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.

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.’


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

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

Uncle Charles

002aThe original title of Uncle Charles is Oncle Charles s’est enfermé – Uncle Charles has locked himself in – and this is exactly what happens at the beginning of the novel: Charles Dupeux returns from work, goes upstairs and barricades himself in the attic. Downstairs, his wife, Laurence, and his three daughters take their evening meal in the modest kitchen and wonder what he is up to. Laurence is a good-natured, slovenly sort, not given to over-reaction and it is only when her husband does not emerge for work the following day that she becomes concerned. We learn that Dupeux’s brother killed himself, but Dupeux does not have suicide in mind. Various characters attempt to coax Charles out, initially without success. It is only when his rich brother-in-law and employer, Henri Dionnet speaks to him through the attic door that he decides to emerge and return to work. When we eventually discover why Dupeux has locked himself in the attic, it is somewhat anti-climactic, but that is not the point. Dupeux’s act is a ‘McGuffin’ – a device to set the plot in motion and introduce us to the various characters and the tensions that exist between them.

The crux of the novel is not why Uncle Charles is in the attic, rather, it is the inability of the various characters, to avoid repeating the self-destructive behaviour of previous generations. Simenon uses the character of Laurence’s brother to articulate this. Paul is the family intellectual and ‘guardian of the family history’. Yet he enjoys ‘slumming it’ in his sister’s cramped, homely kitchen, smoking his pipe, while Laurence slopes about peeling potatoes or attending some other chore:

The presence of Laurence was enough to create a plebeian atmosphere anywhere, a kind of flabby, free-and-easy atmosphere. And that was precisely what Paul came to wallow in.

None of the members of the family – whether alcoholic, trapped in prostitution or manual labour – are able to raise themselves above their ‘natural’ state. Laurence asks Paul if it is all down to what they have inherited from their mother:

It was more complicated than that. The mystery was much wider, infinite even … Someday, [Paul] would succeed in drawing together all the scattered threads, and everything would become clear. He would finally understand why none of them, for all their good intentions, would ever amount to anything, and why, each time they tried to raise themselves, they fell back into the same grubby mediocrity.

What throws the fate of the family into sharper relief is that Dupeux has embezzled half a million francs from his brother-in-law. It is to contemplate what to do with this money that he retires to the attic. And in confirmation of Paul’s theory that they can none of them escape their mediocrity – and on some level do not wish to – Charles decides to do nothing with his fortune. Rather than take the opportunity to raise his family out of their impoverished state, he chooses to languish in it.

By the end of the novel, Dupeux’s three daughters have departed the family home (one through suicide), and he has returned to work in the glass cage in his brother-in-law’s office.* Laurence slopes about in her worn old shoes, complaining of rheumatism brought by the draughty kitchen. This is the life that Charles has chosen. It is not that he merely locked himself into the attic, it is that he is locked into a cycle of poverty and mediocrity from which he does not wish to escape.

First published in 1942. Hamish Hamilton edition, 1988. Translated by Howard Curtis. Previously published in English as Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In.

* In this aspect, Uncle Charles is a precursor to The Glass Cage of 1971, in which an unassuming Paris proof-reader embezzles money from his employer.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

The Reckoning

ImageJules Malétras is a thoroughly unpleasant man. He is a wealthy, retired businessman, tight-fisted and contemptuous of those around him. In the opening chapter of The Reckoning, he strangles his young mistress, Lulu, because she refuses to undress for him. It is not that he particularly desires to see her naked; rather, he is angered because she does not do his bidding – for the first time she has defied him. The murder is covered up by Lulu’s brother, and Malétras is free to continue his routine as normal.

But, of course, all is not normal. As he walks the streets of Le Havre the following day, despite his ability to push Lulu from his mind, his previous existence seems unreal. ‘How could he define his uneasiness? He felt unsteady. More precisely, he felt he was outside reality.’ Yet, despite his wealth, Malétras has always existed on the margins. Every day he joins a group of fellow businessmen at a café, but while they play cards, he merely observes. He has no friends. He maintains a respectful, but cold relationship with his second wife, whom he has never so much as kissed on the mouth.

