The Blue Room

006How could he guess that he was to live through this scene ten times, twenty times, more times indeed than he could count?

The Blue Room opens with Tony Falcone and his mistress, Andrée – ‘light-headed, their bodies still tingling’ – on a post-coital high following their monthly tryst at the Hôtel des Voyageurs. Tony is complacently dabbing at the blood which Andrée has drawn from his lip during their ‘ferocious’ love-making, unconcerned at the prospect of being questioned by his wife.

Tony is both fully present in his surroundings – the musty smell of the mattress, the sounds of voices from the terrace below – while simultaneously elsewhere. The colour of the walls of the room remind him of:

The little muslin bags filled with blue powder which his mother used to dissolve in the wash-tub . . . before taking the linen into the field and spreading it out to dry on the shining grass. That must have been when he was five or six years old, and there had been a kind of magic for him in the blue that turned the linen white.

This is the quintessential Simenon moment: a character transported to their childhood by a fleeting sound, sight or smell. In Simenon the past is always present; it determines the present. His characters can never escape their past. But of course, Tony does not know this. It is only later when things start to go awry that he realises: ‘He had not foreseen it . . . yet, afterwards, he saw that it was inevitable, fated.’

Less than a page after Tony has been conveyed back to his mother’s drying green, we are projected into the novel’s future where Tony is being questioned about his actions by a psychiatrist ‘appointed by the Examining Magistrate’.

And so the novel proceeds, seamlessly flitting between the past, present and future of Tony’s life. We learn that Tony is in custody, but only in the final few pages do we learn what crime he is charged with. We find out how Tony came to meet and marry his wife; how he embarked on his affair with Andrée, and how this has led him to present situation.

Yet despite the juxtaposition of three distinct time periods and the fact that Simenon rarely signposts the shifts between these, the experience of reading the novel is not in the least disorienting (we’re not in Robbe-Grillet territory here). The fact that Simenon manages this with such apparent ease is a measure of his skill as a novelist.

But aside from these technical aspects, does the novel amount to anything? Is it more than an exercise in craft?

Simenon stresses the intoxicating, wanton nature of Tony’s afternoons with his lover:

It was [Andrée’s] way, the minute they were inside the room, to throw aside all reserve, all modesty . . . With no other [woman] had he experienced the intensity of pleasure he had known with her; a total fulfilment, spontaneous, animal.

Later, as they bask in the afterglow, Andrée asks: ‘Could you really spend the rest of your life with me?’ to which Tony glibly replies, ‘Of course.’

Does he mean it? At that moment, of course he does. Yet, and this is where the character of Tony achieves a degree of complexity, when he returns to his wife, Gisèle, and daughter, Marianne, he wants nothing more than to be with them. In order to escape with his escalating relationship with Andrée, Tony takes his family on holiday to Brittany. There he is quite contented building sandcastles with Marianne. He envisages growing old with his wife:

And that, surely, would be the crowning moment of their lives, the moment when after long years of propinquity, of learning about one another, of accumulating memories . . . he and Gisèle would love one another in the fullest sense.

There is no contradiction here. Tony’s feelings for both Gisèle and Andrée are real. Indeed it is the contented nature of Tony’s relationship with his wife that provides the novel with its power – he has something to lose. (It’s also a departure from one of Simenon’s more over-used tropes: that of the married couple who are united by nothing other than loathing for each other.[*])

As the novel progresses, more time is devoted to Tony’s questioning by various officials. Tony is cooperative and even enjoys the self-examination that these interrogations entail. He is pleased when he is told that the Examining Magistrate likes him. But two things are important about these scenes: first, that in the endless replaying of certain events they are remembered ‘each time in a different frame of mind, [seen] each time in a different light.’ There is no absolute truth to his recollections. And, second, as more and more witnesses are called to testify to his most trivial actions, Tony realises there is no escape from the consequences of his deeds and statements; a sentiment reflected by the structure of the novel.

Aside from these qualities, Simenon provides his usual wealth of telling detail; from the dark staircase of the provincial hotel ‘with its worn treads’, to the ‘old crone in men’s shoes, who came in every day to do their housework.’ The Blue Room, then,  is the work of a master craftsman at the peak of his powers. It offers a claustrophobic study of an individual trapped in the unintended consequences of his own actions, told with a mastery of form few writers could achieve.

* * * * *

La Chambre bleue first published in 1964. Penguin edition, translated by Eileen Ellenbogen, 1968. Currently available (in a new translation) as a Penguin modern classic.

