The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

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.

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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)

For other perspectives on this book, click here for reviews by Guy and Jose.

The Widow is published by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy.

64 thoughts on “The Widow by Georges Simenon (tr. John Petrie)

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wow! Excellent review Jacqui – this sounds to be one of the darkest Simenons I’ve heard about! Though whatever he writes about, he does write well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, he’s a terrific writer, so good on the psychology of his characters. I loved the darkness in this novel, the slow build up of tension to the denouement. Just right for the long, dark nights of winter – I can’t imagine reading this book in the middle of summer!

      Reply
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  3. MarinaSofia

    You’ve so whetted my appetite! I’ve got a collected edition of Simenon’s romans durs and I’m saving it to savour at some point, as I am sure it will be a delight.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent! This is right up your alley, Marina. I’m sure you’ll enjoy that collection. If only my French language skills were up to scratch…I would love to be able to read Simenon is his original language.

      Reply
      1. MarinaSofia

        I have to say he is one of the clearest users of French that I know (among French writers, who like to waffle on a bit on occasion), so he is relatively easy to read.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          I ought to try reading one in his native language at some point as it might be a good way of brushing up on my somewhat rusty French. I do love the economy in his writing – he seems to convey so much in just a few carefully chosen words.

          Reply
  4. poppypeacockpens

    Great review… in itself – with your interpretation and chosen passages – it evokes such delicious dark undertones. I really like the premise too and feel drawn to Tati, she sounds a brilliant protagonist; definitely ‘another’ one to look out for… yet to read any Simenon, Three Bedrooms is already on my list😊

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Poppy. Even though this is one of the few Simenons to feature a strong female protagonist, I think it’s more representative of his romans durs (‘hard’ novels) than Three Bedrooms. The Widow is much darker than the Manhattan novella, but the latter is still worth reading for its hypnotic mood and atmosphere. One of the things I like about Simenon is his characterisation. He seems to have an innate ability to see into the heart of darkness that lies within these people, and he does it with such skill and economy too. He’s quite a writer.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s funny isn’t it, how our reactions can differ in this way. I read the Camus not so long ago, and while there was much to admire, especially in the structure and the questions it raised about guilt, remorse and justice, I found it somewhat stark for my tastes. It’s hard to put into words, but I much preferred the style of The Widow..something about it really drew me in. It is very disturbing though, probably not for everyone. I recall you saying that you’d read one of his romans durs a few years ago but couldn’t finish it on account of the bleakness. I wondered whether it might have been Dirty Snow (which I’ve yet to read)…

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    The term “hard psychological novels” gets my attention and makes me want to read Simenon. The description of the plat and characters here makes me want to do so more.

    Anti – social young men really do make the basis for some interesting stories.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think Simenon is interested in the psychology of these characters. On the surface, they might be capable of living fairly routine lives until all of a sudden something happens that touches a nerve, some fatal flaw in their internal make-up which prompts an extreme reaction…then it all kicks off. If you’re ever in the mood for something dark, Brian, then Simenon is well worth considering. Most of his books are short and tight, so if you don’t take to him at least you won’t have wasted a lot of time. :)

      Reply
  6. realthog

    I’m another whose appetite has now been well and truly whetted; thanks for a great account, Jacqui. I think I have a copy of this book somewhere, so I really must dig it out.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, John. You think you have it? Excellent news, especially as this is exactly the type of book I would recommend to you! There’s a film adaptation too by the looks of things: The Widow Couderc (La Veuve Couderc), 1971, directed by Pierre Granier-Deferre. Have you seen it by any chance?

      Reply
  7. Gemma

    Tati sounds like a great protagonist. In fact, all of the characters sound interesting. The plot sounds very foreboding; I’m intrigued! Another one for the TBR :)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, Tati’s great. In his introduction to the novella, Paul Theroux describes her as a sort of indestructible peasant woman, hard as nails from all that work on the farm. It’s a shame that Simenon didn’t write a few more books featuring strong female protagonists…on the strength of this one he was pretty good at it.

