Tag Archives: Belgian fiction

Camera: Jean-Philippe Toussaint

“In the battle with oneself and reality, don’t try to be courageous.”

Last year I read Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s Monsieur, the story of a man whose private life places him in a series of predicaments. Camera has some similarities, but of the two, I preferred Camera. This is a simple tale quirky, amusing and light in the beginning, but the plot takes a darker turn. This is the novella’s opening line, and if it appeals to you, you’ll probably like the story:

It was at about the same time in my life, a calm life in which ordinarily nothing happened, that two events coincided, events that, taken separately, were of hardly any interest, and that considered together, were unfortunately not connected in any way.

The story begins with an anonymous man showing up at the driver’s ed. office, but it later turns out that this isn’t his first attempt at learning how to drive.  There’s something about this character and boundaries, and we see this almost immediately. Pascale, the young woman at the drivers ed. office needs certain paperwork completed and photos of potential students. The completion of the application becomes a long drawn-out affair which requires numerous trips to the driver’s ed office.

It seemed to me that, in order to be able to turn in the application, the only things that were missing, apart from the self-addressed envelope, were the photos. Before leaving, I let her know that, speaking of photos, a little while ago at my house, I had found some photos of myself when little. Why don’t I show them to you, I said while taking out the envelope from my coat pocket, and, walking around to the other side of her desk, I went through them once by one, leaning over her shoulder in order to point out what I was explaining. 

The next day, he returns, without the required photos, makes himself comfortable in her office and while Pascale can only offer tea, the narrator demands coffee, so off Pascale trots to get coffee. In the meantime, a young student appears at the door. The young man, seeing someone inside the building, during office hours, knocks persistently.

I put my paper down again and  got up to answer the door–this guy was going to get it. What do you want? I asked. I just turned eighteen, he said (as if he was trying to impress me). We’re closed, I said. But I was already here yesterday, he added. I just wanted to drop off my application. Let’s not be stubborn, I said, slowly closing my eyes. I shut the door. 

Gradually the self-obsessed narrator invades Pascale’s life, and she seems the perfect match. He’s charmed by Pascale noting “although she could be very lively, that she permanently challenged life with a lethargy that was just as remarkable.” Whereas the narrator questions everything, dissects every event, Pascale manages to snooze through life. Soon he’s meeting her son and father, has a pedicure, battles for a propane tank and takes a trip to London–all fairly pedestrian events during which a romance begins between Pascale and the narrator. Underneath all of these events, there’s a connective acknowledgement of the passage of time, and a “move progressively from the struggle of living to the despair of being.” 

I’ve read some criticisms of the novella stating that nothing really happens in the plot. I don’t agree: this is about the mundane quality of life as observed by a self-obsessed man who worries about decay and who slides into an existential crisis. My edition, from Dalkey Archive Press, contains an interview with the author.

My approach, rather obscure to those unfamiliar, was based on the idea that in my struggle with reality, I could exhaust any opponent with whom I was grappling, like one can wear out an olive, for example, before successfully stabbing it with a fork, and that my propensity not to hasten matters, far from having a negative effect, in fact prepared for me a fertile ground where, when things seemed ripe, I could make my move with ease. 

Translated by Matthew B. Smith

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The Stranger Next Door: Amélie Nothomb

“There are no exterminators for neighbors.”

Emile and Juliette Hazel have been married for 43 years, and when Emile retires from his job as a Greek and Latin high school teacher, the couple look forward to the perfect retirement. In their minds that means moving from the hustle and bustle of the city to the pristine peacefulness of a small isolated house in the country, “less out of a love of nature than out of a need for solitude.” They can’t believe their luck when they find the House:

When we saw the House, we had a wonderful feeling of relief: this place we’d been aspiring to since childhood existed after all. If we had dared to imagine it, we would have imagined a clearing just like this one, near a river, with this house-the House-pretty, invisible, a wisteria climbing its walls.