The day after the murder, not knowing what to do with himself in the absence of his mistress, Malétras visits a grimy bistro where the slovenly patronne, Marie, offers him the services of a teenage girl. Malétras declines her offer (he has no sexual urges), but out of habit he returns to the bistro on the subsequent days. He comes to realise that what has draws him to this seedy part of town are the sights and smells which remind him of his late mother’s shop – the faded advertisements, stale sweets and decaying vegetables. It’s a familiar Simenon motif: the embittered, older man whose only moments of happiness come from a few, fragmentary childhood memories.

But Malétras’ poverty-stricken childhood is not sufficient to explain his sociopathic nature. Simenon does not compromise in his portrayal of a character entirely devoid of redeeming features. On the day that he suffers a near-fatal heart attack, Malétras visits an old school friend, Gancel, whose wife is dying. He finds a family affectionate and caring towards one other. Malétras stares at them in puzzlement: ‘Why were they different from the others? He could not believe that it was goodness that united them , because he did not believe in goodness. Man is not good.’ Afterwards, he returns to the bistro, where he succumbs to the temptation to go upstairs with the girl, not because he desires her, but because he wishes to prove the patronne that he ‘was a man like all the others and did not need their pity.’ It is sordid and grim.

Despite the reckoning of the title, Malétras cannot be said to undergo any moment of revelation or to come to any greater understanding of himself. The trials through which he is put – or through which he puts himself – only serve to reinforce his bleak worldview. As he lies in bed, recovering from his heart attack, doctors and family gathered around him, he reflects on his situation:

[He] was alone. True, he had often been conscious of his own solitude. This time it was different. He realised how totally alone he was, he realised once and for all that man, whatever he does, is alone in life and death.

It is unusual for Simenon to so explicitly suggest a generalised point of view in this way. But he could hardly be clearer: we are all on the same boat as the repellent Malétras.

At the end, Malétras takes to attending church. His wife tells him that she knew he would ‘end up believing in God’, but it is not that. Malétras is only trying to recapture a moment, shortly before his first communion, when the smell of incense mingled with flowers made him weep with joy. The church performs the same function for him as Marie’s squalid bistro.

The Reckoning is a serious and depressing piece of work. It is not without flaws, but in its uncompromising pessimism and refusal to countenance any facile rehabilitation of its protagonist, it deserves admiration, if not affection.

First published as Le Bilan Malétras in 1948. UK edition published by Hamish Hamilton in 1948. Translated by Emily Read.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

The Family Lie

FamilyLieAs his son lies in bed with diphtheria, a Paris doctor, Edouard Malempin, struggles to remember the details of his own childhood, jotting down his recollections in a school exercise book. Again and again, Malempin reminds us of the unreliable nature of his memory: ‘I’m not sure’; ‘I don’t remember’; ‘There what I remember ends’; ‘Confusion sets in.’ The story of the novel is the that of Malempin’s efforts to piece together a series of events in his family’s past, events which, of course, are never discussed.

Malempin was brought up on a farm. His parents have borrowed heavily to buy their land and once a month the family travels to Saint-Jean-d’Angély to visit his father’s rich brother, Tesson, and his sensuous young wife, Elise. These lunches are tense affairs, strained by the snobbishness Malempin’s mother displays towards Elise and by the Malempins need to constantly borrow money to stave off their debtors. Later, when Uncle Tesson mysteriously disappears, young Eduoard – on the basis of quite slender evidence – comes to believe that his parents have murdered him in order to inherit his wealth. Whether or not this is true, the incident marks a turning point in Malempin’s relationship with his mother, who, he feels, never again looks him in the eye.