[*] The ne plus ultra of this tendency is perhaps The Cat (1967).

One Way Out

One Way OutIn their most passionate moments . . . her body was taught and quivering like a stretched wire, her pupils rigid as a sleepwalkers.

One Way Out tells the story of a doomed relationship between Bachelin, a hot-headed young clerk, and Juliette, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a comfortably bourgeois cashier in the provincial town of Nevers.

When we first encounter the young couple, they are locked in an ardent clinch, ‘the warmth of each other’s body seeping through rain-drenched clothes.’ Yet, as in many other Simenon novels, the basis of the couple’s attraction is a mystery. Bachelin is wholly unlikeable; moody, aggressive and selfish. For much of the novel we learn little about Juliette. She seems devoid of personality, entirely passive; spending her days on piano practice and needle-craft. When she agrees to run off to Paris with the young lout, we can only assume that he represents an escape from the stultifying bourgeois atmosphere at home and the suffocating doting of her father. This very passivity is perhaps what attracts Bachelin to her. He does not want someone who will stand up to him, or question his erratic behaviour. But from their very first day in Paris, the balance of their relationship begins to alter. On returning to their grubby hotel room Bachelin is disturbed to find that Juliette is out of bed: ‘Amazing girl! On her own initiative, she had ventured down the stairs and tackled the manageress in her den . . . and got what she wanted.’ It is the first sign that Juliette is not as docile as Bachelin has assumed. ‘He was utterly despondent . . . Things were turning out differently from his expectation.’

The novel alternates between Bachelin’s point of view of and that of Juliette’s father, who has come to Paris to find her and bring her home. It is only towards the end of the novel that Juliette moves centre stage and the reader gains access to her thoughts. She is, we discover, every bit as detached – sociopathic even – as Bachelin; incapable of expressing any emotion. On hearing of her mother’s death, she feels nothing: ‘Her mother was a worthy woman with whom she had lived for seventeen years, but whom, when all was said and done, she hardly knew.’

The key passage of the book occurs as Juliette wanders the streets of Paris, having evaded her father’s attempts to track her down:

For a moment it struck her how easy it would be to have done with it and throw herself into the glimmering darkness of the river . . . Suddenly a feeling came to her of the absurdity of the life she was now leading. And for once she gazed with real interest at the faces of the people passing by her . . . Was it possible that any of these men and women had lives resembling hers – at once so drab and so grotesque . . . What was the sense, if any, of her life? . . . She was not in a tragic or even despondent mood. All she felt was an enormous inanition; she went on walking because there was nothing else to do.

It’s a classic description of existential alienation. The novel was written in 1934, eight years before Camus published his essay on the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus, but the use of the word ‘absurdity’ (italicised in the original) is telling. Simenon was not one for indulging in abstract authorial interventions. In general he describes the actions or thoughts of his characters and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. But here he appears to be leading the reader in a certain interpretive direction. Juliette has reached her situation in life without having made any decisions, without the exercise of any free will. She has simply followed the diktats, first of her father and then of Bachelin. Her existence is entirely meaningless and arbitrary. If she continues walking, it is because the only alternative is suicide.

If the English title hints at what is to come, the original French – Les Suicidés – is even more explicit. In choosing such a title, Simenon demonstrates that he is more interested in drawing our attention to the inevitability of the outcome than in creating any narrative tension. Yet despite his efforts, the climax of the novel in unbearably tense and when it comes, the denouement (at least in Stuart Gilbert’s translation) is highly ambiguous.

One Way Out represents Simenon at his most serious. The characters are unsympathetic and there is little in the way of narrative pleasure; instead it offers a commentary on the arbitrary nature of how we end up where we end up.

* * * * *

Les Suicidés first published 1934. Published by Penguin along with The Lodger in the volume Escape in Vain, 1952. Translated by Stuart Gilbert.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015

Strike Out Where Not Applicable / Nicolas Freeling

003aStrike Out Where Not Applicable finds Van der Valk newly installed as Commissioner of Police in the provincial town of Lisse, centre of the tulip growing region. The countryside is, ‘Nothing to look at. Flat like all of Holland.’ And the town?

Walls white; painted, plastered, roughcast. Metal window-frames painted grey. Huge windows washed and polished every day. Nothing dirty or tumbledown, nothing disorderly, vexatious or offensive. The world is neat, prim, and unspeakably tidied.

A place entirely mundane, perfect for Freeling to indulge his favourite pastime of satirising small-town Dutch society.

