Recently I’ve been watching a programme called Unusual Suspects. It’s a true crime documentary series, the premise of which is that murders are not always perpetrated by the most obvious candidates. Some of the outcomes are surprising, but, all in all, it’s still pretty formulaic stuff; I mean, if you know, by virtue of the title of the programme, that the murderer isn’t going to be the most obvious suspect, then one needs only to keep an eye on the unlikeliest to find your man [or, occasionally, your woman]. Yet, despite the familiar formula, despite the inevitability of the whole thing, I still enjoy it. Why is that?
It’s a question that applies to my enjoyment of Georges Simenon’s novels too. Sure, I like his style, his prose, and I’ll come back to that later, but I like his plots too, even though they are, almost without exception, absolutely predictable. The answer, I think, is that it is the inevitability that interests me. I’ve written before about interconnectedness, and how I’m obsessed with the idea that everything you do connects you, no matter how tenuously, to everyone else in the world and everything they do. There’s a similar idea at work in The Widow, and Unusual Suspects, although most people would call it fate. I don’t actually believe in fate, because it suggests some kind of higher power who is determining how your life pans out, but I do believe that small, seemingly innocuous choices can put you in life-altering, even deadly, circumstances, can lead to serious consequences.
In The Widow we have two people who make a series of apparently innocent choices which eventually result in the ruination of both of their lives. Simenon commences his story moments before they come into contact for the first time. Jean, fresh out of prison, is walking along a road, and Titi Couderc, the widow of the title, is on a bus; they could so easily have never met, could have gone their separate ways, but Jean flags down the bus. Of course, from that point on we know exactly where the book is heading. This sense of inevitability, this idea that innocuous choices can doom you, produces an odd, suffocating, kind of tension, because one feels as though the two people are trapped. Indeed, it is easy, if you think about it too much, for us all to feel trapped, to feel paralysed by choice, because one cannot predict all the possible consequences of that choice.
In terms of Simenon’s style, initially it seems formulaic; it appears to trade in hard-boiled noirish clichés: his sentences are sharp and short, like a pen-knife; his characters are laconic; the third-person narrator seems distant, almost disinterested, and cracks-wise in a sardonic fashion [he took of her clothes like he was skinning a rabbit] etc. If you’re a fan of James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler et al, then all of that will sound pleasingly familiar [there’s just something highly addictive about this stuff]. However, at the story progresses one notices that while Simenon’s writing is at points tough and muscular, like a pissed off Hemingway, it is also at times almost impressionistic. There are, for example, repeated references to sunlight, or beams of light, which gives the book a kind of dreamy or hazy feel. Indeed, Jean himself seems almost half-asleep throughout, but it’s the kind of half-sleep where one is aware of things happening around you, but one is unable to fully make sense of them, to process them as normal everyday human actions.
What also sets The Widow apart from standard noir is that there is no good guy, no sense of wrongs being righted, or society being cleaned up; and there is, of course, no convoluted mystery, no grand reveal. Furthermore, there is no glamour, no femme fatale. Couderc is an old[er] woman, who is plump and sports a large hairy mole on the side of her face. In this way, the novel is closer to Zola’s horrible working class realism than noir’s red-lipped dames, feisty bombshells, and hoodlums on-the-make. Finally, and most tellingly, there is there is no real motive for the grisly murder that takes place; it seems as though it just had to be. This is why it is often compared to Camus’ The Outsider.
Yet, The comparison with The Outsider is, for me, an odd one. Perhaps I need to re-read Camus’ novel, but I don’t see a meaningful connection, or similarity. Unlike The Outsider, The Widow is not a philosophical work, but, rather a psychological one, in the tradition of Dostoevsky [and the previously mentioned Emile Zola]. Indeed, if I had to liken it to anything it would be Crime and Punishment. Of course, people talk of that novel as a philosophical one too, but, to my mind, it isn’t at all; the philosophical aspect of the novel is grossly overstated. In Crime and Punishment it is Raskolnikov’s psychological duress that is the focus. Like Raskolnikov, Jean experiences odd, unjustified, mood swings, is often listless and yet prone to sudden happiness or despair, although his anguish is less pronounced, less operatic [this being Belgian and not Russian lit!].
If the novel is about anything then it is about family. In terms of Jean, there are numerous hints and references to some kind of psychological burden or upset that involves his father, who he is estranged from, and his childhood. He appears, in some way, to be seeking a family when he moves in with the widow, who also lives with an old man [who she routinely fucks in order to keep him sweet]. For Tati, Jean is a kind of substitute for her errant son; indeed, his happiest moments seem to occur when he is serving her or looking after her, like a good boy. She, on the other hand, is made most unhappy when she thinks she will lose him to a local slut. At times I couldn’t help thinking of Lawrence’s oppressive, almost oedipal, Sons & Lovers or classical Greek tragedy.