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la veuve couderc

24 october 2015

A couple of years ago, New York Review Books published a collection of eleven novels by Georges Simenon – the idea was to get into print, in English translation, the best of the best of the prolific author's non-Maigret novels. I have been reading Simenon more intently than almost anything else I've done in life, for over 30 years, and I still had only read three of the eleven. That's how prolific Simenon was, and that's how uncertain the "canon" of his works, in terms of quality, is for the reading public. I don't sense that the situation is much clearer in France. Almost nobody has the time to read them all, so there is no large public consensus about ranking them.

But there's nothing to do but start where you start from. La veuve Couderc, translated simply as The Widow, is a spare story that gets its twist by not having a twist. I'll spoil the plot here as I often do with 75-year-old books, but of course the interest of the story is not in the aforementioned untwisty plot, but in the evocation of an increasingly claustrophobic situation peopled by helpless, limited, driven characters.

Tati Couderc, the middle-aged title widow, picks up a young man she finds on the road, a wanderer who has spent his last francs on bus fare. Jean seems like a nice guy. He's an ex-convict, in fact a murderer, but as murderers go he seems to have a conscience and a future. He is the son of a local industrialist who's basically disowned him. Tati gives Jean a place to stay in the farmhouse she shares with her brutish, doddering father-in-law.

She sleeps with both Jean and the father-in-law, largely because there seems nothing better to do on the farm. It borders a lock on a canal (Simenon's favorite setting), so the world passes by, but the surrounding community is not very energetic, least of all Tati's grasping inlaws. Things go OK. Jean is sort of happy. Tati has plans to start a business breeding chickens.

And then there's Tati's Lolita-like niece Félicie next door; but Jean isn't interested in her. At first. He isn't really that kind of murderer. He'd killed a man in Paris who had taken him for a large sum at cards, but that was a matter of seeing red, a one-time mistake. So after Tati has to take to her bed (after getting smacked in the head with a wine bottle by her ignorant brother-in-law), Jean would never start a blind, almost passionless affair with Félicie that would drive Tati mad with jealousy and lead him to kill her, too …

Which is of course exactly what he does: exactly what Tati's friends and family warn her he's fixing to do, exactly what the arc of an ex-con plot would suggest he wouldn't. It's as if John Garfield had skipped all the murder-conspiracy stuff in The Postman Always Rings Twice and proceeded directly to killing Lana Turner.

The plot is so headlong that the effects of the book are largely interior, from Jean's perspective. Simenon shows Jean as neutrally, comfortably happy with Tati in the oddest sort of negative way – but also presents him as haunted by his original, almost inadvertent murder, and the shadow of the guillotine. The obsessive horror of the death he's avoided leads him inexorably back to courting the same death – not exactly the postman ringing twice (unlike John Garfield, he's guilty of both murders), but the sense that the postman was eventually going to show up, and keep showing up regularly for the rest of his life.

Simenon, Georges. La veuve Couderc. 1942. Paris: Gallimard, 1997.