The premise of The Cat might have come from a Samuel Beckett play. A septuagenarian couple, Emile and Marguerite Bouin pass their days in their Paris apartment waiting for each other to die. They have not spoken to each other for years, instead exchanging unpleasant little notes written on scraps of paper. Emile accuses his wife of poisoning his beloved cat (we never find out if she did), while she reminds him of how he killed her parrot, which, now stuffed, presides over the dismal proceedings of their life together. They sit silently in their respective chairs; they shop for their own food; they cook separate meals; they sleep in separate beds. Their existence is one of unrelieved routine and stagnation. They are like Hamm and Clov, only less affectionate:
Hamm: Why do you stay with me?
Clov: Why do you keep me?
Hamm: There’s no one else.
Clov: There’s nowhere else. (Endgame)
But unlike Beckett’s duo, Emile and Marguerite’s marriage is a prison of their own making. There is nothing to stop either of them leaving, neither has the will to do so. Simenon rarely shows marriage in a positive light, but this is perhaps his most bitter portrait. If there is humour it is (again like Beckett) of the blackest sort:
‘Would I be unhappy if she died?’ No! Not sad. Not unhappy. Perhaps he would miss her. He did not like people to die. It was not because he liked them, but rather because he dreaded death.
But this is not Beckett. It is Simenon, and as such we gradually learn more about how the wretched couple have come to be together (the past always bears down upon the present). Marguerite comes from a wealthy family and was previously married to a renowned musician. She owns property and has the airs to go with it. Emile, by contrast, was a builder, whose previous marriage was to the happy-go-lucky Angèle. Both are widowed and they have re-married only out fear of being alone. The marriage has never even been properly consummated:
Things had not worked out. They were both intimidated and had the impression that at their age the gestures that they made so awkwardly were ridiculous, that they were a kind of parody.
And indeed, their whole marriage is a dismal parody of a relationship. As things deteriorate, Emile begins to return to his old builder’s habits. He visits Nelly, an obliging café owner, who is always happy to take a customer into her kitchen for a quick knee-trembler. There he can relax. Nelly does not judge him. Eventually he packs a suitcase and moves into a room above the café. It is a brief taste of happiness. Emile is reaching for a lifeline, but it is obvious he will never quite get hold of it. Marguerite begins to appear, like a ghost, on the pavement outside the café. After a couple of weeks’ resistance, he returns home, ‘walking mechanically, with his head down, like an old horse returning to stable.’
Even by Simenon’s standards The Cat is short, about 130 pages. Nevertheless, it is not without its longueurs, something that would probably be hard avoid when delineating such tedious lives. But it is worth persevering. As the novel opens out from the claustrophobia of the Bouins’ apartment, we are offered the prospect of some kind of redemption, at least for Emile. It is this glimpsed possibility that makes the denouement as bleak as anything in Beckett, or elsewhere in Simenon. No matter, it seems, how grim one’s marriage, the alternative of facing life alone is worse.
Le Chat was first published in 1967. Translated by Bernard Frechtman, included in the Ninth Simenon Omnibus (Penguin 1976)