There is a crime, yes, – a local restaurant owner has been killed by a blow to the head after falling from his horse – but neither Freeling nor Van der Valk seem much interested in solving it. Nothing much happens in this connection for more than two-thirds of the book. Instead (and much more interestingly), the crime is simply a pretext for the Van der Valk to acquaint himself the town’s various characters.

The ‘investigation’ centres around the manège – the riding school – where the fatal incident has occurred. Of course, Freeling has chosen this location quite deliberately as a magnet for the most upwardly-mobile and affected of the town’s residents. There is the Marguerite, the sexy, but slightly mannish wife of the deceased, who seems to have an intriguingly close relationship with the restaurant’s manageress, Saskia. There is Rob, an amiable former cycling champion and his saucy wife, Janine, like Van der Valk’s wife Arlette, an outsider by virtue of being French. There is Francis, the owner of the manège, who is partial to a bit of light S&M and likes reading dirty books (the literary kind, of course). Finally, a local painter of portraits and horses, the arrogant and solitary Dickie Six. To all of these a vague motive for murder might be ascribed (blackmail, jealousy, amour fou), but the author is not really interested in that – instead what he presents is a series of amusing and crisply observed pen portraits. Freeling has an unerring eye for the nuances of human behaviour and he describes them wittily and unfussily.

He is similarly skilled and economical in his depiction of the novel’s locations, such as the:

Solid, old-fashioned meeting-places . . . unchanged for a hundred years – heavy and ornate mahogany, plush-upholstered [with] great massive plated monogrammed ashtrays. Places where hobbly old waiters brought quiet elderly gentlemen games of dominoes or chess. No billiard tables, but music at night made by a trio of elderly flatbreasted virgins in dowdy black velvet . . . where you got coffee in heavy scratched little pots, and a glass of water with it.

While Van der Valk – like their elderly habitués – might wish to linger in such places, this is a detective novel and there remains a case to be solved. Thus, with around forty pages to go, Van der Valk organises his minions into a surveillance squad. As in Double Barrel, there is a certain irony in placing characters so obsessed with appearance and comme il faut under observation – it is only what they already do to each other. Even now, however, Van der Valk’s efforts at actual police work seem half-hearted (he would much rather be cosying up to a suspect with a glass of wine). When one of his underlings asks him what they are looking for, he replies wearily, ‘Nobody knows.’

Van der Valk tasks himself with tailing the Dickie Six. It is an easy task because for days the painter walks around absorbed in his own thoughts, observing his surroundings, ‘storing himself up to the brim, soaking himself to saturation.’

Later on [Six] would distil, but first came the process of fermentation, during which impurities and irrelevances scummed up and heaved and turned into the thick crust of rubbish that the winegrowers all ‘the hat’, while the sediment sank, and the turbid, unattractive liquid clarified, and the sugar grew wings as it turned into alcohol. The analogy amused Van der Valk.

Of course it does, because it is an analogy not just between painting and winemaking, but with the process of detective work (and that of writing or reading a detective novel) – the gathering and sifting of irrelevant details before the dénouement rises to the top. Except that in Strike Out Where Not Applicable, as in Freeling’s other novels, it is not the resolution which gives greatest satisfaction, but the process of fermentation.

* * * * *

First published by Victor Gollancz, 1967. (Hideous) Penguin edition 1985.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015

Belle

Belle2It sometimes happens that a man at home moves about the house, goes through familiar motions, everyday motions, his expression unguarded, and, suddenly raising his eyes, he notices that the curtains have not been drawn and that people are watching him from outside.

The opening of Belle describes a state of being characteristic of a great number of Simenon protagonists. It is a state of extreme self-consciousness, such that, even when is alone, the character behaves as if being observed, as though in expectation that he[*] will later be asked to account for his actions. Such characters exist in a condition of inauthenticitythey are not being, but are acting the role of themselves; or perhaps more accurately they are acting the role they have created for themselves or which others (wives, parents, colleagues) have assigned to them.

In Belle, the character in question is a forty-year-old schoolteacher, Spencer Ashby, whose life is thrown into sharp relief when he and his wife’s teenage lodger is raped and murdered in their home. And this does indeed lead to Ashby being called to account for his actions:

Could he foresee [. . .] that that evening would later be studied under a magnifying glass, that he would almost literally be made to relive it under the magnifying glass, like an insect.

The role that Spencer Ashby has created for himself is that of respectable citizen in a small Connecticut town. His wife, Christine, is a stalwart of various committees, the church and the local bridge club. Theirs is a marriage of convenience and companionship, entered into as a matter of social convention rather than passion.

