Monday, March 14, 2016

*She Who Was No More, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Pushkin Vertigo, 2015
originally published as Celle qui n'était plus, 1952
translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury
190 pp


At the end of the movie Diabolique (the movie based on this book from 1955), the credits are just about over and suddenly there's a message to the viewers.  In a nutshell, it asks anyone who's just seen the movie to keep quiet -- to not reveal to your friends what you've just watched. So I'll be doing the same here with the novel, for the most part.  Mum's the word.   Shhhhh!  I will say, though, that the book is NOT the film, so read the book first and then go watch the movie -- to do it in the reverse order won't be fair to the novel.

She Who Was No More is less of an action novel than the study of a man terrorized and tormented by guilt, and a large part of this book takes place inside the mind of the main character.  Fernand Ravinel is a traveling salesman whose job takes him away from home on a regular basis. He had taken a law degree, but sells sporting goods (loves making flies for fishing),  and in his mind shortly after the novel opens he's thinking about the little shop in Antibes he's going to have some day in the future. Ravinel is just an ordinary guy, living a pretty ordinary, mundane life, and he isn't in the best health. He is also "sick to death, sick of life, sick of everything," and "What's more, he always would be."

 He is married to Mireille whom he describes as a "nice little thing. Insignificant however," and  their mutual friend is Lucienne, a physician. Lucienne had lived with the couple for a brief while, and she also happens to be Ravinel's mistress.  Ravinel doesn't quite remember "Which of them had really chosen the other," but he does know that
"What had brought them together was not mutual attraction, but something residing in the deeper and darker recesses of the spirit." 
She is attracted to power -- "she had to reign: it was an imperious necessity." And Fernand is, I think, a bit afraid of her, or at least afraid not to do as she tells him.  The two of them come up with a plan to get rid of Mireille, and then to claim the insurance money from a policy he'd taken out on his wife.  To maintain an alibi, Lucienne and Fernand meet in Nantes,  far, far away from Ravinel's home in Enghien; Mireille is summoned under false pretenses.  They put their plan into action, but  Fernand can't stomach watching his wife being killed and Lucienne takes charge.  He serves as the accomplice, but it is Lucienne who does the actual murder.  When the deed is finished, they take the body back to Enghien, where it is placed into the lavoir, a wash-house where they dump Mireille into a stream that runs through it.  Acting as he'd just returned from yet another trip, Fernand goes about his usual motions, and on returning home, convinces a friend to come take a look at the lavoir, which he says needs some work. Waiting for his friend to discover the body is agony for Fernand, but things get even worse when he realizes that there is no body there. Thus begins Fernand's long, tormented descent into madness, something Boileau and Narcejac do extremely well.  This is pretty much what is written on the back cover blurb, so I'm not yet spoiling anything here, and certainly don't plan to do so.

Here the focus is on the characters; once the plot is set into motion, what comes next is mainly derived from Ravinel's tormented brain.   However, to me, one of the most interesting characters in this book is Lucienne.  There are a number of hints that she may be more than what Ravinel thinks she is -- the authors go to great lengths to describe her as cold, but even more, there are plenty of hints that perhaps Ravinel isn't the true focus of her love life.  There's a description, for example, of a photo of a "very beautiful girl with fair hair and Scandinavian features," in Lucienne's surgery;  Ravinel notices that she wears a signet ring that "might have looked all right on a banker's finger or a big industrialist's...," she "wolfed her food," wanting her meat nearly raw, and she was left "cold" during lovemaking.  There are photos of Mireille and Lucienne together, happy, smiling on a vacation trip, while Fernand isn't in any of them.

And then there's the imagery -- right from the outset, the authors fill their book with fog, which I always love in a novel -- here it works extremely well.  For one thing, it turns out that as a child, Ravinel used to play this weird game where he'd make himself disappear into a dense fog, then consider himself doing an astral projection sort of thing where he'd make the crossing from the world of the living into the world of the dead.  But fog also can be a great metaphor implying not only ghosts and things that are obscured and distorted; here it also works as an awesome metaphor for ignorance.   Boileau and Narcejac, just as they did in their later Vertigo, end up not only foreshadowing what's coming but actually telegraphing future events, yet they manage to do it without falling into the trap of giving away too much.  It's very well done and the book takes you deep into some very disturbed minds down to the very last words in the book.

If you look at the Pushkin cover of this novel, there is a very small picture of a bathtub, which also features prominently in the film, but aside from tormented guilt and the action around the tub, the book and movie are incredibly different, although I'm not going to describe how in too much detail.  Let's just say that the film, like the book, is great and should definitely not be missed.  Both reflect a slowly-developing madness and paranoia among tortured and guilty souls; that's about the extent of what's common between both. However, the book stands on its own two feet and as in Vertigo, the reader really gets the idea of someone caught between two worlds, that of the dead and that of the living.  An excellent book; readers who enjoy more of an existentialist bent will find it delightfully dark, while readers looking for the film's action may be somewhat disappointed.

Highly, highly recommended -- I seriously hope more of the work of Boileau and Nacerjac will be translated some day.


  1. Nancy, how very enticing you make this sound; for one, the notion of literary devices has manage to 'hook' me in; I like that in a novel, and I also like the tangled web you weave around the character 'tormented by guilt." Of course, I have seen several versions of the film: one with Simone Signoret and the other with Tuesday Weld. Gasp, did you read this in the vernacular French?

    1. I saw the 1990s remake which sucked.
      Yes, I read it in French but it was actually subtitled. The nice thing about knowing a language is that the subtitles don't always capture everything, so I have more of a feel of what's going on & don't have to rely on subtitles.


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