The story and setting of Françoise Mallet-Joris’ House of Lies might have come straight out of a Simenon novel. The narrative concerns a wealthy brewer, Klaes van Baarnheim and his disagreeable, scheming relatives. Unbeknown to van Baarnheim, he has not long to live and his extended family bicker over the fate of his fortune and openly bemoan his refusal to die. Central to the plot is van Baarnheim’s illegitimate daughter, Alberte, whom the brewer has taken into his home. As van Baarnheim lavishes an increasing amount of time and money on Alberte, and seems about to ‘acknowledge’ her, the family become increasingly anxious for van Baarnheim to expire before he can disinherit them.
The setting is a richly evoked (though unnamed) Antwerp. Mallet-Joris’ locates her characters firmly in the milieu of the town, often opening chapters with quite lengthy descriptions of the town, in particular the red light district known as the ‘Triangle’:
Tramps were sleeping here and there among the warehouse crates, sprawled in strange postures, occasionally flinching and quivering like sick dogs. A few stray cats prowled round the closed fishmongers’ stalls, licking the pavement where lingered bits of crushed flesh or traces of blood. A fog hovered round the electric pylons, the black hulls of boats, the tall house fronts, the warehouses with black doors rising one above the other opening out upon the void…The little cafés were lighting up, corrugated steel blinds were being raised with dramatic flourish.
It is from the Triangle that Alberte comes. Her mother is an ex-prostitute, now alcoholic and on the verge of madness. Van Baarnheim, anxious to avoid a stain on his reputation, attempts to pay her to move away, but she, like her daughter, is stubborn and refuses.
Alberte is an aloof, level-headed girl, who remains distant from the bickering and scheming of the clan. She is resolutely unmoved by the expensive restaurants her father takes her to, and only moderately impressed when he shows her round the brewery – clearly as a precursor to putting her in charge.
While the subject matter of Mallet-Joris’ novel might be straight out of Simenon, her prose style is more self-consciously literary. Her depiction of the locality (as in the above example) is highly evocative; but her descriptions of the mental states of her characters are sometimes over-written and lack precision:
Each plunged into the deepest silence of the soul. This lasted for a very long time, without beginning or end, an infinite time of despair and peace.
The novel reaches its inevitable climax at van Baarnheim’s deathbed. Alberte refuses to accept the brewer’s desire to turn his fortune over to her. The scene achieves a high level of tension, but, when her lover spurns her because she is no longer going to be wealthy, Alberte’s principled rejection is shown to be in vain. The critic, Susan Petit* sees Alberte’s stance as a laudable assertion of her independence, but it can also be seen as an illustration of her inability or unwillingness to escape the circumstances into which she was born. Earlier a character observes of Alberte that she might be ‘rigged out like a piano teacher’, but she is a girl of the Triangle nevertheless – she cannot disguise her lowly origins. Our last view of her is as she leaves the van Baarnheim house:
She had thrown a shawl around her shoulders in the way many women of the quarter did . . . She resembled them all. And was she not one of them?
It’s to Mallet-Joris’ credit that the merit or otherwise of Alberte’s decision is left ambiguous, and, in the end, it is this, along with the vivid descriptive writing, that makes House of Lies worth reading.
First published in 1956 as Les Mensonges. Translated by Herma Briffault. Ace Books edition published 1960.
* See “Francoise Mallet-Joris” by Susan Petit, French Review 77.1 (2003)
© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014