The snow had melted. Fields and forests were black as ink. The whole visible world was saturated with moisture, exuding a cold, dank vapour.
The backdrop to The Lodger is a dismal, wintry Belgium. First Brussels, then the bleak mining town of Charleroi, where the protagonist, Elias Nagear, holes up in a dreary boarding house to evade capture after committing a brutal murder.
André Gide, although finding it monotonous, was an admirer, seeing in it, ‘no better portrait, no better dialogue . . . [and] a psychological value, a sort of depth and weight that join it to the best of Simenon’s narratives.’[*]
However, whatever its other virtues, the novel suffers from an irredeemable flaw. At the beginning of the book, Nagear, a thirty-five-year-old Turkish fly-by-night who finds himself down on his luck in Brussels, murders a Dutch businessman on a train and steals his suitcase of money. Simenon goes out of his way to emphasise the cold-blooded nature of his protagonist. After striking the first blow to the Dutchman’s skull with a heavy spanner:
What happened next was so grotesque that he felt like breaking into hysterical laughter . . . Elias struck again, twice, three times, ten times, infuriated by those mild insensate eyes staring up at him. He stopped only when his arm grew tired and he hadn’t the strength to raise [the spanner] again.
A few minutes later, Nagear is quite able to fall asleep in the toilet cubicle of the train; and, having made good his escape, Simenon reminds us that, ‘Not once in all the day had he given a thought to the late Van der Boomp.’
So here we have our hero – opportunistic, brutal, remorseless.
Nagear then takes refuge in the Charleroi boarding house run by his mistress’s mother, Madame Baron. The rest of the novel concerns the life and atmosphere among the inhabitants of the cramped, damp house. This is evoked with Simenon’s customary skill and economy, through the daily routine of drudgery; the perpetual whistling of the kettle on the range steaming up the windows of the kitchen; the sound of the clock ‘ticking for its own benefit alone’; the assortment of boarders gathering for their evening meal: ‘Like an orchestra tuning up, there began a confused, steadily increasing noise, the rattle of knives and forks on plates, the chink of glasses.’
Nagear’s presence in the household causes resentment among the boarders. He pays more rent and is thus entitled to bacon and eggs for breakfast and cutlets for dinner, while they eat bread and butter from their personal biscuit tins. But for the same reason, Mme Baron takes a maternal shine to him. However, it is as the various members of the household realise the identity of the newcomer that the flaw in the book becomes apparent: not one of them even contemplates giving him up to the police. Mme Baron at first asks him to leave, but when he does not do so, life continues as before, albeit in an increasingly strained atmosphere. Even when the police finally surround the house Mme Baron’s only reaction is to wonder if there anything she can do to aid Nagear’s escape. Were Nagear a charismatic or charming individual, this might be less unconvincing, but he is not. He is irritating and pompous, continually boasting about the virtues of his native country. Nor does his behaviour in the household tally with the brutal murderer Simenon portrays at the beginning of the novel (at one point he thrashes around on his bed crying for his mother). There is a general lack of plausibility, although less in the portrayal of the individual characters than in their relations to one another.
So for all the snippets of fine writing, the climax, when it comes, does not achieve the poignancy it strives for. The Lodger was written in 1934 and belongs to the earliest period of Simenon’s romans durs. Interestingly it shares some of its flaws of characterisation and narrative expediency with another novel featuring a Turkish protagonist The Window over the Way of 1933. It is thus hard to see in the psychological depth perceived by Gide, or to agree that this ranks among the ‘best of Simenon’s narratives.’
First published as Le Locataire, 1934. Translated by Stuart Gilbert and published by Penguin alongside No Way Out in the volume Escape in Vain in 1952.
[*] Quoted in Simenon: A Biography, Pierre Assouline, p.261
© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014