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