“The Krull House” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)

Distrust thy neighbour

Rather like Simenon’s “Mr Hire’s Engagement”, which we just read and wrote about, “The Krull House” follows the theme of outsiders who may be just tolerated but certainly aren’t fully accepted by their inward-looking and suspicious neighbours. The Krull family with their German roots are already alien to the things that surround them in their French home. They go to a Protestant church rather than a Catholic one and the head of the family barely speaks French. A clan apart. And then, into this uneasy situation, the strange Hans arrives...
3. January 2021 14:54

Hans is also a Krull but a “pure” one, a German Krull, and he comes to stay at the odds-and-ends grocery shop of the French Krulls at Quai Saint-Léonard. The shop is right on the edge of town, barely part of it and not really quite in the countryside either. The locals think of the family as foreigners and they generally don’t patronise the shop, which has a small makeshift bar. They prefer going another 500 metres to a different establishment.

The paterfamilias, old Cornelius Krull, spends all day in the workshop with his assistant. Long ago, Krull travelled first around his native Germany, then France as a basket-maker. He settled in this French town for no particular reason, like a man automatically stopping when he’s reached the end of his journey, as Simenon puts it.

Cornelius, even after spending four-fifths of his life in France, still hasn’t learned the lingo. But he has almost forgotten his German, so that he speaks in a curious mixture which only his family can understand. He speaks the dialect of Emden, his home region, in which French words have gradually become embedded.

The family are his wife Maria, who says she has suffered for so many years from being German that she has lost count.There are daughters Anna, 30, and Élisabeth, 17, and son Joseph, 25. They are of no account to the locals, nothing to do with the neighbourhood, but are instead considered part of the adjacent canal and its itinerant population of carters and bargees.

These French Krulls, like those back in Germany, have remained staunch Protestants, keeping not only their religion but their customs. The family has only one friend, Monsieur Schoof, another German who came to France at about the same time as Krull and has become naturalised. He has a daughter, Marguerite, whom Joseph is expected to marry.

The shop sells ropes, lanterns, horsewhips and harnesses, Norwegian tar to coat the barges on the canal, spices and hard liquor. It serves the passing travellers and workers. Into this uneasy scene strolls Hans, and he will upset the precarious balance.

Cornelius hasn’t heard from his brother in Emden for 30 years. The brother, Hans’ father, in fact died 15 years ago but Hans doesn’t tell Cornelius, instead Hans has forged a letter pretending to be from his father and asking that Hans be allowed to spend two or three months in France to improve his French.

“The Krull House” was published in French as “Chez Krull” in 1939, on the eve of war, and Hans claims to have sneaked across the border to escape political persecution in Germany, where he would be sent to a concentration camp – so he says.

Can we believe him? Hans is probably the most obnoxious Simenon character we can remember having come across: he is a braggart, liar, chancer, fake and sponge. Instead of keeping a low profile so as to suit the family, he swaggers around Quai Saint-Léonard drawing attention to himself, the cock of the walk.

He is inconsiderate and irritating, idle and nonchalent. At a loose end, he noses about in every nook and cranny, humming German songs. He invents a story about his father so as to diddle 5000 francs out of Schoof.

Hans quickly assesses the stiff and solemn Joseph as boring. Joseph, 25, is about the same age as cousin Hans. He is studying to be a doctor and spends most of his time in his room. Anna, who helps in the shop, is also considered boring. Élisabeth is studying piano and wants to be a teacher.

Less than two days after Hans’ arrival he goes into Élisabeth’s room and forces himself on her at the expense of a long scratch on his face. His justification is that “she wanted it as much as I did”. (Sex comes easily in the Simenon world, and red-blooded Hans met a woman on the train to the French border who he took to a hotel for their pleasure.)

Élisabeth is a melancholy, limp little creature who never expected to be loved – except that it isn’t love, of course – by someone so dashing, debonair and cosmopolitan as her cousin. The Krulls tolerate the affair, such as it is, in the way that they tolerate most things, with a kind of uneasy listlessness.

Hans “caused… unease. He had brought mysterious thoughts in to the house, and whenever he looked at the others, it  was as if he was judging them in his way”. He has hardly arrived, cuckoo-like, when he inquires lightly of his cousin Joseph, “Aren’t you all a little bit… a little bit strange in your family?”

Later he observes: “It’s not because you’re foreigners. It’s because you aren’t foreign enough … or else that you are too foreign.” The German Krulls, then, are entirely unassimilated. When they appease the locals, they provoke contempt. When they stand apart, they inspire resentment. Perfect scapegoats, custom-made victims, the Krulls can never win.

Just as Hans arrives, we are plunged into a minor squabble that will later blossom into serious trouble. An old woman of the town, Pipi, half-mad from drink and the general misery of her life, is being ejected from the shop/bar, noisily: “You’re all perverts in this house! Not just thieves, dirty little thieves, but perverts!”

Pipi is a pefect specimen of human degeneration. The story really begins when her daughter Sidonie, 16, an assistant in a shoe shop, is strangled and raped, her naked body dumped in the canal. The reaction of the town and the authorities is less than galvanic – “They’ve fished up a body … Bodies are brought up out of the water every month” – until the citizens, egged on by the ever more frantic Pipi, become convinced that Joseph Krull is the murderer.

The plot moves along with an awful, brisk inevitability. Rumours spread. Gossip turns toxic. The Krulls/”Krauts” have their windows smashed and “Murderers” and “Kill” written on their wall. Excrement is spread on the doorstep. A mob gathers. Then, just when it’s looking dangerous, Maria finally orders Hans to go, thus making him look the guilty party and saving Joseph. We never do find out who killed Sidonie.

It’s a little anti-climactic, though a typical “romans dur”, one of his “hard” novels. Still, that’s Simenon for you, including nice little descriptive touches such as, “Why did little circles appear endlessly on the smooth surface of the canal, as if bearing witness to an inner life?”, and odd observations such as, “Hans was leaning over the banisters, listening and clicking his tongue like a connoisseur”.

A connoisseur of what? By now we are connoisseurs of Simenon, and we take it all in our stride. However strange it gets, we come back for more.

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