“When he came out of prison, he had also gone to eat ice cream. They handed him some money, two hundred-odd francs–he did not know exactly why. He had taken a bus. He had slept in one town, then in another, he was committed to nothing, nothing he did possessed either weight or importance.”
George Simenon’s novel The Widow is the latest offering in NYRB’s Simenon revival, and for this fan, long may the reissues last. While this extremely prolific Belgium author who penned nearly 200 novels and over 150 novellas is perhaps best remembered for his Maigret detective books, the psychological complexities of Simenon’s disturbing romans durs (hard novels) should create a legion of devoted fans.
Many of Simenon’s romans durs focus on the lives of perfectly ordinary, conformist middle-aged males who one day abandon their bourgeois lifestyles for the darker side of life (Monsieur Monde Vanishes, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By). In the process, these characters discover that the lives they led were not a matter of choice–but a matter of conformity and conditioning. The protagonists sometimes embrace or at least experiment with danger after meeting an unorthodox male who introduces an escape route through a particular event (Red Lights, The Venice Train). The Widow is an atypical romans durs as it presents a strong central female character–the middle-aged, stocky and domineering Tati Couderc who presides over a farm in the Bourbonnais region. Originally a servant girl, Tati married and outlived the farmer’s son, and then threw out his two sisters. While she controls the household, her father-in-law (referred to as “Old Trash”) still owns the farm. According to his displaced, resentful daughters, Tati takes advantage of their father’s creeping senility, but Tati is convinced he’s far more craftily cognizant of his situation than his daughters realize.
When The Widow begins Tati is riding a country bus home from market when she spies a fellow passenger–a strapping young man named Jean–newly released from prison for murder. While the other passengers on the bus try to ignore this obvious outsider, the widow makes eye contact; something passes between Jean and Tati: “the two had recognized each other.” When Tati gets off at her stop, Jean follows. The widow precipitously employs Jean as a handyman, and he begins living in the house, performing various chores around the farm.
It’s just a matter of time before Tati and Jean begin a sexual liaison, but Tati makes it clear that she also has sex with her elderly father-in-law. Both men accept the fact that Tati periodically services them both–there’s no trace of jealousy, no hint of romance–just uncomplicated couplings based on proximity and need. Tati isn’t a sexy or attractive woman by any means–she’s dumpy, and while a ferocious housekeeper, her personal cleanliness leaves a great deal to be desired.
But while sexual relationships between Tati and the two men in her life are uncomplicated, volatile passions rage over questions of ownership and inheritance. At first the farm offers an idyllic refuge for Jean, but it soon becomes obvious that this seemingly peaceful setting is a nexus of simmering violence, greed and hatred. Jean, the outsider, fresh from prison and the scion of a very wealthy local family, becomes a catalyst for the explosive events that take place.
Paul Theroux’s excellent introduction analyzes the novel and also argues that Simenon is criminally overlooked by academia. And part of the explanation, argues Theroux, is that Simenon was so prolific that “his detractors put him down as a compulsive hack.” Still under appreciated today, many people have yet to discover Simenon’s bleak vision of despair, and that’s really incredible given the sheer number of Simenon novels transferred to the screen. If you’re curious, just visit the Internet Movie Data Base www.imdb.com and search on Georges Simenon. Watch the list of credits appear; it’s impressive.
Theroux compares The Widow favorably to Camus’ L’Etranger, and while I agree with his introduction, I would add that Simenon’s “implicitly existential novel” is also perfect noir fiction. Just consider the Sam Ross novel He Ran All the Way or Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice–novels that present protagonists trapped in a maze of despair and indifference from which there is no escape. In The Widow, Jean is an emotionally numbed drifter who arrives in a seemly idyllic spot only to see it morph into a personal hell. If character is fate, then conditions at the farm force Jean to confront his personal demons once again. His character led him to commit murder 5 years earlier, and the same pressures uncannily re-emerge–this time through an uneven and savage love triangle. Any reader of noir novels will appreciate Jean’s final acceptance of his inescapable fate: “He waited for what could not fail to happen.”