Thursday, November 11, 2010

Un roman dur


The Engagement, by Georges Simenon, is a compelling, obliquely told story about a creepy little man.

Mr Hire lives on the outskirts of Paris in an apartment complex currently under watch by detectives. Just a couple weeks previously a prostitute had been found murdered in a nearby vacant lot.

We don't know much about the course of the police investigation, what led them to suspect Mr Hire, what other leads might've been exhausted. But it seems Mr Hire is the victim of a slow-motion lynching. Nobody likes him; nobody really knows him either. He's a very convenient scapegoat.

He's not very likable. He's pasty and flabby. He's a creature of habit. He earns his living running a barely legal mail-order scam. His daily routine finishes with him sitting in his chair in his room in the dark, watching a girl undress in the apartment across the courtyard.

None of the other characters — the girl, the concierge, the detectives — are much likable either, so it's curious that everyone should have it in for Mr Hire. There's just something about him...

We do learn a very little bit about Mr Hire's past, but he remains more pathetic than sympathetic. His only success is at the local bowling club, but even there, the respect he's given is devoid of any real human connection.

It's a deeply psychological novella, but as John Gray points out in the afterword, there's very little psychology in it. It's all action, or inaction; Simenon never lets us into Mr Hire's mind. He sits still for hours, but we never know what he's thinking, if he's thinking anything at all. He's a blank for the reader to fill in.

When the blood finally stopped flowing, Mr Hire had no choice but to move around carefully, holding his head very still so as not to reopen the cut. One side of his mustache was drooping, and the mixture of blood and water had stained his face pink, like a watercolor.

There's a lot of rain in this book, you see everything like through a curtain of rain, giving the whole novel the feel of a watercolour, the outlines running into and over each other, dingy and smeared. For all Mr Hire's volume, he has no solidity. He's no innocent, he's passive and impassive, but neither is he what others make him out to be.

This is the third Simenon novel I've read recently, and I want more!

NYRB Reading Week continues at Coffeespoons and The Literary Stew.



(I saw Monsieur Hire years ago, not realizing it was based on this novel. That haunting music is Brahms' Piano Quartet, Opus 25.)
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