“Betty” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)

Pressing the self-destruct button in a big way

Betty – full name Élisabeth Étamble, age 28, of Paris – is a classic Simenon protagonist, someone apparently living a normal, albeit mundane, bourgeois life who suddenly goes off the rails and does something inexplicable. When we meet Betty she is wallowing in the aftermath of some unexplained calamity, very drunk in a strange bar, unwashed, an easy pick-up for men, looking more dead than alive after three – she thinks it was three – days on an almighty bender.
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She’s just about able to remember being bedded by two different men who picked her up, and now she’s in the company of a third stranger who has brought her to this odd restaurant-bar, Le Trou, somewhere around Paris, she knows not where. Betty has to slug down whisky after whisky to keep herself afloat before she is overwhelmed by anxiety or sadness. Finally, when she tries to stand up she crashes to the floor.

In the Simenon way, we won’t learn at the beginning why Betty is beating herself in this way. Tidbits of background will be slipped in by the Belgian-born author as her path to oblivion proceeds. This book was published in its original French in 1961, by which time Simenon would have been 58 years old. The prolific writer was well-practised by then at writing his romans durs, the “hard” novels that centred on human foibles, on abnormal psychology. “Betty” has his typically bleak outlook.

The novel is testament to Simenon’s narrative skill as he starts with Betty’s out-of-it adventures and collapse, then drip-feeds us clues as to the cause while delaying any explanation of the full picture. That comes later. Meanwhile, we learn piecemeal that Betty has a wedding ring. There is a cheque for a million francs in her handbag. This means she has “sold them”. Sold whom or what? This was after she had been “caught red-handed”. Doing what?

Betty doesn’t care what will happen to her “She didn’t know what time it was. She hadn’t known the time for three days and three nights; daylight and darkness no longer had any meaning. It was all a blur.” She finally falls to the floor of Le Trou, and is rescued by an elder woman, Laure Lavancher, a widow who lives in a Versailles hotel.

Laure, who is no novice at hard drinking herself, checks in the intoxicated woman to an adjacent room with a communicating door, washes her and sends out her soiled clothes, calls a doctor to inject a sedative and nurses Betty back to a recovery of sorts.

As Betty and Laure get to know each other, over drinks, they naturally swap their stories, and we finally discover what has brought Betty to this state. She has been married for six years to Guy, “Honest Guy, decent Guy, the son of General Étamble”, who has a key post at the Union des Mines, where banking operations of national importance are performed.

They have two young daughters, Charlotte and Anne-Marie, but Betty’s idea of marriage had been to be two people, not three or four. Her mother-in-law doesn’t really approve of her, having urged Guy to make inquiries before marrying, advice that the lovestruck man ignored. Betty feels she is regarded as a mother, not a wife, but she is short on maternal love. A nanny mainly looks after the little girls. It’s all super-respectable for Betty, but she tries to go along with it.

But, here comes the big admission: Betty had always had lovers, before and during her marriage, she would pick them up in bars like a professional and bring them into the marital home. Eventually she was caught by the family making love to Philippe, a young saxophone player from a striptease joint, naked on the drawing-room sofa, a few metres from her children’s bedroom. Immediately, a document is written out that gives up Charlotte and Anne-Marie in return for the million-franc cheque, she signs and exits the family home.

“I’ve been nothing but a whore,” Betty explodes to Laure. “A whore, do you understand?” And “I’ve been drinking in secret for years, becauase I couldn’t live without it, because I’m incapable of being like them and, anyway, I wouldn’t want to be… An alcoholic and a whore, that’s what I am!”

Betty is an instinctive cheat, it is her nature. In fairness, she had tried to tell Guy of her sins but he wouldn’t listen. “We made a mistake,” Betty says of their marriage. Don’t expect Simenon to ease up now, or that Betty will give Laure any gratitude. “All she knew was that she was tearing her life apart. That she was doing so with a sort of frenzy, and that this gave her relief. In short, it was a defiance, revenge. It was also a climax. It was an end. She was dirtying herself through and through, to the maximum, with no possible going back. It had to come to this. It had been brewing inside her for months, and she was deliberately defying fate to provoke disaster.”

Disaster it will be. There is one more big betrayal to come. But who will be the sufferer? This is Simenon, and a very good Simenon at that.


“Betty” is a new translation by Ros Schwartz, one of the translators who worked on Penguin Books’ recent re-translations of the 75 “Maigret” novels by Georges Simenon. “Betty” was first published in Great Britain in 1975, translated by Alastair Hamilton, and here at The Budapest Times we have this first English edition. We like to spend our idle hours comparing early and later translations of the same Simenon, when we own them. Le Trou – is it “the pit” (Schwartz) or “The Hole” (Hamilton)? And many other differences of interpretation.

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