Tag Archives: Club Events

The Strangers in the House by Georges Simenon (tr. Howards Curtis)

Sneaking this in as my contribution to Karen and Simon’s #1940Club, a week-long celebration of books first published in 1940. (You can find more info on the event here.)

The Strangers in the House is one of Simenon’s romans durs – ‘hard’, psychological novels with an existential edge. Like much of this author’s work, Strangers features a crime; however, the mystery and its resolution are not the most important elements here. Instead, Simenon is more concerned with delving into the psyche of his protagonist, Hector Loursat, a reclusive lawyer whose hermit-like existence is disturbed by a shocking event…

Since the departure of his wife, Geneviève, eighteen years ago, Loursat has had little to do with the outside world, including his fellow inhabitants of Moulins, the French town where he lives. Instead, he spends his days reading his vast collection of books while drinking copious quantities of Burgundy, emerging only for a short daily walk and dinner, which he eats in silence with his daughter, Nicole. While father and daughter share a vast, cavernous house, they have minimal contact on a day-to-day basis. In one sense, they are the ‘strangers’ of the novel’s title – an interpretation that seems particularly apt when we learn that Nicole – who was two when Geneviève ran off with her lover – has been raised by Josephine, the family’s truculent cook. 

One night, Loursat is shaken out of his sleepy, Burgundy-fuelled existence when he hears what sounds like a gunshot from one of the other rooms. Emerging from his lair, Loursat makes his way to Nicole’s bedroom in the other wing of the house. While waiting for his daughter to open the door, our protagonist is convinced he sees a figure passing down the staircase the end of the corridor – a young man in a beige raincoat, as far as he can tell. The plot thickens when father and daughter make their way to the floor above, where they find a dead man lying in one of the beds. Loursat, for his part, knows nothing of this stranger who has been shot in the chest – his identity and reason for being in the house are a complete mystery to him, as are the details of the evening’s events. Moreover, Nicole also claims to have no knowledge of the victim or the circumstances surrounding his death.

However, as more details begin to emerge, it becomes clear that Loursat has little understanding of what his daughter has been getting up to in the other wing at night. It turns out that Nicole has fallen in with a gang of local boys who spend their evenings stealing various items as dares and partying in the house – all unbeknownst to Loursat, who is in effect something of a stranger in his own home. Nevertheless, when Nicole’s boyfriend, Émile, is accused of the murder, Loursat is convinced of the boy’s innocence and agrees to act as his lawyer for the trial.

Something Simenon does particularly well here is to show us how these events prompt Loursat to re-examine his reclusive life. Why has he withdrawn from society for the past eighteen years, preferring instead to live a life of near-total isolation like a primitive, unkempt bear? Consequently, there is a reawakening of sorts as the lawyer is forced to re-engage with the outside world while he investigates the case.

In his street, passing all the big houses that were similar to his, it struck him that he [Loursat] hated them, them and their occupants, just as he hated his sister, and Dossin, and Rogissart and his wife, and Ducup and the deputy prosecutor, all these people who hadn’t done him any harm but were on the other side of the barricade, which would have been his side if his wife hadn’t run off with a man named Bernard, if he hadn’t spent eighteen years shut up in his study and if he hadn’t just discovered a bustling life he’d never thought about, a life superimposed on the other life, the official life of the town… (p. 97)

In some respects, Loursat’s interests in philosophy and other related subjects enable him to understand the psychology and behavioural traits of the boys in Nicole’s gang – any one of whom could have committed the murder instead of Émile.

While Simenon’s romans durs are usually characterised by their bleak, ominous mood, Strangers feels somewhat different in tone. There are some wonderful touches of black comedy here as Loursat bristles at the thought of the town’s bourgeois residents – from the respectable Public Prosecutor, Rogissart, to his idiotic brother-in-law, Dossin, a man Loursat clearly disdains.

He wondered why he resented them [the Dossins] so much, and couldn’t find a satisfactory answer. True, he despised them for their vanity, for this townhouse they had built that had become their reason for being. As far as he was, concerned, Dossin, with his moustache that always smelt of liqueurs or young women, was the epitome of the happy idiot. (p. 80)

Moreover, Loursat is equally dismissive of his sister, Marthe (Dossin’s wife), whom he resents for ‘her constant mournfulness’ and ‘flabby, half-hearted elegance’, not to mention her desire for life’s materialistic trappings. In a further twist of fate, the Dossin’s sickly son, Edmond (Loursat’s nephew), is also embroiled in the murder investigation due to his influence over the other boys in the gang.  

While the mystery behind the murder is finally solved, Strangers does not conform to the typical pattern of an investigative novel. There is little emphasis on gathering clues or delving into the perpetrator’s motives. Instead, we have an intriguing character study of a prickly, isolated man, prompted to make the transition from merely existing to actually participating, particularly in his daughter’s life.

As ever with Simenon, the atmosphere is suitably vivid, evoking images of rainy, wind-swept streets and cold, damp exteriors. No wonder Loursat spends so much time in his grubby, book-lined den, complete with his trusty stove and three bottles of Burgundy each day, especially when the weather seems unremittingly grim.

