There is a British TV series, which I think aired in the 1970’s, called The Fall & Rise of Reginald Perrin. I watched it as a child, on one of those TV Gold type channels [I wasn’t around in the 70’s, of course]. As I remember it, the basic premise of the show was that Reginald fakes his own death, by leaving his clothes at the beach, as a means of escape, an escape from his sterile life, and then moves away and starts again, reboots himself, so to speak. I’ve long found this idea extraordinarily attractive. The show plays on my mind a lot. I’ve always had an anti-conventional mind-set, by which I mean that whenever I have been in a situation that one might call stable, or whenever my personal circumstances have been settled, I have instinctively rebelled against it. The most extreme example of this was when I was in relationship with a lovely girl, but I could not handle the stultifying daily grind of dinner with her parents, conversations about career goals, etc, and so, with no warning, up and left her and moved to London to be with a girl I had known only a few weeks. Yes, sometimes you have to try to escape; sometimes your social and family circle feels like a noose.
The Mahé Circle starts with a frown. As first sentences go, it is not particularly exciting, but it is significant, and strangely effective. The Mahé of the title is Doctor Mahé, who, when we meet him, is on a boat. He has, it appears, engaged a local man, Gene, to take him out fishing. However, Doctor Mahé, unlike his companion, isn’t doing well; most of the time he catches nothing, and when he does manage to tempt something onto his bait it is a diables, which is some kind of horrid spiny fish that, amusingly, you cannot touch with your bare hands and must be immediately thrown back. Ruefully, Mahé notes that, although he is a failure as a fisherman, he is doing exactly what Gene does, that their technique or approach is the same.
Disappointment, unease, and a strange kind of tension, permeates this evocative opening section. The doctor has a headache, the wine that was brought on board is warm, his wife is a smudge on the shore, and an approaching boat brings news that a local woman is near death. Indeed, Mahé is actually on holiday, but you wouldn’t know it, for nothing about his demeanour or circumstances suggests fun or freedom; it is, in fact, made clear that the climate and atmosphere of the mediterranean island of Porquerolles is hostile to him. However, as the narrative progresses, once Mahé and his family have returned home, it is revealed that there is something about that hostility that he craves, that it, in some way, makes him feel alive.
“In Porquerolles, things were hostile to him. He had tried in vain to lessen their impact. Down south, all the time, he had felt as if there was a tremendous chaos around him, a kind of life that was too vivid, so that the slightest contact with it made his blood pulse more quickly, and prompted a rising fever inside him.”
Simenon is at pains to stress that Doctor Mahé’s life, his life at home, away from Porquerolles, is a conventional one. He makes a comfortable living; he has a wife and children and he still lives with his mother. Moreover, his mother is said to still tell him when to change his underwear, she also chose his wife [more for herself, than for him, Mahé thinks], and this wife, with the bland smell, is described as being incapable of full-blooded grief [which is used a kind of criticism, as a way of highlighting her middle-of-the-road nature]. It is not difficult, then, to see how the island – with its extreme heat, scorpions etc – offers greater excitement, a sense of something other, something different. Placing cosseted or average men in a [comparatively] wild environment, making them literally and existentially confront the alien, is a trick often made use of by authors, but this is one of only two times [The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier being the other] that I have come across a protagonist that actually enjoys, yearns for that hostility.
There is, however, another reason why Mahé wants to return to Porquerolles, there is one other motivating factor. When, at the beginning of the novel, he is asked to attend upon the dying woman he sees, while at her house, a young girl, Elisabeth. From this moment onwards both the girl and the red dress she was wearing when he first saw her come to dominate his thoughts and, in turn, the novel. Initially, one thinks that the doctor might be concerned about her welfare, or even that he simply admires her for the way that she copes with the dire circumstances in which she lives, including dealing with her drunkard father, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has a more sinister interest in her. With each return trip he seeks her out, and on each occasion she has, of course, grown older, more womanly; yet she is, on each occasion, still wearing the same dress.
Throughout the novel Simenon makes use of a number of symbols, like the island of Porquerolles, which is a manifestation of Mahé’s increasingly dangerous, unconventional frame of mind. Elisabeth’s ever shortening and tightening dress is a symbol of Mahé’s lust [the colour red is itself a symbol of lust or danger] and, in a sense, mirrors the unravelling fabric of his life and, like the island, his mind also. Furthermore, a young girl is, of course, a symbol of independence, purity and youth. In one of the most significant episodes Mahé, like the two old men in Witold Gombrowicz’s great Polish novel Pornografia, encourages his nephew Albert to pursue Elisabeth, to sleep with her, in an effort to spoil or sully her. It should be pointed out that Mahé doesn’t really want or value any of these things for themselves, that they exist as symbols for him too; he doesn’t love the island, he doesn’t love the girl either [although the word is used towards the end of the novel it doesn’t convince], he is simply drawn towards anything that isn’t representative of his awful, common life, anything that will or could break the circle that he feels is closing upon him.
“He found that at thirty-five, here he was, too big, too fat, too full of rather vulgar life, with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week.”
I have read a number of Simenon’s Romans Durs [or hard novels] and while The Mahé Circle is not the worst, it certainly, contrary to a very positive review from John Banville where he compares it to Proust and Flaubert, isn’t one of the best either. Almost all of Simenon’s work is very short, and that often means that his novels are taut and concentrated. However, occasionally one wishes that he had spread his wings, and let the story breathe a bit. This is one of those. The Mahé Circle, while fun enough, and housing some interesting, if well-worn ideas, is simply too insubstantial to really get me excited; indeed, it feels a little rushed. For example, within 20 pages the Mahé family have been on holiday, returned and then gone back. Simenon moves through the gears too quickly, for my liking. In an ordinary thriller a fast pace would not be a problem, but here it seems at odds with the relatively uneventful story of a man questioning his life and slowly plunging into madness or obsession. Moreover, the author does too much telling, and not enough hinting or suggesting; he, in fact, does all the work for you. Again, this is mostly a consequence of length; the small number of pages means that he is forced to summarise or gloss over important events, or changes in Mahé’s thinking or mind-set. Yet, having said that, the structure is satisfying, especially the way that the narrative is circular, mirroring, of course, the title of the book.