I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2021.
A classic in translation. This was first published as Le cercle des Mahé in 1946.
The Mahé Circle - Georges Simenon
Dr. François Mahé, 35-years-old, overweight, disillusioned with his dull middle-class life, departs from tradition as to where to take the family on its summer vacation. Instead of a quiet rural spot, he decides on Porquerolles, an island in the Med, off the south of France.
On the ideal liminal space of an island, on holiday away from it all, as we’d expect, he is sun-struck out of his usual patterns of thought. In the disturbing opening scene, out fishing with a local angler-guide, Mahé feels out of place, like an impersonator of an ordinary person. He feels that the locals are laughing at him, that he is not quite an adult male. To tend to a dying woman, he gladly interrupts the outing because though he follows the guide's example he catches only a disgusting spiny fish.
As soon as he arrives the woman passes away, too young. He discovers that her husband, Frans Klamm, has been gone on a bender to Toulon, leaving their three thin and scruffy children all alone. The locals, being clannish islanders to the core, blandly make it clear the poor family has never been accepted since they just showed up on the island and squatted in an old military installation. This doctor feels for the misery of this family. But what can he do? The holidays end without regret for the Mahés, because nobody liked Porquerolles.
Dr. Mahé returns to his treadmill. Simenon could care less about moral lessons or philosophical orientations but I think he might be hinting that this is no way to live:
He found that at thirty-five, here he was […] with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week. He followed it […] because he could see no other solution, because he refused to admit there could be one, but he was floating inside this world that had been arranged for him as if in a suit of clothes that didn’t fit.
In spite of their memories of the hot weather, queasy kids, warm wine, scorpions in the clothes, oily fish, and crusty locals, the following year, Dr. Mahé decides to return to Porquerolles. The good doctor feels driven by a muddy desire to find himself in a spot where he feels out of place, with people vaguely suspecting he's an imposter. It’s better than following a conventional life with a dull wife, doing the same damn thing every damn day. Year two at Porquerolles ends, without any deaths at least.
In the third year in Porquerolles, the family Mahés take nephew Fred with them. At Chez Klamm, he notices that Elisabeth, the oldest daughter, has taken charge of the household, imposing order on chaos, sending the little brother to violin lessons and making sure her father Frans never has any money to go on a spree. Middle-aged and bored and disillusioned Mahé starts of obsess about her. He cannot explain his unsavory ruminations and he arranges for vicarious kicks to get his gawky stupid nephew to “meet” Elisabeth.
The resulting violation puts into motion a series of events that don’t end well for the good doc. Dr. Mahé realizes he can’t go on the way he’s been going on. But the realization comes too late. I recommend this pandemic reading to the early middle-aged as a cautionary tale and to people near retirement who pat themselves on the back for having left in the rear-view mirror the two demons of middle age – the nineteen-year-old and the bottle.