The Widow by Georges Simenon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”Murder shall entail the death penalty when it precedes, accompanies or follows another crime.”
“It just happened. As though a moment comes when it's both necessary and natural to make a decision that has long since been made. ”
― Georges Simenon
When Jean meets the eyes of the widow Tati on the bus he feels a slight shudder in the universe; and decides, on the spur of the moment, that he is going to get off the bus. It is the French countryside, so when Tati sees Jean walking up to her door she knows he is there for her.
Tati was indentured to the Couderc farmstead at the age of 14. She became pregnant by the son necessitating a quick wedding leaving two sisters, now sister-in-laws, bitter that the hired help now has the inside track on the inheritance. She has a father-in-law, Couderc, who chased her around the stables, the table, and eventually into a mound of hay or bed if one is convenient. This is long before her husband dies.
She is now 45 years old and would not be considered beautiful.
”...he pursed up his lips as though smiling to himself. Perhaps he was amused at widow Conderc’s wen. Everyone called it ‘the wen’. It was on her left cheek, a spot the size of a five-franc piece, a spot covered with hundreds of brown, silky hairs, as if a piece of animal’s hide, a marten say, had been grafted there.”
The Wen was the size of a Five franc coin.
She has a squat and solid body made for farm work. As Conderc starts to have more and more marbles rattling loose in his head. The bulk of the work has fallen to Tati. She has ideas about how to produce more income from the farm. Her “cunning eyes” are not just for show. She needs help and Jean’s arrival could not have been more perfectly timed.
She takes Jean to bed... right after church.
She explains that she will still need to give a “bit of fun” to the demented, but still horny Conderc. That does not concern Jean, after all he has just been released from prison, and from both perspectives it only seems practical that they will occasionally have sex. It isn’t love, nor lust, but simply a business arrangement.
There is one fly in the milk.
”He had nothing to say to her. He craved to be near her, but he had never thought of saying this or that. As he walked, he observed her profile and noted that her lower lip was full, almost swollen, which gave her a reflective, even a pouting look. She also had a very white, very fine skin, like all red-haired women, and very tiny ears.”
Ahh the girl next door.
Tati’s niece... Felicie. She is only sixteen, but she already has a child. The arrangement with Jean might be business, but no 45 year old woman wants to find herself competing for the attentions of a man with a 16 year old girl. Business or not, the green-eyed monster of jealousy stirs to life.
”Every person condemned to death shall be decapitated.”
As word of Jean’s criminal background circulates the countryside, the two sisters decide that it is too dangerous for Conderc to reside with someone so dangerous. There becomes this comical tug of war between the three women for possession of an old fool, that except for the inheritance, has no worth to anyone.
Simenon has so many potential flashpoints percolating throughout the plot. The speculation becomes what will happen first. There is this growing unease as the suspense reaches this high pitched sound like a teapot singing under heat. As Jean is put under more and more pressure we wonder can he escape himself.
Albert Camus...the rival.
I did not realize until I read the fascinating introduction for this book written by Paul Theroux that Georges Simenon had a rivalry with the decade younger Albert Camus. Theroux gives us an idea of the comparison.
”If reading Camus represents duty, Simenon represents indulgence, a lavishness that seems frivolous, inspiring a greedy satisfaction that shows a self-consciousness in even the most well-intentioned introductions to his work, the critic’s awkwardness over a pleasurable text, together with a shiver of snooty superfluity and the palpable cringe, common to many introducers of a Simenon novel, What am I doing here?
Simenon takes some sorting out, because at first glance he seems easily classified and on second thought (after you have read fifty or sixty of his books) unclassifiable. The Camus comparison is not gratuitous--Simenon often made it himself, and Andre Gide brought the subject up a few years after The Stranger appeared, favoring Simenon’s work, especially this novel.”
Interesting enough The Stranger and The Widow were both published in 1942.
In 1937 Simenon predicted he would win the Nobel Prize within ten years. When Camus won the Prize in 1957 Simenon was most gracious.
”Can you believe that asshole got it and not me?”
It is easy to dismiss Simenon because of the prodigious size of his oeuvre especially in comparison to the slender collected works of Camus. Quantity can be assumed to mean a loss of quality. In regards to Simenon that is simply not true.
We can be distracted by Simenon’s life. He boasted he’d slept with 10,000 women ( long before Wilt Chamberlain boasted a similar number). Simenon’s second wife, after putting pen to paper, came up with a number closer to 1,200, still he was a busy little beaver. He also had an unusual arrangement, living with three women including his ex-wife, his wife, and his secretary all of whom also provided him with sexual entertainment. Despite their best efforts he still constantly sought the services of the bordellos that were, and probably still are, in plentiful supply in Paris. His style is easy to read. You will not be looking up words. He would consider that a failure of style. Nor will you have moments of confusion over a complicated sentence. His books are gritty, real, and always have a final punch that leaves you staring up at the stars thinking to yourself “I didn’t see it coming.”
”Any murder committed with premeditation or preceded by ambush is defined as assassination…”
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