The murder of Belle, however, strips away the veneer of respectability. As the police discount all other suspects, suspicion gradually falls on Ashby. Of course, nothing is said. Instead, he asked to take a few days’ leave from school until everything blows over; in the local post office, a handshake is refused; his neighbour installs a burglar alarm; a large ‘M’ is painted on the side of his house; while in church he has the impression that ‘there was a void around him’. Ashby is unsure, however, whether it is the community that is excluding him or if it is he ‘who no longer felt wholeheartedly among the others.’ The murder of Belle reveals him as the outsider which his respectable marriage and career have been erected to disguise.

They were not accusing him. They were not throwing stones at him. [. . .] Had they perhaps only tolerated him all these years? This wasn’t his village. This wasn’t his church. None of the families here knew his family and there were none of his forebears in the cemetery.

Although Ashby is the central consciousness of the novel – we see the world through his eyes – Simenon is canny enough to maintain an element of doubt as to whether he has killed Belle. And when the police question him for a second time, this time with a psychiatrist present, we learn that Ashby’s father was an erratic drunk who shot himself in the head. There is a side to Ashby’s character that has previously been concealed and under the gathering pressure of the investigation, he reacts as his father would – by seeking oblivion in a destructive alcoholic binge.

It’s a regular Simenon trope – that no one can fully escape their origins, whether social or psychological. In the world of Simenon, sooner or later everyone, with a little prodding, reverts to type.

Belle represents Simenon at close to his best. It is meticulous in its dissection of Ashby’s character; the minimal narrative unfolds with consummate skill, and the portrait of a small town community too buttoned up to do anything other than subtlety shun a suspected murderer is flawlessly observed.

——————–

La mort de Belle first published in 1952. Panther edition published 1958. Translated by Louise Varèse.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

[*]These characters are invariably male.

Double Barrel / Nicolas Freeling

Double BarrelVan der Valk is dispatched to the small town of Zwinderen in the north-east of Holland, where a series of poison pen letters have been sent to residents and two women have committed suicide. The local police are (of course) baffled.

Freeling’s Amsterdam inspector is a close cousin of Simenon’s Maigret. Both detectives like to take a sideways approach to the crimes they are investigating; they are more likely to drink a beer with a suspect than grill him in a cell. Van der Valk is sardonic and provocative; self-deprecating and aware of his own limitations – a self-confessed ‘clot in a ready-made suit’, except that he isn’t. Far more than Maigret, he is analytical, prone to bouts of abstract thinking. In this, the fourth Van der Valk novel, Freeling switches to the first person and this gives him free rein to the reflect the cerebral aspect of his detective’s nature.

Van der Valk is posted to Zwinderen, armed with a dossier about the town, for good reason. Freeling was an English writer living in the Netherlands, and taking his protagonist out of his normal milieu allows him to use him as a mouthpiece for his own observations of Dutch life. And boy, does he put the boot in. Zwinderen is portrayed as bureaucratic, prying, repressed and hypocritical. It is a town in the midst of economic re-birth; new industries have brought new residents, housed in shiny new blocks of flats; but the Calvinist Dutch mentality remains, or at least the appearance of it. Perusing the town’s court records, Van der Valk is unsurprised by the cases of incest (‘never quite unknown in these ingrown inter-married districts’), but there is, he finds:

Rather too much rape, indecent exposure, dissemination of pornography, obscene dancing in cafés, underhand prostitution – underneath all the drum-beating and bell-ringing on Sundays, there was a sort of sexy itch.

And this is Freeling’s real subject: an almost sociological dissection of small-town Dutch life. In an earlier novel, Because of the Cats (1963), Freeling casts a similar eye over the booming new town of Bloemendaal aan Zee, the ‘pride of Dutch building and planning’, where there residents lavish money on their swish modern homes; where ‘the drunks are polite. Fights in cafés are unknown and breaking-and-entering is a rarity.’ And yet ‘the younger generation find it dead . . . and the many of their elders, secretly, agree.’ The key word here is ‘secretly’, for, just as in Zwinderen, the true religion is conformity.[*]

And in order to explore this aspect of Dutch life, Freeling chooses the perfect crime: blackmail – the threat of exposure. Van der Valk quickly finds that it is hard to get his hands on the letters residents have received. Most recipients, ashamed of the contents, have destroyed them at the first opportunity. It is not clear how many people have received the letters, as nobody wishes to expose their activities to scrutiny by involving the police. Nor is it even clear that the contents of the letters are true – perhaps the writer is taking a scattergun approach, hinting at unsavoury activities knowing that the recipient is likely guilty of something. There is thus a pervading atmosphere of suspicion: nobody knows who has been writing the letters; nobody knows who has received them; nobody knows who is guilty of what. It’s Kafka in the guise of detective fiction.

