The Man with the Little Dog

manwithlittledog (2)aWhen 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.

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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)

 

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The Cat

the cat2The premise of The Cat might have come from a Samuel Beckett play. A septuagenarian couple, Emile and Marguerite Bouin pass their days in their Paris apartment waiting for each other to die. They have not spoken to each other for years, instead exchanging unpleasant little notes written on scraps of paper. Emile accuses his wife of poisoning his beloved cat (we never find out if she did), while she reminds him of how he killed her parrot, which, now stuffed, presides over the dismal proceedings of their life together. They sit silently in their respective chairs; they shop for their own food; they cook separate meals; they sleep in separate beds. Their existence is one of unrelieved routine and stagnation. They are like Hamm and Clov, only less affectionate:

Hamm: Why do you stay with me?

Clov: Why do you keep me?

Hamm: There’s no one else.

Clov: There’s nowhere else. (Endgame)

But unlike Beckett’s duo, Emile and Marguerite’s marriage is a prison of their own making. There is nothing to stop either of them leaving, neither has the will to do so. Simenon rarely shows marriage in a positive light, but this is perhaps his most bitter portrait. If there is humour it is (again like Beckett) of the blackest sort:

‘Would I be unhappy if she died?’                                                                                                                               No! Not sad. Not unhappy. Perhaps he would miss her. He did not like people to die. It was not because he liked them, but rather because he dreaded death.

But this is not Beckett. It is Simenon, and as such we gradually learn more about how the wretched couple have come to be together (the past always bears down upon the present). Marguerite comes from a wealthy family and was previously married to a renowned musician. She owns property and has the airs to go with it. Emile, by contrast, was a builder, whose previous marriage was to the happy-go-lucky Angèle. Both are widowed and they have re-married only out fear of being alone. The marriage has never even been properly consummated:

Things had not worked out. They were both intimidated and had the impression that at their age the gestures that they made so awkwardly were ridiculous, that they were a kind of parody.

And indeed, their whole marriage is a  dismal parody of a relationship. As things deteriorate, Emile begins to return to his old builder’s habits. He visits Nelly, an obliging café owner, who is always happy to take a customer into her kitchen for a quick knee-trembler. There he can relax. Nelly does not judge him. Eventually he packs a suitcase and moves into a room above the café. It is a brief taste of happiness. Emile is reaching for a lifeline, but it is obvious he will never quite get hold of it. Marguerite begins to appear, like a ghost, on the pavement outside the café. After a couple of weeks’ resistance, he returns home, ‘walking mechanically, with his head down, like an old horse returning to stable.’

Even by Simenon’s standards The Cat is short, about 130 pages. Nevertheless, it is not without its longueurs, something that would probably be hard avoid when delineating such tedious lives. But it is worth persevering. As the novel opens out from the claustrophobia of the Bouins’ apartment, we are offered the prospect of some kind of redemption, at least for Emile. It is this glimpsed possibility that makes the denouement as bleak as anything in Beckett, or elsewhere in Simenon. No matter, it seems, how grim one’s marriage, the alternative of facing life alone is worse.

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Le Chat was first published in 1967. Translated by Bernard Frechtman, included in the Ninth Simenon Omnibus (Penguin 1976)

 

 

The Magician

MagicianThe original title of The Magician was Antoine et Julie. It’s a significant change, shifting the focus from the relationship to the individual, now identified not by name but by profession. But this is very much a novel about a relationship, or rather about two relationships: firstly, that of 55-year-old Antoine to his wife, and, secondly, that of his relationship with alcohol.

The Magician is a novel of tiny incidents, minutely dissected, rather than momentous events. The first fifty pages relate a single night and its aftermath. Antoine performs his hackneyed act at a suburban theatre. During a trick, he catches a whiff of beer on the breath of an audience member. This is the ‘trigger’ for all else that follows:

To be sure, there had been no decision as such. At that moment his firm resolution had been to resist … But there exists another kind of knowledge besides that one, more profound, though harder to express.

After the show, Antoine refuses a glass of Calvados, but his public show of abstemiousness is a sham. He is already, even without admitting it to himself, plotting his binge. It begins with a quick brandy while he waits for his bus. At the moment of paying, he asks for another and gulps it down. Then before he catches the metro home, he decides he needs a beer, something to take away the taste of the brandy. ‘

This was the worst moment … when he was still clear in his mind, when he was still putting up a fight, despising himself for not having more willpower.

He resists a second beer, but only because the brasserie he is in is too grand, too public. Instead, he makes for a neighbourhood dive where ‘the counter is still made of zinc, the light a dingy yellow.’ Here the flotsam of the Paris night get shamelessly sozzled. Now there is no pretence. Antoine knows why he is there. He knocks back a couple of brandies and buys a drink for a prostitute. Then the final bar, which has the atmosphere of a railway station waiting room. There is a wire scaffold on the counter, holding hard-boiled eggs. It is this, reflects Antoine, that his wife could never understand, not the hard-boiled egg politely eaten in a salad or on a picnic, but ‘the ones you devour at four o’clock in the morning, your hands blue with cold, your feet sore, after having counted the last coins in your pocket, among people who smell like sick animals.’

