Georges Simenon could be a subtle writer. Take the very first words of this novel – “He was walking. For at least three kilometres, he was alone on the road across which tree trunks cast oblique shadows every ten metres, and he strode on, without hurrying, from one strip of shade to the next.” Later, Simenon reveals that the man is a murderer just released from prison, and perhaps the reader will then realise the symbolism of those shadows… like the bars of a cell.
This is Jean Passerat-Monnoyeur, who’s 28 years old, empty-handed, walking along in the French countryside “like someone going nowhere in particular and thinking about nothing”. When the red bus from St. Amand, where it is Saturday market day, catches him up, he flags it down and hunts through his pockets for coins for a ticket to wherever it is going; he doesn’t much care. And as he doesn’t have quite enough money, he tells the driver he’ll get off a bit early.
Of the 40 passengers, only the widow Couderc takes much notice of him, and he in turn notes her. When the widow, Tati, arrives at her little farm and is left standing at the roadside with all her baskets and a large incubator she bought at the market, Jean decides it’s as good a place as any for him to get out, regardless of his ticket onwards, and give her a hand.
These are the two protagonists who occupied Simenon’s imagination in 1942 for the dozen or so days in which it usually took him to dash off a book, in this case “La Veuve Couderc”. He also quickly establishes his setting. Tati’s small-holding has ramshackle buildings, troughs, a well, a heap of manure, a cart propped on its shafts, a couple of cows in a byre, pigs, chickens, geese, rabbits, ducks, pigeons, a vegetable patch, a grapevine. Nearby is the river Cher, the narrow Berry canal and a drawbridge, with a donkey tugging a boat. The lock-keeper has a wooden leg. This is rural France: woods, gently rolling fields, rows of roadside elms, and in the distance a white horse drawing a wine-vat mounted on wheels near a scarecrow, or it might be a man.
Jean and Tati aren’t a natural pair, which will provide literary shenanigans. He’s younger, tall, thin, self-contained and taciturn, she’s middle-aged at 45, short and broad, rather plump and with a mole on her left cheek covered with hundreds of brown silky hairs. She’s domineering and apparently tough, saying she isn’t afraid when she finds that he’s a murderer.
Tati lives with her late husband’s father and, in true Simenon sexual style, she casually “messes around” with the lecherous fellow occasionally when he needs a bit of relief. Keeping him happy means she won’t be thrown out of a place that her predatory in-laws want to grab. She even dished out some favours to him before her husband Marcel died of pneumonia. As Jean comes to understand, “it’s like giving sweeties to a child to keep it quiet. It’s the only way to hold on to the house”. Or, “like giving a sugar lump to a dog”
Tati works her fingers to the bone trying to keep going and even improve the property. The in-laws nearby are scheming to kick her out now she is a widow and take the house. She offers Jean a bed in the attic, his food and a bit of money every now and then if he wants to stay and help with the chores. And naturally, with sex coming so easily in the Simenon world, she quickly provides her hired hand with the flesh that she’s sure he must need after five years’ abstinence in Fontevrault prison and now five days as a free man.
Jean, by the way, had mugged a businessman in a Paris street with a knuckleduster and dumped his unconscious body over the parapet into the river because he needed money to hold on to his girlfriend Zézette. He escaped the articles of the Penal Code that said murderers should be beheaded thanks to his duty lawyer cooking up a story that Jean had been hit first.
“La Veuve Couderc” by Simenon, a Belgian, was published in French in 1942, and then in English in 1954. Here, readers should beware the Simenon “trap”, because at The Budapest Times we were looking forward to this new “The Widow Couderc”, a Simenon we thought we didn’t have among our 60 or so of his romans durs (the so-called “hard” or “psychological” novels; we also have the 75 “Maigret”s).
But we then discovered that our “Ticket of Leave” by Simenon is in fact that 1954 English version of “The Widow Couderc” under another title. It’s one of our few Simenons we hadn’t read yet. That first translation was by one John Petrie, and the 2023 one is by Sian Reynolds, part of the team who retranslated those 75 “Maigret”s between 2013 and 2021.
Also, “The Widow”, published by the clunkily named New York Review Books Classics in 2008, is the same book again, though we don’t know if it is the Petrie translation; presumably it is. Quite a few of Simenon’s books have come out with changed titles over the years, and this isn’t the first time we have been confused. Note further that his “Le Veuf” from 1959, translated into English as “The Widower”, is a different book altogether.
An interesting point (we think) about this 2023 translation of “La Veuve Couderc” is that Sian Reynolds has left in a French word that she presumably believes to be perfectly understandable in English (as are dozens and dozens in everyday use – en route, déjà vu, faux pas, fiancé and on and on): “Morning to night, she was on the qui-vive, listening out for any sounds… ” But in our 1954 “Ticket of Leave”, Petrie gives this as “From morning till night she was on the alert, aware of every sound… “
We wonder, is “qui-vive” as recognisable as chauffeur, bon voyage, bon appétit, bon vivant, par excellence, rendez-vous, billets doux, et cetera? Perhaps it raises the question: can there be definitive translations? Certainly, the old Simenon translations of Geoffrey Sainsbury have been severely discredited and should be burnt. We fully trust Sian Reynolds.
So, we have Jean Passerat-Monnoyeur 28, and we have Tati Couderc, 45, described in the blurb as two lost souls who recognise something in each other. But this will be no love story. Rather, Simenon serves up greed, hate, jealousy, obsessiveness, insecurity and similar. Jean has no apparent problem with Tati servicing her father-in-law, and he starts to lust after Félicie, Tati’s niece in the next property, a slender girl of 16 whose loose ways with men have landed her with an illegitimate baby boy, father unknown.
Tati is intensely jealous and her bold front crumbles as she fears she will lose Jean. He, in search of a new life, feels trapped by her and is haunted by his past. These two outcasts are headed for a fatal outcome. Simenon skillfully ramps up the tension to breaking point. No one is capable of settling their differences in reasonable fashion. Rather, guilt and lies corrode human hearts until they explode, just like the storm that nature is unleashing over what is otherwise an idyllic countryside.