Georges Simenon chronicles malaise in bright sunshine

Simenon's newly translated novel shows his deep psychological insight into the thin line between madness and normality.

The indefatigable Belgian writer Georges Simenon, who wrote some 400 novels in his career. AFP
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When appraising the life and work of Georges Simenon we are not so much bogged down by figures as astounded by them. Adjectives like “prolific” and “excessive” don’t do him justice. This is a man who wrote around 400 novels under both his own name and numerous noms de plume. He could and would knock one out in 11 days. Somehow, he found the time to squeeze in liaisons with 10,000 lovers.

Simenon is of course best known as the creator of Commissaire Jules Maigret. Once again the figures flabbergast: his laconic, pipe-smoking Parisian detective appeared in 75 novels and 28 short stories. Penguin has begun an admirable long-term project to publish one Maigret novel each month until all are in print. This month, however, sees the release of a different Simenon work. The Mahé Circle [], published for the first time in English and fast-tracked to Penguin's Modern Classics range, is one of Simenon's so-called "romans durs" or psychological novels. Simenon set greater store by these books (indeed, he thought they might secure him the Nobel) and was consequently frustrated that his readers preferred his Maigret adventures. These "hard" novels, like his others, rely on lean prose, atmosphere and bouts of casual violence for effect, but what ultimately differentiates them is Simenon's heady blend of complex character studies, moral conundrums, raw emotion and tough, even bleak, depictions of humanity.

The Mahé Circle ticks all these boxes. Its protagonist (by no means its hero) is Dr Mahé, who one summer takes his family on holiday to the Mediterranean island of Porquerolles. During a fishing trip he is called upon to attend to a dying woman. By the time he reaches her squalid house she has died, leaving three children and a feckless, alcoholic ex-Legionnaire husband. The woman's eldest daughter Elisabeth – a striking teenager in a red dress – catches Mahé's eye and stays imprinted on his mind.

So begins a grimly satisfying tale of obsession and breakdown. Mahé returns to the mainland and resumes his doctor duties and family life but quickly grows restless: “Suddenly, for no reason, what had been a feeling of well-being was turning into a malaise.” He becomes impatient with his children and indifferent towards his wife, and yearns to escape from routine and mundanity. Porquerolles, despite resembling “a hostile world” with its torrid heat and awful food, is the only cure: “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.” Mahé comes back over successive summers, integrating with the locals and hunting for Elisabeth, all the time oblivious to the damage caused by that rising fever.

This is a novel that prioritises mood over incident, reaction over action. There is little physical drama, only Mahé’s inner turmoil. Elisabeth is barely in it, just enough to hook Mahé and send him closer to that brink separating sanity from madness. We watch as he eventually unravels, slipping inexorably into despair and the grip of fixation, incapable of stopping himself. Simenon heightens the intensity by amplifying or clouding Mahé’s senses – whether fishing, playing boules, drowning his sorrows in pastis or dreaming of Elisabeth, he is nervy, nauseous, disoriented and sweaty, and constantly repelled by smells, deafened by cicadas and blinded by the sun.

That clammy-handed queasiness rubs off on the reader, too. We are disturbed by Mahé’s desire for innocent Elisabeth to be “soiled, broken”, by the sight of her younger brother on the ground “playing with a grubby bundle of rags as a substitute doll”, and by a snobbish mayor’s dismissal of their mother’s death as “a nuisance”. Along with these unsettling specifics is a general disquiet, namely Simenon’s sun-kissed idyll as a backdrop for shredded nerves and slow deaths.

When Simenon’s pages become infected with disease (there are many references to vermin, typhoid and cancer) and Mahé’s predicament is upped from midlife crisis to existential crisis, the book grows in stature and feels, if not Nobel-worthy, at least reminiscent of the work of one of its recipients, Camus. Lines such as “he was floating inside this world that had been arranged for him as if inside a suit of clothes that didn’t fit” could just as easily apply to Simenon’s Mahé or to that original outsider, Camus’ Meursault.

Despite its sunny setting, The Mahé Circle is not a jolly beach-read; rather it is a dark, deep journey into the human soul. It convinces all the way. Much of Simenon's output was quantity over quality but in this case quality counts – which may mean it was written over 12 days, not dashed off in 11.

Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.