Last year, I decided to foray into Georges Simenon’s oeuvre. But rather than dig into the Inspector Maigret novels, which made him famous, I opted for his darker novels or romans durs, which had a psychological edge to them and were therefore richer.
The first one that I read was The Blue Room, which was excellent. Consequently, I made a note of reading more by him.
This time I zeroed in on Act of Passion published by the ever fabulous NYRB Classics. Incidentally, this novel was first published in French in 1947 as Lettre a Mon Juge, the literal translation being Letter to My Judge.
Act of Passion is a dark, psychological tale of buried passions and murder as the protagonist struggles to come to grips with his demons.
The man here is the protagonist Dr Charles Alavoine. The entire novel is in the form of a long letter that Alavoine composes while in prison. At the outset we know that Alavoine has committed a crime – a murder – a trial for which has already taken place.
So this novel is not really a question of who committed the crime, but rather what the motives were for Alavoine to commit the crime in the first place. It is more of a character study.
Act of Passion is narrated in the first person, by Charles Alavoine. When the book opens, Alavoine is writing to the magistrate Monsieur Comeliau. This is the magistrate who was in touch with Alavoine during the questioning sessions before the trial eventually begun. Alavoine chooses to write to him simply because he is quite confident that the magistrate will understand his motives, and somehow find it in himself to forgive Alavoine. Mind you, he does not expect the magistrate to exonerate him, because Alavoine unconditionally accepts his guilt.
You are afraid of yourself, of a certain frenzy which might take possession of you, afraid of the disgust that you feel growing in you with the slow and inexorable growth of a disease.
We are almost identical men, your Honour.
Alavoine also strongly believes that for the magistrate to really understand why he committed the crime, it was essential first for him to know more about Alavoine as a person.
And that is how gradually we begin to get an inkling of Alavoine’s personality.
Charles Alavoine is the son of a reasonably well to do peasant farmer who marries one of the Lanoue girls (Charles’ mother). It gradually emerges that his father drank too much, and getting a glimpse of the emptiness of his life, finally commits suicide.
Charles, meanwhile, grows up to become a doctor (a doctor or a priest are the two professions his mother would have preferred anyway). It becomes apparent that the mother in some way has exerted control over Charles life, and he has felt no reason to contradict her. And yet, her it is not a form of control that is obvious or in your face, it’s rather subtle.
In fact, we are introduced to Charles’ mother at his trial, where she is extremely nervous and embarrassed and worried about disgracing her son.
Here’s how Charles chooses to give some idea of his mother’s status in the overall scheme of things…
With my first wife, who was not a very good housekeeper, who was what they call at home a ‘lump of dough’, my mother remained the mistress of the house.
With Armande, things changed, that was all, because Armande has a stronger personality and very decided tastes of her own. When a woman of sixty is suddenly deprived of her occupations, can no longer give orders to the servants, can no longer fuss over the meals and the children, it is exceedingly painful for her.
Armande is Charles’ second wife. But before that we learn that Charles was married to a young woman Jeanne who bore him two daughters, and died on the birth of her second daughter. It was clearly the union of an inexperienced couple. Charles marries his first wife without really knowing her or even asking himself if he loved her. He marries her because that is what men his age did after they were more or less settled in their careers.
Charles’ marriage to Armande (his second wife) is also neither a product of love, nor any kind of passion. Armande is portrayed as a cool, dignified woman with sufficient presence of mind, who instills herself in the Alavoine household and comes to control it. It becomes inevitable to both Charles and his mother that Armande will become Charles’ wife.
Armande is shown to be a true model wife who efficiently runs the house, looks after Charles’ daughters, and slowly also has a say in Charles’ practice as a doctor. It appears to be a model of the ‘perfect’ family – Charles has a successful career, he and Armande host bridge parties, and they go on vacation with the daughters.
And while Charles through all his life has passively accepted the fate that Life has doled out to him, gradually but surely begins to feel an emptiness creeping upon him. He feels he is losing his sense of self, or maybe he never had a self in the first place.
You walk along the pavement flooded with sunlight and your shadow walks along with you almost at your side; you can see it broken in two by the angle formed by the white-walled houses and the pavement.
All at once, this shadow accompanying you disappears…
It doesn’t change its position. It doesn’t pass behind you because you have changed your direction. I mean, it just disappears.
You begin to feel yourself all over. Your body has the same consistency as on any other day. You take a few quick steps and you stop short, hoping to find your shadow again. You run. Still it is not there.
You are not dreaming. You have no shadow and, seized with anguish…
It is then that on one of his doctor’s trips to Nantes, he meets Martine. Martine is a woman, down on luck, a drifter, prone to sipping cocktails in bars, and then sleeping with men. She is neither sophisticated nor beautiful but is rather quite ordinary, and this is paradoxically what makes her extraordinary to Charles. He realizes that there is an air of innocence about her that she tries hard to mask. They end up having passionate sex in a cheap hotel room.
It is from hereon that things begin to get difficult for Charles. He can’t bear being away from her. And yet, when he is with her, he is tormented by images of the ‘other’ Martine, the one who is at the beck and call of men, and this drives him into a rage. Slowly but surely, Charles’ downfall begins…
Act of Passion then, on one level, is an examination of existential angst, and on another level is a character study of an obsessed man. Charles time and again talks about love in his letter to the judge, his love for Martine and vice versa. But while it is easy to believe that he indeed does love her, it also points out to his inexperience in terms of what healthy, loving relationships are really like.
And while the reader can sympathize with Charles and why this extra marital affair made him feel alive, bringing him out of his dull existence, we are never entirely sure what Martine really feels about it, because this account is ultimately Charles’ point of view.
Roger Ebert in this introduction for the NYRB Classics edition sums up Charles’ personality very well:
Alavoine in turn depicts himself as an ordinary doctor, a man of fixed routines, a man who submits to the supervision and scrutiny of a mother and a second wife who is like a mother, a man to whom no one could object, and in whom few could take an interest. He is a man who has reached middle age having only once done anything which gave him a sharp sense of self.
Georges Simenon can clearly write and while we will never know if the magistrate ever understood Charles’ motives from the letter addressed to him, he did a brilliant job of just about evoking sympathy of this reader, and I stress ‘just about.’
Basically, this is another wonderfully penned and fascinating romans durs from Simenon and ably translated by Louise Varese. On deeper reflection, I preferred Act of Passion to The Blue Room (and The Blue Room is very, very good).