Thursday, April 14, 2016

A bumblebee in a glass of beer

And they went on staring at him, examining this fat man who was too hot and had landed in their bar like a bumblebee in a glass of beer.
That's Dr Mahé, on holiday in Porquerolles. It gets under his skin — everything about the place, and especially a young girl. An irritation, an itch he needs to scratch.

It's been a while since I read a Simenon book. Maybe I'm out of practice. Maybe I've changed. The Mahé Circle was downright unpleasant. I mean that, of course, in the best possible way. It was intense and disturbing.

The sense of restlessness, malaise, agitation were palpable from the early pages. It made me uncomfortable. I was irritated with Dr Mahé, and with everything around me while I was reading this short novel.

The object of Dr Mahé's obsession is a mere child. I don't recall this type of scenario playing out in any of the previous romans durs I've read. So while Simenon's characters are hardly admirable, they are weirdly compelling, and the reading experience can be cathartic. Not so here.

Other Simenon characters are, if not sympathetic, at least pathetic. Not so with Dr Mahé. Am I being too harshly critical? I wonder if men find him more sympathetic than I do.

Arguably, Mahé is not obsessed with the girl per se (but he is!). It is the island, it is the languor, it is his childhood, it is some life outside of his bourgeois existence. It is the need to be noticed by his wife and his mother, the need to be respected by his nephew, the need to be accepted by the islanders. The need to catch that damn fish, claim his masculinity. But above all, it's the girl.
When he had married, he had not had like other men, who leave home, a feeling of freedom.
Arguably he is punished in the end. But I don't think he repents. I don't think he acknowledges how wrong he is. Metaphorically he finally gets the fish that got away, and that fish he was after was the negation of his actual reality.

I am fascinated by stories of those who walk away, why they walk away. This book, though — it's not about that. It's about the obsession. It's not about what he's walking away from, it's about what he thinks he's walking toward. I can't get over the wrongness of it being a barely pubescent girl.

Is that the point? Was that the point when it was written in 1946? Do men readers see it as the point? Certainly that's not what the reviews I've read center on. Is that because it's really not the point of the book? Is it because Simenon's primarily male audience (that's a big leap I'm making, an assumption with no facts to back it up) is as misogynistic as he was?

Maybe when I previously binged on Simenon it was a sign that I needed to walk away from my life. Maybe now that I'm in a better place, a better headspace, I no longer have the patience for the whining, or the dilly-dallying, or the quiet complacency. I just want them to get on with it. But not with too-young girls.

The writing: spare, psychologically perceptive, precise, and oh, so evocative. An infuriatingly good book.

John Banville: Simenon's Island of Bad Dreams
Tony's Reading List: Review


Georges Simenon's son Pierre will be hosting a literary brunch this weekend to talk about his father's works, part of the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. (See the calendar for this and other Simenon-related events.)

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