I read this book for the Mount TBR Reading Challenge hosted over at My Reader’s Block from January 1 – December 31, 2016. The challenge is to read books that you already own.
French title: Le Cheval Blanc
Year Englished: 1980
The White Horse Inn – Georges Simenon
This 1938 novella opens with Maurice Arbelet, a petite bourgeoisie in Nevers (central France), out on a weekend walk with wife Germaine and two sons, Emile and Christian. At first, Simenon uses Emile to explore the subtleties of memory – when they are old, what will kids remember of their parents and why? – but Simenon’s focus changes once the young family stops in Pouilly, near Neuilly, at the Hotel du Cheval Blanc of the title.
Maurice (I pronounce this how the British do, Morris) is immediately attracted by the atmosphere of the hotel, struck at how very pleasant it seems. Indeed the first chapter is a little masterpiece, a fine example of Simenon’s ability to portray a milieu and its people.
And what people! Old Nine plumps her overweight body on a stool and preps vegetables for the restaurant all day without stirring. One maid, Theresa, is separated from her drunken husband and raising her young son Henri, who is a budding psychotic. The other maid, Rose, is only 16, happily living away from her drunken father though she must endure the wandering hands and more from her boss. The proprietor Jean Fernande fondles and beds Rose (in France the age of consent is 15) as Madame Fernande shuts her eyes to the situation. Protecting a young female does not even enter Madame Fernande’s mind, as she figures the affair does not mean anything and while banging a young girl may make her drunken father angry and violent, it may also ward off Jean’s periodic spells of rage at conventions and baffled despair that his life is never going to change. Basically, all the people at The White Horse Inn live the life of the inn’s dog, chained day and night to circumstances none of them can change.
Maurice and Jermaine pull up short when they recognize her Uncle Félix Drouin, the porter, handyman, and night watchman. When he lived in the colonies, he was traumatized. Memories of the trauma have given him PTSD. Plus, he is subject to recurrences of malaria. Their petite bourgeoisie concern for appearances pinched, Maurice and Germaine fear that somebody else will recognize him so they want him to go farther away from Nevers than Pouilly.
Indeed, a pleasant spot, seemingly placid, is filled with desperate people just as unable to communicate with each other as the rest of humanity. They are the kind of people who figure not talking is better so as not to reveal disagreeable things that are a lot harder to live with than silence.
A little time passes. One afternoon Maurice returns alone to the inn. He’s hoping to flirt with Rose and persuade Uncle Felix to enter a kind of nursing home run by monks. Felix ‘s reaction to the proposal is an illustration of alienated, apathetic rage. Provoked by the conversation, Felix gets a revolver, bent on fulfilling the promise to himself to kill somebody. Maurice is injured in a fight to which he was only an innocent bystander.
So, given plenty of incident told in Simenon’s terse laconic style, yet without plot, a discerning reader may find the novel somewhat diffuse, without coherence, even if some sections are remarkable, especially those that delineate the daily grind of The White Horse Inn.
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