Antoine spots a fellow drinker at the bar, well-dressed and of a similar age, his hand trembling as he clutches his glass. On his lapel is the red rosette of the Legion of Honour. The fellow is ashamed to be there and Antoine, by now full of alcohol-induced bonhomie, wishes he could give him a ‘brotherly slap’ on the back and reassure him. Later when he glances back at his cohort, he has surreptitiously removed his rosette.

All this – Antoine’s self-deluding descent into inebriation; the ambience and characters of the seedy bars of the Paris night – is brilliantly evoked. Simenon reveals everything through the delineation of detail (the hard-boiled eggs, the discreet removal of the rosette) without recourse to any narrational commentary. It is writing of the highest order.

Then eventually for Antoine, it is home to embark on a two hour diatribe telling the supine Julie what he really thinks of her, before spending what is left of the night buckled over the toilet bowl. And afterwards, of course, morning, when the self-loathing sets in.

Julie is in poor health and rarely ventures further than the neighbourhood shops. She forgives Antoine his lapse and does what she can (makes soup) to cajole him back to himself. They tiptoe around each waiting for the moment when things are normal between them. Antoine both resents and loves Julie, or at least feels tenderly towards her. Julie for her part (although the novel is told entirely from Antoine’s point-of-view) loves and pities Antoine and is entirely dependent on him.

The remainder of the novel tells the story of Antoine’s struggles to stay off the booze. In the run up to Christmas he manages thirteen dry days, but, ‘All this time he had lived a muted life, without heartbreak and without joy, which he compared to the limbo of his catechism.’ This muffled existence comes to a spectacular end. Of course, we know that Antoine will go off the rails – temptation is everywhere and he never really, truly wants to resist – but when he does so, it is in a cruel and hateful way, made all the more powerful by the fact that the following day Julie, as she always does, forgives him.

Is The Magician a great novel? Certainly it is not the most gripping of Simenon’s works, but the relationship between Antoine and Julie is complex and subtly delineated. And as a novel about the corrosive nature of alcoholism, it is as good as anything I’ve read. It’s also crammed with telling observation (this being the milieu in which Simenon is at his best) and at certain moments achieves real emotional impact. So, yes, a great novel, but a minor one.

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First published in France as Antoine et Julie, 1953. Published in the UK in the Twelfth Simenon Omnibus, 1974. Translated by Helen Sebba

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015

One Way Out

One Way OutIn their most passionate moments . . . her body was taught and quivering like a stretched wire, her pupils rigid as a sleepwalkers.

One Way Out tells the story of a doomed relationship between Bachelin, a hot-headed young clerk, and Juliette, the seventeen-year-old daughter of a comfortably bourgeois cashier in the provincial town of Nevers.

When we first encounter the young couple, they are locked in an ardent clinch, ‘the warmth of each other’s body seeping through rain-drenched clothes.’ Yet, as in many other Simenon novels, the basis of the couple’s attraction is a mystery. Bachelin is wholly unlikeable; moody, aggressive and selfish. For much of the novel we learn little about Juliette. She seems devoid of personality, entirely passive; spending her days on piano practice and needle-craft. When she agrees to run off to Paris with the young lout, we can only assume that he represents an escape from the stultifying bourgeois atmosphere at home and the suffocating doting of her father. This very passivity is perhaps what attracts Bachelin to her. He does not want someone who will stand up to him, or question his erratic behaviour. But from their very first day in Paris, the balance of their relationship begins to alter. On returning to their grubby hotel room Bachelin is disturbed to find that Juliette is out of bed: ‘Amazing girl! On her own initiative, she had ventured down the stairs and tackled the manageress in her den . . . and got what she wanted.’ It is the first sign that Juliette is not as docile as Bachelin has assumed. ‘He was utterly despondent . . . Things were turning out differently from his expectation.’

The novel alternates between Bachelin’s point of view of and that of Juliette’s father, who has come to Paris to find her and bring her home. It is only towards the end of the novel that Juliette moves centre stage and the reader gains access to her thoughts. She is, we discover, every bit as detached – sociopathic even – as Bachelin; incapable of expressing any emotion. On hearing of her mother’s death, she feels nothing: ‘Her mother was a worthy woman with whom she had lived for seventeen years, but whom, when all was said and done, she hardly knew.’

The key passage of the book occurs as Juliette wanders the streets of Paris, having evaded her father’s attempts to track her down:

For a moment it struck her how easy it would be to have done with it and throw herself into the glimmering darkness of the river . . . Suddenly a feeling came to her of the absurdity of the life she was now leading. And for once she gazed with real interest at the faces of the people passing by her . . . Was it possible that any of these men and women had lives resembling hers – at once so drab and so grotesque . . . What was the sense, if any, of her life? . . . She was not in a tragic or even despondent mood. All she felt was an enormous inanition; she went on walking because there was nothing else to do.

