Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year!

The Magician
French title: Antoine et Julie
First published: 1953
Translation: Helen Sebba, 1954

In Simenon’s existential thrillers, or non-Maigret noir downers if you prefer, his main characters are often lonely. Emotionally flat and socially inept, they seek connection to others in dysfunctional ways. In Justice, a delinquent seeks suspect companionship among low lives. In A New Lease on Life, alienation drives an accountant to seek the shabby carnality of prostitutes. In The Man on the Bench in the Barn, a middle-aged lawyer has an ill-advised fling with the widow of the man that he thinks he’s killed.

But in The Magician, when the main character drinks, he chases “that contact, that way of looking at humanity and of feeling at one with it.” He reaches the impaired conclusion that people don't commit suicide because there comes a moment, “if you know how to manage things, when it is no longer necessary.” Antoine's “managing things” – i.e., drinking himself stupid - gets out of control and he has one of those miserable experiences – such as an accident, an arrest – that finally persuade alcoholics that they have hit bottom and better stop drinking. The precise writing makes this one a forceful if sad novel, especially to those interested in a literary treatment of the greed of alcoholics, examples of craving and triggers to drink, and how alcoholism damages not only the drinker but at least three or four other people around him.

Married in their forties, Antoine and Julie live in an apartment on rue Daru in Paris. Their first years of marriage were less than idyllic since Julie's mother did not like her son-in-law, whose conjuring and prestidigitation she despised as professions unfit for an adult male. She claimed Antoine  married Julie for her money, since Julie was overweight, middle-aged, and prone to anxiety.

But death solves problems like this. With the mother-in-law in her grave, you’d think things could be hunky-dory. They don't roll in money but he makes enough for them to make their modest ends meet. The lack of money is not the problem. The problem that life presents is that like a lot of alcoholics, Antoine knows perfectly well that he is one of those people who had better not drink, because when they do bad things happen. For him, two are too many and six are not enough. But as he works at night usually, all the chances are too inviting to stop in a bar, whistle up a gin or a cognac, and repeat the drunk's logic, "Hell, if I feel this good right now with just a couple, I may as well make a night of it."

In his cups, Antoine makes bad decisions. He hangs out with Dagobert, who likes to assert, “We’re all bastards,” just the good news alcoholics need to hear. He lends the worthless Dagobert money that he will never see again. He gets home late and hassles the highly-strung Julie with the dicky ticker. He claims that he is unhappy and pains his wife with unjust reproaches, blaming everybody and everything but himself for his problems. Of course, like lots of drunks, he feels remorse the next day. But neither his monotonous drinking nor nervy Julie’s heart problem stop him from drinking again after only a short period of abstinence.

On Christmas Eve, Julie notices that she has no heart medicine left. She asks Antoine to go to the pharmacy and fetch her the medication. Stuff happens - as the old song goes, "there's a thousand swingin' doors gonna let you in" -  the upshot of which you can guess if you’ve read the other existential thrillers listed below. And Antoine ends up being the kind of man “who never drinks and never asks questions.”

Georges Simenon, thanks to his immense talent and subdued writing, looks at the ordinary and makes it important.  

Other Non-Maiget Psychological-Existential Thrillers

The White Horse Inn

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