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les anneaux de bicêtre

9 november 2016

Les anneaux de Bicêtre, an unusual title, means "The bells of Bicêtre Hospital." Protagonist René Maugras calls the bells "anneaux," or "rings," because of the Mrs.-Dalloway phenomenon: the sounds that the bells make are like leaden circles dissolving in the air.

Maugras has a lot of time to think about things like this, because he's lying flat on his back in Bicêtre after a hemiplegic stroke. He's unable to move his right side and doesn't feel much like moving his left. He's getting the best of care from the top specialist in France – naturally, since Maugras is one of the nation's most powerful newspaper editors.

The problem, as his eminent-physician friend Besson tells him, is that Maugras doesn't want to get better. He doesn't want to get worse, either. He doesn't want anything. He's been racing at Type-A velocity for 40 of his 50-something years trying to escape a feeling of ennui that came over him as a teenager. Nothing seemed to matter anymore, and nothing since has ever seemed to matter. For the first time in his life, the prostrate Maugras can stop and perversely enjoy a situation where for once, nothing actually does matter.

If this doesn't sound like much of a plot hook, that's because Les anneaux de Bicêtre doesn't have much of a plot. Maugras spends some time in bed reflecting on his life, which passes before his eyes very slowly. But he isn't even really much interested in introspection. His own circumstances are not that important to him, he reflects.

Ce sont les autres, dont il a besoin de gratter la surface, convaincu que, s'il y parvient, il verra plus clair en lui.

[It was others. He needed to get beneath their skin, convinced that if he succeeded in doing so, he'd see into himself more clearly.] (150)
Maugras is a member of an informal club of men, friends from their struggling youth, who have become the leading lights of Paris. These men come to visit him one by one as he convalesces. He wonders about them, about their talents, their backgrounds, their sexuality. His friends too have had their illnesses; he thinks of some who have died. He thinks of their wives. He thinks about his own wives, and his last sustained imagination of another life is that of his own present wife, Lina.

I write "last" as if Maugras died at the end, but it's important to the book that he doesn't. This is not a medical melodrama, with doctors as protagonists and debility as the villain. In fact, Maugras' recovery follows such a classic course that he fumes sometimes about how scripted his life has become. How can he act with free will and conscience if his body behaves so automatically?

Les anneaux de Bicêtre is a really good study of sudden illness and gradual healing, with all kinds of deft observational touches. One wants to guess that it's the record of a hospital stay by Georges Simenon. This does not seem to be the case, though. Simenon did a good deal of research for Les anneaux de Bicêtre, drafting it more carefully than his typical potboilers. Pierre Assouline says that in this novel, "sa préoccupation de l''état de maladie' atteint son paroxysme [his obsession with 'the state of illness' reached its climax]" (Simenon, Gallimard 1996, p. 716). But it was apparently an obsession approached from the outside, not a record of a personal experience.

Before Maugras regains his speech and some range of motion, the telling of Les anneaux de Bicêtre anticipates that of Jean-Dominique Bauby's autobiographical Le Scaphandre et le Papillon ("The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly," 1997). But Bauby's condition, "locked-in syndrome," was rare and strained the imagination. Maugras' is a garden-variety stroke, his recovery not unlike that experienced by many patients a half-century later, despite new technologies and therapies. The banality of his experience and of his psychological situation opens up Maugras' imagination. He keeps a journal where tiny notes evoke entire days of exploration of the condition of others. Bauby was writing for his life; the fictional Maugras seems to live for his eventual writing.

Assouline notes the oddness of one element of Les anneaux de Bicêtre, its preface. Simenon claims to miss the good old days when novels had elaborate authorial prefaces. "C'est difficile à croire … rien ni personne ne l'a jamais empêché de préfacer ses livres [It's hard to believe … nothing and nobody had ever prevented him from writing prefaces to his books]" (Simenon, 717). And it's a strange meta-preface, at that. Rather than talk about the "état de maladie" or any personal relation he might have to it, Simenon talks about how nobody ever prefaces books anymore except with boilerplate about how any resemblance to real people or places is coincidental. Trying to avoid such resemblances, he says, is a novelist's nightmare. The Bicêtre Hospital is a real place, for instance, even if its details, its patients, its personnel are his invention; and how can you invent something convincing without echoing reality? It's a clever observation, but we are no nearer to knowing anything about this odd novel after reading it.

Simenon, Georges. Les anneaux de Bicêtre. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1963.