Aunt Jeanne

Aunt Jeanne belonAunt Jeannegs to the subset of Simenon’s dysfunctional family novels, among which can be counted The Others, The Fate of the Malous, Strange Inheritance and Uncle Charles, to name but a few.

The novel opens with the return, after an absence of 36 years, of overweight, alcoholic, world-weary Jeanne to her childhood home. The Martineaus are, or were, a family of wealthy wine merchants in small town near Poitiers. But all is not well. The family business is ruined and on her arrival Jeanne finds her brother Robert hanging from the rafters of the loft. While the rest of the clan go to pieces, Jeanne assumes control of the household, adopting the role of cook, housemaid, nanny and confidante to the various members of the family: the dissolute teenagers Henri and Mad, the alcoholic widow, and the depressed daughter-in-law.

It falls to the aging notary who is winding up the Martineau estate to sum up the family in a way that is emblematic of all Simenon families:

People live in the same house, sleep in the same bed or in neighbouring rooms, sit down for meals together three times a day, and are then surprised to discover, one fine day, that they know nothing whatsoever  about each other.

Which is all very well, except that Aunt Jeanne has one fundamental flaw: there is too much dialogue. Page upon page upon page of it. Of course, there is nothing wrong with dialogue per se, but much of the speechifying does not consist of characters talking to each other, but rather describing events which have already taken place. The problem is accentuated when Jeanne (whose point-of-view is maintained throughout) takes to her bed with swollen legs – the events unfolding in the house have to be related to her by various characters. Jeanne is at one remove from the action, and so, as readers, are we. As a result there is little engagement with anything that occurs. All the action takes place off stage.

The most intriguing relationship in the book is between Jeanne and seventeen-year-old Mad. Since her early teens, Mad has (in her own eyes) debased herself with men, not out of sexual desire, but out of a desire to show off, to ‘go one better’ than her friends and to rebel against the strict regime of her father. Her exploits have led her, among other things, to an affair with a married man in Paris and a nasty back-street abortion. In Jeanne, who it turns out has worked as a madam in an Istanbul brothel (she’s been around a bit, has Jeanne), Mad finds a non-judgemental and understanding confidante.

It’s at this point that novel comes alive, yet the same problem persists – all this good stuff is related after the event. Criticising a novel for not being something it’s not trying to be is a pretty pointless exercise, but there’s a frustration here, as a novel telling the story of Mad’s descent into dissolution and her relationship with her worldly aunt could have been enthralling. As it is this episode occupies a single chapter of Aunt Jeanne.

A final point of interest is that this is one of Simenon’s relatively rare novels with a female protagonist, and in which the strongest relationship are between women. It is not unusual in Simenon’s books for female characters to be portrayed quite passively and to be constantly available for the sexual gratification of the male protagonists. But here the tables are turned. The male characters  are portrayed as animalistic, salivating brutes. Jeanne speaks of her shock as a thirteen-year-old of finding her father in the cellar fucking the maid and of her disgust at the men in the Istanbul brothel at the men who prodded the girls on offer ‘as if they’d been cattle in the market.’ Mad for her part describes her experiences with men in unflattering terms:

They kiss you, breathing stertorously, their breath stinking of alcohol, and, in the end, trembling like dogs when they get up on their hind legs, they up-end you in some shoddy little hotel bedroom, if it isn’t by the roadside or on the back seat of the car.

You can imagine such sentiments being expressed by any number of female characters who, due to Simenon’s rigorous adherence the point-of-view of his protagonists, are deprived of a voice. But it serves as a momentary insight into the author’s grasp of the unattractiveness of his often lecherous protagonists’ behaviour.

As Robert Burns put it: O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us.

*  * * * *

Tante Jeanne first published 1951. Routledge & Kegan Paul edition, 1953. Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury.

The Mahé Circle

MaheCircle3In The Mahé Circle, Simenon presents us with François Mahé, an overweight, thirty-five-year-old doctor, who lives with his wife, two children, and his mother, who still wakes him in the morning and tells him ‘when to change his underwear.’ The novel is mainly set on Porquerolles, a small island in the Mediterranean, where the Mahés are on vacation. Holidays occur quite frequently in Simenon. They offer an opportunity for the author to wrench his characters out of their familiar surroundings. But, perhaps for precisely this reason, nobody much enjoys themselves on a Simenon holiday and the Mahés are no different.[1]

As the novel opens, Dr Mahé is fishing. He surreptitiously watches a local pulling fish after fish from the water, but Mahé cannot catch a thing. He observes the fish in the clear water below the boat as they approach his bait before turning away. Mahé suspects that by refusing to reveal their angling secrets, the locals are conspiring against him, but of course they are doing no such thing. What is clear, however, is that Mahé is a fish out of water. He does not fit in here. It is too hot; the food is different; his children get upset stomachs; he gets sunburn; his wife is miserable.