The chief suspect is Besançon, an aging German engineer, believed to be a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz. Besançon translates documents for a local firm from which a sophisticated listening device has gone missing, but this is not the real reason he is a suspect. Rather, it is because in a town where no one closes their curtains for fear that their neighbours will think they are up to no good, Besançon lives behind a high wall. Very much as Maigret would, Van der Valk befriends him and their conversations range over a variety of lofty subjects, the detective eventually finding himself (quite willingly) under the scrutiny of the suspect: “You have acquired a professionalism, a competence – the usual police skills, but you lack the police mentality,” Besançon tells him. Nevertheless, the old man insists, “You will clear this up, all right. It would not surprise me if you cleared up a lot of other things too, that have for long remained obscure.”

And, naturally, Van der Valk does clear things up. But while the novel kowtows to the generic requirement for resolution and the provision of a twist (which is unforgivably given away by both the strap line on the Penguin edition and the blurb on the back), these elements are far from being the most interesting thing about the book. Like Simenon, Freeling is more interested in his novels’ characters than in the crimes they may or may not have committed. The poison pen letters are a mere MacGuffin to provide Van der Valk with a pretext to delve under the skirts of Zwinderen.

Indeed, the most revealing scene in the book occurs towards the end when Van der Valk goes ‘prowling’ around the town after dark, armed with binoculars, disguised in baggy clothes. He trains his sights on a window in a block of flats, ‘the very conventional living room of an unmarried woman living alone . . . A calvinist interior, bare, impersonal, dull. No books to be seen, no frivolities.’ But the occupant is floating around in a negligee, a cigarette in her mouth, her face luridly painted.

Watching a person through binoculars – even if that person is simply cleaning his teeth under the kitchen tap – creates a strong emotion. You are ashamed and excited . . . With binoculars you are the submarine commander, the assassin, the preacher in the pulpit. God. As well as, always, the pornographer. A strong hot emotion.

Van der Valk climbs a staircase in a deserted building and stubs his elbow, straining to get a better view.

Then I saw it was a seduction scene. A solitary seduction. I understood that in five minutes she would be making love to herself . . . Something villainous happened to me at that moment. I wanted to see her.

Then, as he contemplates climbing onto the roof, he is disturbed by a beat cop, caught in the act of committing the very crime he has been investigating. But such actions, forbidden to the private citizen, are easily explained by an officer of the law, especially an inspector from the big city.

Double Barrel, then, is something of a masterpiece. The writing, particularly in its depiction and observations of the provincial setting, is strong, nigh on flawless. Van der Valk is entertaining company and the secondary characters – especially the detective’s feisty wife, Arlette – are skilfully drawn. Finally, there is that dark, ambiguous tone – hinting at the idea that we are all, in some way, as guilty as one another – and it is this that raises the novel way above the expectations of the genre.

* * * * *

First published by Victor Gollancz in 1964. Penguin edition, 1967.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

[*] In this respect both novels have something in common with the depiction of the town of Sneek in Simenon’s The Murderer of 1938.

Tropic Moon

African TrioTry as he might, he could not account for it, this feeling of depression and foreboding that had taken possession of him.

This is the feeling that weighs upon young Frenchman Joseph Timar on his arrival in Libreville, Gabon, to take up a position on a logging concession in the interior of the country. Finding his progress delayed, Timar spends his first few weeks in the country hanging around the Central Hotel, where ‘the click of billiard balls and the chatter of the card players, [is] just like any French provincial café.’ Timar begins an affair with the proprietress, Adèle, and when she shoots a young porter, it quickly becomes apparent that the colonial authorities have no interest in bringing her to justice.

There are two issues which need to be addressed in relation to Tropic Moon. The first regards the book’s portrayal of colonialism. Timar is at first appalled when he is taken out carousing by his fellow expatriates, revelry which involves rampaging through villages and taking advantage of local women. Within a month, however, Timar cannot imagine returning home to La Rochelle:

These surroundings which at first had seemed to him so appalling and which he had loathed with all his heart – he was now seeing them from a different angle. He had grown familiar with all their aspects and much that had struck him as absurd or ugly no appealed to him in a curious way.

