Back in April 2015 I read Simenon’s Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, a fictionalised account of the author’s impassioned love affair with Denise Ouimet, a woman he met in Manhattan in 1945. Even though Three Bedrooms was somewhat atypical of Simenon’s work, it gave me a taste for his romans durs (or ‘hard’ psychological novels). With that in mind, I’ve been looking forward to trying another ever since.
First published in 1942, The Widow is one of the few books by Simenon to feature a strong woman at the heart of its narrative. The woman in question is Tati Couderc, a forty-five-year-old widowed peasant who runs a farm close to St. Amand in the Bourbonnais region of France. Having outlived her husband, she now shares the farmhouse with her father-in-law and owner of the farm, old Couderc. Tati is unattractive, unkempt and somewhat rough around the edges, but she is also sharp and as tough as old boots.
As the novel opens, Tati is taking the bus home from market when a young drifter, Jean, boards the vehicle. Unlike the other passengers on the bus, Tati sees something different in Jean, something the others simply do not notice. She sees that he has nothing on him, no ties and no obvious direction either. It’s as if she figures him out in an instant.
…but all the same she did not take her eyes off him, and she took note of everything—his stubbly cheeks, his pale unseeing eyes, his gray suit, worn yet having a touch of ease about it, his thin shoes. A man who could walk noiselessly and spring like a cat. And who, after the seven francs fifty he had given to the driver in exchange for a blue ticket, probably had no money left in his pockets. […]
Widow Couderc too hugged a secret smile. The man blinked slightly. It was rather as if, in the midst of all these old women with their nodding heads, the two had recognized each other. (pgs. 6-7, NYRB Classics)
When Tati gets off the bus laden with packages, Jean follows shortly afterwards and gives her a hand carrying everything back to the farm. Keen to take possession of this young man, Tati offers him some work on the farm – in any case she needs a hand running the place as her father-in-law is old, deaf and a little senile. When Jean reveals that he has just been released from prison for the murder of a man, Tati does not seem in the least surprised – ‘It was as if she had guessed it already.’ With nothing else on the horizon, Jean falls in with the plan and promptly beds down in the loft.
Her eyes were eating him up. She was taking possession of him. She wasn’t afraid. She wanted him to understand that she wasn’t afraid of him. (pgs. 14-15)
And always that little glance in which he could read satisfaction, even a kind of promise, but a slight reservation as well. She was not distrustful. Only, she still needed to watch him for a time. (pg. 23)
A few days later Jean and Tati end up in bed together. Even so, there is no real passion or romance here – it’s all much more functional than that. And while Tati is happy to have sex with Jean, she must also service old Couderc’s sexual needs every now and again just to keep him sweet.
As the story progresses, two developments come together to create a sense of tension and conflict in the narrative. The first of these stems from the introduction of old Couderc’s daughters into the mix. Daughter number one, Françoise, lives next door to the farm; as such she is perfectly positioned to keep watch on developments when Jean arrives on the scene. However, the real brains of the outfit is daughter number two, Amélie, who, on hearing about Jean’s past, descends on the farmhouse with her husband and young son in tow. Both daughters are deeply resentful of Tati’s position on the farm—they have never liked her ever since she arrived as a young servant at the age of fourteen. With a murderer now living in their midst, the daughters are worried that Tati might be plotting to do away with old Couderc. If truth be told, they would like nothing more than to find a means of evicting the widow; after all, their inheritance might be at stake. Here’s Amélie as she confronts Tati.
“You see, I know what you’re up to. It’s no accident that this man’s here. One fine morning you’ll get Father—God knows how—to sign a paper. Then he’ll have to be disposed of before he can change his mind. Go on, admit it! Admit that from the first day you stepped in here, when we were still only kids, you decided you would take over. Our poor brother was properly fooled. You were already as perverted as could be. […]” (pg. 48)
The second development involves Françoise’s daughter, Félicie, an alluring sixteen-year-old who lives with her parents in the house next door. Jean is clearly attracted to Félicie as he watches her playing with her baby in the grass. (There is no sign of a husband or a father of the child on the scene.) At first, Félicie keeps her distance from Jean (teasing him, perhaps), but as the narrative progresses her attitude softens, and she moves a little closer.
As she had bidden him good night, she would bid him good morning. She was not altogether tamed yet, but she was beginning to trace ever-narrowing circles around him. (pg 107)
From the very first chapter, it is plainly obvious that Tati has taken a deep dislike to Félicie, whom she considers ‘a little slut’ – in all honesty, she is jealous of the young girl. Concerned that something might be brewing between Jean and Félicie, Tati insists on keeping a close eye on developments. She watches Jean like a hawk, questioning him on his movements and interactions as he goes about his work on the farm. Jean, on the other hand, can think of little else but the prospect of Félicie. He carries her image in his mind: the fullness of her lip, the curve of her body as she carries the baby on her arm…
That’s about as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot, save to say that circumstances and events conspire to force a dramatic denouement. This is a first-rate slice of noir from Simenon, just as dark and disturbing as its cover suggests. The style is spare yet very effective with the author carefully modulating the tension as the story unfolds. There is a palpable sense of foreboding from a fairly early stage in the narrative and if anything this feeling only grows as we move closer to the final chapters. Memories of Jean’s trial for murder some five years earlier echo and reverberate through the novella, and we learn a little more about the young man’s backstory along the way.
In his excellent introduction to the NYRB Classics edition, Paul Theroux compares and contrasts The Widow with another novella published in France in 1942, Camus’ L’Étranger (The Outsider/The Stranger). Interestingly, the French author and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, André Gide considered The Widow to be the superior book. Each of these novellas features a remorseless young man cast adrift from society. In Simenon’s work there is a sense that Jean operates in a bit of a vacuum—none of his actions seem to hold any real weight or significance. There are other similarities too including the focus on bright sunlight, a motif that runs through The Widow. I’ll finish with a couple of quotes to illustrate this point. The second of these also gives a brief feel for Simenon’s descriptions of the Bourbonnais countryside, the tranquil environment that forms the backdrop to this powerful story of greed, resentment, jealousy and desire.
Sunrays as sharp as the beams from a searchlight slanted in through the window with its small panes. (pg. 31)
The grass was a dark green, the water almost black. In contrast, the newborn foliage of the chestnuts was tender and the sunshine splashed it with large daubs of gold. (pg. 29)
The Widow is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.