Part of my plan for 2017 was to read more Simenon, which meant in my mind more Inspecteur Maigret. But it turns out that the volume we own at home is a collection of his serious novels (“les romans durs”, “the hard novels” according to Simenon’s own terminology), not the lighter Maigret police investigations (although one can discuss if Maigret is lighter, at least it’s more plot-driven and was definitely written to entertain). So the hard way it went…
I chose La Veuve Couderc at random, because I was maybe expecting a glamorous widow (like the NYRB cover?). But it is anything but glamorous, bucolic or romantic.
The widow in question is Tati, a 40-something year woman (which in 1942 made her an old woman), uneducated, ugly (she has a huge mole on her face) and rather unsympathetic. She has been a farm girl, a servant from the age of 14, and she slept with the master’s son (and the master himself) a few years later. She managed to get herself married to Couderc and after the master fell into dementia, her husband died and the thriving business went bankrupt, she hangs on to the farm and takes care of the old master, fighting her two sisters-in-law who want to get rid of her.
But we don’t get to know her first thing. We enter the novel through a vision of a man walking in the sun as seen from a crowded bus. We are in a peaceful countryside, a quiet canal and sunny meadows. It is the scenery as seen by Jean, whom we discover is a young man fresh out of prison. He is free, without any destination, any project, any money. He meets Tati on the bus coming back from the market and she hires him as a farm hand.
Jean and Tati are an unlikely couple. He is 28, educated, son of a rich businessman in the city. Yet Simenon manages to make it a very linear story, as if nothing was surprising. The atmosphere is slow and heavy and the two characters seem doomed from the start.
There are moments of lightness, when Jean discovers the farm life and takes joy in simple manual activities and the routine of life with the animals. He was adrift, and the farming life grounds him for a time, but not for long: soon his guilt, his restlessness and his nightmares come back to haunt him. Tati, on the other hand, has felt frustrated for years, stuck in the farm with her father-in-law. She bosses Jean around, but when things get more personal between them it gets out of hand.
It’s not an easy read by any means, not because its gore but because of its hopelessness. Yet as I am finished with this one I am quite ready to continue with another “roman dur” by Simenon.