Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Widow (New York Review Books Classics)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.”

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“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.”

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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.

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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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A World Teetering on the Edge of Apocalypse

The Judging Eye

R. Scott Bakker

Penguin Books

Reviewed by: Terry

4  out of 5 stars


Despite some trepidation with the thought I keep coming back to the idea that R. Scott Bakker’s ‘Prince of Nothing’ and ‘Aspect Emperor’ series are, if not the true inheritors of Tolkien’s legacy, at least  the most innovative step forward in the realm of epic fantasy that is consciously derived from the genre-changing (or creating) impact of JRRT. Most other fantasies that are obviously influenced by the Professor are at best re-treading the same, or similar, ground in fairly limited ways or, at worst, are nothing more than poorly written pastiches or bad copies with the serial numbers filed off. Bakker, on the other hand, doesn’t just reproduce Tolkien’s tropes as they ended up being presented in his Middle Earth books, instead he does what most other fantasy writers seem unable to do: examine the fundamentals that lie behind these tropes and reinterpret them in his own unique and (very) different ways. Thus we have the ‘Nonmen’, something analogous to Tolkien’s Elves, though re-imagined in a way that really points out their alien nature when compared to humanity. The Sranc and the No-God may have obvious similarities to Goblins/Orcs and the Dark Lord trope, but they are presented in such a visceral and, to me at least, different way that they really do bring something new to the party. Part of me is certain that Tolkien would be horrified at the idea of Bakker as his ‘true heir’ given the obvious darkness, one should probably even say cynicism or pessimism, of the secondary world that Bakker has created, but that is neither here nor there really. This tone is not even necessarily the point of greatest departure between them, since contrary to what many pundits assume there is actually a fair bit of darkness, even pessimism in Tolkien (especially if you have read The Silmarillion which I think for various reasons Bakker took as his primary model rather than the more famous The Lord of the Rings. The fact remains, though, that Tolkien’s works are coloured by his fundamentally Christian viewpoint that is tinged with the hope inherent in his belief in the eucatastrophic chance of salvation and this alone gives them a *very* different flavour from Bakker’s more ‘post-modern’ and secular perspective. I think it might also be the rape-aliens…but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here.

First off, while this may indeed be the first volume in the ‘Aspect Emperor’ series it is definitely not the place to start with Bakker since this series is actually the sequel to his ‘Prince of Nothing’ books which ultimately set up the main conflict that is to be the driving force of the new trilogy. Both series are set in the world of Eärwa and this new volume picks up twenty years after the close of the former following the lives of the same characters, so if you have not yet read the first set of books then most of the impact of the characters and plot will be diminished, if not utterly lost on you, so check them out first. Secondly, keep in mind that this is a dark book (one whose fantasy has moments that, for me at least, blend into the realms of horror). While it is certainly true that the bad guys are utterly despicable and even grotesque in their evil (see mention to rape-aliens above), even the ‘good guys’ (really there aren’t any) are so shaded into grey that one wonders whether or not they aren’t actually black. In many ways this ‘realism’ and darkness put Bakker in the same group as writers such as Joe Abercrombie and Steven Erikson who are considered proponents of a ‘new’ sub-genre in epic fantasy which owes as much to the pulp Sword and Sorcery stories of the 20’s and 30’s as it does to traditional epic fantasy and dwells more on moral relativism and a ‘gritty’ portrayal of violence that sometimes seems to be part of a consciously ‘anti-Tolkien’ movement. It’s interesting to see, though, the way in which Bakker seems to meld a ‘high fantasy derived from Tolkien’ approach with this ‘dark fantasy based on realism and violence’ in a way that shows they need not be purely antithetical.

The nub of the tale Bakker tells in The Judging Eye revolves around three main plotlines: the exiled wizard Drusas Achamian and his quest to uncover the truth behind the uncanny powers of former friend and pupil and now hated enemy and Aspect-Emperor Anasûrimbor Kellhus; the struggles of Varalt Sorweel titular King of Sakarpus and hostage of Kellhus as he follows in the train of said emperor’s incalculable army that is embarking upon ‘the Great Ordeal’ in an effort to traverse Eärwa and destroy the Consult (aka rape-aliens) and halt their attempts to invoke the Second Apocalypse by resurrecting the ‘No-God’ Mog-Pharau; and finally the trials of Empress Esmenet, Kellhus’ wife and Achamian’s former lover, as she attempts to maintain the reigns of power of her husband’s vast empire as the cracks are beginning to show. Each strand is connected to the others and it will be interesting to see how things come together in the end. For now, though, each of the main protagonists has their own journey to undertake and set of trials to overcome and by the end of the novel things still remain very much uncertain for all and sundry.

A few things that struck me upon reading: Kellhus’ kids are whacked-out scary (no surprise given the seemingly inhuman nature of their father) and I can totally see how comparisons to Dune and the model of the Kwisatz Haderach can be made; really cool to see more about the mysterious culture of the nearly extinct Nonmen and especially the taciturn Nonman scalper Cleric (heck the entire crew of the dirty, violent, and all-around scum-bag Skin Eaters and their imperious Captain Kosoter were pretty intriguing); the Consult was pretty quiet in this one…only a few skin-spies to be seen, but it was made up for by a veritable horde of Sranc and some other not-before-seen baddies; still it will be interesting to see how they plan to combat not only Kellhus and his Great Ordeal, but Achamian as both make their way to the blasted North. Bakker also manages to have an extended sequence that is a direct homage to an event in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings without in any way seeming derivative or unnecessary to the story that he wants to tell. Let’s just say that Frodo and company had it easy when they traversed the Mines of Moria…’nuff said.

These books do tend to make me uncomfortable, primarily because of the effective way in which Bakker portrays evil. I don’t think I have ever read any other fantasy where even the orc-analogue foot soldiers seemed so terrifying (and they do here, the Sranc are utterly bestial creatures of pure hatred, unending hunger, and violence), let alone the leaders of the forces of darkness whose evil runs the spectrum of world conquering hubris to the most petty evils and banal vices. No one’s motives are pure, even when their ends seem good, and the complexity of the characters is compelling. Add to that the fact that Bakker is a damn fine writer of prose and I think I’ll keep coming back to these books, even if they make me feel a little queasy sometimes. Recommended for those who enjoy epic fantasy and have read the previous series.


Also posted at Goodreads