Émile Virieu, 44, is a proof-reader for a 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