Yes, a dream come true. What could possibly go wrong?

The Stranger next door

So Emile and Juliette, a loving couple who look forward to growing old together, buy the house and move in. They are four miles from the village of Mauves, but not to worry, they have a neighbor. A doctor, no less, and surely having a doctor nearby is a good thing, isn’t it?….

A week after moving in, at four in the afternoon, there’s a knock at the door. The gargantuan Dr Palamedes Bernardin, a morose man who resembles a “depressed Buddha,” stays exactly two hours. It’s a horrible visit for the Hazels as they try everything possible to engage the monosyllabic Bernardin in conversation. But what’s even worse is that the visit becomes a dreaded, oppressive, tedious daily event. Initially the Hazels employ a series of tactics: escape, frivolity, open-ended questions and even boredom–anything to put an end to Bernardin’s visits, but nothing works. And then they meet his wife.

The Stranger Next Door, from Belgium author Amélie Nothomb, with its twisted dark ironies and black humour should appeal to fans of Pascal Garnier. Garnier seems to take delight in throwing his characters into adverse circumstances–circumstances in which we have a good laugh at their discomfort as they struggle, and are captured, in the mighty fist of fate. That same sort of feeling is here, but the tale is told in the first person. We enter the mind of Emile–a man who feels trapped by politeness, and who, over time, driven to breaking point, feeling smaller in the eyes of his wife, takes a dark path from which there is no return.

And here’s one of my favourite quotes, ironic under the circumstances:

It’s true that someone will always say that good and evil don’t exist: that is a person who never had any dealings real evil. Good is far less convincing than evil, but it’s because their chemical structures are quite different.

Like gold, good is never found in a pure state in nature: it therefore doesn’t seem impressive. It has the unfortunate tendency not to act; it prefers, passively, to be seen.

Evil, on the other hand, is like a gas: it’s not easy to see, but it can be detected by its odor. It’s most often stagnant, disbursed in a suffocating sheet; initially this aspect makes it seem inoffensive, but then suddenly you see it at work and you realize the ground it has won, the tasks it has accomplished. And by then it’s all over; gas cannot be expelled.

Many of us have had to deal with obnoxious neighbours and/or pushy people in our lives, so the situation in the book feels very real and makes us question how we would react in the circumstances. Pushiness is a type of manipulation because it forces the target to move out of the comfort zone and engage in behaviours he, or she, would not normally employ.  The Stranger Next Door , a delightful, darkly funny, nimble surprise, will make my best-of-year list.

Translated by Carol Volk

Originally published as Les Catilinaires

 

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The Dance of a Sham by Paul Emond

Brilliantly witty, mercurial and almost disorienting, The Dance of a Sham is narrated by a wily character who recounts, with some zest and no small admiration, the exploits of his more conniving friend, Caracala. The narrative is one long sentence which pours out of the narrator’s mouth with lightening speed.  Have you ever been in a situation, perhaps at a party, work, or at the pub, trapped in a corner while someone tells you a story that sounds less-than-authentic? You could, perhaps, escape but choose not to because the storyteller’s energy, sheer force of personality, and gift for bullshit becomes almost mesmerizing. At about 160 pages, The Dance of a Sham is the perfect length for this sort of narrative voice; any longer and you might have to seek the advice of a Professional.

the dance of a shamCaracala, is according to the narrator who admires him, a man “with the gift of the gab and crafty as a monkey to boot.” Here the narrator brags about the carousing and mayhem the two men indulge in.

