where there was no way to turn aside either to the right hand or to the left." Numbers 22:26
Georges Simenon was nothing if not prolific in both his literary and public life. Born in Belgium in 1903, Simenon turned out hundreds of novels. Simenon's obsession with writing caused him to break off an affair (he was prolific in this area of his life as well) with the celebrated Josephine Baker in Paris when he could only write twelve novels in the twelve month period in which they were involved. Although best known for his Inspector Maigret detective novels, Simenon also wrote over a hundred novels that he referred to as `romans durs' (literally "hard novels"). The publishing arm of `"NYRB Books is reissuing Simenon's hard novels. "The Widow" is their latest release (as of this writing). NYRB chooses its Simenons wisely. "The Widow"is a fine book.
I've sometimes thought of the arc of a person's life as one that consists of a series of narrowing options. On the day we are born the options available to us seem limitless. But the decisions made for us and the decisions we make every day serve to winnow out our options. It struck me, as I read "The Widow" that a typical Simenon story presents us with characters whose options seem so constrained to them that their actions, often desperate and violent, appear inevitable. "The Widow" is no exception. Tati is a middle-aged widow, living in a small village in a house owned by her aged father-in-law. She has clawed her way up to this not quite middle-class existence and will endure hard work and the infrequent sexual demands of the father-in-law to maintain her rightful place in this home. Jean, is a murderer, recently-released from a French prison. Unlike Tati, he comes from a solid, relatively wealthy local family. They meet on a bus and Tati decides without hesitation that Jean will provide her with help around the farm. Jean sees Tati as someone who can provide him with food, shelter, and a bedtime companion. This mutually beneficial relationship works out fine for a while, until Jean discovers the attractive young girl (Tati's niece) that lives on the adjacent property. From that point on the relationship between Jean and Tati takes a turn for the worse and continues to deteriorate. In a very real sense the options available to Jean and Tati are so dramatically narrowed in such a short span of time that each feels that his/her actions are inevitable, almost commanded by fate. The conclusion, while predictable, is powerful not because of the actions that bring about that conclusion but because of the overpowering sense of fate that drives the actions. Reading "The Widow" was like watching a storm at sea. You can see it a long ways off, you know it is coming, yet when it arrives it still manages to knock the wind out of you.
Paul Theroux's "Introduction" was interesting and on point. Theoroux points out the comparisons often made between Simenon and his contemporary, Albert Camus. Their writing shares much in terms of the sense of alienation and despair that infuses their characters. Theroux notes that Simenon never seemed to suffer the agony of the writer and believed that the ease with which words spilled out of him and on to paper were held against him by the literary establishment. He didn't suffer enough for his writing to be accorded the highest accolade. I tend to agree with that point. I don't believe, however, that Simenon's writing surpassed that of Camus. I do think that the comparison itself is valid and that each is good enough to be discussed in the company of the other.
"The Widow" is a fine example of the craft of Georges Simenon. Highly recommended. L. Fleisig
Intriguing novel completed just before the outbreak of WWII and published only in 1942. Full of dark portents foreshadowing high drama, but also a story from which readers may draw their own conclusions. Is it a chess match or family feud about a farmhouse? A rustic novel full of pre-war professions and no electricity, with the widow of the title managing quite well to live from two cows, poultry, eggs, rabbits, some vines and pther produce? Or a character study of two extremes, the enterprising, stingy widow Tati and dissolute Jean (28) with his privileged background, who moves in with her? Tati is a control freak intent to innovate and expand. She uses Jean as a farmhand and hopes he will become her trusted ally against the Others. After all, Jean wants to keep on living at the farmhouse too. But not with only Tati at his side… Jean is an existentialist antihero, catapulted into a life he has not asked for, a spoiled weakling who gave up on school at age 14. Since then, he has lived a dissolute life in Paris, always financially dependent on his dad. When Tati and Jean first met in the red country bus, Jean was broke and recently released from a five-year prison term for what was a capital crime. Is hard work enough to exorcise his demons? Too realistic for reading clubs?