Mahé is entirely alienated. When his friend, Dr Péchade, is talking to him, he is unable to concentrate on what he is saying, and becomes fixated on his moving lips. ‘It was extraordinary, almost repulsive, to see the rolls of fat with pink inside, parting, closing, stretching, uncovering the little yellowish bones, that were his teeth.’

Later, when watching his ten-year-old daughter, he observes that:

One could already see some inborn vulgarity’ […] her skin was coarse-grained, her face too wide, her mouth without shape. He felt no disappointment. He didn’t feel anything. Everything around him left him quite cold.

The ‘circle’ of the novel’s title refers to Mahé’s friends and family. But Mahé does not perceive this circle as a benevolent, supportive network; rather it is more akin to a noose, slowly strangling him. In a dream, Mahé sees his family surround him, but suddenly they are not men and women, ‘but tombstones standing in a circle.’ It is this circle into which Mahé is locked.

Then, in Porquerolles, something changes. Mahé is called to attend the death of an impoverished woman, who has been squatting in abandoned military accommodation with her family. As Mahé surveys the dismal scene he catches sight of a little girl, eleven or twelve years old, in a red dress. At first, the incident appears to be of little significance, but over time the little girl develops into an obsession.

For the next three years, the family return to Porquerolles. Slowly, Mahé begins to fit in. He is greeted in local bars, learns how to fish, and joins the local men in a daily game of boules. But it is not for this that he returns. It is because of the girl in the red dress:

He wasn’t in love, it wasn’t that. […] No, it was an obsession, that was the word, a haunting obsession. And it had started that very first day, but faintly, insidiously, like those incurable illnesses that you only become aware of when it is too late for treatment.

The nature of Mahé’s obsession is enigmatic. It is not overtly sexual, although, in an unsavoury episode, he persuades his teenage nephew to force himself on the girl and then makes him describe what has occurred. Nor does he wish to ‘save’ her from deprivation. It is rather that she is something ‘other’: ‘the disavowal of his own life, of everything his life had been.’ Towards the end of the book, Mahé calls on the tiny apartment where the girl lives. He is invited in by her younger sister, but the girl, Elisabeth, is out working. We do not know what Mahé intends to do. As he waits, his attention is drawn to the quilt on the bed, ‘a white counterpane with a honeycomb weave, exactly like the one on his bed when he was twelve years old.’ And that in turn reminds him of the counterpane in the boarding house when he studied in Paris. In Simenon, through such associations, the past is always encroaching on the present, reminding his characters of where they have come from; crippling their ability to act decisively. Mahé lingers a while in the apartment; then, unsure or embarrassed of his reasons for being there, leaves.

Very little happens in The Mahé Circle. There is no tension. It is austere and unfathomable. Certainly it is not the work of a populist. There are few concessions to entertainment: the characters are unlikeable; the narrative is unexciting; the dénouement, when it comes, is enigmatic. It has more in common with Camus or even Robbe-Grillet than with Agatha Christie, to whom, on the basis of her prodigious generic output, Simenon is sometimes compared. It is less overtly philosophical than Camus, less experimental than Robbe-Grillet (whose first novel, The Erasers is a kind of deconstruction of a Maigret mystery[2]), but in its portrayal of a character who is entirely indifferent to the people around him, it bears some resemblance to The Outsider, which had been published two years before. Indeed, in what seems an overt attempt to differentiate Mahé from Mersault, Simenon’s protagonist is deeply moved by his mother’s death. However, while Simenon was not given to pontificating about the philosophical content of his work, that does not mean it is shallow or superficial. Especially given that the novel is so lacking in narrative pleasures, it is perfectly possible to view it as a meditation on the struggle of the individual to exert control over his or her life. Mahé is a character whose life is not his own; his course in life has been entirely determined by others, primarily his mother. He realises that, ‘Until this point, one could almost say that other people had been living his life for him’:

He found that at thirty-five, here he was […] with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week. He followed it […] because he could see no other solution, because he refused to admit there could be one, but he was floating inside this world that had been arranged for him as if in a suit of clothes that didn’t fit.

The real story of the novel is Mahé’s journey towards this realisation and what he does in order to attempt to exert a degree of free will over his fate.


Le Cercle Mahé, first published 1946. Penguin edition, 2015, translated by Siân Reynolds

[1] This is an edited version of a longer article Monsieur Simenon Has Locked Himself in which first appeared in the Glasgow Review of Books. You can read the full piece here.

[2] Curiously, Robbe-Grillet’s later novel The Voyeur (1955), in which a travelling salesman is unable to leave a small island on which a young girl has been killed, also bears some resemblance to The Mahé Case.


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).

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

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

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