      Reply
  8. crimeworm

    This sounds really intriguing – I’ll keep an eye out for it. Shockingly, I’ve not read Simenon, despite a couple knocking about. I must remedy that. I worked in a bookshop as a teenager run by an ex-film journalist who enjoyed crime fiction, as did his wife (their library was heaven, and they were very generous with their books.) He always rated Simenon as the best crime writer ever.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you must give him a try, Linda – I think there’s a very strong chance that you’d take to his books. It’s early days for me with Simenon’s romans durs, but this feels like a step up from Three Bedrooms. It’s darker, more disturbing and certainly tighter than the Manhattan novella, and all the better for it in some respects. I do think he’s a great writer, particularly when it comes to characterisation. And he also has a knack for capturing the sense of a place, both the French countryside in this one and the rainy streets of Paris in the Maigret books.

      Reply
      1. crimeworm

        I will try him – I know I bought Pietr The Latvian when they started the re-issues (I had a nice idea of having the full collection, although naturally hadn’t considered where they’d go – there’s over a 100, isn’t there?!) And I grabbed one in the charity shop – although I’m trying to stop buying a second novel by a writer I’ve not yet read, but heard great things about, before reading the first one! A very silly habit. And give up on series within a couple of rubbish books, instead of continuing to buy them religiously – like Patricia Cornwell, for example.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Haha! Yes, I think it’s something like 75 Maigrets in total – you’d need a whole shelf just for those alone! I read the first three or four when Penguin started reissuing them a few years ago and then they just dropped off my radar for some reason. That said, the first few were pretty good, so it’s worth digging out your copy of Pietr The Latvian to see how you get on. Like you, I try to avoid buying a second novel if I’ve not read anything by an author as it’s so easy to get caught out that way. Sometimes it’s just a question of personal tastes – even though a writer might be excellent at what they do, we might not click with their particular style.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s definitely worth a try, just to see how you take to him. The Widow would be a good one to read if you’re in the mood for something bleak and disturbing. Simenon seems to have an ability to see into the heart of darkness in some of these characters and that’s very much what’s on offer here. Alternatively, you could ease yourself in with one of the Maigret books and take it from there? That might be a useful starting point for you.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s good to see NYRB publishing these romans durs, plus Penguin Modern Classics have joined the party with releases such as The Mahe Circle and The Blue Room. Only too happy to link to your review, Guy – I see you as someone with a deep insight into Simenon’s work (the romans durs in particular).

      Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, The Widow was a step up that’s for sure. I really liked the mood and atmosphere of Three Bedrooms and the story itself intrigued me, especially given the connection to Simenon’s relationship with Ouimet, but The Widow was so much tighter. It’s a terrific piece of noir…no wonder you were reminded of Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, it’s definitely worth taking a look at the NYRB Classics range. They publish such an interesting selection of books – I think their list has something for everyone.

      Reply
  9. FictionFan

    Great review! And the book sounds wonderful. I’ve only read a couple of the Maigrets which I quite enjoyed, but wasn’t completely bowled over by. But these ‘romans durs’ sound fabulously dark…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! I have a feeling you might fare better with his romans durs. Deliciously dark is a good way of describing this one…right from the opening chapter you just know that something terrible is going to happen at some point.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent! I’m glad you like the sound of this one. While enjoyed the Maigret novellas I’ve read, The Widow feels as though it’s in a different league. It’s deliciously dark and brooding.

      Reply
  10. lonesomereadereric

    I read The Stranger a long time ago and it didn’t make much of an impression on me. I wonder if it’d have more of one now or if I’d get on with this Simenon novel more. I like your description and the quotes which really set the mood.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s funny…I read the Camus last year, and while there was much to admire, especially in the structure and the questions it raised about guilt, remorse and justice, I found it somewhat stark for my tastes. It’s hard to articulate, but I much preferred the style of The Widow. Simenon’s very good on mood and atmosphere. I’ve noticed that in all the books I’ve read so far, whether it’s the brooding French countryside in this one, the seedy diners of Manhattan in Three Bedrooms or the rainy streets of Paris in the Maigret books.