we could drink all night and stay up the whole next day fresh as a daisy, occasionally the police found me one time and brought me home, my mom was shouting, haven’t you brought enough shame on us already, eh, haven’t you, and she was shouting so loudly the police were more scared that I was  they cleared out really quick, apologizing for the inconvenience but my mom wasn’t listening, I was the one she was after, you see, and she went on with her litany, aren’t you ashamed, don’t you feel any shame, I’ve got to say, that was a serious bit of merrymaking, I’d been out with my buddy for three days and went to every bar in a seven-mile radius, I’d even lost him at some point without realizing, he must have stayed with some girl because you couldn’t imagine the success he had with the young ladies, he’d serve them up one of his nest speeches, hot, just the right word to get them giggling and he had a knack even with the most reluctant ones, they never had time to get bored with him, he was never one to beat around the bush, my method’s a straight line, he’d say, cutting the air with his hand, but once it was over there was no question of sentimental primness, it was more of a hello, can I slide into your bunk, drop my little men and see you later, he had to have all of them , a blond then a brunette, one after the other, he was the champion of hanky-panky and proud of it but they knew what he was like and didn’t hold it against him, not usually, except one who wanted to kill him because she got pregnant, he claimed he wasn’t the father, no way I’m going to be the pigeon here he told me

That particular part of the tale doesn’t end well, but this is just one episode in Caracala’s demolition-derby-of a life. The story of Caracala’s escapades escalate seamlessly in severity, and the adventures of an amoral Lothario slide into criminality.  In his relationship with Caracala, the narrator compares himself to “that guy on his donkey following a half-crazy knight around,” so we need no more evidence about the narrator’s view of himself, but wait… just as we get one impression of the narrator’s slippery relationship with Caracala, that impression shifts and the narrator’s admiration of the lowlife Caracala morphs into something different, something much darker. The narrator’s versions of events alters–there’s the woman he claimed he liked, Marie-Ange who became fat and unhappy after she married someone else. End of story, or so we think, and yet in subsequent versions she has a “bad reputation,” has an “affair with the station-master,” and brags about her “flings.” The various images we are given of this woman are completely different. How much is delusional fantasy? Lies? Insanity? As the story continues and various versions of events multiply and shift, the truth becomes more elusive, and it becomes entirely possible that our narrator is a murderer.

there are some things that are hard to tell, you hesitate, procrastinate, you know, there are stories you wouldn’t envy share with your best friend, stories you try to bury once and for all in the most unobtrusive corner of your little imaginary garden, and if by some unfortunate chance they resurface one day, you feel so nauseous you’d rather be dead.

Slowly the mask slips:

the more far-fetched stories you tell them, the more they believe them, the bigger the starship you paint for them, the more they start itching for an implausible journey, but it isn’t easy to fool your listener, to lie well, to lie sensitively, if I can put it that way, there’s an art to it, you have to be able to stand your listener in front of a mirror, then slip a second mirror between his face and the first one, and then another, and another, and you go on like that as long as you like and your victim keeps smiling sweetly at each new mirror, doesn’t have a clue what’s going on.

We have every reason to doubt what the narrator tells us, and the persona he presents, that of an idle, naïve, careless man with little thought of the consequences of his actions, is replaced by something else entirely.  I would normally pass on a novel that consists of one long sentence–even if it’s less than 200 pages, but in The Dance of a Sham, the narrative voice matches the slippery tale. The style could be stream-of-consciousness, but when you consider just what we’re being told, it’s clear that what flows from the narrator’s mouth isn’t stream of consciousness at all;  it’s cleverly conceived fabrication deliberately weaved around some very dark events.

The novel includes a Q&A interview with the author. One of the most interesting aspects to The Dance of a Sham is the transaction that occurs between the reader and the narrator, and the author addresses the complicity created by the text in this interview and how the book “transgresses” the  “pact” between author and reader. If this all sounds elaborate, it is, but the narrative trumps all other considerations of experimentalism and intellectual exercise. A sociopath will happily construct and deconstruct an event until he finds the version which suits, and this is exactly what happens here.

Translated by Marlon Jones.

