Saturday, November 09, 2019

89. Sunday by Georges Simenon

After having read two narratives about the crimes and trials of real-life poisoners in Famous Trials 4, I thought a Simenon roman dur about a poisoner was in order.  It was also part of my Concordia book fair haul.

Sunday is about Émile, a cook and innkeeper on the Riviera who is plotting to poison his wife.  The book begins on the day he will commit the crime.  He has been preparing for years.  The rest of the book then meanders back into his origins, how he ended up working/partly owning the inn, married and weirdly beholden to the daughter of the original owner and having an affair with the nearly mute, animal-like maid that lives in the attic.  There is a lot going on in behind the scenes at these quaint, rustic seaside inns!

A lot of this book feels so real.  It is part of Simenon's genius that he could crank out book after book, often in different locales (though mostly in France) and in each case create a complex and realistic set of characters, interwoven with each other and the place in such knowledgeable detail.  Here we get the background world of rural innkeepers, how it isn't the ideal retirement for peasants from inland that it seems to be when you are stuck in the rain and the cold on some farm outside of Nantes.  There is some good detail for foodies here, about how Émile goes to the docks and picks and then hand cleans and cuts the ink squid for the risotto for which travellers come to his little hotel.  Likewise the nuances of the power relations between his wife and himself, his wife and the servants and his own relations with the staff are all drawn with nuance and detail.

At the same time, there are other elements, major plot ones that seem almost insane in their preposterousness.  Now maybe this is how sex went down in the 50s in France, but it seems like all the woman just sort of wait around, showing absolutely no sign or interest, until the man finally summons up enough courage to have sex with them in some sudden way.  Then they are silently grateful, sometimes subserviently and other times in a controlling matronly way.  The maid/indentured servant, whose father basically sells her to Émile's wife as a servant under the condition that she not be allowed to leave the inn, is referred to constantly as a pet, with zero agency who barely even speaks, though is oddly resistant to the mistress of the house and utterly sexually complaint to Émile.  It's weird.

Despite all that, you really do get a sense of why Émile feels that murder is the only way out for him.  You don't sympathize with him, but neither do you sympathize with his wife.  You realize as you make your way through their history how their marriage was one of jailer and prisoner and his poisoning her is him trying to find his freedom.  The dark, twist ending brings this all home in a way that is quite horrible and depressing but also kind of funny.

Cool, looks like the BBC made a radio play of this and it's free on!

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