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le confessional

11 january 2011

Leafing through the excellent bibliographical material in volume 13 of Omnibus press's Tout Simenon, I figured out that I have read 73 novels by Simenon – probably not even a quarter of his opus. Seventy-three is enough of a start to dream about reading them all some day, but what kind of accomplishment is that? How do you bring it up in conversation, what points does it get you in life – in effect, who cares? It's not a question that comes up with other authors: it's self-evidently valuable, to a literary type, to have read all of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens. But Simenon wrote so quickly and so disposably that you have to figure that even fans don't have any sense of his complete works, making conversation about them difficult as a whole and impossible in the case of individual books (it's practically at haphazard that you'll ever meet anyone who's read a particular title).

Yet Simenon uses themes that emerge from his work like the proverbial figures in the carpet, if you read far enough and fast enough. Le confessional, a short, tightly-constructed novel from the last years of his career, takes up the theme of turning into one's parents (or, more broadly, the younger generation turning into a mirror of an entire older generation).

André Bar is sixteen and a half. He's preparing to sit his bac, the 1960s French equivalent of A-levels. He's getting interested in Francine, the 17-year-old daughter of family friends. But while on an impromptu date one afternoon with Francine, André sees his mother leaving a dubious block of furnished flats that rent by the hour.

This chance encounter touches off long stretches of dialogue among all the novel's principal characters. It's a talky novel. But then, confessionals are talky places. If the dialogue were sparer and the situation more ominous, Le confessional would be a Pinter play (along the lines of Betrayal, if Betrayal had featured a young-adult son watching his parents' marriage unravel). As it is, the characters explain too much, and the exposition is too elaborate.

Still, despite its flaws, Le confessional gives a stark view of a kid confronting the imminence of adulthood. (At one point, when his mother reveals a conversation she'd had with his father when they were 21, our hero – fond of slot cars and milkshakes – realizes that he'll be having such conversations, with all their permanent repercussions, before he knows it.)

Also very much in the Pinter mode, Le confessional gives us characters who talk at cross-purposes and believe they are entitled to their own facts. Mme. Bar is habitually unfaithful, says M. Bar. M. Bar is pathologically jealous, says Mme. Bar. Each says they love the other and each insists they're unloved in return. Nobody can really be right or wrong. They simply need to see the world in a certain way to cope with getting out of bed the next morning.

Simenon, Georges. Le confessional. 1966. In Tout Simenon 13. Paris: Omnibus, 2002. 115-211.