      Reply
  11. litlove

    I haven’t read any of the romans durs, having just discovered Maigret this past year. But clearly I need to catch up! To think that this was considered a better novel than L’Etranger is quite the recommendation. Excellent review, Jacqui, that gives a very lucid sense of the book. I’ll look out for it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it was really interesting to read about André Gide’s views of The Widow vs. L’Étranger (as per usual for NYRB, the introduction is excellent). There is an existential element to Simenon’s novella, but I read it more as a psychological noir. As a piece of noir fiction, it’s pretty hard to beat. In his review of The Widow, Guy referenced James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, and I can see why that novel came to mind. It’s definitely in that vein.

      Reply
  12. cleopatralovesbooks

    I read quite a few of Simenon’s while I was a teenager but have never returned to them since for some reason, but this, well it sounds just the sort of novel I enjoy – dark and menacing. What a wonderful review Jacqui – it’s going on the wishlist!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great – I think you’d like it, Cleo. Much as I’ve enjoyed reading a few of Pascal Garnier’s novellas in recent years, returning to Simenon has convinced me that he’s in a different league. He’s just so good when it comes to this type of stuff.

      Reply
  13. Scott W

    I think I’m going to pull the French copy of this out of the library and read it right now – and maybe pair it with The Mersault Investigation by Kamel Daoud.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That sounds like an excellent idea, Scott. Maybe you should add the Camus as well if it’s been a while since you last read it? That’s a great idea for a post right there – I look forward to hearing what you make of The Widow (and the Daoud if you go for it)!

      Reply
  14. 1streading

    Maybe I should take a break from the Maigrets (I can’t keep up with Penguin’s publication rate anyway!) and read some of these. The comparison with The Outsider sounds particularly intriguing.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, you’ve done better than I have with the Maigrets – after reading the first three or four I just slipped out of the habit! I think you’d like The Widow – it’s a very effective piece of noir.

      Reply
  15. Emma

    Excellent review, Jacqui.
    Somehow, in that first quote, you understand that Jean hasn’t worn civilian clothes in a while.

    Personnally, I haven’t had the best experience with Simenon so far but I’m not giving up yet.
    This is one of his most famous books, I think. (or maybe it’s because of the film)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Emma. There’s something very telling about that description of Jean, all the elements come together to give a sense of his character and possible backstory. The first chapter is terrific, a masterclass in how to set up a story – you can feel the tension from the get-go.

      I recall your Simenon review from last year – you included one of his novels in your TBR20/PAL20, I think? Glad to hear you’re not giving up on him though. It’s still early days for me, but on the strength of this one I’m keen to try more.

      Reply
  16. Desiree B. Silvage

    I have liked your review, Jacqui. I read this book many years ago, and I agree with you, Simenon manages very well the psychology of the characters, as well as the senses and colours, with the purpose empathizing both protagonist and reader.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed my review, Desiree. It’s funny, isn’t it – even though these characters are troubled in their own individual ways, you still feel for them. As you say, Simenon manages that very well. I love the mood he creates.

      Reply
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  18. Max Cairnduff

    It does sound very interesting, and better than Three Bedrooms (though that does continue to tempt me). I am much more tempted by these than his Simenons, though admittedly that may just be because there are so very many Simenon novels…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      This is the better of the two for sure, and I’m fairly confident you’d like it. It’s more of a noir than Three Bedrooms, although the latter is still worth reading for an insight into Simenon’s relationship with Denise Ouimet. Pus the Manhattan novel is very strong on mood and atmosphere, like an Edward Hopper painting in literary form.

      The Maigrets are fine, useful palate-cleansers if you’re looking for something to whip through in between heavier reads, but I wonder if they might become a little unsatisfying after a while. And you’re right in saying that there are so many of them, something like 75 in total! I’ve read the first three or four, but that’s probably it for now. I’m more interested in the romans durs – it’s the darkness, I think.

      Reply
  19. Annabel Gaskell (@gaskella)

    I’ve not heard of this one but it sounds irresistible – onto the wishlist it goes. I’d recommend you try Dirty Snow next of the romans durs. It’s very noir and has one of the nastiest most amoral antiheroes I’ve ever read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, excellent! I have Dirty Snow. That’s my next Simenon sorted, then. I couldn’t resist the cover – it paints such an atmospheric picture. I think you’d like The Widow, Annabel – it feels like a step up from Three Bedrooms.

      Reply
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