Review copy 

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Magnet of Doom by Simenon

Watching the films of Jean-Pierre Melville led me to Simenon’s novel, Magnet of Doom (The First-Born). Magnet of Doom is one of Simenon’s non-Inspector Maigret, Romans Durs (hard novels) so it’s highly recommended for noir fans. Melville’s version of the novel, a 1963 film called  L’Aine Des Ferchaux stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel, a washed-up boxer who latches on to a disgraced millionaire. With murder charges and a subsequent scandal about to break, Ferchaux employs Michel as his personal secretary and together they flee France.  Melville’s film strands the two men in the American deep south, and the film is a sometimes peculiar reflection of Melville’s fascination with American culture. You can see the film and then read the book without spoiling either. You’ll recognize the basic raw material, but that’s as far as it goes.

l'aine de ferchauxOne of the frequent themes in the films of Melville is loyalty between men, so it should come as no surprise to Melville fans that Michel and Ferchaux develop an usual, and even unhealthy bond–you could apply the term ‘co-dependency’ here, but while Melville’s film is ultimately positive when it comes to analyzing the relationship between the aging millionaire and Michel, the Simenon novel on which the film is based is far darker. If there’s any truth to the idea that a relationship can be judged by the way it alters the people involved with each other, then the relationship between Simenon’s characters Ferchaux and Michel Maudet is toxic.

In the novel, Michel Maudet, the son of “small insolvent tradesfolk,” is desperate for work when he applies for the job as a secretary to the very wealthy Dieudonné Ferchaux. It’s rumoured that he’s a difficult employer and the number of secretaries he’s hired and fired in the recent past are proof that he’s not easy to please. Ferchaux isn’t at his home in the Rue des Chanoinesses–he’s retreated to the country, to his villa. Maudet leaves his long-suffering wife, Lina, alone in their bleak hotel room while he applies for the job, and when he learns that Ferchaux isn’t in Paris, he pursues him into the countryside stranding Lina with no money.

Maudet’s determination to get the job may seem normal, but it sets a precedent–at least as far as his priorities. Ferchaux quickly employs Maudet and the idea emerges that perhaps Ferchaux sees Maudet as a version of himself as a young man–hungry, ambitious, and eager to carve a place for himself in the world. But if Ferchaux feels this way, it certainly isn’t reflected in his initial  treatment of his new secretary who assumes the role of a possession rather than an employee who clocks off after a reasonable amount of time. Maudet, after overcoming his dismay at Ferchaux’s Spartan lifetstyle, admires his new employer and he absorbs his stories as if he might become more like Ferchaux through extended contact. While Maudet admires Ferchaux for his courage and the way he effortlessly flouts moral laws, he also envies the power and the fortune Ferchaux possesses. As their relationship continues, Ferchaux seems to envy Maudet’s youth, and there’s definitely a mutual predatory quality to their relationship–after all, each man possesses something the other man envies:

Ferchaux had his eye on him the whole day long, scanning him, watching for his reactions. Once he had said: “you’re impatient, aren’t you?”

There was no doubt what he meant. Impatient to live, impatient to taste and enjoy all that life had to offer. More than anything perhaps, impatient for power, impatient to get to the top.

“I’m still young,” he answered. “I’ve got time.”

Ferchaux had studied the boy’s pointed teeth, his nervous fingers, his sensitive nostrils. What was he feeling? Admiration, perhaps, and mixed with it, envy.

Wasn’t it his own portrait, his portrait at the age of twenty, that he contemplated in Maudet?

