The Krull House by Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

For a book first published in 1939, The Krull House remains remarkably relevant to the Europe of today, frighteningly so. In this brilliant, tightly-wound novel, Simenon skilfully illustrates the destructive effect that suspicions and prejudices against outsiders can have on an insular community – all executed in the author’s characteristically economical prose.

The story focuses on the Krull family who live in a modest house on the edge of a rural French town, just by the lock of a canal. Cornelius Krull, the father of the family, was born in Germany but has spent most of his adult life in France, having settled in the town several years earlier following a period of wandering. In spite of his time in France, Cornelius has never learned to speak French, choosing instead to communicate in an odd dialect only his immediate family can understand.

While Cornelius spends most his days weaving baskets in the adjoining workshop, his wife, Maria runs the Krull’s grocery and bar, aided in this capacity by her eldest daughter, Anna. Also residing at the house are the Krull’s other children, twenty-five-year-old Joseph, a shy, nervous boy who is studying to be a doctor, and seventeen-year-old Liesbeth, a keen pianist.

Even though the Krulls have lived in the area for several years, they have struggled to integrate and are considered by the locals to be rather dubious outsiders. The French community shun the Krull’s shop-cum-bar, preferring instead to frequent other establishments, typically those run by fellow natives or naturalised immigrants such as the Schoofs. (While the Schoofs are also German by origin, many of the locals believe them to be Dutch on account of their name.) Consequently, the Krulls must survive on business from passing travellers – mostly bargees and the runners who serve them.

Into this rather delicate environment comes Cornelius’ nephew, Hans, who arrives seeking shelter, supposedly from the prevailing political environment in Germany. In contrast to the ‘French’ Krulls, Hans is a ‘pure’ Krull – loud, cocky and supremely self-confident. Virtually from the start, The Krull family are suspicious of Hans – and rightly so. It’s not long before the new arrival reveals himself to be a liar and a libertine, preying on the vulnerable Liesbeth at the earliest opportunity and extorting money from the Schoofs under false pretences. Furthermore, Hans refuses to keep quiet about his German heritage, drawing attention to it as he makes his mark on the community.

In his sharpness, Hans soon realises how the French Krulls are perceived by the locals, a situation that strikes him as somewhat ironic given their length of tenure in the town. In some respects, Hans believes the Krulls have tried too hard or too little to integrate, thereby failing to strike a more acceptable middle-ground.

Hans laughed, realizing how strange it was for the Krull family to be making their way through the crowd attending the fair. Not only had they just come out of a Protestant church rather than a Catholic one, not only did Uncle Cornelius barely speak French, but everything about them, even Joseph’s resigned smile, was alien to the things that surrounded them. (p. 20, Penguin)

Hans’ arrival acts as a catalyst, stirring up the undercurrents of tension within the town to dramatic effect.

When the body of a young woman is found washed up in the canal, the shadow of suspicion soon falls on the Krulls, prompting unrest within the community as malicious rumours begin to spread. The girl was assaulted and strangled, murdered on a night when some of the Krulls had been out and about in the neighbourhood. Even though Joseph may not have been directly involved in the girl’s murder, he had been seen following her on a number of occasions – not only on the evening in question but at other times too. In his naivety and inexperience with others, women in particular, Joseph has developed a habit of skulking about at night, spying on young lovers to observe their rituals and behaviours, hoping against hope to establish a connection.

All too soon, the situation escalates, and unrest turns into hostility. A pushy friend of the victim makes her presence felt at the Krull’s, pointing at the house and making comments to her friends.

There she was, just opposite the house, on the other side of the street, accompanied by two girls and a young man who all worked in the same shoe shop. She was making no attempt to pass unnoticed, or to pretend to be busy with something else. On the contrary! She was gesticulating, pointing at the house, then at one of the upstairs windows, nobody was quite sure why.

Because from the kitchen, they couldn’t hear what she was saying. They could only see. (p. 90)

Stones are thrown at the Krull’s windows; hateful slurs are painted on the shop’s shutters; a dead cat is found outside the door. Ultimately, a violent mob descends on the family’s property, pushing back against the police as the animosity spirals out of control.

Amid all the chaos, Liesbeth reveals her fears to Hans, recounting some of the prejudices the family has had to face over the years. While Hans lacks any sense of decency and moral fibre, he does share the Krulls status as a foreigner, a position which gives him some understanding of how it feels to be shunned by a community.

