“The longing of a middle aged man to kick over the traces , to break out of the rut.”
I first came across the novels of Belgium author Simenon a few years ago. I’d heard the name before but had never felt compelled to read any of his work. Then after reading a little background on this author, I suspected that I’d really enjoy his novels. Simenon is probably best remembered for his Maigret series, but I am more interested in his Romans Durs (literal translation=hard novels), which are mostly out-of-print. Considering how prolific Simenon was during his lifetime–producing nearly 200 novels and more than 150 novellas, it seems unlikely that I will ever read them all. Still I have a respectable number of Simenon novels on my shelf and from time to time, I am more than ready to sink into the dark world of the romans durs: the sleazy side of life, a bleak sordid world of violent, meaningless crime, inhabited by bored prostitutes, brutal pimps and the middle-class businessmen who stumble into their midst.
The Murderer is not Simenon’s best romans durs, but even so it contains some of the essential, satisfying elements. Set in Amsterdam, the novel’s protagonist is Dr. Hans Kuperus a middle-aged man who receives an anonymous note stating that his wife, Alice is having an affair with the town’s most notorious bachelor, Herr de Schutter. At first Kuperus is stunned. Alice, at least on the surface, doesn’t seem the sort of woman who would engage in a love affair. She’s a plump woman who looks “like a bonbon. She was sugary to the core. She stuffed herself with pastries, and her skin was as pink as sugar icing. For a week at a stretch she could fuss and fiddle with samples before buying a new pair of curtains.”
When the novel begins, the doctor buys a gun and has a vague, ill-conceived plan to commit murder. Fate hands him an opportunity, and the crime is emotionless and startling in its swiftness. Then the novel concentrates on the aftermath….
Following the crime, Kuperus begins to undergo a transformation “as though the bonds that held him down to earth had suddenly snapped.” The small, gossipy town of Sneek rocks with the crime and Kuperus delivers a crafty, believable performance to his colleagues and friends at the local billiard club, but as time passes Kuperus becomes giddy with his success and begins to change his habits. Formerly a much loved town doctor, he imagines that people secretly fear him, and he begins abusing patients, drinks too much and scandalizes the town’s matrons with his behaviour. One of the most disturbing and blackly amusing parts of the book occurs when Kuperus realizes that he has killed Schutter not for cuckolding him, but because Schutter was elected as the president of the local billiard club–a position that Kuperus covets.
Simenon often explores the psyche of the middle-aged, boringly respectable bourgeois male unleashed by some bizarre twist of fate who then derails somewhere along the way to a passive, meek old age–Popinga in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, for example. The underlying message in the case of Kuperus (and his fictional ilk) is that we are not ‘good’ or well-behaved as much by choice as by conditioning, and when Kuperus commits a heinous crime, he gets a taste of life without restrictions and goes wild with his perceived freedom. These characters, such as Kuperus, startle with their seemingly inexplicable aberrant behaviour. Simenon creates worlds in which these characters don’t explode but simply, and silently change direction, and Kuperus is more intriguing and much more dangerous for the sea change that seems to be wrought from nothing whatsoever but begins when routine habits slip just a fraction….
“What did it all amount to? That Kuperus was wrong. That he’d been wrong all his life. That he’d been led up the garden path–the straight and narrow path, into the bargain–and been led nowhere.”
My edition of The Murderer is translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury.