Double Barrel / Nicolas Freeling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

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

Tropic Moon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * *

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

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

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2014

The Lodger

The LodgerThe snow had melted. Fields and forests were black as ink. The whole visible world was saturated with moisture, exuding a cold, dank vapour.

The backdrop to The Lodger is a dismal, wintry Belgium. First Brussels, then the bleak mining town of Charleroi, where the protagonist, Elias Nagear, holes up in a dreary boarding house to evade capture after committing a brutal murder.

André Gide, although finding it monotonous, was an admirer, seeing in it, ‘no better portrait, no better dialogue . . . [and] a psychological value, a sort of depth and weight that join it to the best of Simenon’s narratives.’[*]

However, whatever its other virtues, the novel suffers from an irredeemable flaw. At the beginning of the book, Nagear, a thirty-five-year-old Turkish fly-by-night who finds himself down on his luck in Brussels, murders a Dutch businessman on a train and steals his suitcase of money. Simenon goes out of his way to emphasise the cold-blooded nature of his protagonist. After striking the first blow to the Dutchman’s skull with a heavy spanner:

What happened next was so grotesque that he felt like breaking into hysterical laughter . . . Elias struck again, twice, three times, ten times, infuriated by those mild insensate eyes staring up at him. He stopped only when his arm grew tired and he hadn’t the strength to raise [the spanner] again.

A few minutes later, Nagear is quite able to fall asleep in the toilet cubicle of the train; and, having made good his escape, Simenon reminds us that, ‘Not once in all the day had he given a thought to the late Van der Boomp.’

So here we have our hero – opportunistic, brutal, remorseless.

Nagear then takes refuge in the Charleroi boarding house run by his mistress’s mother, Madame Baron. The rest of the novel concerns the life and atmosphere among the inhabitants of the cramped, damp house. This is evoked with Simenon’s customary skill and economy, through the daily routine of drudgery; the perpetual whistling of the kettle on the range steaming up the windows of the kitchen; the sound of the clock ‘ticking for its own benefit alone’; the assortment of boarders gathering for their evening meal: ‘Like an orchestra tuning up, there began a confused, steadily increasing noise, the rattle of knives and forks on plates, the chink of glasses.’

Nagear’s presence in the household causes resentment among the boarders. He pays more rent and is thus entitled to bacon and eggs for breakfast and cutlets for dinner, while they eat bread and butter from their personal biscuit tins. But for the same reason, Mme Baron takes a maternal shine to him. However, it is as the various members of the household realise the identity of the newcomer that the flaw in the book becomes apparent: not one of them even contemplates giving him up to the police. Mme Baron at first asks him to leave, but when he does not do so, life continues as before, albeit in an increasingly strained atmosphere. Even when the police finally surround the house Mme Baron’s only reaction is to wonder if there anything she can do to aid Nagear’s escape. Were Nagear a charismatic or charming individual, this might be less unconvincing, but he is not. He is irritating and pompous, continually boasting about the virtues of his native country. Nor does his behaviour in the household tally with the brutal murderer Simenon portrays at the beginning of the novel (at one point he thrashes around on his bed crying for his mother). There is a general lack of plausibility, although less in the portrayal of the individual characters than in their relations to one another.

So for all the snippets of fine writing, the climax, when it comes, does not achieve the poignancy it strives for. The Lodger was written in 1934 and belongs to the earliest period of Simenon’s romans durs. Interestingly it shares some of its flaws of characterisation and narrative expediency with another novel featuring a Turkish protagonist The Window over the Way of 1933. It is thus hard to see in the psychological depth perceived by Gide, or to agree that this ranks among the ‘best of Simenon’s narratives.’


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 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 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

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