He could hear the raindrops and, occasionally, the squeak of a shutter that hadn’t been properly shut; the wind was rising and sudden gusts swept through the streets. He could also hear, with the clarity of a metronome, the ticking of his gold stopwatch in his waistcoat pocket. (p. 10)

In summary then, The Strangers in the House, is a most enjoyable Simenon – not as bleak as some of his other romans durs, but certainly gritty enough to fit the bill!

Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker – a post for the #1929Club

As some of you may know, it’s Simon and Karen’s #1929Club this week, a celebration of books originally published in 1929 – you can find out more about it here. So, for my contribution to the event, I’ve chosen Dorothy Parker’s Big Blonde, an excellent story that traces the sad and unfulfilling life of an ageing good-time girl as she slides into alcoholism and depression. This striking tale highlights how the society of the day made certain assumptions about women based on their appearance and situation; and while things have undoubtedly changed significantly since then, Parker’s story still has a degree of resonance with certain attitudes today.

Central to the story is Hazel Morse, a large, fair-haired woman ‘of the type that incites some men when they use the word ‘blonde’ to click their tongues and wag their heads roguishly’. Hazel is in her twenties when we first meet her, working as a model in a wholesale dress business. Through her work, she has the opportunity to meet various men, many of whom find her attractive and are keen to take her out.

Right from the very start, we see how Hazel is defined by her appearance, especially her blonde hair. Men tend to assume she is a good-time girl, fun and easy-going in company and an all-round ‘good sport’. At first, Hazel responds well to this attention, enjoying her popularity and the various benefits this confers. 

Her job was not onerous, and she met numbers of men and spent numbers of evenings with them, laughing at their jokes and telling them she loved their neckties. Men liked her, and she took it for granted that the liking of many men was a desirable thing. Popularity seemed to her to be worth all the work that had to be put into its achievement. Men liked you because you were fun, and when they liked you they took you out, and there you were. So, and successfully, she was fun. She was a good sport. Men liked a good sport. (p. 13-14)

Nevertheless, the situation changes somewhat when she marries Herbie Morse, a ‘quick, attractive man’ with a fondness for drink. With her thirties looming on the horizon, Hazel is keen to settle down to a life of cosy domesticity. Herbie, however, has other ideas, choosing instead to stay out drinking till late at night. Consequently, the couple often argue when Herbie gets home…

She fought him furiously. A terrific domesticity had come upon her, and she would bite and scratch to guard it. She wanted what she called ‘a nice home’. She wanted a sober, tender husband, prompt at dinner, punctual at work. She wanted sweet, comforting evenings. The idea of intimacy with other men was terrible to her; the thought that Herbie might be seeking entertainment in other women set her frantic. (p. 18)

In truth, Herbie still sees Hazel as a specific personality type – a carefree, easy-going blonde who enjoys a bit of fun – rather than an individual with needs and desires of her own. (Significantly, Hazel is referred to as Mrs Morse throughout the story, characterising her identity through her role as a wife.) In particular, Herbie fails to see that Hazel craves some love and affection, especially when she’s feeling low. As such, his tolerance is tested by this change in his wife’s behaviour – as far as Herbie is concerned, Hazel is no longer the good-time girl he signed up for in their marriage, but he makes no attempt to understand her feelings or situation.

With the arguments between the couple becoming increasingly violent, Hazel turns to alcohol herself, drinking during the day as a way of blurring the loneliness and depression – a situation that ultimately ends in the breakdown of the couple’s marriage.

By this point in the story, Hazel is also seeing Ed, a married man she met through her neighbour and daytime drinking partner, Mrs Martin – a forty-something blonde who hosts parties for good-time ‘boys’ in her flat. (In truth, Mrs Martin is essentially Hazel in ten years’ time unless something more hopeful happens to set her life on a different trajectory.)

While Hazel is relatively happy to be Ed’s mistress for a while, their relationship comes to an end when Ed moves to Florida for work. A succession of unsatisfying dalliances swiftly follows as Hazel slips further into depression.  

In her haze, she never recalled how men entered her life and left it. There were no surprises. She had no thrill at their advent, nor woe at their departure. (p. 31)

Throughout the story, Parker highlights how the emptiness of Hazel’s life is defined by the roles ‘available’ to her as a (once-)attractive blonde – roles dictated by societal expectations of her gender and physical appearance. As such, she is expected to be (in turn): a fun-loving, good-time single girl who enjoys going out; an easy-going, sociable wife, tolerant of her husband’s failings; and a lively, cheerful mistress who keeps her troubles under wraps. Each of these idealised images contrasts starkly with Hazel’s inner life, which remains largely unfulfilled.

As the years pass by, Hazel sees the long, slow parade of miserable days stretching out ahead of her – the steady succession of men, just like the ones that have come and gone, and the interminable evenings of being ‘a good sport’, largely for their benefit. With a wave of misery sweeping over her, it feels like she is being crushed between ‘great, smooth stones’ as the horror of her situation sets in

Big Blonde is a quietly devastating story with a distinct air of tragedy. While the reader hopes for a brighter future for Hazel, they fear that she is trapped in a vicious circle with little agency to break free…

Big Blonde is included in the Penguin Modern The Custard Heart by Dorothy Parker; personal copy. It’s also available in this lovely Penguin Little Clothbound Classic edition