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lettre à mon juge

30 august 2016

Lettre à mon juge is one of Georges Simenon's romans durs, his "tough novels," but it's more than just tough: it's nasty, evil, and several other synonyms for qualities beyond tough.

Like Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the novel takes the form of a letter from a convicted murderer in his cell. But while Humbert Humbert is only posturing in addressing his "ladies and gentlemen of the jury," we get the idea that Simenon's Alavoine is cultivating a much more personal connection to his "judge," the prosecuting magistrate Coméliau. Coméliau appears in many of Simenon's novels, never as a central character, often as a foil for Jules Maigret.

Alavoine is a stone-cold-crazy killer. But unlike Lolita, where we know from the start that Humbert is stone-cold crazy and a killer to boot, Lettre à mon juge starts slowly and plausibly. We aren't even sure who Alavoine has killed until about halfway through his narrative. He keeps talking about people we'd imagine to have been in his line of fire (his mother, his wife) but in such a way that we know they're still alive.

Another way of putting it is that we know Humbert is an unreliable narrator from the moment he reflexively refers to his "fancy prose style." We aren't sure that Alavoine is unreliable till quite late in the game, after he's won us over with ample displays of reliability. He's grown up in rural poverty, just as Coméliau's father did; Coméliau is a generation ahead in climbing the social ladder. Alavoine has become a village physician. But where Alavoine Sr. had a vice, drinking, his physician son has one that will prove deadlier: women. He has to move after an incident with a female patient. He outlives his first wife and remarries a socially-conscious, cold woman who is terribly jealous – not of Alavoine's romantic attentions, but of her place in society as his wife, and of her acknowledged mastery of his household and his private life.

When Alavoine meets Martine, a woman of the demimonde who is between protectors, he falls passionately in love with her – well, that's what he tells us, just as Humbert tells us he loves Lolita. And like Humbert, Alavoine becomes violently obsessed with the woman he loves, monopolizing her time, bringing her into his ménage, beating her, realizing that he desires her so much that one day he'll have to kill her. Somewhere along the line from desperate attraction to domestic violence to offhand murderousness, we realize that Alavoine has gone off the deep end – or perhaps, was treading water there all along.

Alavoine writes to Coméliau partly to establish his mental competence. He's been saved from the guillotine by Coméliau's insistence that he killed Martine out of passion, not premeditation. But Alavoine offers his homicidal ideations as evidence that he had planned to kill Martine all along. Ironically, his mad attempt to prove his sanity only further confirms his madness.

Lettre à mon juge is not easy to read, but about halfway through it becomes impossible to put down. It's an example of Simenon at his craftiest and best.

Simenon, Georges. Lettre à mon juge. 1947. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 2016.