The Blue Room by Georges Simenon (1964, tr. Linda Coverdale, 2015)

I have written before about Georges Simenon, the prolific Belgian writer with a talent for illuminating the dark side of the human psyche with all its inherent complexities. This is another of his romans durs or ‘hard’, psychological novels. An intoxicating tale of passion and obsession in which the past and present are blended together to great effect – it might just be my favourite Simenon to date.

As the novella opens, we are dropped into a conversation between two lovers, Tony and Andrée, cloistered together in a hotel room in Triant, a small-town community in rural France. It is clear that the couple have just finished making love, a violent, passionate ritual that occurs in secret each month – always at the same hotel (owned by Tony’s brother), always in the blue room of the novella’s title.

Both parties are married but not to one another. Tony – a handsome, virile self-made man who owns an agricultural machinery business – is married to Gisèle, the perfect wife and mother to the couple’s daughter, Marianne. Andrée, on the other hand, is a more complex character than her lover. A passionate, manipulative woman at heart, she is married to Nicolas, a wealthy man of failing health whose formidable mother owns the local grocery store.

As the pair relax after their lovemaking, Andrée begins to ask Tony a series of seemingly innocent questions about his feelings for her, speculating about the future as one might do in this type of situation. However, little does Tony know of the significance of this conversation or the importance Andrée chooses to attach to Tony’s answers in the dreamlike atmosphere of the moment. As we soon learn, it is a scene that Tony must revisit in his mind time and time again as the story unfolds…

[Andrée:] ‘Could you spend your whole life with me?’

He had hardly noticed her words; they were like the images and odours all around him. How could he have guessed that this scene was something he would relive ten times, twenty times and more – and every time in a different frame of mind, from a different angle? (p.5)

[…]

[Andrée] ‘Would you like to spend your whole life with me?’

[Tony] ‘Sure.’

He had said that, he did not deny it. He was the one who had reported that conversation to the magistrate. But the important thing was his tone of voice. He was just talking, without meaning anything by it. It wasn’t real. In the blue room, nothing was real. Or rather, its reality was of a different nature, incomprehensible anywhere else. (p.64)

From a very early stage in the novella (p. 5), it becomes abundantly clear that in the present moment, Tony is being questioned concerning an investigation linked to his liaison with Andrée. The opening scene at the hotel has already happened; it is in the past, and Tony is being forced to revisit it through a series of interrogations by magistrates, psychologists and other members of the judicial team.

One of the most compelling things about this novella is the way Simenon seamlessly blends elements of the present-day investigations and recollections of past events in a way that makes the overall narrative feel so compelling. The focus here is very much on the psychological – in other words, Tony’s sate of mind as he worries away at each development and conversation, repeatedly turning them over in his mind. As a consequence, the interrogations never feel in the least bit dry as they flow naturally within the framework of the story, sketching the details of the characters’ motivations and movements on the days in question.

What starts as a passionate, sensual novella becomes increasingly tense as the narrative unfolds. Simenon is adept at revealing just the right amount of information at each stage – enough to keep the reader guessing about the exact nature of the crime(s) and Tony’s involvement in crucial events virtually to the very end.

This is a very cleverly constructed story with complex, interesting characters at its heart. Andrée is a particularly intriguing individual. Considered aloof and distant by Nicolas in the past – he has known her since childhood – she is, in fact, forceful and manipulative at heart. It was Andrée who initiated the affair with Tony during a chance meeting by the roadside one evening the previous year.

In fact, it was she who had possessed him, and her eyes had gleamed with as much triumph as passion. (p. 22)

In addition to the tension and passion, the atmosphere of village life in rural France is also beautifully evoked; from the sights and landmarks of the countryside to the sounds outside the window during the couple’s illicit trysts at the hotel. There are echoes of another Simenon, too – The Krull House, which focuses on a community’s resentment of immigrants and the havoc this can wreak. Tony is considered something of an outsider in the community; his parents having come from Italy to settle in the region. In his youth, Tony left the village to find employment elsewhere, only to return ten years later to set up his business in the locality. Both of these points work against him in the eyes of the community.

In summary, this is a taut, uncompromising novella on the dangers of seemingly casual affairs. An utterly compelling book that grips the reader from its intriguing opening chapter. I loved it – very highly recommended indeed.

