The original title of The Magician was Antoine et Julie. It’s a significant change, shifting the focus from the relationship to the individual, now identified not by name but by profession. But this is very much a novel about a relationship, or rather about two relationships: firstly, that of 55-year-old Antoine to his wife, and, secondly, that of his relationship with alcohol.
The Magician is a novel of tiny incidents, minutely dissected, rather than momentous events. The first fifty pages relate a single night and its aftermath. Antoine performs his hackneyed act at a suburban theatre. During a trick, he catches a whiff of beer on the breath of an audience member. This is the ‘trigger’ for all else that follows:
To be sure, there had been no decision as such. At that moment his firm resolution had been to resist … But there exists another kind of knowledge besides that one, more profound, though harder to express.
After the show, Antoine refuses a glass of Calvados, but his public show of abstemiousness is a sham. He is already, even without admitting it to himself, plotting his binge. It begins with a quick brandy while he waits for his bus. At the moment of paying, he asks for another and gulps it down. Then before he catches the metro home, he decides he needs a beer, something to take away the taste of the brandy. ‘
This was the worst moment … when he was still clear in his mind, when he was still putting up a fight, despising himself for not having more willpower.
He resists a second beer, but only because the brasserie he is in is too grand, too public. Instead, he makes for a neighbourhood dive where ‘the counter is still made of zinc, the light a dingy yellow.’ Here the flotsam of the Paris night get shamelessly sozzled. Now there is no pretence. Antoine knows why he is there. He knocks back a couple of brandies and buys a drink for a prostitute. Then the final bar, which has the atmosphere of a railway station waiting room. There is a wire scaffold on the counter, holding hard-boiled eggs. It is this, reflects Antoine, that his wife could never understand, not the hard-boiled egg politely eaten in a salad or on a picnic, but ‘the ones you devour at four o’clock in the morning, your hands blue with cold, your feet sore, after having counted the last coins in your pocket, among people who smell like sick animals.’
Antoine spots a fellow drinker at the bar, well-dressed and of a similar age, his hand trembling as he clutches his glass. On his lapel is the red rosette of the Legion of Honour. The fellow is ashamed to be there and Antoine, by now full of alcohol-induced bonhomie, wishes he could give him a ‘brotherly slap’ on the back and reassure him. Later when he glances back at his cohort, he has surreptitiously removed his rosette.
All this – Antoine’s self-deluding descent into inebriation; the ambience and characters of the seedy bars of the Paris night – is brilliantly evoked. Simenon reveals everything through the delineation of detail (the hard-boiled eggs, the discreet removal of the rosette) without recourse to any narrational commentary. It is writing of the highest order.
Then eventually for Antoine, it is home to embark on a two hour diatribe telling the supine Julie what he really thinks of her, before spending what is left of the night buckled over the toilet bowl. And afterwards, of course, morning, when the self-loathing sets in.
Julie is in poor health and rarely ventures further than the neighbourhood shops. She forgives Antoine his lapse and does what she can (makes soup) to cajole him back to himself. They tiptoe around each waiting for the moment when things are normal between them. Antoine both resents and loves Julie, or at least feels tenderly towards her. Julie for her part (although the novel is told entirely from Antoine’s point-of-view) loves and pities Antoine and is entirely dependent on him.
The remainder of the novel tells the story of Antoine’s struggles to stay off the booze. In the run up to Christmas he manages thirteen dry days, but, ‘All this time he had lived a muted life, without heartbreak and without joy, which he compared to the limbo of his catechism.’ This muffled existence comes to a spectacular end. Of course, we know that Antoine will go off the rails – temptation is everywhere and he never really, truly wants to resist – but when he does so, it is in a cruel and hateful way, made all the more powerful by the fact that the following day Julie, as she always does, forgives him.
Is The Magician a great novel? Certainly it is not the most gripping of Simenon’s works, but the relationship between Antoine and Julie is complex and subtly delineated. And as a novel about the corrosive nature of alcoholism, it is as good as anything I’ve read. It’s also crammed with telling observation (this being the milieu in which Simenon is at his best) and at certain moments achieves real emotional impact. So, yes, a great novel, but a minor one.
* * * * *
First published in France as Antoine et Julie, 1953. Published in the UK in the Twelfth Simenon Omnibus, 1974. Translated by Helen Sebba
© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015