Tag Archives: Belgium

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.

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

La Femme de Gilles was Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s debut novel, first published in 1937 when the author was in her early thirties. It centres on a ménage à trois involving Gilles, his wife, Elisa, and her younger sister, Victorine, a timeless story of desire, selfless love and the pain these things can bring.  Bourdouxhe was a contemporary of Simone de Beauvoir, who praised the novella for its subtle portrayal of the differences between male and female sexuality. An English translation first appeared in 1992, but Daunt Books have given it a new lease of life with this beautiful edition published last year.

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As the novella opens, we find Elisa ‘giddy with tenderness’ as she awaits Gilles’ arrival home from work at the local factory in the Belgian countryside. Deeply in love with her husband and expecting their third child, Elisa wants little more than to care for her family. In doing so, she strives to maintain as comfortable a home as possible. The opening scenes paint an idyllic picture, full of the simple pleasures of life:

He is leaning out of the window again, his mind at once blank and spinning with small thoughts: Sunday tomorrow…the smell of the soup…the beauty of the flowers in the garden. Life is sweet. As he watches Elisa bathing his two little naked daughters in the setting sun, he feels at peace. (pg.9)

Sadly for Elisa, it doesn’t take long for this harmonious existence to fall apart. Shortly before the birth of her baby, she begins to experience a vague sense of unease. Gilles appears unsettled in some way. At first Elisa puts it down to her own condition – after all everything is a little strange when one is heavily pregnant. But one evening, as Gilles is about to go out with Victorine (Elisa’s attractive younger sister), Elisa is a gripped by an acute sense of anxiety. With her back turned on Giles and Victorine, she rummages through her bag for some money.

One by one she fixed her gaze on some of the objects around her, the things that made up her familiar world, then her eyes lit on her own hands as they closed the bag, and she saw they were trembling. Precisely at that moment Elisa knew that behind her back there was another world, a world that was complicated, threatening, unknown. She felt it to be so and she was certain she was not mistaken; she was also certain that it was absolutely essential not to turn round suddenly and confront it. (pg. 18)

This quote is indicative of Elisa’s character. She realises that something is going on between Gilles and Victorine, but rather than addressing it directly, she chooses to remain silent and wait. Even though she is tormented by the thought of the affair, she follows Gilles when he goes out unexpectedly certain in the belief that he must be meeting Victorine. With each new discovery, Elisa hovers between a desperate fear of losing Gilles and a desire to cling to the hope that this phase will pass.

There is that long sequence of days when she anxiously awaits Gilles’ return, days when she is always on the lookout for whatever affection he still feels for her, however small, days when she discovers that he hasn’t been seen at the place where he told her he was going. And there are the nights, indistinguishable from each other, when Gilles is asleep but her suffering keeps her wide awake. She moves her hands towards him, runs them over his skin, leans close to his face very quietly, so as not to wake him: she sniffs out unfamiliar smells on him like a ferreting cat. (pg. 59-60)

At times, Elisa wonders if she should speak frankly to Gilles or to Victorine, to intervene in some way, but she is afraid of losing her husband. Even though the marriage is hanging by a thread, Gilles still comes home to Elisa. ‘As long as he is there, he’s still hers.’

Unable to talk to her sister or to confide in her mother, Elisa turns to the church for guidance. But in place of the comfort and advice she so desperately seeks, she is told to face the trials that God has sent her way. When Gilles finally opens up and confesses, Elisa finds herself in the role of confidante advising her husband on his relationship with Victorine. It’s a strange situation, one that highlights Gilles’ complete inability to appreciate his wife’s anguish, never mind the notion that he might be the cause of it.

La Femme de Gilles can be easily read in two or three hours, but this story has the potential to linger in the mind for much longer. The style is minimalist but very emotive – Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to Elisa’s point of view giving us near-complete access to her inner thoughts and feelings. It’s a devastating portrait of a woman isolated in her pain and suffering, in her self-sacrificing love for her husband despite his avaricious desire for her sibling.

There were many ways this excellent novella could have ended, but Bourdouxhe has constructed a forceful conclusion – even though I didn’t see it coming, with the benefit of hindsight it feels painfully inevitable. Rather than saying anything else about it, I’ll finish with a quote on Victorine. In contrast to her honourable, respectable sister, Victorine is rather capricious – a flirtatious creature who retains her angelic demeanour throughout the whole affair. One could describe her as thoroughly amoral.

For Victorine is one of those creatures who have no consciousness of their actions: she parades her irresponsibility throughout her life. One day, simply because Gilles was there, perhaps because it was rather too hot, her flesh desired that man, and she took him. So what? Nothing more in it for Victorine, it stops there. Afterwards it’s a question of trying to make sense of things, sense of life, and life doesn’t touch Victorine, it will never mark her smile or her eyes, which will stay young, clear, innocent for a long time. Unconscious offenders are the most dangerous of criminals. (pgs. 67-68)  

I selected this novella for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event running throughout August. If you’re looking for ideas for #WITMonth, here’s a link to my reviews of translated literature by women writers.

