The Girl with a Squint is unusual – if not unique – in Simenon in that its central relationship is between two women. The protagonists are Sylvie and Marie (the one with the squint), childhood friends who we first encounter as teenagers in 1922, working the summer season at a seaside pension in Fouras. They plan to earn enough money to go to Paris to make their fortunes.
Sylvie is the dominant one. She is beautiful, worldly and callous. She thinks nothing of undressing in front of the window, enjoying the knowledge that her breasts are on display to the proprietor or to the idiot son of the housekeeper. Marie is naive, submissive and timid; fascinated by Sylvie’s body, but disapproving of her exhibitionism. As a child, Sylvie used to declare to her friend, ‘When I’m rich, you’ll be my maid and you’ll do my hair in the morning.’ But the relationship is more complex than just that of mistress and servant. At times it seems that there is something sexual in Marie’s attachment to Sylvie:
Every evening, she seemed to wait intently for her friend to take off her clothes, and then, blushing as she did so, she would look with small inquisitive eyes at the most intimate parts of Sylvie’s body as if hunting for some sort of mark.
Yet later, when they are obliged to share in a bed in a hotel room in Paris, Marie is faintly repelled by Sylvie’s smell and ‘spends the whole night on the very edge of the bed.’
And it becomes apparent, that although Sylvie is the dominant partner, she needs Marie as much as she needs her – it is as if Sylvie needs her friend to bear witness to her deeds; to act, somewhat, as her conscience.
Female characters in Simenon are generally seen through the eyes of a male protagonist and are sometimes little more than one-dimensional objects of lust. In The Girl with a Squint, however, the tables are turned. Here, the repellent proprietor of the pension, M. Clément, is seen through the eyes of the girls:
He was the most vulgar man they had ever met, even coarser than the drunkards they used to see coming out of the brothel near their home . . . He was small and fat and always perspiring, and had huge, alarming eyes . . . and as soon as [his wife’s] back was turned he’d make a beeline for the maids, panting as he approached them.
It is in Fouras that Sylvie discovers the power her sexuality gives her over men. She entices the idiot Louis to steal some cakes for her on the promise that she will let him touch her breasts, and, later, after she has fucked the proprietor in the cellar, she realises that in his fear that she might tell his wife, he has lost his authority over her.
When the friends reach Paris, Sylvie’s increasing independence and promiscuity create a distance between them. Marie finds work in a modest bistro where she is valued by her employers for her diligence and good humour (she doesn’t mind when the customers call her ‘squint-eye’). When one of the regulars– a modest book-keeper – asks her to the cinema, her naive joy is genuinely touching. It is only when she discovers that Sylvie is sleeping with the book-keeper, her book-keeper, that Marie walks out on her friend.
The action then shifts to 1950. Sylvie is mistress to a wealthy shoe manufacturer, who is on his death bed. She enlists Marie to act as her spy in her lover’s home and ensure that that he does not make a new will (he is leaving everything to her). Sylvie is now a bona fide alcoholic and Marie’s disapproval of her friend’s drinking, lends the relationship something of the same tenor as it had in their youth. The novel ends when the two women take possession of the mansion on Avenue de Foch and without discussion resume their previous roles – the roles designated in Sylvie’s childish fantasy:
Life went on as usual. It was a sluggish, gloomy existence, and rather an unhealthy one. Cruel words were spoken sometimes, when Sylvie had drunk too much, and they would sulk for several days, although this did not stop Marie from combing Sylvie’s hair at length each morning.
At night they lie in bed, ‘listen[ing] intently to each other’s breathing as if they were afraid of losing one another.’
This is Simenon close to the top of his game. The relationship between the two women achieves a certain complexity and is delineated, subtly, through the seemingly inconsequential actions of the characters, and through the words they do not speak as much as than those they do.
Originally published as Marie qui louche in 1951. First published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in 1978. Translated by Helen Thomson.
© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014