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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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