Sunday, 26 June 2011

Penguin no. 2253: The Widower
by Georges Simenon

The days followed one another, to all appearances calm and empty. Anybody would have thought that he was leading a lazy life, for he was alone in the subterranean processes going on within him.

...It was not a continuous monologue, a process of reasoning leading to logical conclusions. At table, in his armchair or in the streets, odd ideas occurred to him; he turned them over and over to consider them from every angle before putting them aside until a later date, like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle which would eventually find their place.


This is the story of Bernard Jeantet, a colourless man who is uncomfortable dealing with people, and who perceives the world to be a hostile place. His home is his refuge, and to a large extent he confines himeslf within the walls of his small apartment on the Boulevarde Saint-Denis in Paris, creating designs for magazines and books, and dreaming the smallest of dreams: to create a new font that will bear his name. He feels comfortable with routine, and so the world he has built himself is structured and regulated, the activity of each moment pre-determined. Every Wednesday afternoon he leaves his apartment to visit his employers, in order to deliver his designs and collect his pay. The story begins one afternoon during the slow walk home, the last few moments in which he is unaware of the disruption coming to his life. The author lists all the everyday sights and scents Jeantet fails to register, and sums up his character in this failure to observe: It was almost as if he hadn't lived.

He arrives home to find his apartment empty, his wife unexpectedly absent. It is a puzzle for him, something he doesn't understand, and which unsettles him because of his need for consistency, for everything to be as it always has been.The reader knows already that the answer will be tragic, because it is there in the title. And this knowledge serves to increase the suspense, because there is the desire to know how and why she has died, how Jeantet will find out, and how he will cope.This is a mystery novel with Jeantet effectively cast as detective. He searches through his memories to find the clues that will explain this disruption to his life.

This short book also explores the idea of judgement and misinterpretation. Jeantet is not as others are; he seems mildly Aspergerish, adapting and responding to the situations in his life in a way that makes sense to him. But others judge him through the templates of their own perceptions, and their own sense of what is normal. And they judge him harshly, misinterpreting the choices he has made and misunderstanding his responses to the tragedy of his wife's death. This emphasises the idea of everyone as an island, unavoidably isolated; the internal self is always hidden because it can only be shared through the imperfect mediums of words and actions, and the meanings of words and actions are open to interpretation.

This was the story of a mundane life, and yet I found myself absorbed by the story from the first sentence. It is gripping and tense, with the tension coming from concern for this poor man, and a hope that he will find the answer he needs. And the brevity made it even more compelling; the knowledge that the answer was so close made the book impossible to put aside.

Also by this author:

Penguin no. 1854: The Little Man from Archangel
Penguin no. 1680: Maigret has Scruples

4 comments:

  1. when you mention this on translation thurs I looked it up it sounds great ,problem with Simeon is he wrolte so much it hard to know which to choose this is going down as one to read ,all the best stu

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  2. Hi Stu,

    As you note, he wrote a lot of books. I'm looking forward to reading some of the others to see if he is always this good. Hope you enjoy it.

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  3. I keep seeing Simenon's name mentioned at the moment, and hadn't really any idea what sort of books he wrote - this sounds maybe up my street, but I'm mostly grateful for having a sort of idea what kind of writer Simenon is - thanks!

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  4. Hi Simon,

    Apparently there are almost 200 Simenon novels and I have only read two. Those two were short, suspenseful, and focused on the mundane aspects of life. This one I felt captured by; I would find my mind drifting when I should have been studying, looking for any excuse to take a break so I could get back to reading it. I think this was partly due to the way he tells the story, and partly because the book is so short.

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