The Others

009There are no happy families in Simenon. The Others concerns one such family, the provincial bourgeois Huets, whose tensions and grudges are thrown into relief by the suicide of the wealthy patriarch of the clan, Uncle Antoine.

The novel is narrated, loosely in the form of a diary, by Antoine’s nephew, Blaise, a dissatisfied art teacher and frustrated novelist. The action takes place over the week or so between Antoine’s death and the day of his funeral. Various members of the family are introduced: Colette, Antoine’s forty-year-old wife, an erratic ‘nymphomaniac’ about whom Blaise entertains sexual fantasies; Irène, Blaise’s wife, who is having an affair with their charismatic friend; Blaise’s solid, religious brother, Lucien; and a third brother, the womanising black sheep, Eduoard. During the war, Eduoard betrayed Lucien, a member of the resistance, to the occupiers and, for the sake of his sister-in-law, Blaise attempts to broker a reconciliation between the two men.

Unlike the majority of Simenon’s novels, which follow a single character and single narrative thread, The Others juggles multiple sub-plots, none of which feels fully developed or dominant. To this extent, the novel is somewhat unsatisfying. On the other hand, if we accept that the portrayals of some of the characters are sketchy, what we have instead is a more fully-realised portrait of a family. It is as if Blaise has looked along the line of relatives assembled at the funeral and devoted a few pages to each of them. What we have then, is less a novel, than a series of skilfully interwoven short stories, which together form an exposé of an outwardly reputable family.

We are now in familiar Simenon territory – scratching beneath the veneer of bourgeois respectability. What is revealed is mental illness, simmering enmities, deceit, adultery and resentment.

The novel begins with a dramatic flourish:

Uncle Antoine died on Tuesday, on Hallowe’en, probably at about eleven in the evening. That same night Colette tried to throw herself out of the window.

It ends, however, on a low-key note. Following the reading of the will, Blaise, along with his two brothers, is a rich man. The novel concludes with a kind of post-script, written a few months later. The tremors caused by the death of Uncle Antoine have subsided. Irène is still having her affair. Blaise thinks that he might buy a car, ‘a standard model which doesn’t attract too much attention.’

The street lights had just been turned on. I walked along Rue de la Cathédrale, then along Rue des Chartreux, looking at the same shop windows I used to look at when I was sixteen.

And there we have it: the Simenon archetype, the solitary outsider looking in. For all the dramatic events related in the previous pages, nothing has changed.

First published as Les Autres, 1962. Published in the UK in the Thirteenth Simenon Omnibus, 1978. Translated by Alastair Hamilton. Also known as The House on Quai Notre-Dame.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2013

The Glass Cage

Émile Virieu, 44, is a proof-reader for a010 Paris printing firm. He works in a glass cage in the centre of the office, cut off from his colleagues. He is married to an unattractive translator, Jeanne, with whom he shares some companionship, but neither a bed nor conversation. Virieu’s life follows a strict routine – two boiled eggs for breakfast, work, lunch, work, supper, television, bed. Once a month, he visits his sister and occasionally his parents in the country. Now and again, he and Jeanne see a film or eat out. Virieu is entirely indifferent to everything and everyone around him. He is curt and unobliging towards those who seek his advice or assistance. He is a study in ennui:

He never wondered if he were happy. It was a word which for him had no meaning.

He did not believe in passions. He believed neither in men nor in women. He loved nobody. It was a word that was not in his vocabulary.

Nor does he experience any fellow-feeling for those around him. He imagines he would feel no more than ‘vexed’ were Jeanne to die. And because of his protruding eyes and otherworldly quality, people in the street stare at him:

Are not all human beings the enemies of the solitary man. He was the solitary man and they were conscious of it. His look, his whole bearing bore no resemblance to theirs. He lived in a world of his own; in his eyes, these people he encountered were only shadows.

Needless to say, Virieu is most content at work in his glass cage, where nobody disturbs him.

