home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

le déménagement

25 november 2013

Le déménagement, "moving house": Georges Simenon's novella was translated as The Move in 1968 by Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson but has been long out of print in English; it seems never to have made it to paperback in the US or UK. One can see why: it's a relentlessly expository little book, with little plot interest. All the more reason why it should intrigue both Simenon completists and readers interested in the cultural watershed of the 1960s.

Émile Jovis and his tiny nuclear family (himself, wife Blanche, son Alain) have moved from central Paris to a new apartment house on the outskirts.

Un appartement clair, sans papier à fleurs sur les murs, sans recoins poussiéreux, sans la sueur de plusieurs générations de locataires.
[A bright apartment, without flower-print wallpaper, without grubby corners, without the sweat of generations of tenants.] (722)
In the city, the Jovis family knew their neighbors organically, as part of a shared community. In the suburbs, they catch only hints of the lives of others: overheard through the thin walls of their modern apartment building, spied through windows as they drive past. Or do they even live in the suburbs? They're not in the city, they're not in a banlieue, they're not in a village (even the nearest village isn't a village). They're in a lotissement, a neutral word for living nowhere:
Il butait sans cesse sur ce mot-là, en cherchait un autre sans le trouver. Il est quand même désagréable de ne pouvoir définir l'endroit où l'on vit.
[He came up against that word over and over again, trying to find an alternative and failing. It's unpleasant not to be able to define where you live.](723)

Outwardly, everything's fine: Jovis makes a good living as a travel agent, Blanche gets a job at a daycare center, Alain is doing well in school. But "outwardly" is the only existence the family has. Are they happy? Émile is dutiful, Blanche longsuffering, Alain stoic enough for a teenager. But happy, one would have to say no.

"Individuals are so nicely adjusted to a system, and systems to one another, and to a whole, that, by stepping aside for a moment, a man exposes himself to a fearful risk of losing his place forever," wrote Nathaniel Hawthorne in "Wakefield." So it is with Émile Jovis. Moving house brings him literally next door to his funhouse-mirror alter ego. Farran too has a wife and a teenage son, and, of course, a new apartment in a lotissement where none of the old conventions apply. But Farran is buff and brutal. He enjoys loud sex with his eager wife; his kid has all the latest jazz records; he drives a red convertible. And he's the bouncer, or pimp, or something or other, at a shady nightclub that becomes an obsession with Jovis. All the while, Jovis never actually meets Farran; he sees him across the terrace and hears him through the thin walls of the new building.

What follows is a rare excursion by Simenon into stream of consciousness, as Jovis visits the nightclub and his world dissolves into drunken unconsciousness. I don't quite buy the final quarter of Le déménagement. It seems to me that Simenon, in the late 1960s, was more interested in setting up an idea than in making a good story out of it. Like Le confessional and La mort d'Auguste from the same period, Le déménagement is an elaborated situation with a short-story plot as its motor. Like Jacques Tati in Mon oncle (1958) and Playtime (1967), Simenon imagines a world that modernism has made utterly unfamiliar. Unlike Tati, he fills the resulting setting with louche characters and events out of the world of Maigret, knocking down the whole house of cards as he goes.

Simenon, Georges. Le déménagement. 1967. In Tout Simenon 13. Paris: Omnibus, 2002. 660-763.