[Liesbeth:] ‘People have been so awful to us!’

[Hans:] ‘Why?’

‘Because of everything! Because we’re foreigners! At school, the children called me the Kraut. and the teacher would say to me in front of the whole class: “Mademoiselle, when one receives a country’s hospitality, one has to double the duty to behave well.” […]

‘Anna was even less lucky. She was almost engaged to a very respectable young man, the son of the justice of the peace who owns the house with the two balconies opposite the church of Saint-Léonard. When his father found out, he sent his son away to continue his studies in Montpellier and swore that he would disown him if he married my sister…What can we do? Mother never hits back. She’s friendly to everyone. But I know it upsets her when neighbours, people like the Morins, who live just next door, prefer to put their hats on and go shopping somewhere else.’ (pp. 104-105)

As far as Aunt Maria sees it, The Krull’s only hope is for Hans to leave the district; if the interloper disappears, surely the police will believe he is the murderer, leaving the rest of the family free from suspicion? However, things are not quite that straightforward in reality – something the Krulls are about to discover all too painfully.

The Krull House is a short novel, but an extremely powerful one. Simenon really captures the sense of unease that can develop in a close-knit community; the way difference often leads to resentment and mistrust; how migrants may be made to play the scapegoat when things go wrong. There is a strong sense of dread running through the narrative, a feeling that only escalates as the novel reaches its devastating conclusion.

Eighty years on, this feels like a timely and prescient read, a vital story for our troubling times. Very highly recommended – not just for fans of Simenon, but for anyone interested in societal issues too.

The Krull House is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

33 thoughts on “The Krull House by Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’d not heard of it either until this Penguin edition came out last year. The date of the translation is listed as 2018, so this might be the first time it’s been translated into English? If so, that’s actually quite surprising given the strength of the book and the insights into the treatment of immigrants (a timeless issue). I know your TBR is probably creaking under the weight of books right now, but I genuinely think you would appreciate this one. It feels like a novel that would resonate quite strongly…

      Reply
      1. realthog

        I’m pretty certain it’s been translated before, as Chez Krull — I’ve come across reference to this effect while looking around just now for the title under which I think I read this book quite a few years ago. (I don’t remember it as Chez Krull either!) I’ve seen a screen adaptation of it, too, but again can’t remember the details: I’d remembered it as part of the Bruno Cremer French TV series (with Maigret grafted on, the way the various Christie TV series sometimes graft Poirot or Marple onto a standalone tale), but that seems, to judge by a quick perusal of IMDB, not to have been the case. Perhaps it was Le mouchoir de Joseph (1995), which French Wikipedia lists as an adaptation . . .

        Sorry! This comment is full of possiblies! Thanks for a great review, which has me thinking I should dig the book out again for a reread — as you say, it’s very short (like many of Simenon’s novels), so a reread might represent a few hours well spent.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, you’re very welcome. And thanks for the background on its history, translations and adaptations, uncertainties and all! An earlier translation would certainly make sense as it seems too compelling a novel to have been overlooked for so long. I can imagine it transferring to the screen very effectively too, a very ‘visual’ story in many respects – the sort of doom-laden narrative Clouzot would have relished back in the day. I think it would definitely stand up to a re-read in the current times.

          Reply
  1. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Wonderful review Jacqui, this makes me think, as an immigrant to France myself, about the encouragement of the authorities towards immigrants to change their surnames (and often first names), part of their policy of assimilation, because it is indeed a fact that a foreigner of any nationality, will encounter discrimination. There are very proactive laws on it and initiatives to counter it, which I have received the benefit of, although despite knowing there would be discrimination, I chose not to change my name, perhaps naively, but tolerance won’t come from suppression of one’s identity, but from friendships and through those willing to see the person. Fortunately those people do exist in the same communities.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Claire. I think that’s a really interesting and important point. In the novel, the Schoofs (the father also originally from Germany) have become naturalised, integrating into the local French community in a completely different way to the Krulls. The fact that the locals consider ‘Schoof’ to be Dutch name seems to have played a large part in this. Also, the Schoofs have learned the local language and always speak French in their own cheese shop, never German which would be considered too inflammatory – a point accentuated when Hans goes around town speaking German all the time.

