I read this book for the European Reading Challenge 2016.
French title: Malempin
First published: 1940
Translation: Isabel Quigley, 1978
The Family Lie - Georges Simenon
In this short non-Maigret novel, Dr. Malempin must come to terms with his parent’s sins, big and small, while his young son battles diphtheria. The child’s illness has derailed family plans for a vacation in the South.
While keeping vigil over his son, the doctor is struck by the child’s unfathomable expression and wonders what memories of the infection the child will retain. This thought causes Dr. Malempin to reflect on his own past, how his own memories were formed, the parts his parents played in making those memories. Could the same process be unfolding in his son?
This train of thought, in turn, causes him to reflect deeply and turn to journaling as a way to think about his past. He goes over in memory the story of young Edouard, in the countryside, as a very young child. He feels vaguely his mother and her family’s discontent when Great Uncle Tesson marries a much younger woman, Elise. He recalls wondering why his parents, when visiting the rich moneylender Uncle Tesson and Elise every Sunday, seem unlike themselves, falsely sincere. His father is a small-scale farmer, his mother the daughter of a ruined notary, who feels the humiliation of having but little money and having to cozy up to a rich relative.
One day after visiting the Malempins, Great Uncle Tesson just disappears. The adult doctor cannot recall the exact circumstances of the vanishing of the unfriendly usurer. Questioned by the police, his mother tells bald-faced lies, right in the front of young Edouard who know lies when he hears them. Frightened that the child has something on them and will talk unwisely to the police, his parents ship to Edouard to his Aunt Elise. Though his stay was to be limited to the time the investigators were on the case, he continued to live with his aunt, to whom he was attracted in various ways. Yeah, those ways too, Simenon never flinched from disturbing realities (see the abuse in The Little Saint).
So, this novel examines family secrets and a man’s gradual understanding of adult behavior that seemed so odd to a child. He considers the past’s influences on his own behavior. The doctor’s examination of his own childhood enables him to better understand his loveless marriage and his children. Simenon emphasizes the sharp-eyed but limited point of view of a child and the tenuous trickiness of memory for adults. We readers recall how acutely concentrated our powers of observation were when we were kids, but we realize we didn’t understand because we lacked experience of the adult world, with its mysterious reactions and unspoken assumptions. Childhood experience shapes us without our knowledge, to affect our entire lives as adults.
In Simenon’s ‘hard novels’ – aka non-Maigret psychological thrillers – motivated by one of life’s usual crises (illness, accident, crime or family members forgetting one’s birthday), an often alienated protagonist must evaluate his daily life. Sometimes he choose another way of living but most often it’s only realization that something important happened. Sometimes he chooses a healthier way, sometimes neurosis keeps him in his rut.
My only gripe was that going unexplained were references to French high and low culture of the early 1940s. Too bad publishers were too cheap to add at the end a couple pages of notes that explained allusions that nobody in the non-French world could be expected to understand. Not translated for almost 40 years since publishers and translators were unsure of its sales, this sad novel is not for everyone but for the rare reader who, like Simenon, accepts inevitability, accepts what will naturally occur in this delightful and maddening world – and does not live "crushed by the present or fearful of the future."
My Review of Other Non-Maigret Novels by SimenonThe Old Man Dies