I read this for the European Reading Challenge 2014.
Tante Jeanne aka Aunt Jeanne – Georges Simenon 1950 , tr. By Geoffrey Sainsbury 1953
At Poitiers, where she had to change trains, she hadn’t been able to resist temptation. Ten times, dragging her suitcase, she had passed in front of the bar. The feeling of discomfort in her chest was really scary and it got worse each time she approached her goal. It was like a great bubble of air, certainly quite as big as one of her breasts, which was trying to force it way upward to her throat, to find an exit, and she waited anxiously motionless, staring in front of her, feeling sure at moments that she was going to die.
A 57-year-old woman returns to her home village not far from Poitiers after forty years of a marginal existence overseas. Tired, overweight, and suffering idiopathic edema in her legs, she seeks refuge and security in the bosom of her family, now headed by her brother Robert. He’s running the family business in the wine trade.
However, instead of the stability and security she was seeking, Aunt Jeanne finds an eccentric family in the throes of a recent tragedy. The first son, Julien, has been killed in car crash brought on by the usual symptoms of trouble, night driving at a high rate of speed, overuse of alcohol, and alpha-male stupidity.
Alice, the immature 20-year-old widow of Julien, displays indifference to her infant son Bob, and fights boredom by just leaving the kid at home and hanging out with her rummy friends. Henri, the second son, has a weak character. Madeleine, the daughter, is stuck-up about and wounded by her own promiscuity. Both despise their mother Louise, Jeanne’s sister-in-law, because she drinks too much and is prone to hysterics. It’s a troubled family beset by money worries, acting out dramas, slamming doors, and noisy arguments punctuated with frozen silences. As Alice’s mother, the inevitable tight-fisted and unpleasant in-law, tartly observes, “It’s a madhouse.”
Since everybody is incapable or apathetic, Jeanne takes over the management of the household. Simenon, indirectly as usual, illustrates that when we have to think about others we often forget our own problems such as despair, fatigue, overweight, and edema. Aunt Jeanne’s quiet efficiency earns the confidence of the family and their grudging gratitude, as far as small-minded people can feel it. The family faces a financial crisis that narrows their choices drastically, which is simultaneously lucky and unlucky for them. Aunt Jeanne herself then evaluates three possible responses to change, depending on family, depending on the state, and, as we’d expect in Simenon’s existential novels of the Fifties, doing away with herself.
But, like in the other non-Maigret novels, the characters find that though their alternatives are limited, they must face reality and settle for what life throws at them. Nothing is completely good or completely bad. We have to accept new exhaustions, new misunderstandings or new ungratefulness because it’s the world. Despite the simple plot and writing style, Simenon is complex and ambiguous. His novels plunge us readers in an intense world of forms, colors, scents, noises, flavors and feelings. Even secondary characters are vivid, in this case, Désirée, Aunt Jeanne’s old convent buddy; the cold as ice medico Dr. Bernard; and the reptilian ancient lawyer Monsieur Bigeois. Simenon only gradually, tantalizingly reveals reasons why people do what they do.
People live in the same house, sleep in the same bed or separated only by thin walls, sit down for meals together three times a day, and then are surprised to discover, one fine day, that they know nothing whatever about each other.