Sunday, 8 February 2015

Penguin no. 2064: The Premier
by Georges Simenon

Cover design by Romek Marber.
     For a long time the Premier had paid no attention to the deaths of people in his circle, most of whom were his elders. He considered they had had their day, even those who died at fifty.
     Then when men hardly older than himself began to die as well, he had sometimes felt a certain selfish satisfaction, if not downright pleasure.
     Someone else had been taken, and he was spared!

In The Premier, Simenon sketches the inner life of a man who has lived beyond his time and who finds himself to be almost the last member of his generation still to be living. This quirk of fate has left him watching, and having to come to terms with, the process of his own gradually-increasing obsolescence.

And so this is a story about transience, of how things like youth, beauty and influence cannot be held forever, and about how someone who has known the acme of success copes with the inevitable receding of his faculties and his importance.

The Premier has lived his life at the very centre of power. He has been a member of twenty-two governments, and the central figure in eight, so that France during the Premier's era seems - at least to an outsider - a fairly unstable country, moving always away from one crisis and towards another, with a change of government seemingly the only mechanism available to deal with any deadlock. With such a history, the Premier has become accustomed to viewing himself as his country's saviour, and an essential part of any possible solution. The paragraph quoted above makes it clear that he is not the most pleasant man, and that he could readily be described as self-concerned.

Time has moved on and things have changed. The Premier is portrayed throughout this novel as belonging to a different age, and as he sits in his worn Louis-Phillippe armchair, surrounded by the artefacts of an esteemed life, he can seem to have been left behind by the passage of time. Almost every item he owns has been given to him by some foreign dignitary, and so there is no escaping the reminders of his illustrious career, or the fact that it is all behind him.

As he sits in his armchair one stormy evening, listening to the wireless, he learns of the latest crisis besetting the French government. The President has been called on once again to canvass the options in order to find someone who can bring together a coalition government which will allow the country to continue functioning. It is a situation which excites the Premier and, though he is far from Paris, he doesn't question for a moment that he will be integral to any solution, just as he has always been before. He waits to be consulted, expecting a late-night phone call or perhaps a visit - but he waits in vain.

And so this is the night on which the Premier is to learn that he has ceased to be relevant to present-day France. He has become a part of his country's past, revered as an historical figure; he is no longer sought out but he is not forgotten. He realises that he has become a prisoner of a legend that has been built up through time: he now belongs to France, but this means that he is no longer his own man. As he reflects on his situation he sees that he is no longer being trusted to make decisions for himself; at the same time his every whim is accommodated, even though this means imposing on others, but their recompense is the reflected glory from being attached to the Premier.

This is a portrait of what a great man is reduced to in his dotage: difficult, haughty and self-concerned, but also isolated and lonely. Everything that matters is behind him, and his prospects include death, and a statue, or an avenue, named in his honour.

Le Président was first published in 1958. This translation (by Daphne Woodward) was published by Hamish Hamilton in 1961. Published by Penguin Books in 1964.

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1222: Maigret's Mistake
Penguin no. 1362: Maigret and the Burglar's Wife
Penguin no. 1419: My Friend Maigret
Penguin no. 1594: Maigret's First Case
Penguin no. 1678: Maigret and the Old Lady
Penguin no. 1680: Maigret Has Scruples
Penguin no. 1854: The Little Man from Archangel
Penguin no. 2024: Maigret Mystified
Penguin no. 2028: Maigret Stonewalled
Penguin no. 2028: Maigret at the Crossroads
Penguin no. 2251: Maigret in Court
Penguin no. 2253: The Widower
Penguin no. 2590: The Iron Staircase



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