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Georges Simenon: The Widow [1940]

§ "A man walking." With this simple phrase, Simenon starts one of his strangest novels, as if he's just struck a piano note, follows the sustain into the mystic. He describes the slanting shadows cast by the trees over the road, and the shorter shadow cast by the man as if he's a character in a film noir. Well he might be, as he's just been released from prison, is returning home, although in fact there really is no home, just the memory of a childhood and a personal disintegration. There's a symbolic intensity to the description, the man walking through a landscape where light rather than substance is the reality. Modernism. Mobility rather than reason, action rather than thought. The favorite word for this is 'existential', although as Paul Theroux says in his excellent introduction to this edition [New York Reviews Classics] of The Widow, Simenon would likely have had little use for the term.

Simenon: The Widow

The 1930s produced a lot of drifters in modern fiction... you see them in the short stories of Liam O'Flaherty (Ireland) and famously in James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934), to which Georges Simenon's The Widow (1940) bears some resemblance... in the way, say, that an ugly sister can be seen in the face of the beautiful one. A French film version of Postman called Le Dernier tournant (The Last Turning) was released in 1939, so Simenon might have been stimulated by this to write his own grotesque, somewhat surreal, version. Certainly the widow Tati is no Cora; as a femme fatale, Tati is the ugly sister, a paranoid control freak whose sexual appetite is more Roman than Catholic, although both women share the same greedy business ambition. And Jean Passerat-Monnoyeur is no Frank Chambers, although both men play the roles Fate has set them up for.

Many people have noted the passivity of Simenon's Jean character, the desensitized Oedipus Rex type who can only take orders from a woman. He seems to be an inter-war cultural phenom, a man who carries a vague internal trauma, as if the 10 Commandments have been ripped from his soul, so that he goes through the motions of life like a machine. He doesn't care. He doesn't care for any bourgeois dream or appearance... which is why, after being released from five years incarceration for manslaughter, he drifts into the arms of a peasant widow, a 45 year old vixen who is the mistress of her drooling, cretinous father-in-law. A laughable Freudian nightmare? Certainly. Set by a canal deep in rural France, the bizarre politics of The Widow are both pagan and modern, animal, vegetable and mineral in no particular order. Welcome to Eden (sur-le-Cher... mes amis).

In a way the widow Tati is inhuman, more like a mythological creature who lives in a cave and accepts sacrifices as a natural right. Her son René, a petty criminal, is in the Foreign Legion, yet is still pathetically dependant, always writing for more money to be sent. Her father-in-law, Couderç, the old deaf 'tomcat' who really owns the house and garden, and a field near the brickyard, dependant... booze, food, sex. And now Jean, to become a surrogate son and lover, a catalytic part of this (un)holy ménage à trois. Thus the religious patina of this strange story sets it apart from similar works, delivered in such a matter-of-fact manner that the broken taboos slip past in the soft surrealism of it all.

Theroux draws attention to the similarity in attitude between Jean and Meursault, Albert Camus' celebrated existential killer in L'Etranger, which was published in 1942, a couple years after The Widow. Others have also noted the similarities, wondered if Camus was influenced by Simenon, and if so, what an injustice as Camus won the Nobel and Simenon never did. The thing is, if you look at any of the protagonists in Simenon's romans durs -- before and after The Widow -- you see the same uncaring mummy's boys doing their antisocial, unchristian acts. In a godless universe, murder or any other antisocial act is merely political, and as such has no meaning. This dead wire attitude is especially noticeable in fiction following the carnage of WW 1, an incubator for nihilism if ever there was one. Institutional discipline and logic fails, and the anti-romantic criminal triumphs.

Does a man feel guilty every time he ejaculates? Only if he leaves a mess. There's a helplessness in the action, a manipulation by the Unknown. Like the rabbits in Tati's garden, the multiplication is mechanical.

'his face was reminiscent of an image of Christ'

Certainly Jean has a more immediate motive for murder than Meursault, and both by no means commit motiveless murders. It's the lack of remorse that fascinates scholars of the genre and the period. Tati is a nagging mind-reader with a choke-harness on her pawn, so why shouldn't something bad happen? Simenon also provides a lot of history for Jean -- too much perhaps. Dead mother, playboy father, greedy girlfriend ("she lied as she breathed"), gambling problem... knuckle dusters in his pocket, what the hell. Body in the river? Book 'im, Maigret. Another bad case of Oedipus Rex.

His inevitable love affair with Tati's niece Féliciè -- the teenage slut with the mysterious child -- turns out to be another part of the Freudian politics. The patriarch is taken hostage -- old Couderç, the grandfather, possibly the father of Félicie's child -- by his eldest daughter Françoise and the slut is sent across the canal to entrap Tati's muscle, the hopeless Jean. It's an old story -- a family civil war for possession of an estate (in this case, a house with no electricity, a garden, a field with two cows) -- lit in Greek macabre. It has a modern absurdist feel due to the anthropomorphic imagery ('hills like breasts' etc) and the continuous flow of natural symbolism. There's so much symbolism, it's like hunting for faces in the foliage of the trees. One of the most important is Tati's incubator, central to her dream of farming chickens on an industrial scale. One hundred and two degrees for twenty one days... something has to give.

The hanging gourd of dripping cheese... the dressmaker's dummy torso... the taciturn lock-keeper with the wooden leg who fathers children seasonally... the canal that separates Tati from her sister-in-law... the shackled cattle... and so on. "The dung was warm beneath his feet" sums up the situation. The narrative is therefore modal, shifting easily between text and subtext.

Article 12 of the Penal Code: "Every person condemned to death shall be decapitated" recurs in Jean's consciousness like a flash frame when he sleeps, does chores, listens to the bullying, the pleading, the monologuing, the endless verbal noise that propels the widow Tati, on her feet or lying down... or watching through her window, her paranoid vision penetrating walls, shadow and bone and even Time itself, it seems. Article 15: "Men condemned to forced labour shall be set to the hardest possible work; they shall wear an iron ball at their ankles and shall be joined in pairs by a chain." He's left prison, but what, really, has changed? The faces, the game... yet behind these things, the imagery remains the same.

Many writers aspire to write in code and Simenon did it without even thinking. Not every action is a symbolism, but the important ones are. Thus there are many ways to read this novel, which puts it in compliance with most religious texts, yet the message certainly isn't religious. Bizarrely, the widow attends church on Sundays, yet this is just a gesture towards her bourgeois dream, just as Jean is, as he is the son of a wealthy distiller, and a possible source of money. The pornography of her actions -- this pagan stitching of sex, politics, murder and light industry -- is secular.

A strange and powerful novel that captures a modern culture in the shadow of its pagan peasant past. When Jean's sister Billie comes to visit to find out what's going on, why hasn't he returned home, he says, "I'm saying I like living with Tati. She's my mistress. Besides me, there's the old goat, as she calls him. He's her father-in-law. From time to time she takes him to bed with her, like giving sweets to a child to keep it quiet. It's the only way of retaining the house...."

© LR 2015

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