Georges Simenon is an author I had been meaning to try for quite some time. He was a prolific writer well known for his Inspector Maigret series. These were mysteries set in Paris probably akin to Agatha Christie novels. I have read only one Maigret so far and it was an easy, lightweight mystery.
The real meat really is in his non-Maigret novels otherwise called his romans durs or hard novels. These novels are richer, darker with a strong psychological edge.
In other words, the Maigret novels were more commercial and Simenon wrote them as a means of relaxation. The romans durs, however, while short demanded greater focus and had more character.
I was keen to explore his romans durs and began with The Blue Room, which is excellent. Suffice to say that I will be reading more of his work.
There is a lot going on in the first chapter.
We first learn that the protagonist Tony Falcone has been having an affair with Andrée Despierre. They typically meet in a room at the Hotel des Voyageurs owned by Tony’s brother Vincent.
Here’s how the book opens.
‘Did I hurt you?’
‘Are you angry with me?’
It was true. At that time, everything was true, for he was living in the moment, without questioning anything, without trying to understand, without suspecting that one day he would need to understand.
What would Tony need to understand? We do not know either. Not yet.
But during this conversation, Andrée keeps asking what would happen if she becomes free, does Tony love her, so on and so forth. This scene in the hotel room is an important moment because it is from here that the story moves forward and backward in a series of flashbacks touching on how Tony and Andrée became lovers upto events in the future.
Tony’s affair with Andrée is intense and passionate.
At thirty-three, he had known many women. None of them had given as much pleasure as she had, an animal pleasure, complete and wholehearted, untainted afterwards by any disgust, lassitude or regret.
They have a signal wherein they decide to meet every time in the blue room (the book’s title) of the hotel. It is convenient and Tony’s brother Vincent, obviously aware of the affair, would never rat out on him.
The room was blue, ‘washing-blue’ he had thought one day, a blue that reminded him of his childhood, the tiny muslin sachets of blue powder his mother dissolved in the washtub water for the final rinse, right before she went to spread the laundry out on the gleaming grass of the meadow. He must have been five or six years old and often wondered through what miracle the blue colour could turn the laundry white.
The blue of the room was not just washing-blue, but the sky-blue of certain hot, August afternoons as well, shortly before it turns pink, then red, in the setting sun.
During one such meeting, Tony goes to the window and sees d Andrée’s husband Nicolas approaching the hotel. He manages to escape the room but this incident leaves him with a sense of foreboding.
Why did Nicolas come to the hotel? Was he aware of his affair with Andrée? Who called him there?
Tony has no clue. Infact, we come to know that this incident and his affair with Andree is told while he is reminiscing as he tries to make sense of it while talking with his lawyer, the magistrate and his psychiatrist.
Indeed, in the first chapter itself, interspersed with details of Tony’s affair, we are told that he is in a prison relentlessly questioned by the magistrate. Clearly, there is a crime that has taken place and Tony has been implicated. He cannot make head or tail of it.
We learn that Tony is married to Gisele, who is tidy, energetic, unassuming, the perfect housewife. They have a daughter Marianne.
Tony loves Gisele in his own way despite his affair. What about Gisele? Does she know of the affair but given her nature chooses not to question Tony about it?
Nicolas, meanwhile, is shown to be a sickly man prone to bouts of epilepsy. His mother Madame Despierre is a headstrong woman and she and Andrée do not get along too well.
After Nicolas’ sudden appearance at the Hotel des Voyageurs, Tony starts becoming uneasy and decides to end his affair with Andrée. Will Andrée agree?
And then Nicolas dies.
That is the brief outline of the story and saying anything more would be spoiling it. There’s plenty more that happens though.
At 156 pages of the Penguin Modern Classics edition, this is a short, taut psychological thriller. It is a story of lust, passion, what happens when it all goes wrong and how it affects everybody. Simenon’s prose is spare, lean and powerful and there is a lot of depth in this story as well as its characters. He coveys masterfully the air of impending doom permeating throughout. Credit also goes to the translator Linda Coverdale for a very smooth translation from the French.
‘Could you spend your whole life with me?’
He hardly noticed her words; they were like the images and odours all around him. How could he have guessed that this scene was something he would relive ten times, twenty times and more – and every time in a different frame of mind, from a different angle?