It’s a classic description of existential alienation. The novel was written in 1934, eight years before Camus published his essay on the absurd, The Myth of Sisyphus, but the use of the word ‘absurdity’ (italicised in the original) is telling. Simenon was not one for indulging in abstract authorial interventions. In general he describes the actions or thoughts of his characters and allows the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. But here he appears to be leading the reader in a certain interpretive direction. Juliette has reached her situation in life without having made any decisions, without the exercise of any free will. She has simply followed the diktats, first of her father and then of Bachelin. Her existence is entirely meaningless and arbitrary. If she continues walking, it is because the only alternative is suicide.

If the English title hints at what is to come, the original French – Les Suicidés – is even more explicit. In choosing such a title, Simenon demonstrates that he is more interested in drawing our attention to the inevitability of the outcome than in creating any narrative tension. Yet despite his efforts, the climax of the novel in unbearably tense and when it comes, the denouement (at least in Stuart Gilbert’s translation) is highly ambiguous.

One Way Out represents Simenon at his most serious. The characters are unsympathetic and there is little in the way of narrative pleasure; instead it offers a commentary on the arbitrary nature of how we end up where we end up.

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Les Suicidés first published 1934. Published by Penguin along with The Lodger in the volume Escape in Vain, 1952. Translated by Stuart Gilbert.

© Graeme Macrae Burnet 2015

The Girl with a Squint

The Girl with a SquintThe Girl with a Squint is unusual – if not unique – in Simenon in that its central relationship is between two women. The protagonists are Sylvie and Marie (the one with the squint), childhood friends who we first encounter as teenagers in 1922, working the summer season at a seaside pension in Fouras. They plan to earn enough money to go to Paris to make their fortunes.

Sylvie is the dominant one. She is beautiful, worldly and callous. She thinks nothing of undressing in front of the window, enjoying the knowledge that her breasts are on display to the proprietor or to the idiot son of the housekeeper. Marie is naive, submissive and timid; fascinated by Sylvie’s body, but disapproving of her exhibitionism. As a child, Sylvie used to declare to her friend, ‘When I’m rich, you’ll be my maid and you’ll do my hair in the morning.’ But the relationship is more complex than just that of mistress and servant. At times it seems that there is something sexual in Marie’s attachment to Sylvie:

Every evening, she seemed to wait intently for her friend to take off her clothes, and then, blushing as she did so, she would look with small inquisitive eyes at the most intimate parts of Sylvie’s body as if hunting for some sort of mark.

Yet later, when they are obliged to share in a bed in a hotel room in Paris, Marie is faintly repelled by Sylvie’s smell and ‘spends the whole night on the very edge of the bed.’

And it becomes apparent, that although Sylvie is the dominant partner, she needs Marie as much as she needs her – it is as if Sylvie needs her friend to bear witness to her deeds; to act, somewhat, as her conscience.

Female characters in Simenon are generally seen through the eyes of a male protagonist and are sometimes little more than one-dimensional objects of lust. In The Girl with a Squint, however, the tables are turned. Here, the repellent proprietor of the pension, M. Clément, is seen through the eyes of the girls:

He was the most vulgar man they had ever met, even coarser than the drunkards they used to see coming out of the brothel near their home . . . He was small and fat and always perspiring, and had huge, alarming eyes . . . and as soon as [his wife’s] back was turned he’d make a beeline for the maids, panting as he approached them.

It is in Fouras that Sylvie discovers the power her sexuality gives her over men. She entices the idiot Louis to steal some cakes for her on the promise that she will let him touch her breasts, and, later, after she has fucked the proprietor in the cellar, she realises that in his fear that she might tell his wife, he has lost his authority over her.

When the friends reach Paris, Sylvie’s increasing independence and promiscuity create a distance between them. Marie finds work in a modest bistro where she is valued by her employers for her diligence and good humour (she doesn’t mind when the customers call her ‘squint-eye’). When one of the regulars– a modest book-keeper – asks her to the cinema, her naive joy is genuinely touching. It is only when she discovers that Sylvie is sleeping with the book-keeper, her book-keeper, that Marie walks out on her friend.

The action then shifts to 1950. Sylvie is mistress to a wealthy shoe manufacturer, who is on his death bed. She enlists Marie to act as her spy in her lover’s home and ensure that that he does not make a new will (he is leaving everything to her). Sylvie is now a bona fide alcoholic and Marie’s disapproval of her friend’s drinking, lends the relationship something of the same tenor as it had in their youth. The novel ends when the two women take possession of the mansion on Avenue de Foch and without discussion resume their previous roles – the roles designated in Sylvie’s childish fantasy:

Life went on as usual. It was a sluggish, gloomy existence, and rather an unhealthy one. Cruel words were spoken sometimes, when Sylvie had drunk too much, and they would sulk for several days, although this did not stop Marie from combing Sylvie’s hair at length each morning.

At night they lie in bed, ‘listen[ing] intently to each other’s breathing as if they were afraid of losing one another.’

This is Simenon close to the top of his game. The relationship between the two women achieves a certain complexity and is delineated, subtly, through the seemingly inconsequential actions of the characters, and through the words they do not speak as much as than those they do.

Originally published as Marie qui louche in 1951. First published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in 1978. Translated by Helen Thomson.

© 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