La Femme de Gilles is published in the UK by Daunt Books. Source: personal copy. Book 5/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon (review)

First published in 1946, Simenon’s Three Bedrooms in Manhattan features a forty-eight-year-old down-and-out actor named François Combe. François has come to Manhattan to escape the scrutiny of the Paris milieu following his wife’s decision to leave him for a much younger (and less talented) actor.

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One night, unable to sleep, he leaves his apartment at 3am and goes to a bar where he meets a woman named Kay. Somehow Kay instinctively knows that François is French, and she strikes up a conversation with him. Even though he finds her habits and slow movements rather annoying, François is strangely drawn to Kay. It’s as if he sees her as a reflection of himself, another wounded soul in a lonely city. He can sense it in her voice:

A low voice that made you think of a scar that hadn’t healed, of a hurt that lingers beneath consciousness, soft and familiar, deep inside. (pg 8)

They have a few drinks, smoke a few cigarettes and leave the bar together at 5am. After drifting through the sidewalks for a couple of hours, they end up taking a room at a shabby hotel. (Kay has been locked out of the apartment she shared with a girlfriend and François doesn’t want to take her to his place, not yet). When François wakes up the next day, even though he has known Kay for less than 24 hours, he is a little fearful of the thought of losing her. Perhaps he is also afraid of losing something of himself:

Strange, they’d gone to sleep in this room as the night ended and woken up again as the night began. He was almost afraid to leave it – frightened of forgetting some part of himself there that he might never be able to find again. (pg.16)

What follows is a portrayal of François and Kay’s relationship as it develops over the course of a few weeks. It’s a connection based on loneliness and abandonment. We follow the couple as they drift around the sidewalks of the city: they move from bar to bar; they play the same song on the jukebox; they drink whiskey and smoke cigarettes. The novel’s title refers to the three bedrooms the couple visit as their relationship continues: first the hotel room, then François’ apartment and finally Kay’s room. As Kay sees the actor’s apartment for the first time, the depth of his solitude is painfully apparent:

The still-lighted lamp greeted them. The room was quiet, and the quietness was almost spectral. He had thought it would look sordid, but it was tragic, that was all, full of the tragedy of loneliness and abandonment. (pg. 45)

Kay has been around the block a few times – her face looks a little tired and worn for a woman in her early thirties. She claims to have been married to a Hungarian Count, a relationship that ended when she ran away following months of abuse. As the story unravels, it becomes clear that there is a possessive, almost obsessive, side to François’ character. He harbours feelings of jealously about the men in Kay’s past, men he has never met and probably shouldn’t be worrying about. He suspects her of lying to him. At times he is tender towards Kay; on one or two occasions, however, he is cold and abusive:

He watched her take her clothes off, and he remained cold. Yes, he could remain cold to her. She wasn’t beautiful or irresistible, as she thought she was. Her body, like her face was marked by life.

And now, thinking about her, he felt himself carried away by anger, by a need to wipe out everything, to consume everything, to possess everything. (pg. 37)

This is a strange story, quite dreamlike and hypnotic. There is a sense that François and Kay are existing outside of a reality, a world where time seems to expand and contract. Things that happened only moments earlier seem distant and far away. By day three of their relationship, it feels as if they have been together for several years.

In her introduction to Three Bedrooms, Joyce Carol Oates states that the novel is a fictionalised account of Simenon’s impassioned love affair with Denise Ouimet, a woman he met in Manhattan in 1945. It’s one of the reasons why I found this novel quite intriguing. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my favourite reads of the year, but something about this couple’s story got under my skin. François and Kay are two people who need each other. They cling desperately together and they can’t help but bruise one another in the process.

The writing is spare but affecting. The earlier quotes should give you a feel for the style, but here’s another example, a short quote from a passage where François is trying to figure Kay out:

She seemed to be seeking out the despair of others, as if she wanted to rub against it, to wear it down before it could pierce her. (pg. 43)

Simenon’s descriptions of Manhattan are wonderfully atmospheric. This is a dark and melancholy place, the New York of brooding streets and seedy bars:

Two wide streets, almost deserted, with garlands of luminous globes running down the sidewalks.

On the corner, its high windows lit violently, aggressively, with boastful vulgarity, was a sort of long glass cage where people could be seen as dark smudges and where he went in just so as not to be alone. (pg. 6)

Simenon’s description of the Greenwich Village bar in which François meets Kay reminded me of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (a painting thought to have been inspired by a Greenwich diner).

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I’ll end with a short quote on the atmosphere in the bar, one that conveys a sense of loneliness in the city:

The place smelled of fairgrounds, of lazy crowds, of nights when you stayed out because you couldn’t go to bed, and it smelled like New York, of its calm and brutal indifference. (pg. 6)

Guy at His Futile Preoccupations has also reviewed this novel (along with several other romans durs by Simenon).

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (tr. by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman) is published in the UK by NYRB Classics. Source: personal copy. Book 19/20 in my #TBR20.