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la fuite de monsieur monde

26 september 2017

Not all of Georges Simenon's novels concern crime, but most do; La fuite de Monsieur Monde is one of his better-known books that isn't really a crime story. But Monsieur Monde shares settings with his Maigret novels and his romans durs: the bourgeois houses where every family member is an enigma to every other, the nightclubs and bars where people make desperate compromises just to get through the evening, the grim lodging houses and cheap hotels of mid-20th-century France, or rather, perhaps, of the mid-20th-century imagination of a prolific Belgian writer.

Simenon's was a selective imagination. He wrote La fuite de Monsieur Monde in the German-occupied Vendée in early 1944, but the war is scrupulously absent from the text. M. Monde is a Parisian businessman who flees his home without warning and heads for the Mediterranean – Vichy territory in 1944, but the contrast between occupied Paris and Vichy Marseille and Nice leaves no trace in the novel. Like many of Simenon's books, Monsieur Monde seems to take place in a France from which the experience of both world wars has been abstracted. It's a coherent world, but an oddly fantastic one, especially for a writer renowned for his near-cinematic realism.

La fuite de Monsieur Monde centers on a single aphorism: "Il arrive que rien ne soit plus faux que la vérité [Sometimes nothing is falser than the truth]" (18). The "truth" in this case, as the current Madame Monde has related it to a police commissioner, is that M. Monde vanished after work one day, after making a significant withdrawal from his bank account. He has no mistress, he is involved in no scandal or defalcation. He has no known enemies, and no reason to disappear.

But what seems inexplicable to his wife is something that's been building inside Norbert Monde for many years. As a young man, he'd wanted to vanish; as a married man with kids, he'd wanted to vanish – except that his first wife beat him to it, leaving him with children to raise. He'd always resisted this internal centrifugal force. But without much planning, it overcomes him one random day, and he gets on a train for Marseille, wearing a cheap second-hand suit and carrying a big bankroll.

M. Monde is fleeing, among other things, the sense that he has always had to dutifully take care of people: his feckless father, his immature first wife, his business, his faineant son, his sponging daughter, his status-conscious second wife. But like the great absconders of American literature – Hawthorne's Wakefield, Hammett's Flitcraft – M. Monde quickly finds himself doing the same old thing somewhere else. He's barely checked into a Marseille hotel when he hears a despondent woman threaten suicide in the next room when her lover abandons her. He saves Julie and gets her back on her feet; the two of them head for Nice, where they get jobs in a nightclub – she as a B-girl, he as a front-of-house factotum. One of the habitués of the club turns out to be Monde's long-scarpered ex-wife Thérèse, now a morphine addict; soon, Monde is nursing her back to health, too.

Along the way, Monde loses his bundle of cash to a thief, but in one of the novel's odd but convincing psychological details, he is relieved by the loss, which makes him for the first time a truly free man. Even though the money was his free and clear – he and the present, independently wealthy Mme. Monde had no community property – Monde feels vaguely as if he's stolen the cash, and is happy to see it stolen in turn.

La fuite de Monsieur Monde builds toward a second aphorism.

Quand il restait un quart d'heure devant son miroir pour se raser, se faisait souvent l'effet d'un enfant veilli. Est-ce qu'un homme est jamais autre chose?

[When he stood in front of the mirror for a quarter of an hour, shaving, he often got the impression that he was looking at a superannuated child. Is a man ever anything else?] (172)
Maybe a cliché, but a cliché that Simenon, by dint of patient character study, earns the right to repeat.

Simenon, Georges. La fuite de Monsieur Monde. 1945. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 2016.