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 Man with the Little Dog

manwithlittledog (2)aWhen you read two or three Simenon novels in quick succession, the author’s oft-quoted statement that his “big novel is the mosaic of all [his] small novels” takes on greater resonance. Viewed together his romans durs map out of universe of drab, unremarkable lives; of little people going about their business, tortured by petty resentments, regrets and feelings of worthlessness. His characters are most often those people who you would not give a second glance to in the street. The man in the shabby suit standing alone at the end of a bar; the secretary who silently tolerates her boss’s sexual advances; the clerical worker too afraid to ask for a pay rise. These are the bit part players in life, but Simenon takes them from the wings, invests them with a rich history and inner life, and places them centre stage.

Félix Allard, the protagonist of The Man with the Little Dog is an archetypal Simenon nobody:

I am just an ordinary man amongst the countless others who are alive, who are being born or are dying, as I write these words.

Allard is 48 years old and works in an antiquarian bookshop owned by a bedridden former brothel-keeper, Mme Annelet. He lives in a small apartment in Rue des Arquebusiers in Paris with his only companion, his dog Bib. His life is one of dreary routine and as we meet him, he is contemplating ending his life:

All these movements performed every day at the same time, mean nothing at all, I know, to most people; they take on the gravity of a ritual for a man living alone with his dog, particularly if that man, after weighing the pros and cons and after mature consideration, has decided to pack it up.

The novel consists of two notebooks in which he has decided to write an account of his life. We learn that he has been in prison for an (until the final pages) unspecified crime and is estranged from his wife. He observes his wife and children from a distance, taking some sort of vicarious pleasure from seeing them, but this habit only emphasises his status as an outcast. He is no longer someone who takes part in life; he is a mere onlooker. He describes his experience of the world on leaving prison:

 I understood [that] I no longer looked at things and people in the same way . . . I saw men and women, faces and hands, trolleys, luggage, trucks standing on the lines, lilacs in bloom in a garden; I heard sounds and voices; I recognised the smell of sandwiches, of beer drawn from the barrel, of wine and alcohol. But I stayed detached from it all. It was all something outside me and it did not concern me.

All this – the present tense of the novel – is described in with Simenon’s customary observational skill. Allard’s relationship with Bib is uncharacteristically sentimental and touching. If the novel has a fault it is that Allard’s past life – he was the head of a successful building firm, mixing in high society – does not quite gel with the man he has become. That said the ending achieves a certain poignancy, managing to be both sad and vaguely optimistic. The Man with the Little Dog is, in itself, a minor novel, but seen as part of Simenon great mosaic, it achieves a certain profundity. Félix Allard is the kind of character most writers would pass over in a couple of lines, but Simenon invests him with a degree of dignity and pathos which is deeply humane.


L’homme au petit chien was first published 1964. Hamish Hamilton edition published 1965. Translated by Jean Stewart. Also included in the Fourth Simenon Omnibus (Penguin 1971)


The Cat

the cat2The premise of The Cat might have come from a Samuel Beckett play. A septuagenarian couple, Emile and Marguerite Bouin pass their days in their Paris apartment waiting for each other to die. They have not spoken to each other for years, instead exchanging unpleasant little notes written on scraps of paper. Emile accuses his wife of poisoning his beloved cat (we never find out if she did), while she reminds him of how he killed her parrot, which, now stuffed, presides over the dismal proceedings of their life together. They sit silently in their respective chairs; they shop for their own food; they cook separate meals; they sleep in separate beds. Their existence is one of unrelieved routine and stagnation. They are like Hamm and Clov, only less affectionate:

Hamm: Why do you stay with me?

Clov: Why do you keep me?

Hamm: There’s no one else.

Clov: There’s nowhere else. (Endgame)

But unlike Beckett’s duo, Emile and Marguerite’s marriage is a prison of their own making. There is nothing to stop either of them leaving, neither has the will to do so. Simenon rarely shows marriage in a positive light, but this is perhaps his most bitter portrait. If there is humour it is (again like Beckett) of the blackest sort:

‘Would I be unhappy if she died?’                                                                                                                               No! Not sad. Not unhappy. Perhaps he would miss her. He did not like people to die. It was not because he liked them, but rather because he dreaded death.

But this is not Beckett. It is Simenon, and as such we gradually learn more about how the wretched couple have come to be together (the past always bears down upon the present). Marguerite comes from a wealthy family and was previously married to a renowned musician. She owns property and has the airs to go with it. Emile, by contrast, was a builder, whose previous marriage was to the happy-go-lucky Angèle. Both are widowed and they have re-married only out fear of being alone. The marriage has never even been properly consummated:

Things had not worked out. They were both intimidated and had the impression that at their age the gestures that they made so awkwardly were ridiculous, that they were a kind of parody.