By the time Timar ventures into the interior with Adèle to take over the logging concession, he has entirely assimilated the habits of the colon, beating and threatening a boatman and taking advantage of a young village girl. Violence, it is made clear, is an everyday occurrence, barely worthy of comment; a necessity for the maintenance of the colonial system. To this extent, the novel provides a scathing portrait of the colonial community, as corrupt, racist and debasing even to its own foot soldiers. However, while the portrayal of the settlers in unflattering, the same can be said of the depiction of the native population, who, seen through the eyes the novel’s protagonist, are viewed as entirely Other; unknowable and mostly unspeaking. The language in Stuart Gilbert’s translation of 1952 is ugly and dated, and at times the entrenched racial attitudes of the protagonists appear to creep into the narrative voice of the novel itself.

In 1932 Simenon embarked on a journey through Africa and recorded his thoughts in a series of articles for the magazine, Voilà. He was damning of the practices of colonialism and foresaw the throwing off of colonial shackles: ‘The native lieutenant of today,’ wrote, ‘may become a general. Not in foreign army – in his own.’ The white settlers of Africa would not be remembered for their railroads and paper money , he concluded, but simply as merde. It was an unpopular view in France at the time and Simenon was roundly criticised.[*]

However, despite Simenon’s anti-colonialist views, Tropic Moon contains no black characters. In a telling sequence – undoubtedly influenced by a voyage Simenon made up the Congo, and by Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – Timar travels back to Libreville in a dugout paddled by a dozen natives, while he sits in the stern like the lord and master he has become, protected from the sun by an awning. The journey affords Simenon the opportunity to share some his impressions of Africa and for his protagonist to contemplate his relationship to the native people:

Timar wondered what, if anything, [the oarsmen] thought about him personally, or if all white men were alike to them. As for him, it was the first time he was observing blacks otherwise than as decorative figures. [. . .] Today he was looking on them as human beings, individuals with lives of their own, and just now this seemed quite simple, thanks, perhaps to the primeval forest, this dugout, this river that for untold centuries had borne such primitive craft seaward.

 There are echoes in this of Conrad’s narrator, Marlow:

We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there – there you could look at a thing monstrous and free. It was unearthly, and the men were ‒ No, they were not inhuman. Well, you know, that was the worst of it ‒ this suspicion of their not being inhuman.

 It’s unsettling to be transported into the minds of characters for whom this revelation is necessary, and, while it provides an insight into the colonial mentality, the lack of distance between the attitudes of the characters and the narration, makes Tropic Moon an disturbing read.

The second issue with Tropic Moon has nothing to do with colonial or racial politics, but rather with whether, as a novel, it is any good. In his introduction to the later NYRB edition, Norman Rush reckons it among the best of Simenons roman durs, but I find it hard to agree. In Simenon’s best work, the narrative develops organically, sparked by a single incident and driven by the flaws of the characters. This is not the case in Tropic Moon.

The best parts of the book are those that revolve around the characters and ambience of the Central Hotel. Simenon is, of course, adept and sketching such a milieu, and the routines, petty jealousies and sexual dalliances of the characters are skilfully drawn. The problems really begin when, following the death of her husband, Adèle and Timar travel into the interior to run the logging concession. The episode seems a contrivance: are we really to believe that the insouciant Adèle, in her clinging silk dresses, really wants to relocate to the jungle? It allows Simenon to share the impressions of his African adventure, but does little to advance the plot and dissipates the claustrophobic atmosphere which has been built up. It’s hard not to feel that the novel would have achieved a greater degree of tension had Simenon forsaken travelogue for a more intense focus on the characters and locations of the early chapters. Instead character and narrative plausibility are sacrificed in order to drive home the author’s thoughts about colonialism.

Tropic Moon is, then, an uncomfortable and unsatisfying read, one perhaps of more interest to students of colonial literature than to casual readers of Simenon.

* * * * *

First published as Le Coup de Lune, 1933. Published as African Trio alongside Aboard the Aquitaine and Talatala by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. Translation by Stuart Gilbert. Gilbert’s translation was originally published by Penguin in the volume In Two Latitudes in 1952.

[*] For an account of this episode see Pierre Assouloine’s biography, Simenon pp.114–118 and the introduction to African Trio.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

The Lodger

The LodgerThe 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.’