“Admit that if you had to do something a bit crooked to get your foot on the ladder … “

Even though Ferchaux is a phenomenally wealthy man, he has a stingy, mean side, and as the novel continues, it becomes clear that Ferchaux’s character was shaped in the Congo where he lived for over 40 years. Ferchaux may have been brutalized by spending most of his life in the Congo, but he is also one of the brutalizers. There are various stories circulating about his life there, and one of the uglier stories which includes murder of Congo natives is perfectly true–although, of course, Ferchaux has a different version of events. One of Maudet’s duties is to take dictation of Ferchaux’s memoirs, and in the beginning–the early days with Ferchaux, Maudet almost falls in love with his employer. Let’s say it’s a kind of homage, extreme admiration of a man who can command respect and put fear into the hearts of others. Maudet would like to be Ferchaux. There’s the underlying idea that a man like Maudet, a man with few principles to trouble his conscience, would also have thrived in the Congo and, just like Ferchaux, he would made a fortune on the blood on sweat of the natives. Dieudonné Ferchaux’s brother, Emile, also spent time in the Congo, but he minimized this period and got out as soon as he could. Emile lives a life of luxury with a chateau, a chauffeur driven car, wears expensive clothing, and mingles with the cream of French society. Dieudonné Ferchaux, on the other hand, nothing less than a bold unscrupulous adventurer who lost a leg in the Congo, has kept his rough edge, and rebuffs ‘the soft life.’

We could call the beginning of Maudet’s relationship with Ferchaux a honeymoon. After Lina reenters the picture to form an uneasy trio, there’s an emerging sense of jealousy, and she also senses a sort of “vicious” quality in Ferchaux’s attitude to Maudet. At first she doesn’t understand why Maudet admires Ferchaux–a man whose soiled reputation and crimes in the Congo have made headlines, but Maudet defends his choice:

“I’ve got a chance of entering into a world that was closed to me before, as it’s closed to most people. A world in which you juggle with millions–you call the tune and thousands of little people have to dance to it…”

Shortly the three characters-Ferchaux, Maudet and Lina go on the run. With 5 million francs in a suitcase, a large amount of money on deposit in a South American bank and a stash of diamonds, the plan is to live in exile in a godforsaken hole where French law cannot reach. Fate dogs our characters all the way from France to a South American hovel, and there the relationship between Ferchaux and Maudet simmers unhealthily as each man experiences a sick, growing dependence on the other and Maudet mingles with a strange crowd of ex-pats, prostitutes, rich, lonely socialites, and a seller of shrunken heads.

The book’s title, Magnet of Doom refers both to the relationship between the two men and to the idea that the conclusion is ominously unavoidable. In the Congo, Ferchaux did whatever he deemed necessary to bolster his success–he didn’t shrink from murder, torture, & there’s one great scene detailing the very deliberate humiliation of a groveling employee & his wife who’ve established a bourgeois “suburban villa” in the Congo. Morality is absent from Ferchaux’s mind, and so his actions are based on success and survival rather than any moral code. One of the issues between the two men is the question of whether or not Maudet is made of the same material:

“You see Maudet, the question you ask me is one to which no one has the right to answer…. A leopard doesn’t hesitate to jump over a paling, because it knows its strength. But when a jackal tries the same thing and gets caught on the pales….It’s not a pretty sight, that…. I’ve seen it….”

Clearly Maudet initially worships the much older man, but as his power wanes, so does Maudet’s admiration. It’s almost as if Maudet saps the strength from the other man, and perhaps some of this is a natural process. In these two men, however, a terrible and unhealthy dynamic exists with Ferchaux initially baiting Maudet  to see just how far he’ll go:

What Michel wanted to know and what he sought for in Ferchaux’s eyes was the answer to a question that was so vague and terrible, a question which he had never formulated, yet which both men understood, a question which could be summed up in the words: how far?

Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

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Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In by Georges Simenon

“The implication was that Charles Dupeux was the sort of man who might do anything.”

In Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In from author Simenon, mild-mannered accountant Charles Dupeux returns home one day, and much to the astonishment of his wife and daughters, instead of keeping to the routine of joining everyone for the evening meal, he wordlessly retreats to the attic and locks himself in. While Charles’s plump wife, Laurence can’t understand her husband’s actions, she chalks it up to some idiosyncrasy on his part. Their daughters Lulu, Camille and Mauricette are too involved with their own illicit love affairs to be concerned. But when Charles’s self-imposed isolation continues, Laurence begins to wonder if Charles’s behaviour may be rooted in something more than peevish whim.