And indeed, their whole marriage is a  dismal parody of a relationship. As things deteriorate, Emile begins to return to his old builder’s habits. He visits Nelly, an obliging café owner, who is always happy to take a customer into her kitchen for a quick knee-trembler. There he can relax. Nelly does not judge him. Eventually he packs a suitcase and moves into a room above the café. It is a brief taste of happiness. Emile is reaching for a lifeline, but it is obvious he will never quite get hold of it. Marguerite begins to appear, like a ghost, on the pavement outside the café. After a couple of weeks’ resistance, he returns home, ‘walking mechanically, with his head down, like an old horse returning to stable.’

Even by Simenon’s standards The Cat is short, about 130 pages. Nevertheless, it is not without its longueurs, something that would probably be hard avoid when delineating such tedious lives. But it is worth persevering. As the novel opens out from the claustrophobia of the Bouins’ apartment, we are offered the prospect of some kind of redemption, at least for Emile. It is this glimpsed possibility that makes the denouement as bleak as anything in Beckett, or elsewhere in Simenon. No matter, it seems, how grim one’s marriage, the alternative of facing life alone is worse.


Le Chat was first published in 1967. Translated by Bernard Frechtman, included in the Ninth Simenon Omnibus (Penguin 1976)



Strange Inheritance

StrangeInheritance2A penniless orphan arrives in a small fishing port and finds he is the sole heir to the town’s business empire. A rich young man marries a factory girl, then falls in love with his uncle’s widow. A double-locked safe contains the secrets of a town’s well-heeled families. A woman is arrested on suspicion of poisoning her husband. The bored wife of a wealthy businessman has an affair with the family doctor.

Any one of these plot lines would more than suffice for an entire Simenon novel, yet they are all part of the tapestry of Strange Inheritance. The cast of characters, too, is larger than most of Simenon’s books, but bigger is not necessarily better. Which is not to say that Strange Inheritance is a bad book – it isn’t – but while it is about 25% longer than the average roman dur, the extra length still isn’t sufficient to adequately explore the various narrative strands. It has the feel of a sprawling family saga, but not the stamina. It’s as if Simenon wanted to break free of his single character study formula, but not of his punishing eleven day writing schedule.

But there’s still plenty of good stuff here. Nineteen-year-old, Gilles Mauvoisin, son of travelling entertainers who have asphyxiated due to a faulty stove, arrives as a stowaway in the south-western port of La Rochelle, and it is through his eyes that we are introduced to the milieu and characters of the town: the gargantuan Raoul Babin holding court in a little bar, his whiskers stained into an ‘amber halo’ by the endless cigars he smokes; Jaja, the maternal, bulging café-owner, her stockings secured with red string, who plies everyone with cider and herrings. And there, the horse-faced Veuve Eloi in her ship-chandler’s shop crammed with anchors, rope and barrels of tar, with its ‘agreeable, complicated smell.’

But while Gilles seeks nothing more than a cheap room in the home town he has rarely seen, when it is discovered that he is the sole heir to his Uncle Octave’s fortune, he is quickly drawn into the byzantine world of the well-to-do Mauvoisin clan.

The best thing about Strange Inheritance is its vivid evocation of the sight and sounds of La Rochelle, a town which, according to Pierre Assouline, features in eighteen of Simenon’s works.[1] We are presented not only with a portrait of the a bustling port, but also of a town in the grip of a cabal of wealthy families, yoked together by the information held in Uncle Octave’s safe. Some of the writing is brilliantly precise and shrewd:

[Monsieur Rinquet] was tall and flabby. More than anything else, he was dull. He belonged to . . . the race of men who derive their satisfaction in life – sometimes tinged with bitterness – from the consciousness of their own servitude to others.

And with that, Rinquet’s entire existence is nailed. Simenon’s novel’s are full of such ‘little men’, both subservient and resentful, their lives often disturbed by a chance event or sudden act of rebellion.[2]

And there are fine set pieces. The scene of Gilles’ strained wedding party at a humble country inn seethes with awkwardness:

As a hotel the place had no pretensions at all, but its food had a reputation throughout the district. From the tap room came the voices of fishermen ordering their glasses of white wine. […] On the table were oysters, clams and shrimps, and a warm odour of mouclade drifted in from the kitchen. Yet, the forks were of cheap metal and the crockery chipped.