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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

Café Céleste / Françoise Mallet-Joris

014Café Céleste tells the story of the intertwined lives of the inhabitants of a shabby Montparnasse apartment block above the eponymous bar. Among these characters are the ‘malodorous’ Mme Prêtre, the all seeing concierge who dreams of setting up her daughter as the lover of a rich man and living off the proceeds; Dr Fisher, an outwardly respectable abortionist, not above partaking of the drugs in his surgery; Socrates, the proprietor of Café Céleste, whose ill-advised largesse is ruining his business; and Jean Cabou, a mediocre painter. To this extent, the the book bears a superficial resemblance to Georges Perec’s later Life: A User’s Manual.

But the novel gradually centres around the triangular relationship between Stéphane Morani, a mediocre musician in poor health; his wife Louise; and the shrewish shop-girl, Martine, with whom Stéphane enjoys a platonic relationship. Stéphane is handsome and charming, and since childhood has had the ability to please those around him through acting out the roles they (his parents, the priest, for example) wish him to assume. As a result he has become a fantasist, unable to distinguish between the reality of his life and the contents of the self-mythologising journal in which he scrupulously records his thoughts. The one act of rebellion of his life has been to defy his parents and marry Louise, an act he committed not out of love but from a misplaced desire to ‘save’ her from a life of prostitution.

But it is the plain and devious Martine whom we first meet, and as she contemplates the customers of the department store in which she works, Mallet-Joris leaves us in no doubt about the embittered nature of her personality:

Oh, those stupid, ill-dressed, ill-fed women, crammed with cheap literature and meat, subsisting on the cheap cuts of life, and satisfied with their lot! But it was not so much their poverty she detested . . . [as] their vulgar and violent zest for life.

Martine, by contrast hates everything. She scorns life and is in turn scorned by it:

This was another thing she detested: this narrow and colourful street that was always congested. She detested everything in it, the passers-by, the costermongers’ carts, the prostitutes, the neon lights, the shop and cafés. In this tumult . . . she walked alone . . . feeling conspicuous and scorned.

Yet every day after work, Martine goes to the Brasserie Dorée to hear Stéphane’s trio finish their afternoon session (they are too mediocre to play in the evenings) and imagines that her relationship with Stéphane will one day amount to more than it presently does.

To this extent, the novel could equally assume the (English) title of Mallet-Joris’ earlier novel, The House of Lies – each one of the characters exists in a world of self-delusion.

The sole character who can be exempted from this charge is Stéphane’s wife, Louise, who works as a dresser at a local revue. She is solid, stoical and possessed of a full awareness of the nature of her situation. When she resumes an affair with a wealthy artist she knew before her marriage, she does so without subterfuge, and when he proposes marriage to her, she reacts calmly and unmelodramatically. In contrast to Martine, Louise feels great kinship with other women, a kinship keenly felt amid the nakedness of the Turkish baths:

A shrill, gay chatter arose, small groups of women had formed. Leaning against the columns, stretching their arms or rinsing each other’s hair . . . They were living intensely again. Three women grouped around that young girl, dragging a secret out of her and sharing it, laughing or groaning with the same vehemence, vigorously slapping their thighs (stout thighs, flabby thighs) . . .[ They] were women again and were recalling with rude words of the flesh the children born of their bodies, the men welcomed into their beds, the money counted by their tireless hands . . . And their lives were there, self-assured, rich even in vice, misery, sickness.

Louise is like an older version of Alberte in The House of Lies an island of stoicism and level-headedness amid a world deception and scheming. And like Alberte, the conclusion of the novel finds Louise returning to a previous existence, an existence in which she is contented and comfortable.

The (ironic) original title of the novel is L’Empire Céleste, and it is this little empire that Martine makes her business to bring down. She is motivated, not by a desire to have Stéphane for herself, but by her enmity towards the world that spurns her:

She was not acting against Louise or against the man who was holding Louise in his arms. She had always known there was a world of this kind which she could never hope to enter, a world in which human beings embraced quite simply, slept and ate quite simply. The people of that world had never promised her anything. If she hated them, it was with an impersonal, cold, almost detached hatred.

When she finally succeeds in destroying Stéphane’s fragile kingdom, she finds a kind of ecstasy in his loathing: ‘Oh, let him at last tell her that all she had ever aroused in him or had ever aroused, was aversion, repugnance!’

She had triumphed at last . . . She had seen his face distorted with rage and fear, stripped of all that pretended sweetness . . . And that face was as ugly as her own. She would unmask them all. From now on the world would be peopled solely with real faces, faces without beauty. The world would be nothing but ugliness.

