Saturday, December 03, 2011

Monsieur le president

The President is the latest novel by Simenon to be rediscovered by English-speaking audiences, issued by Melville House as part of its Neversink Library.

Again, different from any Simenon I've read to date. This one's a political drama with psychological suspense.

What makes this book different is that all the others deal with seemingly ordinary men — businessmen, clerks, shopkeepers, family men. Ordinary men who in one sense or another, actively or passively, walk away, and by doing so are doing something extraordinary. The President, one might say, is the opposite — the former leader of the nation, a rather extraordinary figure, who has withstood extraordinary circumstances, has taken extraordinary measures to achieve and maintain his status, or the aura of it, is reduced to ordinary actions, is shown to be an ordinary human, mortal, and with all the usual emotions and baser instincts.

The man now is old and ineffectual. He's been cast aside by his country, but still he hopes to make one final, dramatic play. After all, once upon a time, the premier was privy to some financial hanky-panky.

The Premier was livid when he finally gave the signal, in much the same spirit as a general launching a battle half lost in advance.

This would no longer be a bloodletting operation, affecting the whole of France to a more of less equal extent. Those in the know had already escaped, and what was more they had made huge profits at the expense of the medium and small investors.

During all these discussion, Chalamont, as white faced as his chief, had remained in the office, lighting one cigarette after another and throwing each one away after a few tense puffs.

He was not fat in those days. The caricaturists usually depicted him as a raven.

[It very nicely complemented the ambience of the book that I would climb out of the metro every morning at the site of Occupy Montreal.]

The figure of the premier is said to be inspired by Georges Clemenceau, who served nonconsecutive terms as Prime Minister of France as well as holding various other positions of influence.

I don't know how much of the novel is founded in history. It doesn't matter. It's an excellent read, with all the witty detail I've come to expect of Simenon.

He was a big, flabby chap, always dressed up to the nines, always with his hand held out and his lips ready to smile, the kind of fellow who won't express his views even on the most harmless subject without first peering at you to try to guess what yours may be.

The Premier had done nothing to help him, merely staring at him as malevolently as if he'd been a slug in the salad.

"I was at Le Havre, after driving a friend to the boat, and I thought I'd just like to drop in on you . . ."

"No."

That an unpopular trick of his. His "no" was celebrated, for he brought it out frequently, without anger or any other inflection. It wasn't even a contradiction: it simply took note of an almost mathematical fact.

This novel certainly has suspense — an element of mystery combined with politics. But ultimately The President is a character study (as are most Simenon novels). The man of consequence is shown to be suddenly grappling with his impotence, but more simply, to put a more everyman spin on it, it's about a man grown old and coming to terms with the choices he's made.

Tellingly, the title of the book alludes to another figure, the president, who has the power to appoint the premier. Perhaps this is to suggest to the reader that the premier be absolved of some responsibility, that not everything is within his control, that there are higher authorities, whether in public life or private.

2 comments:

Guy Savage said...

I haven't read this one yet, but it's on the shelf (along with dozens of other Simenon titles).

Great to meet another Simenon fan.

Isabella said...

I'm still thinking about this one. I'm not sure I would recommend this one to non-Simenon fan. It's slow-paced and most of the "action" is inside his head (but I guess that's true of other of his books as well). Still, interesting take on power, and aging.

I like that so many Simenon novels sit with me for a long time. I mean, they can take days, even months, to digest. I do feel my appreciation for The President growing the more I think about it.