[…] This solemn day was really quite stupid and commonplace. In the sacristy, when in front of everybody [Gilles] had kissed his wife for the first time, he had hoped for some little quiver of her hand, a tremor of her lips, a sign of moisture in her eyes. Nothing of the sort!

This has all the pathos of a scene from Madame Bovary, and it makes you wish Simenon had placed nothing more than the disintegration of Gilles’ marriage under his microscope, but, as it is, the addition of the multiple storylines only serves to muddy the waters. Taken as whole, then, Strange Inheritance is a little unsatisfying – there’s too much going on, too many characters – but the pleasures to be had along the way make it well worth reading.


First published as Le voyageur de la Toussaint in 1941. Pan Books edition, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury, 1958.


[1] Pierre Assouline, Simenon: A Biography p.165

[2] One thinks, for example, of Emile Virieu in The Glass Cage, Charles Dupeux in Uncle Charles or Kees Popinga in The Man who Watched Trains Go By

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015

The Magician

MagicianThe original title of The Magician was Antoine et Julie. It’s a significant change, shifting the focus from the relationship to the individual, now identified not by name but by profession. But this is very much a novel about a relationship, or rather about two relationships: firstly, that of 55-year-old Antoine to his wife, and, secondly, that of his relationship with alcohol.

The Magician is a novel of tiny incidents, minutely dissected, rather than momentous events. The first fifty pages relate a single night and its aftermath. Antoine performs his hackneyed act at a suburban theatre. During a trick, he catches a whiff of beer on the breath of an audience member. This is the ‘trigger’ for all else that follows:

To be sure, there had been no decision as such. At that moment his firm resolution had been to resist … But there exists another kind of knowledge besides that one, more profound, though harder to express.

After the show, Antoine refuses a glass of Calvados, but his public show of abstemiousness is a sham. He is already, even without admitting it to himself, plotting his binge. It begins with a quick brandy while he waits for his bus. At the moment of paying, he asks for another and gulps it down. Then before he catches the metro home, he decides he needs a beer, something to take away the taste of the brandy. ‘

This was the worst moment … when he was still clear in his mind, when he was still putting up a fight, despising himself for not having more willpower.

He resists a second beer, but only because the brasserie he is in is too grand, too public. Instead, he makes for a neighbourhood dive where ‘the counter is still made of zinc, the light a dingy yellow.’ Here the flotsam of the Paris night get shamelessly sozzled. Now there is no pretence. Antoine knows why he is there. He knocks back a couple of brandies and buys a drink for a prostitute. Then the final bar, which has the atmosphere of a railway station waiting room. There is a wire scaffold on the counter, holding hard-boiled eggs. It is this, reflects Antoine, that his wife could never understand, not the hard-boiled egg politely eaten in a salad or on a picnic, but ‘the ones you devour at four o’clock in the morning, your hands blue with cold, your feet sore, after having counted the last coins in your pocket, among people who smell like sick animals.’

Antoine spots a fellow drinker at the bar, well-dressed and of a similar age, his hand trembling as he clutches his glass. On his lapel is the red rosette of the Legion of Honour. The fellow is ashamed to be there and Antoine, by now full of alcohol-induced bonhomie, wishes he could give him a ‘brotherly slap’ on the back and reassure him. Later when he glances back at his cohort, he has surreptitiously removed his rosette.

All this – Antoine’s self-deluding descent into inebriation; the ambience and characters of the seedy bars of the Paris night – is brilliantly evoked. Simenon reveals everything through the delineation of detail (the hard-boiled eggs, the discreet removal of the rosette) without recourse to any narrational commentary. It is writing of the highest order.

Then eventually for Antoine, it is home to embark on a two hour diatribe telling the supine Julie what he really thinks of her, before spending what is left of the night buckled over the toilet bowl. And afterwards, of course, morning, when the self-loathing sets in.

Julie is in poor health and rarely ventures further than the neighbourhood shops. She forgives Antoine his lapse and does what she can (makes soup) to cajole him back to himself. They tiptoe around each waiting for the moment when things are normal between them. Antoine both resents and loves Julie, or at least feels tenderly towards her. Julie for her part (although the novel is told entirely from Antoine’s point-of-view) loves and pities Antoine and is entirely dependent on him.

