greatest strength. It's essentially an extended list of details ("some cars dive into the parking lot./ an 86 [bus] passes by. A 70 passes by," etc, etc), something that would seem to make for a rather dull read.
But I found it one of the most invigorating reading experiences I've had in a long while. Not particularly, I admit, because of the text itself, but in the way that it suddenly made me breathlessly attuned to my surroundings, conscious of the tiny details of a particular time and a particular space that are easily (usually?) overlooked, ignored. I read this slenderest of texts as I sat at the small table in the front bay windows of a cafe I discovered last week and have returned to several times since, looking out on a side street that heretofore had seemed tranquil and practically empty (at least by San Francisco standards), but as I read it suddenly seemed bristling with activity, and I became hyper-aware of the pedestrians criss-crossing my direct field of vision, casually walking dogs, pushing strollers or talking on phones, of the wind occasionally causing the overhanging expanses of tree leaves to shudder uncontrollably, of the slightest glimpse of figures appearing in windows of the facing row of elegant Victorian-style houses…
And for that all-too-brief hour or so, the "infraordinary"—Perec's term for "the markings and manifestations of the everyday that consistently escape our attention as they compose the essence of lives"—suddenly seemed quite extraordinary.
[I didn’t think of taking a photo myself, but I’m glad someone else did! I was at the table on the opposite window, however, and when I’ve been there there hasn’t been so much activity outside… I have no idea what the white stuff is on the window though. Photo by sparkle glowplug, found on flickr.]
This is the kind of intimate and evocative book that one imagines oneself reading during a long, languorous afternoon in a cafe or while curled up in...moreThis is the kind of intimate and evocative book that one imagines oneself reading during a long, languorous afternoon in a cafe or while curled up in big comfortable chair besides a sunny window, allowing oneself to be caught up in the delicate strands of thought, memory and whimsy Guibert uses to pattern this brief collection of essays, vignettes and assorted musings.
Unfortunately, I didn't read any of Ghost Image in such conditions. Rather, I read almost all of it while being jostled during my daily work commute on San Francisco public transportation, vying for all-too scarce seating, trying to maintain balance through unnecessarily abrupt braking, sandwiched between fellow commuters just as desperate for a cup of morning coffee or anxious to just get home as I was, etc. As such, I wish to apologize to this book—I don't feel like my reading experience did it justice.
But perhaps that pays Guibert a great compliment—because I did want to keep reading in such unideal reading situations, to see where Guibert was going to lead me next. The best sections, for me, were the anecdotes, often serving as a portrait of a person, that often functioned as short stories—the opening memory of "discovering" his mother while taking her portrait, an encounter with a curmudgeonly neighboring pharmacist, the lessons learned from a professional photographic retoucher. There are also a particularly wonderful meditations on the nature of old home movies and polaroid photographs.
From moment to moment this was enthralling reading, but in the end I couldn't help but feel I bit underwhelmed, as if it ultimately hadn't added up to a whole lot. But upon further consideration, I realize that my less-than-optimal reading experience might have caused me to miss the subtle rhythms and wispy, cobweb-like connections and associations I suspect Guibert used to string all of these disparate fragments together. As such, I will simply say that I fully look forward to reading this collection again, and next time around hopefully catch what I might very well have missed. (less)