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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

GEORGES SIMENON Betty (1961)

Le Livre de Poche France, 2008



Elle regarda Laure dan les yeux, méchamment, acheva d'une voix dure:
  – Toute ma vie, j'ai couru après ma blessure.
  Elle s'était juré de ne pas pleurer. Ce n'était plus possible.  Les larmes jaillissaient, épaisses, de ses paupières chaudes, coulaient le long de son nez, mettaient un goût salé dans sa bouche.  En même temps, elle riait.

She looked Laure in the eyes, spitefully, finished in a hard voice:
  'All my life, I've chased after my wound.'
 She didn't blame herself for not crying.  It wasn't possible anymore.  The tears gushed out, thickly, from her hot eyelids, ran along her nose, put a dirty taste in her mouth.  At the same time, she laughed.

Excerpts translated by BR




The Novel:  An attractive young woman, drunk and disoriented and in bad need of a bath, turns up one night in a seedy Paris bar called The Trou.  She's not sure how she got there, only that she's no longer welcome in the plush apartment on the Rue de Ponthieu she formerly shared with her husband and her two young daughters.  

The bar owner, Mario, takes pity on her, asks her if she'd like something to eat.  No, she tells him, nothing.  But she'd like another drink if she could have one.  She must keep drinking to block out the memories –– of all the men she's slept with that day, of the one who brought her to this bar, of signing the paper that gave full custody of her children to her husband and his family –– or she'll go mad.  

But what would it matter if she did lose her mind?   Who would really care if she woke up in a hospital or the gutter the next day or, better still, never woke up at all?  She's a drunk and a whore.  The paper she signed with her own name –– 'Elisabeth Etamble, née Fayet' –– and had witnessed by her husband and mother-in-law freely admitted as much.

So begins one of Simenon's most chilling novels, a disturbing yet psychologically riveting examination of the ideas that damnation can be appealing and no good deed ever goes unpunished.

Betty, as Elisabeth now calls herself, is eventually taken home and cared for by Mario's girlfriend, a generous and motherly middle-aged widow named Laure.  Laure allows Betty to stay with her in her hotel room and, as she and the equally concerned Mario slowly nurse her back to health, they gradually begin to piece together the details her story.  Trapped in a loveless bourgeois marriage to Guy, a man who never truly needed or understood her, Betty sought refuge in the arms of a lover, becoming more and more reckless as time went on until, one night, she was caught making love to him on the floor of their apartment by Guy and his mother.  Disgusted, Guy threw her out, later making her sign a paper admitting her guilt and giving him custody of their daughters in exchange for money.  This, Betty tells Laure, was the crowning achievement of a life devoted to wickedness, of a life spent digging into the 'wound' that has simultaneously defined and blighted it.  She always knew she'd turn out to be a whore, she says, after catching her uncle having sex with the maid when she was fifteen and spying on them.  Signing the paper that deprived her of her children and being thrown out by her husband had been nothing more than the next logical step on her inevitable, self-guided road to hell.

Hamish Hamilton UK, 1975
But Guy proves to be more forgiving than she suspected, offering her a chance to come home and resume their former life together as long as she agrees to act as though nothing had happened.  Betty considers accepting his proposal but ultimately rejects it, realizing that she can't go against her true nature now she's finally discovered it and admitted the truth of what she really is to herself.  She stays with Laure and Mario, continuing to eavesdrop on them making love and talking about her, secretly planning out her next move while she does so.  She begins flirting with Mario whenever Laure's back is turned, making plans to run off with him even though she's been warned by a doctor that she needs rest and care in a quiet, stable environment.  But Betty wants neither rest nor stability.  She's une femme maudite [a damned woman] and must continue to seek her own destruction and the destruction of everything 'respectable' even if the act of doing so robs Laure, her friend and benefactor, of the one thing that gives her own life as a wealthy but lonely widow its only sense of meaning.
       