The remainder of the novel tells the story of Antoine’s struggles to stay off the booze. In the run up to Christmas he manages thirteen dry days, but, ‘All this time he had lived a muted life, without heartbreak and without joy, which he compared to the limbo of his catechism.’ This muffled existence comes to a spectacular end. Of course, we know that Antoine will go off the rails – temptation is everywhere and he never really, truly wants to resist – but when he does so, it is in a cruel and hateful way, made all the more powerful by the fact that the following day Julie, as she always does, forgives him.

Is The Magician a great novel? Certainly it is not the most gripping of Simenon’s works, but the relationship between Antoine and Julie is complex and subtly delineated. And as a novel about the corrosive nature of alcoholism, it is as good as anything I’ve read. It’s also crammed with telling observation (this being the milieu in which Simenon is at his best) and at certain moments achieves real emotional impact. So, yes, a great novel, but a minor one.

*  *  *  *  *

First published in France as Antoine et Julie, 1953. Published in the UK in the Twelfth Simenon Omnibus, 1974. Translated by Helen Sebba

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015

The Brothers Rico

001The remarkable thing about Simenon’s output is less the huge number of novels and the speed at which they were written, than the consistently high quality of his prose and his seemingly inexhaustible well of characters and observations. Nevertheless, among 185 novels there is bound to be the odd dud and The Brothers Rico is one of those.

There is nothing wrong with the set-up. Eddie Rico is the middle of three brothers, born into the Brooklyn underworld. He has moved to Florida and set himself up as a racketeer, big enough to be a local player, but not powerful enough to ruffle the feathers of the real big-shots. Eddie has a nice house, a nice wife, two nice daughters and craves nothing more than the respectability of being invited to join the local country club. He might as well be a book-keeper or a car salesman, but he has been born into crime, and this being Simenon, he cannot escape his origins.

Eddie’s younger brother Tony has disappeared with his new bride and is suspected of having betrayed the Organization by talking to outsiders about its activities. Eddie is tasked with tracking him down. There is no question of him refusing. His guiding principle is that one must always ‘follow the rule’, by which he means slavishly respecting the hierarchy and diktats of the Organization – even if this means bringing about the demise of his own brother. This is all quite promising, but Eddie is not a character given to introspection and, as such, the moral dilemma in which he finds himself never takes on any real resonance. There is little sense of jeopardy or internal conflict. In Simenon’s best work the narrative unfolds from a single incident, triggered by an action or fatal flaw of the protagonist, but here the events are outwith Eddie’s control and as such he never seems fully involved. He is simply pulled along on a tide of external events.

Similarly, the odyssey Eddie undertakes to find his brother, from Florida to Washington State, New York and then – via a tedious series of flights – to California, never sparks into life. His encounters with the characters he meets along the way are unconvincing, and the descriptions of the various locations are colourless: a neighbourhood restaurant in Brooklyn is ‘a kind of long narrow hallway, with a counter and a few booths, serving hotdogs, hamburgers and spaghetti . . . Behind the counter, two cooks in soiled uniforms were working at the electric stoves. Waitresses in black dresses and white aprons were rushing back and forth.’ At the airport in Tuscon, ‘Most of the men … were wearing light-coloured cowboy hats and tight-fitting pants. Many were of the Mexican type.’

This is the sort of workaday stuff you might find in a tourist brochure, lacking Simenon’s usual eye for the telling detail that brings a scene to life. It’s a problem which crops up quite frequently in Simenon’s American novels, as if, adrift from his native environment, he is unable distinguish between what is mundane and what is noteworthy. It’s hard to imagine him writing such sluggish descriptions of a bar in Liège, Nice or Le Havre.

Following a visit to Simenon at his then home in Connecticut, the publisher Maurice Dumoncel read Les Frères Rico on the train home. It felt, he wrote, ‘like a translation of an American novel.’* While it must be said in mitigation that the Four Square Press edition is ill-served by a very clunky translation, he is spot on. In accordance with the novel’s underworld milieu, Simenon adopts a kind of hard-boiled vernacular which feels contrived and phoney. Lines like, ‘It was now six months since Carmine had stopped those five slugs of lead,’ seem parachuted in from another writer’s work. Similarly, the choice of character names – Boston Phil, Mike La Motte, etc – feel like they are lifted from the corniest pulp novel. Like so much in The Brothers Rico, they just don’t ring true. Simenon himself rated the novel highly, but this, I’m afraid, is one to file under ‘Completionists Only’.

* * * * *

Les Frères Rico first published in 1952. Four Square Press edition, translated by Ernst Pawel, first published 1957.

* Quoted in Pierre Assouline, Simenon, p.283

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


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.