Over the course of the novel, while Virieu struggles to maintain his routine, those around him try to break free of the shackles of their lives. His brother-in-law seeks a divorce from his wife, so that he can marry his mistress (and shoots himself when he is rejected); his nephew announces that he is giving up his studies for a life of adventure in New York; even his elderly neighbours suddenly move out to embark on a new life in Italy.

In their place, a young Alsatian couple arrives. Virieu leaves for work at the same time as his new neighbour, Lina, and they take to walking some way along the street together. Lina is talkative and playful and, although he tells himself that he harbours no great feelings for her, Virieu begins to look forward to their encounters. His ennui has been shaken. When Lina invites him to spend the afternoon in her apartment, he agrees, not, it seems, because he is physically attracted to her, but because he wishes to experience something other. When he arrives, Lina tells him that her invitation had been a joke and he strangles her.

If the novel has a flaw, it is in the character of Lina. She is twenty years old, with the figure of a boy, friendly and flirtatious, with a virile young husband whose work obliges him to travel during the week. It is difficult to see why she might be attracted to her taciturn neighbour, nor why, if her invitation really was a joke, she would treat him in this malicious way. Perhaps she is guilty of no more than naivety, but her invitation seems a contrivance – a device to manufacture the climax Simenon wants.

The Glass Cage is one of Simenon’s very last novels. It is exceptionally bleak. The portrayal of a passionless marriage is familiar, but unlike many Simenon relationships, Émile and Jeanne feel a certain companionship towards one another. Jeanne fusses over her husband’s health and on the one occasion that he speaks sharply to her, Émile manages to apologise in his own way. It is a touching portrait of two characters who have settled for a life on the margins of society. And for Émile it is more than that: he married Jeanne to be his witness to his life, to be the one person that notices him. Without her he would not feel that existed. He would be one of the shadows. It’s grim, but there is a certain comfort in it. And when the climax occurs and Virieu passively returns to Jeanne to tell her what he has done, the novel achieves a certain poignancy.

First published as La Cage de Verre, 1971. Published in the UK as part of the Tenth Simenon Omnibus (1973). Translated by Antonia White

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2013 Continue reading

The Window Over the Way

040Adil Bey is the newly-arrived Turkish consul in the dismal Black Sea port of Batum in the Soviet Union of the 1930’s. He does not speak the language, immediately alienates himself from the expatriate clique and is thus  dependent on his twenty-year-old secretary, Sonia, for contact with the outside world. Sonia lives with her policeman brother and his wife in a single room opposite the consulate and Bey is able to observe them as they go about their humdrum lives. The couple begin an affair, more out of boredom or convenience than passion, which is disrupted when Sonia informs on a trafficker who has sought Bey’s help.

The action plays out against a backdrop of Stalinist paranoia and deprivation – the novel was later re-printed in the collaborationist journal L’Appel – but despite the exotic setting the affair at the heart of the book is pure Simenon. The lovers (if they can be called that) have little affection for each other. They do not communicate and Bey feels awkward addressing Sonia as tu. They are a model Simenon couple, passively following the routine they establish for themselves. And Adil Bey, who from the beginning has few discernible character traits, slips further and further into ennui:

Without even wanting to, he had become inert, as much as, if not more than, those around him. It was so easy. It required no effort. You carried your solitude with you, even when you went to see people . . . It was a protective cloud in which you walked along with an expressionless face.

It’s a description which could be applied to myriad Simenon protagonists, sleepwalking through lives given over to routine.

Later, Adil Bey discovers that Sonia has been slowly poisoning him with arsenic (as she had done to his predecessor) because his criticisms of the poverty under the Soviet regime have shaken her belief in the system. Despite this they are reconciled and Adil Bey arranges their escape on a cargo ship. Sonia disappears and Bey sails without her, knowing that she has been shot.

The grim setting and the cast of secondary characters are quite vividly realised and, despite the implausibility of Adil Bey and Sonia’s sudden devotion to each other (one day Sonia is poisoning him, the next she agrees to risk her life to flee with him), the final pages in which Adil Bey seeks news of Sonia before he sails achieve some tension. The novel’s chief flaw however is that the central character is not sufficiently realised. From the beginning, he does little other than observe his neighbours, wander the streets and fret about his health. When we learn that on a previous posting in Vienna he enjoyed dancing through the night and playing tennis, it is impossible to imagine. Neither the character nor his relationship with Sonia thus rouse much pity in the reader.