GEORGES SIMENON, 1963
The WriterGeorges Simenon was born in the Belgian city of Liège in 1903 and died eighty-six years later in the Swiss city of Lausanne, having published close to two hundred novels, over a hundred and fifty novellas and scores of short stories, articles and humorous pieces in the meantime.  

For most of his career he was the world's bestselling author, largely thanks to the series of successful romans policiers [crime novels] he published between 1931 and 1972 which featured his most famous creation, Commissaire Maigret (known as Inspector Maigret in most English translations of his work).  While the Maigret novels made Simenon wealthy and famous – the character is to the French-speaking world what Sherlock Holmes is to the English-speaking world and has been the subject of dozens of film, television and radio adaptations –– his most insightful and arguably best work is found in his romans durs [hard novels], beginning in 1931 with Le Relais d'Alsace and including such later masterpieces as Le Coup de lune [Tropic Moon], Lettre à mon juge [Letter to My Judge], La Veuve Couderc [The Widow] and La neige était sale [Dirty Snow].  These novels are gripping character studies of people living on the fringes of society –– drunks, outcasts, failures as well as the just plain foolish and unlucky –– and drew strongly on his years as a newspaper reporter, raconteur and habituée of Paris nightclubs for their details and backgrounds.  They're less about crime than about what motivates crime and the havoc it wreaks on the lives of ordinary, self-deceiving human beings.  As Simenon himself wrote to fellow novelist André Gide in 1939:  'Ne pas pouvoir voir un homme sans se mettre à sa place, souffir pour luil'idéal serait de pouvoir dire tous les hommes, d'avoir vécu toutes leurs vies.  Même en petit, souffert toutes leurs souffrances.  J'en suis loin!  Avec le temps, je me rapprocherai cet idéal.' ['I can't see a man without putting myself in his place, suffering for himthe ideal would be to have the power to speak for everybody, to live everybody's lives.  Even in a small way, to suffer everything they suffer.  I am far from doing that!  In time, I will come closer to reaching this ideal.']  


CLAUDE CHABROL film adaptation of Betty, 1992
Simenon was married twice and had children with each of his two wives.  He also had many affairs, which complicated his life but also furnished him with much of the raw material he needed for his work.  In 1978 his daughter Marie-Jo, his second child by his second wife Denyse, killed herself –– a tragedy which saw him retreat from the spotlight to a certain extent, even though he continued to publish novels and went on to dictate and publish several volumes of memoirs prior to his death in 1989.  An inveterate traveler throughout his life, Simenon visited Africa, the Middle East and the USSR and also spent ten years living in the United States – a stay which inspired much of his finest work – before he returned to live permanently in Europe in 1955.  An amazingly prolific author, he frequently managed to churn out between 60 and 80 pages of publishable prose a day –– a feat any writer would envy and a gift that was no doubt the source of his incredible success.  He was, as André Gide rightly called him, a 'phenomenon' who also happened to be one of the most gifted, psychologically astute novelists of the twentieth century.


Many novels by GEORGES SIMENON have been translated into English, including most of the Maigret series and several of his finest romans durs.  (An English translation of Betty was published by the London firm of Hamish Hamilton in 1975 but has never been reprinted to my knowledge.)  Click HERE to see which of the romans durs are currently available in translation from New York Review Books.  You can also click HERE to read an interview (in English) with GEORGES SIMENON which originally appeared in the Summer 1955 issue of The Paris Review.  It's one of the finest pieces you'll ever read about the craft and practice of writing.

Cliquez ICI pour visiter le blog Les Amis de Georges Simenon en français.  Cliquez ICI pour visiter le site de web de OMNIBUS, l'éditeur de GEORGES SIMENON.


You might also enjoy:
UNE VIE INTENSE Remembering Jacques Brel
AGNAR MYKLE Lasso Round the Moon (1954) 
GINA BERRIAULT The Son (1966)

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