Thursday, 6 October 2011

Penguin no. 1854: The Little Man from Archangel
by Georges Simenon

     She was beautiful, full of vitality, and he was sixteen years older, a dusty, lonely bookseller whose only passion in life was collecting stamps.
     That was not entirely true. That was how it seemed, what people must think. The truth is that he lived intensely, in his inner self, a rich and varied life, the life of the entire Old Market, the entire neighbourhood, of which he knew the minutest movements.
     Behind the shelter of his thick spectacles, which seemed to isolate him and give him an inoffensive air, was it not rather as if he had stolen the lives of others, without their noticing it? 

This is an absorbing though bleak tale which follows the thoughts of a lonely and timid middle-aged man during the days which follow the disappearance of his wife. His concerns are never for her safety: her promiscuous ways are well known in the Place du Vieux-Marché where she has lived all her life, and it has happened before. Every now and then she goes off with another man for a few nights, and then returns to resume her life with her husband. And although it makes him unhappy, he accepts it as the price of her company. She married him only because no one else would have her.

And yet when questioned about her absence he dissembles, gambles on her imminent return, and implies she has gone to visit a school friend. It is a moment of thoughtlessness, easily remedied, and he is aware immediately of the foolishness of the deceit. Yet he persists with the lie, dwelling afterwards almost constantly on his motivation, justifying it to himself and anticipating the consequences, and feeling like "a person who is incubating an illness". For it cannot be sustained. In the busy market square in which they live every action is observed and every departure from routine invites comment. As the days pass, he senses that the mood of his neighbours has changed from friendly interest to suspicion.

Jonas Milk is a small man, in physical size, in spirit and in ambition. He longs for acceptance and a place to belong, some community to replace the family which he barely knew, and which was scattered by the Russian revolution. He attempts to achieve this by adapting himself to the routines around him, and by never attracting attention. He lives within himself, concealing the person he really is from scrutiny, and yet while he recognises that others know little of him, he fails to perceive that he may know as little of them.

With his wife gone it is routine that he clings to in order to cope with his loneliness and maintain the illusion of normalcy, as though by controlling how things appear, he can conceal how things really are. Perhaps he doesn't see that he has been dissembling all his adult life, and it is this one foolish lie that makes it manifest. It is with surprise and resentment that he learns that he is suspected, and that no one understands him. But we only have his imperfect and paranoid view: perhaps his neighbours have turned against him because he is not one of them, because he is a Russian and a Jew,  and fated always to be an outsider. Or perhaps it is because he never allowed anyone to really know him, and they honestly believe him capable of the murder of his wife. Either way, the rejection and the isolation destroy him.

There are no answers, just an exploration of how one lonely and vulnerable individual experiences the world. It is short, and bleak, and compelling.

Also by Simenon:

Penguin no. 2253: The Widower 
Penguin no. 1680: Maigret has Scruples


  1. How many of his books have penguin published over the years ? all the best stu

  2. Hi Stu,

    A quick count suggests that they published at least 66 of the titles, of which I've only come across four so far (and read three).

  3. Just stumbled across this wonderful site. I have a weakness for Penguins myself (though had no idea about the coding on the spine) and applaud your efforts. Will be returning!



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