Charles’s wealthy, unpleasant boss, brother-in-law and business owner Henri Dionnet enters the drama. A cold, harsh and cruel man, it seems somewhat out of character for Henri to become involved or concerned about anyone else’s discomfort. Henri, called to assist in the dilemma, reacts with a surprising amount of emotion. Just what secret exists between these two men is at the heart of this dark novel.

Belgium-born Simenon wrote almost 200 novels and over 15 novellas in his lifetime. Best known for his Maigret novels, Simenon also wrote a substantial number of romans durs (hard novels) known for their psychological complexity. Whereas in some of these novels, he explores the fallout of a man who simply leaves his life of routine and conformity behind (The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Monsieur Monde Vanishes), in Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In, the protagonist does not leave home and instead we discover the dark corners of his character through his domestic and employment experiences. Locked in the attic, in self-imposed isolation, Charles Dupeux gathers his thoughts and also learns his daughters’ secrets.

Dark and unrelenting in its outlook on domestic life, Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In, presents a portrait of a raucous, extended family. Diverse, strong personalities clash at every family gathering. One wife is locked up for her drunken scenes, and various ne-er-do well relatives posture and preen in front of a captive, familial audience. But more than anything else, Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In dissects the nature of power.

Those of us who love Simenon’s romans durs should enjoy this title. Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In was a very quick read, but in spite of that, this perceptive novella reveals layers of human psychology. Charles Dupeux has spent a lifetime as a powerless individual. Unappreciated by his wife and family, treated with contempt by his employer Henri, Charles grasps, without hesitation an opportunity to turn the tables on his boss. Once he has power over Henri, Charles doesn’t have any particular direction for his revenge, but he proceeds to explore the boundaries of his new-found power, relishing every exquisite sensation of “pure joy” until one evening….

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Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

“Weren’t they starting from scratch anyway?”

Loneliness and despair are the core themes at the heart of the novella Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Simenon. Francois Combe is a French actor who left Paris abruptly after his wife, a successful actress, left him for another actor half his age. He’s living alone in a dirty, untidy New York apartment. One evening, the routine and predictable sounds from the neighbours next door, send him out on the streets. He ends up in a bar, and there he meets a 33-year-old woman named Kay. Francois notices her immediately on the next bar stool, and “what he really liked about her were the signs of wear and tear.” She’s homeless and just as lonely and desperate as he is. After more than a few drinks, they check into a cheap hotel. This is the beginning of an affair that is based in mutual need. Both Francois and Kay need somebody–anybody–and it just so happens that they meet and connect.

The interesting thing about the story is the way in which the relationship is encapsulated within 150 plus pages. Francois and Kay immediately latch onto one another, and by the next day, they are already curiously dependant. Francois can’t bear to be parted from Kay, and she worries that he’ll never come back. Relationships always go through phases, and Francois and Kay’s relationship moves rapidly through each of these phases–the glow of the honeymoon period, the possessive phase, the disapproval of a friend–all the way to disillusion and moving apart towards self-protection.

On the unpleasant side, neither Francois nor Kay are interesting or nice people. They are overwhelming desperate, and this desperation oozes into all aspects of their relationship. Kay constantly plays the same old sad songs on the jukebox, and she “seemed to be seeking out the despair of others.” Francois treats Kay rather brutally at one point, and she just absorbs it. They quickly establish a routine together–they get up around noon, walk around the city, and drink at numerous bars along the way. This gets old, and caused me to feel a general lack of interest in the characters or the outcome. The two characters remain somewhat cold and remote in the middle of all this misguided passion. This is not my favourite Simenon.

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Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon

“There are things in life that sometimes you just have to do.”

