Graeme Macrae Burnet

The Blue Room

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How 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 nil plus ultra of this tendency is perhaps The Cat (1967).

 

 

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