Act of Passion – Georges Simenon, tr. Louise Varese
Simenon’s catalogue is so vast and so varied that it's hard to be categorical, but this novel, published as Lettre à mon juge in 1947, could be one of his deepest, most serious novels. It is definitely one of his most desperate.
From his cell on death row, Charles Alavoine, a doctor who murdered his mistress, writes a letter to the judge who presided at his trial. The perp does not ask for forgiveness, but seeks the understanding of another man who is able to understand the feelings as the motive of his act. I can think of only one other novel where Simenon uses the first-person, In Case of Emergency, in which a lawyer explains his existential rage and defiance of conventions, especially as enforced by fussy mothers and nitpicky wives that take exception to affairs with bad girls half the age of middle-aged husbands.
The letter narrates his descent into hell. His was an alcoholic father who took his own life but Alavoine was saved by a devoted mother who was ambitious for him. Dr. Alavoine later checked the usual boxes: married, two children, widower, remarried, country office, incessant work leading to a slightly upscale lifestyle. Middle-age, however, takes him by the scruff of the neck. Routine, apathy, desire, resentment, misanthropy, lies and liars all come together to make him feel especially distressed one day in Nantes station. And he meets Martine.
Martine is also a child of misfortune. She’s filled with self-loathing due to sexual abuse in childhood. She’s a wild and self-destructive JD (in fact, she’s played by Bridget Bardot in the movie) The last person she needs is a man is so alienated from himself and society that he feels like a robot, just going through the motions of daily life. Events bring their internal and external pressures to the bursting point.
Something has to give.