Malempin is a typical Simenon protagonist: a doctor (one of the writer’s most frequently used professions), unable to communicate with his wife, whom he does not love and who he feels knows nothing of his inner life. By the end, he comes to realise that he has spent his life ‘walking on tiptoes, scarcely daring to breathe’, unwilling to upset the fragile equilibrium of his existence.

The Family Lie was written in 1940, but not translated into English until 1978, a  reflection, perhaps, that it is not one of Simenon’s most gripping novels. Malempin’s fragmentary memories of his childhood are vividly evoked, but the present tense of the narrative is entirely lacking in drama (the son becomes ill, then recovers) and the central character is so lacking in personality that it is hard to feel anything about his fate. The novel  is an exploration of the nature of memory and, on one level, an expression of the idea that, as Malempin concludes, the only ‘real years’ of life are the years of one’s childhood. It’s subtle, atmospheric and low-key, but fails to engage on a dramatic or emotional level.

First published as Malempin, 1940. Published by Hamish Hamilton in 1978. Translated by Isabel Quigley.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

Red Lights

RedLightsSteve Hogan and his wife, Nancy, leave New York on Labor Day to drive to Maine to collect their children from summer camp. Steve feels himself ‘going into the tunnel’, an expression he uses privately to describe his desire to go on a drinking binge.

Steve suffers from feelings of inadequacy due to the fact that Nancy has a more prestigious, better-paid job than he does and because it is he who has to get home early every day to mind the children. He feels emasculated and resentful.

As they make their journey, Steve insists, as an act of defiance, on stopping at a number of roadside bars. Following one of these stop-offs, Nancy has had enough and decides to continue the journey on her own. When Steve returns to his car, he finds an escaped convict, Sid Halligan, in the passenger seat. Steve is delighted by this turn of events and helps Sid evade the police road blocks which have been set up. As he descends further and further into drunkenness, he quizzes his passenger about his past deeds. He regards Sid as a ‘real man’; or, rather, as the kind of man he would like to be: ‘He had no wife or children or, probably no friends, either, and he went his way in the night, when he had needed a gun he smashed a shop window to get one.’

Steve finally passes out and when he comes to the following morning, he discovers that his wife has been attacked and raped – by Halligan. Nancy, the successful career woman, has been punished, in the age-old way, for striking out on her own.

Halligan is the Mr Hyde to Hogan’s Dr Jekyll – the id to his ego – conjured up the concoction of booze he has consumed. Sid’s act of vengeance is carried out while Steve is unconscious, and, later, when, Steve is brought to confront Halligan in jail, he appears to be about to strike him, but ‘no one suspected that it was some part of himself that he had nearly struck when he had raised his fist.’ In the end, with Halligan banished (he is to be sent to the electric chair), Steve feels able to ‘return to everyday life.’

Simenon could never be accused of being a feminist, but his female characters are rarely punished so explicitly. Despite this unpleasant, even repellent narrative, other commentators rate Red Lights highly. Thornton Wilder, in a letter to the author, calls it ‘a powerful book. And a most brilliant one.’ In her introduction to the NYRB edition, Anita Brookner calls it ‘masterly’. Patrick Marnham reckons it, ‘perhaps his best roman dur with an American setting.’ Both Brookner and Marnham praise Simenon’s mastery of his American setting, and it is true that the atmosphere of the roadside bars and their habitués is evoked with Simenon’s customary deftness – the stickiness of a counter; a rack of rifles displayed on a wall; an illuminated jukebox, whose ‘gleaming mechanism manipulated the records with fascinating deliberation.’

However, even aside from any reservations about its narrative, Red Lights cannot be regarded as among Simenon’s best work. One of Simenon’s greatest assets is his ability to seamlessly weave together the past and present of his characters, so that we understand how they came to be as they are, and, thus, that they have little choice but to act in the way they do. In Red Lights, however, we learn little about Steve’s past and, as such, have little understanding or sympathy for him. The characterisation is thin. Even his name is unconvincing; Steve Hogan sounds more like the name for a cowboy in a B-move western.