Simenon’s novel Tropic Moon examines colonialism and how it corrupts those who wield the power–in this case the French residents in West Africa. Simenon presents a world of “ethical blankness” centered around a small town ironically named Libreville. A young, naive Frenchman, Joseph Timor begins to feel a vague disquiet when he arrives in the sweltering African heat. He’s supposed to take up a position stuck in the middle of the jungle at a merchandising outpost. When he arrives, Timor learns that the man he is supposed to replace has gone bonkers and is threatening to shot his replacement if one shows up. If this isn’t bad enough, the boat necessary to take him to the outpost is broken, so in the meantime, Timor heads to the town’s only hotel–the Central–until the boat is fixed.

Socially and culturally, Timor is unprepared for the Central Hotel and its inhabitants. It’s the local hangout for all the bachelors, and Timor soon discovers why when he meets the hotel owner’s notorious wife, Adele. Both Adele and her husband were white slavers in France who were sent in exile. While Timor is at first shocked to see how the French abuse the native population, a combination of constant whisky and Adele’s occasional nocturnal visit to his room soon conquer any scruples he once had. Unfortunately, Timor is too innocent to realize that Adele’s way of welcoming Frenchmen to West Africa is just another means of adding them to her coterie of followers.

As Timor’s code of ethics is washed away by the whisky he imbibes and by the knickerless Adele, he gradually becomes immured by the morals of the colonialists. He becomes disinhibited, and events that would have shocked him just days earlier soon seem perfectly normal and acceptable. When the murder of a young black man occurs, Timor sinks further and further into a moral quagmire until it’s almost too late.

Written in a minimalist style, Simenon doesn’t focus on the psychology of his characters–rather the emphasis is on the gradual desensitization of Timor to colonialism. Timor begins by noting with horror the social and cultural behaviours of the unleashed French, but a few bottles of whisky later, he’s joining in. Things he would have refused to do when he arrived, he grabs with gusto as his morality erodes. Simenon maintains a distance from his characters by not exploring their motivations, and this serves to illustrate that colonialism becomes almost an instinctive reaction for those who embrace its corrupting tentacles.

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Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon

“Nothing lay behind him anymore: nothing lay before him as yet. He was in space.”

Norbert Monde is a responsible, successful Parisian businessman, but on his 48th birthday, he withdraws 300,000 francs from the bank and simply disappears. While his unpleasant wife descends on the police station, he takes a train to Marseilles and quickly becomes absorbed into a new life. Oddly enough, while many people would take the money and whoop it up somewhere glamorous, Monde becomes involved in a tawdry domestic drama.

Author Simenon (author of the Maigret series) subtly explores the possibilities and realities of escape through his protagonist’s adventures. Monde’s desire to simply step out of his life into another is traced back to a childhood memory. He’s always picked up the slack left by the irresponsible behaviour of other people in his life, and then a simple trigger causes him to drop the burden of his old life with its accompanying heavy responsibilities. As Monde escapes, he asks himself, “Was life beginning at last?” But as the saying goes: ‘wherever you go, there you are,’ and Monde is still essentially respectable and responsible no matter the circumstances. He can dump his bourgeoisie life, but he can’t step out of his skin, and so some patterns of behaviour are humorously repetitive.

Monde possesses striking emotional detachment from the drama that surrounds him, but at the same time the novel emphasizes sensory and tactile sensations. Exiled from the cushion of an upper-middle class existence, the odours of poverty assault Monde’s nostrils almost immediately. Stimuli from various sensations flood into Monde’s consciousness and his responses seem to be the only signs that he’s functioning emotionally. A lifetime habit of allowing others to dictate his life has blunted his feelings to the point that they hardly exist. To some, this means he’s a pushover, but Monde finally discovers long-buried resources of determination. In the seedy hotels and bars of Marseilles and Nice, Monde has an unexpected opportunity to resolve some old business and regain his humanity in the process. Monsieur Monde Vanishes is a dark novel certain to please Simenon fans.

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