When 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)