For all that Mallet-Joris holds up the delusions of her characters to ridicule, Martine is a monstrous creation, repellent in her desire to wreak havoc on the lives of those around her. Stéphane, for all his self-deception is a sympathetic character, undeserving of the fate that awaits him at the end of the book.

But, monstrous as Martine is, it is Mallet-Joris masterful evocation of character that makes Café Céleste so worth reading. Few novels contain such an array of characters, any one of whom could take centre stage in a novel of their own. Mallet-Joris’ exposition is leisurely. She is always happy to linger over the details of a street scene, café or theatre, and, at its best, her descriptive writing is rhythmic, evocative and rich. That said, her prose sometimes strains too hard for literary effect – there are quite often more adjectives than necessary, or a superfluous clause, which, in its attempt to hammer home the point, diminishes it.

Similarly, Mallet-Joris’ is not frightened of taking her narrative off in what can seem a tangential direction. The novel meanders towards its conclusion, and it is hard not to think that were it more tightly focussed on the central relationships, it would have greater power. That said, it would be wrong to criticise the novel for being too complex, for resisting the idea that life is simple and linear. The lives of Mallet-Joris’ characters are messy and the novel should be applauded for reflecting this.

First published in 1959 as L’Empire Céleste. Translated by Herma Briffault. W.H. Allen edition published 1959.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

The Girl with a Squint

The Girl with a SquintThe 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

The Girl in His Past

The Girl in His Past opens like a B-movi005e. A man drives through a rain swept forest, breaks down, finds his way to a country inn, and then, as the locals eavesdrop, telephones the operator: ‘I’d like to speak to the police, Murder Division.’

Alberte Bauche, a twenty-eight-year-old journalist, has killed his employer – and wife’s lover – Serge Nicholas, first by shooting him, then beating him twenty-two times with a poker, before finishing him off with a bronze statuette. He is quite anxious to inform the police of his reasons for doing so: not out of jealousy, but because that he is ‘an honest man’ and had overheard Nicholas telling an associate that he was a ‘conceited imbecile’ whom he was merely using as a front for his fraudulent business dealings.

So far, so commonplace. As in many Simenon novels, the protagonist commits an act which places him outside the boundaries of normal society. At the very opening of the novel, when Bauche calls the police from the country inn, he realises the innkeeper instantly views him in a different way: ‘It was not horror. It was not disgust either. It was worse . . . he felt that suddenly between them was an invisible barrier, a void which neither [of them] could cross.’ Later, when he is taken to Nicholas’ apartment and forced to re-enact his actions, he notices that even in the eyes of the cops, ‘he had ceased to be a human being . . . it was plain that for all of them he was no longer a man like other men.’

What elevates the novel is gradual realisation of Bauche – and the reader – that the story he has told himself about why he has killed Nicholas may not be true.

The centre of the novel are the scenes in which Bauche is assessed by a psychiatrist. These scenes take place in front of an audience of note-taking students, and Bauche enjoys the attention, as if he is taking part in a minor theatrical performance. It is in this context that we learn something about Bauche’s upbringing in the fishing town of Grau-de-Roi and, crucially, about his first sexual experience with the daughter of a local fisherman, Anaïs – the ‘girl in his past’ of the title .

Anaïs is voluptuous and sexually voracious. From the age of twelve, Bauche has spied on her having sex with men, including his own father, on the beach and when he is seventeen he plucks up the courage to approach her himself. The experience is formative in that Bauche develops a taste for debauchery. Later, he marries Fernande, who like Anaïs is promiscuous and whom he has already watched with other men. Bauche thinks of the early years of his marriage in Paris as the ‘Black Years’: a time of wallowing in ‘the nasty things, the nameless crowd and questionable hotels, dinners of cold sausage eaten off greasy paper, and cheap prostitutes.’

His association with wealthy and suave Serge Nicholas raises Bauche and his wife out of their sordid life and, it is when Bauche discovers that his relationship with Nicholas is fraudulent – that he is only an imbecile to be exploited – that he decides to kill the older man. The link between Bauche’s experiences with Anaïs and his crime are a little tenuous, but it is an illustration of the recurrent idea in Simenon that one’s past experiences inescapably determine one’s future actions. The novel begins with a man seemingly trying to run away, to escape, but who actually wishes to give himself up, and who in the end, rather relishes describing his grubby life to his little audience in the psychiatrist’s office.

First published as Le Temps d’Anaïs, 1951. Hamish Hamilton edition translated by Louis Varese, published 1976.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014