The Blue Room is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

32 thoughts on “The Blue Room by Georges Simenon (1964, tr. Linda Coverdale, 2015)

  1. Radz Pandit

    Great review Jacqui! I read The Blue Room a couple of years ago and thought it was wonderful. It was quite haunting and the movement of the story from the present to the past and back was very effortlessly done.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The structure works so well, doesn’t it? The way Simenon keeps returning to that conversation is very effectively done. It feels like the kind of book that might yield more on a second reading, once the reader knows the overall arc of the story and ultimate outcome.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think he’s brilliant. So economical, so precise. And his understanding of psychological pressures/motivations is up there with the best of them. It’s well worth you trying him at some point.

      Reply
  2. Caroline

    I just had to reread my own review because the book has sadly vanished from my memory. But I did like it so much. Like you, I was impressed how seamlessly he interwove past and present. I want to read more of his romans durs. I thought this was the first one but I remembered I read another one ages ago that I also liked.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’ll have to head over to yours to read your review. This feels like one of his most ‘approachable’ romans durs, if that makes sense – less brutal than some of the others I’ve read in the past. I couldn’t even write about Dirty Snow (often held up as one of his best) as I found it unremittingly cruel and bleak. Too hard-hitting for my tastes, especially in the midst of winter!

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        This one isn’t like that. The other one I liked very much isn’t either. More psychological. It seems to have been translated as Three Rooms in Manhattan. I do have Dirty Snow. Thanks for the warning though. They are called ‘durs’ for a reason I suppose.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, I’ve read the Manhattan one. It’s quite hypnotic in style as far as I can recall, a story based on Simenon’s real-life relationship with his wife (or lover?) Denise Ouimet.

          Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I’ll be interested to hear what you think of La Marie. Did you read it in French? The Krull House is very good and all too relevant to the Europe of today, especially given the sense of fear/resentment towards outsiders.

      Reply
      1. Scott W.

        Yes, read in French. Simenon helped me so much to improve my French that I almost feel obligated not to read him in translation. La Marie du port is short, definitely not sweet, really evocative of a French fishing village and mostly memorable for the very no-nonsense and opaque 17-year-old of the title, whom the reader gets to know slowly.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Oh, how I would love to be able to read Simenon (and other authors) in French, but my skills with languages are nowhere near up to scratch. I can imagine reading Simenon being very beneficial in polishing up your French, not least because his prose is so clear and economical. La Marie sounds very interesting – thanks for the tip. I’ll have to see if it’s available in translation!

          Reply
  3. kaggsysbookishramblings

    High praise indeed, Jacqui! I’ve only read a few of Simenon’s romans durs, but they’re certainly much darked than the Maigrets (not necessarily a bad thing). Though having said that, Maigret is often as much about the psychology of the characters as the detecting. This one sounds particularly good, though – I’ll add it to the wishlist!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent. You know, I haven’t read a Maigret for ages. There was a time when I had a vague plan to read them in order but that soon fell by the wayside in favour of other books in the TBR. There are just too many of the Maigrets to keep up!

      Reply
  4. 1streading

    This sounds wonderful but I’m determined to focus on the Maigret novels first (at least they are almost all published now). Is this related to the film The Blue Room (which I obviously haven’t seen)?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it is! Funnily enough, I had a ticket to see it at the London Film Festival a few years ago, but I ended up giving it a miss due to a clash with something else. Hopefully it’s available to stream through one of the online services by now. If so, I’ll have to give it a watch, especially now that I’ve read the book!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I had a vague plan to read those Maigrets in order when they first started to come out, but that soon fell by the wayside in favour of other things! I would definitely recommend The Blue Room if you’re looking to try a few more of his romans durs. The Widow is an interesting one too, not least because it has a female protagonist at the centre of the story.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a good one to try if you not read any of Simenon’s ‘hard’ psycholigical novels before, partly because it’s less brutal or distressing than some of the others. Plus, it’s short, a quality that adds to the tension in the narrative.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s Simenon’s The Hand. I haven’t read it, but I suspect it’s a very similar vein to this. He does a good line in taut, psychologically penetrating novellas, often with a couple at the core. The Blue Room was made into a film by Mathieu Amalric back in 2014, but I’m not sure if it ever got a proper release in the UK.

      Reply

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