Sunday, 1 December 2013

Penguin no. 2590: The Iron Staircase
by Georges Simenon

         There were a few others like her, among the housewives streaming up and down the street; middle-aged, well-groomed, self-assured women in good clothes, whom the stall-holders would accost with a coarse jest, if they went past without stopping to buy. Until now, it had never occurred to him, when he had met such women, that they could still have love-affairs.
         He had pictured them in their gloomy but well-kept homes, with family photographs on the walls and mantelpieces .... Only a short while ago, the idea that such women might have secret lives of their own would have seemed to him ridiculous and shocking. Indeed, he had assumed at their age they had done with lovemaking.


I look at this book and wonder how there was ever a time when a cover such as this would be thought the best way to attract the interest of a buying public. It was published by Penguin in 1967, and though I can think of many things from the era which remain appealing (the music of Brasil '66, the film Bullitt), I don't generally consider the covers of the green Penguins published around this time to be among them. The odd thing with this one is that it doesn't even have the redeeming attribute of bearing any relevance to the story. I wonder sometimes if these Penguins may prove to be the most difficult to track down, even though they are not particularly rare, as there seems little to encourage a charity shop worker to believe that this is a book worth placing on a shelf. At least when you find these late '60s green Penguins they are always inexpensive.

This is a story of suspicion and uncertainty. A man closely watches his wife and wonders what she is thinking, and what she may be planning, reflecting obsessively on the possibility that her every trivial action may conceal the most sinister of intentions. And once this idea has taken hold there is no escaping it. Etienne is bedridden with the 'flu, or perhaps it is only a heavy cold, but it gives him the entire day to dwell on his suspicions. His doubts begin to feed upon themselves.

It is the unusual arrangements of their home and their life which allows Etienne to keep his wife Louise under such close observation. They live in a few small rooms on the first floor of an apartment building near Pigalle in Paris, while she spends her days working below in her stationery business on the ground floor. In her parents' day an iron staircase had been fitted to link the bedroom with the shop, and this allows Etienne to lie upstairs during his illness, aware of every word she says, reconstructing her movements in his mind, and looking for the faintest hint that all is not as it seems.

The doubts were first triggered by a suggestion of the doctor's. Etienne had been concerned about his ongoing weight loss, and the attacks which would sometimes strike a few hours after eating. His throat would burn, he would become violently ill, and then it would all pass away. The advice was to keep a record, to attempt a search for an underlying pattern. And Etienne had found one: the attacks only occurred when he ate a dish his wife didn't share. Now he suspects that he is being poisoned, and that his wife wants him dead. He knows their life together lacks excitement, and perhaps she thinks of marrying someone else.

But then Louise may also be watching Etienne, or perhaps Etienne only imagines that this is so. She notices when he gets out of bed, or moves about it, or selects another book; she can hear everything that happens upstairs. How then is Etienne to record his suspicions, when there is the difficulty of hiding these notes from Louise? It is the most claustrophobic marriage; there is no space for either of them to relax. They have spent so much time together in their small, dark and low ceilinged home, that the tiniest deviation is observed. Any spontaneity immediately engenders suspicion.

This is a story concentrating on the thoughts of a lonely, isolated, middle-aged man, who has become too comfortable and suddenly finds his world disrupted. Perhaps he is delusional, or perhaps he knows his wife so well that his suspicions are justified. It is not my favourite Simenon, and I found this character to be far less sympathetic than others he has created. And this story is darker, with the possibility of violence much closer to the surface.

L'Escalier de Fer published in France in 1953. This translation first published by Hamish Hamilton 1963. Published in Penguin Books 1967.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1419: My Friend Maigret
Penguin no. 1680: Maigret has Scruples
Penguin no. 1854: The Little Man from Archangel
Penguin no. 2024: Maigret Mystified
Penguin no. 2253: The Widower

3 comments:

  1. There was nothing so crazy, but that they would not do it in the late 60's and the 1970s.

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  2. I have a weakness for Simenon novels, especially the roman durs like the above. I find when I can't decide what to read next that he always hits the spot. Another nice thing is that you know you'll never run out of his books, such is their volume.

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  3. I would think this book might be appealing all these years later to readers who like the creepy, psychological mysteries. I wonder if this will be one of the ones reprinted. I'm sure the new cover will be better. :<)

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