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.
One 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