The Window Over the Way  (1933) is one of Simenon’s earliest romans durs. It is unusual in both its setting and overt political overtones, but it contains several elements which would become familiar Simenon tropes – the protagonist who is condemned to be an outsider; the passive, emotionally numb heroine; the doomed nature of romantic relationships; the fear that one’s every action will be picked over by the powers-that-be. In this novel, it is the Soviet apparatus which both brings together and separates the couple; in later novels such external forces are dispensed with and it is the protagonists’ own flaws which make happiness unattainable.

First published as Les Gens d’en face (1933). Translated by Robert Baldick.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2013

Inquest on Bouvet

036Inquest on Bouvet is a curiosity – a Maigret novel in form and setting, but one from which the Inspector himself is absent. The plots concern the death of the title character, an old print collector who has lived quietly for twenty years in an apartment by the Seine. Over the course of the novel various characters emerge and we learn that Monsieur Bouvet is not who he appeared to be. The plot is formulaic and unconvincing – Bouvet it turns out was not only a fugitive murderer, but also the super-rich owner of a Congolese mine and a wartime spy – and there are tiresome passages of expository dialogue. Bouvet is a emblematic Simenon character: an outwardly unremarkable man with a hidden past or double life. Many Simenon protagonists disappear or long to disappear: Bouvet is a character who has done his disappearing earlier in life. In death, those from whom he has run away catch up with him.

Aside from its status as a curiosity, the chief point of interest of Inquest on Bouvet is in its portrayal of the character of Madame Jeanne, the concierge in Bouvet’s apartment building. Madame Jeanne has a ne’er-do-well husband, who works nightshifts and drinks, but it is to Bouvet that she was devoted. It was she who brought the old man his meals and scrupulously cleaned his apartment and in death it falls to Madame Jeanne to arrange the wake. Over the course of the novel, as others take possession of Bouvet’s life, Madame Jeanne’s little world is violated. Of course, she bears this with dignity – it is not her place to assert her rights over those who have a greater claim to Bouvet under the law. But she remains the fulcrum, granting access to the apartment and, to those of whom she approves, providing a little information about the latter years of the dead man’s life. The novel ends with a depiction of the funeral cortège leaving the apartment block. Madame Jeanne defers to the arrivistes in the allocation of seats and ends up in the final carriage of the procession with a tramp to whom Bouvet gave money and a moon-faced former prostitute and former lover of Bouvet, Mademoiselle Blanche. On the way to the cemetery, the carriage is separated from the procession by a lorry ‘as if it weren’t part of the same funeral’.

The figure of the concierge is the very archetype of Simenon’s world: an onlooker, rather than a participant in life. While others come and go, the concierge is stationary. She observes, but is herself invisible. Life quite literally passes the concierge by. Over the course of this otherwise unremarkable novel, while other characters distract us with their histrionics and tedious revelations, Simenon gradually shifts the unassuming Madame Jeanne from the wings to centre stage.

A Note on the title

The original title was L’Enterrement de Monsieur Bouvet (The Burial of Monsieur Bouvet). The most obvious title for the book is The Death of Monsieur Bouvet, but in choosing ‘Burial’ over ‘Death’ our attention is directed not to the event which triggers the action of the novel on the opening page (Monsieur Bouvet drops dead in the street), but to the downbeat final three pages in which the funeral procession is organised. That Simenon’s British publishers dispensed with his title is not surprising. The Burial of Monsieur Bouvet is hardly appealing as a novel marketed as crime fiction. Instead ‘Inquest’ provides the promise of investigation and revelation and the dropping of the ‘Monsieur’ gives the title a more hard-boiled, pithy ring.

First published as L’Enterrement de Monsieur Bouvet 1952. Translation by Eugene MacCown 1958. Cover design by Edwin Taylor

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2013