As in another of Simenon’s American novels, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, the characters are not located in any one place. They are drift from bar to bar, finding a freedom in frequenting places where nobody knows them. In Simenon’s European novels, his characters are typically rooted in a particular location and routine, and are unable to ‘be themselves’ for fear of being seen to act out of character. Simenon had lived in the United States for eight years by the time he wrote Red Lights. Perhaps America, for him, represented a place in which to exist unfettered by one’s past, but it is precisely because Steve Hogan exists only in the present tense of Red Lights that it lacks power and psychological depth.

First published as Feux Rouges, 1953. NYRB edition 2006, translated by Norman Denny.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

The Murderer

009Han Kuperus is a respectable doctor in the provincial Dutch town of Sneek. He has received an anonymous note informing him that his wife is having an affair with his friend, Schutter, and, in the opening chapter, he returns early from his weekly trip to Amsterdam and shoots the couple dead on a canal path near the cottage where they hold their trysts. Kuperus feels no particular emotion. Afterwards, in accordance with his routine, he goes to his billiard club where he finds that he is able to act quite normally. When he returns home he takes the sullen maid, Neel, as his lover.

As a crime novel, The Murderer, is quite implausible. Nobody seems to notice that on the night of the murders Kuperus has arrived home a day early from his trip. And nobody reports that a man answering Kuperus’ description openly bought a gun that same afternoon. Had Maigret been on the case, the novel would be over in fifty pages. But the interest in The Murderer does not lie in its superficial resemblance to a crime novel.

Instead, the interest lies in its portrayal of a provincial bourgeois town and of the hypocrisy of its inhabitants. Sneek is a place of deadening respectability. Until the murders, Kuperus’s life has been one of conformity: ‘His chief concern had always been to avoid anything which might single him out, make him seem original.’ The act of murder is his first rebellion against this propriety – it instantly places him outside the world into which he has striven so hard to fit. Other transgressions follow:

And suddenly, for the first time in his life, Kuperus did something that was really outrageous … Without waiting any longer for his guests, he poured himself out a full glass of wine.

Gradually, as his peers begin to suspect his involvement in the murders, he comes to realise that, despite his efforts to conform, he has always been regarded as odd. And suddenly, he is no longer a respected pillar of the community, but a figure from whom children run in the street. The gradual disintegration of relations between Kuperus and his patients and peers is skilfully and subtly described. Here, as elsewhere in Simenon, middle class mores are a veneer concealing promiscuity, snobbery and deceit. Similarly, Kuperus is that Simenon archetype – the outwardly respectable professional who commits an act which precipitates his exclusion from society.

The Murderer is also notable in its portrayal of the character of Neel, the maid. Simenon often portrays his secondary female characters as entirely submissive and devoid of any inner life. Maids and other employees are frequently sexually available and rarely express either any desire or objections about how they are treated. For much of the novel, Neel conforms precisely to this stereotype. In bed, Neel’s body is ‘passive’, her eyes ‘unfeeling’. Her indifference frustrates Kuperus. When he demands that she give up her lover, she responds absentmindedly that she to go to the butcher’s. When he presses to express what she feels about him, she responds: ‘Haven’t I told you that I don’t think anything at all.’ And yet, as the novel reaches its downbeat climax, we discover that Neel is not the docile drudge, she appears. Unusually in a Simenon novel there is something of a plot twist. This development is not contrived or brought about through authorial sleight of hand, but  is one which alters our perception of the characters and action that has taken place. It is clever and satisfying.

The Murderer is an very fine book. It contains all the elements of Simenon’s best work, rendered in cool, understated prose. For the uninitiated, it would be hard to think of a better Simenon primer.

First published as L’Assassin in 1937. Penguin edition published 1958, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury. Cover design by Romek Marber.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2013