"The Hand" by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)
Inside a disintegrating mind
Here is an illustration of the best of Simenon’s writing: fast and lean without backtracking and needing minimal correction. Not a word is wasted; literature as an exercise in stripped-down economy. He trimmed his vocabulary to a rudimentary 2000 words and used language that could be easily understood. More sophisticated vocabulary and baroque phrases would have only slowed him down, and us too.
We can clearly picture Georges at his desk, writing this latest effort at white heat with an unrelenting intensity that holds up through all its 178 pages. Simenon kept them short and was no Dickens. For the week or two that this book would have taken to write – the standard time for a Simenon – the author’s brain is fully inside that of his protagonist, Donald Dodd.
Adding to the effect, Simenon tells the harrowing tale in the first-person singular, one of the rare such novels he wrote. It is one of his “romans durs” (hard novels) and takes its setting from the years he spent living at Shadow Rock Farm in Lakeville, Connecticut, in the early 1950s.
There is a quartet of major characters: Dodd, a 45-year-old successful lawyer and graduate of Yale Law School, his wife of 17 years Isabel with whom he has two daughters, his best friend Ray, also a Yale Law School graduate, and Ray’s wife Mona. It’s January and we join the two couples during a party at the home of wealthy social magnet Harold Ashbridge.
The house is packed with guests, several dozen men and women drinking and talking deep into the night. At one point Dodd goes upstairs and opens the bathroom door to find – in a typical Simenon moment of casual sex – Ray and Harold’s beautiful young wife Patricia copulating standing up. Only Patricia notices Dodd. She couldn’t care less. Dodd quickly retreats back downstairs. He’s shaken and begins emptying all the glasses of drink he can get his hands on.
Eventually the four of them drive back to the Dodds’ place in a blinding blizzard, the worst for 72 years. Dodd is at the wheel and they almost make it, but half a kilometre from safety they run into a high snow bank, so they have to abandon the car and struggle on foot through the wild storm.
Isabel and Mona walk ahead, arm in arm, and finally make their way to the front door. Donald and Ray follow. But in the blizzard Dodd arrives to discover that Ray is no longer by his side. Although totally exhausted, Dodd goes back out to search. He can barely see beyond his nose. And he’s not good to his word. Something has changed within him after catching the bathroom action at the party. He struggles through the raging conditions to his barn, takes a seat on a red bench and passes the time thinking and smoking several cigarettes.
Now he realises that the man he considered his best friend was in fact a lie to himself. He hates Ray and he will let him die, lost in the snow. Is he, Dodd, a coward? Is he a liar? Does he totally betray his best friend? Has he always been secretly attracted to Mona? These are among the questions he poses to himself in the ensuing hours and days.
One thing is certain – his vision of his life and everybody around him is completely transformed. He is not the man he supposed himself to be. While he sat in the barn, Ray fell off a cliff, broke a leg and froze to death. “I had killed Ray, so be it… I had killed in thought. In intention… The sight of a man and a woman making love in a bathroom had been enough… I hate him and I let him die. I hate him and I kill him.
“I hate him because he is stronger than I am, because he has a wife more desirable than mine, because he lives a life like the one I would have liked to live, because he goes through life without bothering about those he bumps aside as he goes by… in reality I was cruel, taking pleasure in the death of a man I had always considered my best friend and capable, if necessary, of provoking that death.”
Ray, to Dodd, was cold and ambitious, and had become the strong man on whom Dodd had taken revenge against all the strong men on this earth. There’s a second, equally unsettling recognition: Isabel is not only his wife but his judge and jury rolled into one.
Isabel found and cleared away the cigarette ends in the barn. She doesn’t mention this or come right out and confront him as the new, transformed Donald Dodd. Oh no, her husband thinks, that would be too easy. All Isabel has to do is gaze at him in silence with her piercing, penetrating pale blue eyes.
“She knew. There was no hint of accusation in her blue eyes, however, no new harshness. Only astonishment, curiosity. She did not look at me as a stranger because of what I had done, either, but I had become someone else, someone she had known for a long time without intuiting his true personality.” Isabel “considered me a coward or a murderer, take your pick”.
“She definitely knows that for a week now we have been strangers. Strangers who live together, eat at the same table, undress in front of each other and sleep in the same room. Strangers who talk together as husband and wife.”
“I live under her gaze, like a microbe under the microscope, and sometimes I hate her… Isabel continues to watch me. Nothing else. She does not ask me any questions. She does not reproach me. She does not cry. She does not play the victim.”
And “the hand” of the title? On the night that Ray went missing he and Mona were to stay at the Dodds’ after the party. After his unsuccessful “search”, Dodd, Isabel and Mona sleep on mattresses on the floor of the living room, Dodd in the middle. He is hypnotised by Mona’s hand lying on the parquet in the light of the flames on the hearth, and has an “insane desire” to touch it, to seize it. He doesn’t but wonders what would have happened if he had.
He needn’t have worried. After Ray’s funeral, almost before the body is cold, Dodd and a willing Mona immediately start an affair at her place in New York. “We are not in love. I am not sure that I believe in love, or in any case, in a love that lasts a lifetime,” reflects Dodd. And what does the silent Isabel know?
You have to hand it to Georges Simenon. Here is his laser vision of one man stepping out of his social roles as husband, father, successful professional and upstanding community member to confront the stark realities of his existence. It is the disintegration of a man, a gripping, intense and unrelenting tale.