Monday, May 4, 2015

Classic #11

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2015.

Talatala by Georges Simenon (French: Le Blanc à lunettes)

In the non-Maigret psychological thrillers, Simenon explores the same existential themes in unusual ways. He creates a familiar yet strange milieu with a troubled central character. Then Simenon turns up the heat. A death, a crime, or new people precipitate change. In this one, despite a climax of an attempted murder and suicide, we have a happy ending. Offhand, I can think of only one other optimistic ending to a psychological thriller by Simenon -  The Little Saint, in which a budding artist won’t allow emotional neglect and sexual abuse in childhood to stop him becoming a famous painter.

This novel is set in the Belgian Congo during colonial times in the 1930s. Brought low by the oppressive climate and malaria, the French and Belgian expatriates battle each other and the bottle. As we would expect, we have to make allowances for incidents and tone since this was written at a time when a writer could evoke shameless sexual practices of a colonist in Africa with a black female who happens to be only 15 years old.

Me, I tell myself that nasty attitudes were a reality in the period between the wars of which Simenon is a persuasive chronicler. Simply deploring outdated social attitudes does not help us to understand their causes or effects, nor does understanding them mean we are exonerating ordinary people in the past for having and acting on such attitudes. Besides, a hundred years from now, what will people say about our own 21st century tolerant ways, like letting Tedd Kruise, who reminds me of the Dick Tracy villain Putty Puss, get anywhere near the Presidency of the United States?

Anyway, back to the novel. After a plane crash the aristocrat Lady Makinson, a bored opium-puffing adventuress, has to stay in the residence of planter Ferdinand Graux. He is out to make his fortune in Africa by farming coffee. He is neurotic as hell. Only seeking peace of mind, he awfulizes every real or perceived threat to stability. The more contact he was with the stranger, the more his over-sensitive alert system is aroused and the more convinced Graux is that disaster is around the corner. Simenon’s self-absorbed heroes are always having alarmed premonitions, which don’t stop them, however, from surrendering to fascinating strangers. Graux knows so little of the world that it takes only a couple of sexual encounters with the aristo to make him fall in obsessive love with her, thus complicating his feelings toward his fiancé Emilienne.

Filled with callow erotic yearning and what he thinks is love, Graux follows her, to her consternation, when she returns to her husband, a diplomat in Istanbul. Meanwhile, Emilienne and Graux’ mother have compared letters from him that make them conclude “something is going on.” Brave Emilienne travels by herself to the Congo, but it is too late: Ferdinand left in pursuit of the opium-smoking hottie. Without losing her self-possession, Emilienne refuses to be impressed with the exotic locale and keeps the plantation and infirmary going, working with Camille, the steward and friend of her fiancé. She meets the Bodets, a young Belgian couple recently moved to the colony and Graux had met on the ship during his own return trip. They personify the kind of expatriate couple that should never live overseas, Europeans out of their depth, ill-equipped to live, much less thrive, in a hardship posting, and almost always wanting something else but they do not know not what.

Given the story is not a strong one, at least it features the hallmarks of its author. Simenon’s style seems at first to be flat and deadpan but its draws its strength from simple, immediately intelligible language. His staging works in that no scene or dialogue is too long or too short. I’ve read Simenon novels set in French provinces, New England, and Africa. Simenon’s versatility with characters and settings reminds me of Dickens. But his treatment of romantic obsession, dependence, alienation, and pursuit is his own.

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