“For Rene Maugras, dates and times of day did not exist, and only later on was problem of elapsed time to trouble him. He was still sunk at the bottom of a pit as dark as the abyss of ocean, deprived of contact with the outside world. He did not realize that his right arm had begun to twitch spasmodically, or that each time he breathed out his cheek puffed up in a ridiculous way.”
Simenon’s novel The Bells of Bicetre is the story of Rene Maugras, a prominent Parisian newspaper publisher who suffers a stroke at age 54 and is subsequently hospitalized. Told in the third person, the novel begins with Maugras waking up in hospital after suffering a humiliating collapse in the bathroom of a swanky restaurant.
The Bells of Bicetre follows the progress of Maugras as he regains consciousness only to discover that he’s suffered a stroke that has left him paralyzed on one side of his body. Affluent and influential, Maugras has a private room in Bicetre Hospital and he’s tended by his friend, Dr. Pierre Besson d’Argoulet. The novel explores Maugras’ depression and his feelings of humiliation as his bodily needs are taken care of by total strangers. In spite of the fact he is paralyzed and unable to speak, Maugras develops a different relationship with each of his three nurses. While he’s sexually attracted to the earthy night nurse, Josefa, he becomes possessive of the elegant day nurse, Blanche. But it’s Angele, the coarse Sunday replacement who harasses him out of his stupor and drags him back into the world of the living.
As the days progress and Maugras improves, he feels mesmerized by the church bells that remind him of his childhood and his long-dead mother. Paralyzed and unable to communicate, Maugras finds his mind focusing on certain pivotal, central moments in his life–his love affairs, his friendships and his marriage. Trapped in a hospital bed, he analyzes his bizarre married life with the much younger, unstable, and self-focused Lina.
While I can’t say that The Bells of Bicetre is by any means my favorite Simenon novel, it’s certainly a change of pace. Simenon, an extremely prolific Belgium writer penned nearly 200 novels and over 150 novellas during the span of his long career. Best remembered for his series of Maigret detective novels, I prefer Simenon’s romans durs (hard novels) for their bleak, noir outlook. Nonetheless, The Bells of Bicetre told mainly from the mental meanderings of a stroke patient is testament to Simenon’s skill as a writer.
The Bells of Bicetre doesn’t seem to fit into the romans durs category, but it’s certainly a fascinating read. There’s little interaction between Maugras and his various caretakers and relatively little conversation. The novel is basically a record of Maugras’ painful recovery and his thoughts as he lays helpless in bed. Here he’s finally forced to examine the intimacies of a life he’s largely managed to avoid by concentrating on superficialities and his driving ambition:
“He felt no bitterness. And if he pursued his self-analysis he would discover that he felt no regrets. On the contrary! Deliberately he recalled his previous way of life, up till that last Tuesday morning, and he was surprised at having led such a life, at having attached any importance to it, at having played a game that now struck him as puerile.”