Wednesday, March 22, 2017
The Reckoning by Georges Simenon
Disturbing late-life crisis
Georges Simenon’s novel Le Bilan Malétras was originally published in 1948. An English edition entitled The Reckoning, translated by Emily Read, was published in 1984. This book is considered one of Simenon’s “romans durs” or “hard novels,” which are often bleak, psychological thrillers with existential undertones. Although these romans durs often take the form of noir crime stories, they allow Simenon to explore deeper philosophical questions than he usually tackles in the detective fiction of his popular Maigret series.
The protagonist of the story, Malétras, is a retired businessman who finds himself questioning the pointlessness of his own life as he drifts toward an elderly obsolescence. He was born and raised a poor country boy, but worked his way up to own a chain of seaport warehouses. Once having achieved success, he turned his back on his humble upbringings and embraced the lifestyle of the nouveau riche, often looking with disdain upon those less fortunate or less driven than himself. His career now over, he resides in Le Havre with his second wife, dabbles in a small business venture, and spends most of his time hanging out in a bar with other distinguished professional men of similar social stature.
Something shocking happens in the first few pages, making this a tough book to summarize without spoiling. Since this is a Simenon novel, however, it’s probably not revealing too much to say that a crime is committed. At that point it shows signs of becoming a suspenseful thriller, but it never really progresses too far in this direction. Mostly this is a character study, through which details of Malétras’s past and personality are gradually revealed as his sanity seems to slowly unravel. He is all but estranged from his family, has few if any meaningful friendships, and seems to be almost entirely devoid of human emotions. The book often adopts the callous tone of its antihero, displaying at times an almost offensive disregard for human lives and feelings. Malétras wanders the streets and cafés of Le Havre trying to figure out how he’s gotten to this point in his life and what it is that drives him towards the few pleasures that he seeks.
Simenon’s grasp of human psychology is very impressive, and his multi-dimensional study of this character’s mind is fascinating. After a while, however, the book starts to get somewhat repetitive. The crime plot falls by the wayside and is forgotten for a stretch as the story moves in a more prosaic direction that examines themes of aging, regret, illness, and coming to terms with death. The ending is a bit of a disappointment, but it seems to be an intentional one. Simenon refuses to conform to the conventions of a crime thriller and grant the reader easy satisfaction. There’s an admirable audaciousness to this strategy, and it closes the story with a ring of truth in keeping with the inconvenient realities of life.
If you wanted to read a formulaic crime story, you probably wouldn’t be reading Simenon anyway. The man wrote about 500 novels, and few if any that I’ve encountered so far could be described as “typical.” This isn’t one of Simenon’s absolute best books, but it’s certainly an engaging work of literature written by an expert at his craft. The Reckoning is one more surprising book among the prolific output of a writer who consistently defies expectations.
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