“I’m not nice and I’m too old to start now.”
The Grandmother by Simenon focuses on the relationship between two women, an affluent young woman and her elderly grandmother. When the novel begins, Sophie Emel is living with her friend, Lelia in a large Parisian flat. A police superintendent with a rather sensitive problem contacts Sophie. It seems that fifteen years earlier, Sophie’s grandmother, Juliette, simply disappeared. At age sixty-five, she walked away, and there’s been no news of her since. But it seems that for this entire time, Juliette has actually been living nearby in a house that is about to be demolished. The old lady, now eighty, is the last tenant left, and although there are no utilities, she refuses to leave, threatening suicide if anyone tries to storm her tiny flat.
With no clear plan in mind Sophie agrees to try to persuade her tenacious grandmother to leave the depilated flat. To everyone’s surprise, Juliette agrees to leave, accepting Sophie’s offer to move into her flat. But almost immediately Sophie makes the offer, she begins to regret it.
A strange, creeping power struggle starts to take place within Sophie’s flat: “a complicated game full of subtleties and nuances.” The maid, Louise, who was at first hostile to Juliette’s presence shifts loyalties from Sophie to her grandmother, and even though Juliette occupies a tiny room in the flat, somehow Sophie feels stifled by the forced relationship. While Sophie has a horror of sharing her life with a man, she finds that she resents Juliette’s suffocating, constant presence.
Sophie leads a peculiar life. She’s a dilettante, a playgirl who largely avoids men and engages in thrill-seeking sports as a pastime. There are hints of lesbianism between Sophie and Lelia, and Juliette understands that her granddaughter tends to patronize a series of troubled young women, and ultimately flings them aside when their emotional baggage becomes too messy and complicated.
Sophie becomes obsessed with her grandmother, and she frequently attributes sinister motives to the grandmother’s simplest act. Are her suspicions correct? Is Juliette insane as the superintendent implies or is she just a lonely old lady? They are too much alike, and Juliette is capable of seeing and understanding the darkest corners of Sophie’s soul. Recognition of each other’s true characters make them both uncomfortable, and their domestic arrangement becomes increasingly impossible until it becomes obvious that something must change….
The Grandmother is perhaps one of the more puzzling Simenon novels I’ve read so far, and certainly not my favourite. But that said, I’m still mulling over some of the book’s implications. Georges Simenon is perhaps best known for his Maigret series, but The Grandmother is one of his psychological romans durs (hard novels).