“The Strangers in the House” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)

A man’s life regains meaning, as do the words that tell the tale

There is not one but two mysteries for we amateur sleuths to ponder here: first, Simenon’s actual plot, involving the obligatory killing and the natural question of whodunnit, and second, how this brand-new translation differs so much from Penguin’s earlier one (in a positive way).
14. November 2021 13:47

The Belgian author’s “Les Inconnus dans la maison” was first published in French in Paris in 1940, and then translated into English as “The Strangers in the House” in 1951. Simenon’s prolific output has been fertile not only for devoted readers but for film-makers too, and it must say something for the attraction of this novel that there have been no fewer than four adaptations: in France and Britain in 1942, 1967, 1992 and 1997.

“The Strangers in the House” is one of Simenon’s romans durs, his “hard” or “psychological” novels. He prided himself on these, regarding them of greater note than the 75 “Maigret” novels, although it was these latter that made him more famous and were kinder to his pocket.

Plot-wise, we meet the owner of a dilapidated, once-grand house in Moulins, Hector Loursat, 48, who gave up on almost everything in life after his wife Geneviève left him and their young daughter Nicole, then two years old, for another man, 18 long years ago. Loursat, once a successful lawyer, is now a drunkard and a recluse. He locks himself away, literally, in his padded lair, his study, emerging mainly to visit the cellar for his two or three bottles of Burgundy a day, most likely three.

He wears a dirty black velvet smoking jacket and there are cigarette ends everywhere. He doesn’t need friends, mistresses or servants and he refuses invitations to social gatherings. He prefers his booze and to dip into the books piled to the ceiling, some his, some his father’s and some his grandfather’s.

Loursat and Nicole, now 20, have little relationship with one another and come together only at mealtimes, out of habit, but they don’t speak. He is even unsure if he is her true father. Nicole sleeps in the other wing of the large house, and Loursat hasn’t ventured there for a long time. A tradesmen’s door from an alleyway to the house is always left unlocked, and Nicole’s young friends come and go at will, partying with her until the early hours.

The cover of the first UK edition, 1951

Loursat has no idea what is going on in the rooms he doesn’t occupy. While these strangers frolic in his house, he is, in fact, also a stranger in his own house; what’s more, a house full of things that either don’t work or work badly, like the chimney that doesn’t draw and the dumb waiter that sticks.

He is largely unaware of Nicole’s life until the night he hears a gunshot within the house. Upon investigating, Loursat discovers a dying man in a bedroom. It turns out that Nicole and her friends had brought him there a couple of weeks ago to recover after hitting him with a car they stole for kicks. The man is discovered to have been a gangster, frightening the group of friends.

The authorities believe the killer to be Nicole’s boyfriend Émile Manu, a rather pathetic assistant in a bookshop, and they quickly charge him. The events draw Loursat back into the real world, and to the astonishment of many, he emerges from his stupor to take up Émile’s defence. He finds himself strangely drawn to this group of young people, through whom he recalls his own younger years, but proving Manu’s innocence will require Loursat to reconnect with Nicole as he re-enters the land of the living.

Whodunnit? And how will Loursat cope?

As mentioned, “The Strangers in the House” is a fresh translation, by Howard Curtis, one of the team who retranslated the 75 “Maigrets” for Penguin, which reissued them one a month between 2013 and 2020. Now Penguin is retranslating some of the main romans durs, one every three months or so.

On The Budapest Times bookshelves is a Penguin Books edition of “The Strangers in the House” from 2004, “Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury with updates by David Watson”. We take our reading seriously and, out of interest, have a habit of comparing translations when we are able. Take these opening lines of the novel, for example:

(Curtis) ’Hello? Rogissart?’

The public prosecutor was standing by the bed in his nightshirt, his wife looking up at him in surprise. He was cold all over, but especially his feet: he had got up so abruptly, he hadn’t found his slippers.

’Who is this?’ he said into the receiver.

…Intrigued, his wife pushed back the blanket and reached out a long, excessively white arm to the other earpiece.

(Sainsbury/Watson) ’Hello? Is that Rogissart?’

The public prosecutor stood shivering in his nightshirt. It certainly was chilly, particularly for his bare feet. He had groped wildly for his slippers while the telephone bell was ringing, but hadn’t been able to find them. Lying in bed, his wife looked at him inquiringly, wondering who could be disturbing them at that hour of the night.

… His wife was intrigued. She hoisted herself up on an elbow, and with the other hand reached for the second ear-phone.

The meanings may be the same but the wordings aren’t. And so it goes on. A completely random example:

(Curtis)’Sit down!’

But the young man was too tense to sit down. He rushed in, as if running ahead of himself, and stopped short when faced with the immediate reality of this over-heated room and this bearded old man with bags under his eyes, huddled in his armchair.

(Sainsbury/Watson) ’Sit down!’

But Emile was too highly strung to be able to go through the formalities of a visit. He had hardly had time to sense the atmosphere in the hot, stuffy room before he burst out.

We could show many more examples but it is too depressing. What about all those old out-of-print Simenons that we have collected? Can we trust certain of the translators?

Back in November 2017 during the “Maigret” reissues, we looked at different translations of “Maigret and the Headless Corpse”, one by Eileen Ellenbogen in 1967 and the new one by Howard Curtis. He subsequently wrote to us to say that, “at least to judge from the paragraphs quoted in the article, Ms Ellenbogen seems to have been not so much inaccurate as guilty of rewriting”, and “there are both additions and omissions in the older translation. In general, I can assure the writer of the article that my version of these two paragraphs is far closer to the original French”.

The Budapest Times responded with gratitude that we could now feel confident the new Penguin translations are the much preferred read – (and why bother to re-translate if they aren’t?) – and we were sorry to discover that any of our previously unquestioned earlier editions could be so unreliable; in fact, inexcusable.

Again, we feel positive that Howard Curtis and his fellow modern-day translators are similarly correcting the rather wild reworkings of such as G. Sainsbury, presenting us with the books that Simenon intended. And “The Strangers in the House” is one reason why we admire Simenon. The way he handles Loursat’s transformation is masterly, and there is his usual skill with locale and atmosphere, laying out the damp drabness of Moulins. The courtroom denouement is a bit odd, but again, that’s Simenon.

Roll on more reissues, and it’s Sainsbury and Ellenbogen for the scrapheap. But who should have been checking their work, and other early translators, in the first place?


For proof of such aberrations, see https://www.trussel.com/maig/foord3.htm

or https://www.trussel.com/maig/trans.htm  

Leave a Reply