I am slowly making my way through Georges Simenon’s novels, particularly his ‘roman durs.’ Having previously written about The Blue Room and Act of Passion, both very good, I thought The Krull House was another excellent novel, quite absorbing and also frightening.
The Krull House is a prescient and suspenseful tale of how close-knit communities harbor feelings of mistrust towards outsiders, how they are excluded because their perceived foreignness make them objects of suspicion and resentment. Although this book was penned in the late 1930s, its themes remain relevant even today.
When the novel opens, we are told that the Krull family, whose origins are German, lives on the fringes of a rural town in France, near the canal. The head of the family, Cornelius Krull, weaves and sells baskets and for the most part is seen in his workshop engrossed in his tradecraft. Originally from Germany, Cornelius through the course of his wanderings in Europe, suddenly decides to stop at this French town and settle there. Cornelius’ wife Maria runs the family bar and shop. The couple has three children – the eldest daughter Anna, who helps Maria with the household chores, Joseph who is studying to become a doctor, and Liesbeth, who is a budding pianist.
Because of their background, the town residents shun the Krull establishment, but the family members need to survive and so they resign themselves to do business with the bargees on the canal.
Their closed-off, hermetic existence, though, is rattled when cousin Hans comes to live with them. Hans is Cornelius’ nephew (his brother’s son) but they have not been in touch for many years. Hans is a typical German Krull – brash, insouciant and carefree, whereas the French Krulls are anything but – their manner is quiet and restrained.
From the outset, Hans’ presence unsettles the family. Although his father is dead, Hans withholds this information, giving them the false impression he is alive, and concocts some story about why he is in France. He willingly admits he lied, however, to Liesbeth with whom he begins an affair.
Meanwhile, we learn that Joseph, attracted to a girl named Sidonie, has been following her and her friend Germaine, because he can’t muster the courage to ask her out, a development that does not escape Hans’ ever watchful eye. To complicate matters, Hans with his wild, assertive behaviour continues to irk the Krull family members who are desperately trying to fit in and not attract unnecessary attention.
Things come to a boil when Sidonie’s body is found floating on the canal one morning. Clearly, she has been murdered…And the Krull family, unwillingly, finds itself in the middle of a maelstrom that threatens to erupt into violence.
Simenon is brilliant at capturing the personalities of the various Krull family members, the way they are at complete odds with their neighbours, and how they slide into a predicament they have no wish to be a part of.
Cornelius is an amazingly quiet man, so much so that the family hardly notices his presence. Although he has made a home in this French town, he hasn’t made any special efforts to integrate or blend with its inhabitants and barely mingles with the townspeople. Even after all these years, he isn’t fluent in French, and having forgotten much of German, he speaks in a language that is a curious amalgam of both that only his family can understand. Is there more to him than meets the eye though?
It was then that Maria Krull was struck by Cornelius’ attitude. He still hadn’t moved. He was looking down at the tablecloth, and no emotion could be seen in his eyes. But he seemed older, all at once. There he was, silent, motionless, and nobody knew what he was thinking.
The rest of the family tries hard to fit in with not much success. Maria Krull, in a way, is the rock of the family scrambling to hold the ship together but is frustrated at how they are always at the receiving end. In this regard, a conversation between Hans and Liesbeth highlights the family dilemma…
Liesbeth: ‘People have been so awful to us!’
‘Because of everything! Because we’re foreigners! At school, the children called me the Kraut, and the teacher would say to me in front of the whole class: “Mademoiselle, when one receives a country’s hospitality, one has to double the duty to behave well.”
Meanwhile, Joseph and Hans could not have been more different. Both men are in their mid-twenties, but whereas Joseph is shy, awkward, lacking in self-esteem, Hans is insolent, bold and socially at ease. No wonder then, while Joseph resents Hans immensely, Hans eyes him with undisguised contempt.
Hans, however, is very perceptive and is acutely aware of why the locals view the Krulls the way they do. In his many conversations with Maria Krull he points out a fault in them which he thinks is crucial – the Krulls are either too eager to please people or too laidback to do anything about it, there is never any middle ground.
Throughout the book, Simenon’s prose is spare and simple and there’s an atmosphere of menace and dread that permeates the novel as we wonder how these various elements are going to play out.
This novel was published in 1939 at a time when the rumblings of a Second World War were beginning to get louder and Hitler was marching across Europe. It also meant that the general distrust towards Germans was probably at its peak. Thus, the Krulls, by virtue of being German, were singled out even though they had been French residents for a long time. Maybe they never had a chance.
The Krull House, then, is a powerful, unsettling exploration of how unfairly society judges outsiders, a fact that is even more pronounced in smaller communities, the hostile treatment meted out to them, and how they become dead ducks when something goes wrong. The abundance of malicious rumours flying around unsupported by any shred of concrete evidence, makes their attempt to establish themselves futile from the start.
These are the very forces that hurtle like a juggernaut towards the unfortunate Krulls as the novel reaches its terrifying conclusion.