      That said, I completely understand your decision to retain your own name on moving to France – it’s an important part of your identity and ought to be retained. Hopefully attitudes are somewhat more enlightened and tolerant now than they were back in the 1930s, however those prejudices still exist for sure – we only have to look at the divisions opened up by the Brexit debate to see that…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Susan. This is much darker than his Maigret novels, more in the style of his ‘hard’, psychological novels or roman durs. I know you wouldn’t normally pick up a Simenon, but if you were ever inclined to consider him, this is the one I would recommend. The focus on societal issues and prejudices against immigrants makes it a very thought-provoking read.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    This sounds like a case study in how outsiders can be vilified. It is indeed relevant to the world today. This is true for Europe and beyond. In addition, the book sounds very good. The plot and characters sound compelling.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, absolutely. In some ways, there is a sense of universality to the story as it could apply to virtually any immigrant family in any country or close-knit community other than their own. It saddens me to say that, but I think it’s probably true…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know; it’s a question I ask myself from time to time. This really does feel like a vital read, particularly in the current socio-political climate.

      Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Excellent review Jacqui. Simenon’s brilliant at conjuring atmosphere and character so efficiently – even in the Maigret books which are by necessity lighter, there’s a dark undertone, but in his non-Maigrets he really gets under the surface of things. It’s worrying that this is so relevant at the moment; why is it that we human beings are *still* threatened by anyone or anything we perceive as different to ourselves???

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think he captures the mood so well here. The story has such an ominous feel to it as that creeping sense of dread/impending doom is palpable right from the start. A cautionary tale for these horribly divisive times…

      Reply
      1. JacquiWine Post author

        Of all the books I’ve read recently from the 1930s and ’40s, this is the one that feels most relevant to the issues of today. It captures that sense of mistrust and hostility so effectively. A sobering read, particularly in light of recent world events…

        Reply
  4. 1streading

    This sounds excellent, though I fear my (long term) plan will probably be to read the Maigret books then his other novels. It’s sad to note that as the UK and much of Europe travels back in time books like this will become ever more relevant.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can totally understand your desire to carry on with the Maigrets, especially as you’ve been reading them for a few years. Which one are you up to now? You must be quite a way through…

      As for the current political situation, it’s a sad state of affairs indeed. Irrespective of whatever happens with Brexit (and I sincerely hope we remain in the EU), I fear we are going to be living with the consequences of this most divisive of issues for many years. It’s hard to see how we can heal some of the divisions amongst families, communities, political parties etc., all of which affect the UK as a whole.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! An incredibly prolific writer, for sure – and, as you say, the quality of his work seems to be pretty consistent. Yes, this is firmly in ‘roman durs’ territory, although there’s probably less explicit/graphic violence here than in some of his others. I didn’t particularly like one of his most critically respected psychological novels, Dirty Snow, as the brutality of the violence was just too much for me. While The Krull House is undeniably powerful and shocking, it feels more approachable and prescient than some of the other romans durs – partly because the issues it explores remain so relevant.

      Reply
      1. Lisa Hill

        Oh dear, I just bought Dirty Snow a month or so ago because I’d read a Maigret and failed to fall in love with it and *wink* wanted to redeem myself with Simenon’s fans…

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, no! Well, others (including Guy and Annabel) really rate Dirty Snow, so maybe it’s just me? You’ll have to let me know what you think!

          Reply
  5. heavenali

    I ‘ve said it before and so I will say it again, I have never read Georges Simenon but I always love the sound of his books. This one appeals more than most. One day I will. Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d really enjoy the Maigret mysteries, not only for the characterisation but the strong sense of place. The Krull House is a darker novel than the Maigrets, but its relevance to the issues of today makes it worth considering.

      Reply
  6. bookbii

    I haven’t read Georges Simenon but this review makes me think I would admire his work greatly. It definitely sounds like a timely read, sadly reflective of the world we live in today.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it’s horribly relevant to some of the issues of today as evidenced by recent world events. If you were ever minded to read Simenon, this would be an interesting novel to try. In spite of the very potent nature of the story, it’s actually less violent (or less brutal) than some of his other psychological novels. A sobering read for these terribly divisive times…

      Reply
  7. Tina

    As for Janet Mcneil–i have the ultra rare first novel CHILD IN THE HOUSE and TALK TO ME which is my favourite after TEA AT 4PM.Turnpike books are reprinting TEA and some short stories later this year.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It sounds as if you lucked out there, Tina. Such wonderful finds. It’s great to hear than Tea at Four O’Clock is going to be reissued later this year as it so deserves to reach a wider readership.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: Winding up the Week #62 – Book Jotter

  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.