Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Move by Georges Simenon

Thin walls make for nosey neighbors
Georges Simenon wrote somewhere around 500 novels, and if the dozen and a half that I’ve read are any indication, they’re likely all good. But some are better than others, and The Move is one of those others. Originally published in 1967 under the French title of Le Déménagement, The Move might be considered a good book from some other crime writer, but by Simenon standards it’s just OK.

Emile Jovis works for a travel agency in Paris. He has just moved himself, his wife, and his teenage son from their urban, middle-class lodgings in the city to a brand new apartment complex in the suburbs. One might expect life at this suburban retreat to be safer and more humdrum than the family’s previous neighborhood of residence, but in fact the opposite is the case. As Jovis finds out the first night he spends in the new place, there is a dangerous side to suburban existence lurking beneath the respectable veneer. Lying in bed, he realizes that he can hear his next-door neighbors through the wall, and their bedroom conversation opens his mind to hints of sexuality and crime that seem enticingly depraved to his relatively prudish ears. Jovis develops a deep fascination for this man who lives next door, envies his prowess with women, and feels compelled to learn more about him, even if his investigation takes him far beyond his comfort zone.

The Move had me hooked in the first chapter. The second, third, and fourth chapters, however, were rather slow and failed to capitalize on that initial enthusiasm. Though this is a short book, less than 150 pages, not much of importance really happens until about two-thirds of the way through the story. One of the joys of reading Simenon’s novels is his keen insight into human psychology. In this case, however, too much of a good thing may be the book’s major fault. Though written in the third person, The Move is essentially a stream-of-consciousness piece written entirely from Jovis’s perspective. The problem is Simenon doesn’t give us enough of what’s going on outside of his protagonist’s head. The details are vague, and the ending is rather far-fetched. It is impossible for me to discuss it without giving it away, but something less sensational would have been easier to swallow and probably a more effective way of wrapping up Jovis’s story.

In a nutshell, the story of The Move is that of a mild-mannered man who tries to stretch beyond the confines of his prosaic life and ends up getting in way over his head. Simenon did this sort of thing much better in his 1948 novel The Reckoning. Here he goes to such great lengths to emphasize the mild-manneredness of Jovis that it begins to defy belief. Perhaps it is difficult to shock the 21st-century reader who has seen way too many movies, but it’s hard to fathom an adult male having such a naive and childlike response to overhearing some dirty, dangerous talk. On top of that, Simenon depicts Jovis as such an inconsequential person in the grand scheme of things that the escalation towards the end hardly seems justified.

Perhaps it was cutting-edge for its day, but I doubt it. 1967 was not so long ago. Simenon has written some shocking novels (Dirty Snow comes to mind) but this one feels tame compared to many of his works. Because of his prodigious literary talent The Move is still a pretty good book, but it certainly isn’t great.
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