"The Mahé Circle" by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Books)
Slow burn and then another treasure is unearthed
This negative feeling was reinforced by the surprising realisation that although the astonishingly productive Belgian author had written 400-plus books in French in his lifetime from 1903 to 1989 and been translated into some 50 languages, this 1946 effort, “Le Cercle des Mahé”, only made the transition to English as recently as 2014, 25 years after his death.
It seemed suspiciously like a case of finding a B-grade Simenon to put out after all the A-grade ones had already crossed the English Channel. But never underestimate the man: “The Mahé Circle” reveals its intent only slowly, and it takes patient reading to understand and realise that this is an ultimately satisfying novel.
When you’ve finished its slim 151 pages – even more concise than normal for the knock-‘em-out-quick, waste-no-words writer – pat yourself on the back that your attention span was up to the job, and Simenon’s subtlety slowly started to come through.
As hinted above, the book gets going in pretty mundane and unpromising fashion. We join Dr Francois Mahé and his family on holiday for a month on the small Mediterranean island of Porquerolles, off the French coast, a place that does in fact exist and is where Simenon himself spent considerable time.
The peripatetic author from Liege in Belgium first visited in 1926, loved it straightaway and returned whenever he could, buying a country house there in 1935. “My Friend Maigret” is another of his stories set in Porquerolles.
Mahé is 35 years old, married to Hélène and they have a son Michel and daughter Jeanne. They are from Saint-Hilaire and previously they have always spent their holidays in the same hotel near Saint-Laurent-sur- Sèvre, but this year they are trying somewhere different, on a recommendation.
After just four days Mahé is tired of it. The sun is exhausting and the town square is baking hot, sweat rolls down his face and he has a painful sunburn and a headache. The local wine makes him feel sick and he is a lousy fisherman. He’s paranoid that the islanders are all in it together to sabotage his fishing, a trick to unsettle him. He’s ill at ease because his rather formal clothing stands out, not helped by the straw hat he has donned. Oh, and the cicadas are deafening.
The family aren’t comfortable at the Pension Saint-Charles and the southern food upsets Hélène. Mahé feels nostalgic for their previous holidays as he wanders about like a stray child, pretending to be interested in the various activities in the harbour. “Never had he felt so far away from home, or so far away from himself.”
Where, then, is Simenon leading us, we ask, as we read of Mahé’s discontent? Only one notable thing happens, and it isn’t until later that we will discover it is pivotal. The doctor is called to attend a woman dying in poverty in a flea-filled hovel, an abandoned army hut. He arrives after the mother of three has died, and notices a skinny young girl in a simple red cotton dress” as scarlet as a flag”, silent in the room. The dress is her sole clothing, she has pale blonde hair and blue eyes, her thin legs are bare. She is Elisabeth, the eldest of the three children, and he has little to no interaction with her but as time passes he cannot get her out of his mind.
When the family returns home to Saint-Hilaire, they book their next holiday for their familiar haunt in Saint-Laurent-sur-Sèvre. But, unexpectedly, Mahé cancels and they return to Porqueroles, not once but twice over the following years. Now Simenon’s story is unfolding: Mahé is in the grip of a mid-life crisis, doing well enough as a doctor and with his family but none of this really satisfies him.
“He found that at thirty-five, here he was, too big, too fat, too full of rather vulgar life, with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week.”
His domineering mother had found Hélène for him but more out of concern with hitching him to a woman who would allow the mother to maintain her position in the household than finding the right fit for Mahé. He has always played his part in life and dutifully does so in marriage too, but there is no passion there.
Porquerolles hardly seems like a place the family would return to. “All year he had been determined never to go back there.” But like a moth to a flame Mahé can’t resist: while there he is very much out of his element, meaning he is also out of his rut of a life.
At home, “Everything was in its proper place. Whereas in Porquerolles, things were hostile to him. He had tried in vain to lessen their impact. Down south, all the time, he had felt as if there was a tremendous chaos around him, a kind of life that was too vivid, so that the slightest contact with it made his blood pulse more quickly, and prompted a rising fever inside him.”
And of no small importance is the memory of Elisabeth, the girl in the red dress beside her mother’s deathbed. Somehow she has made a deep impression on him. The freedom of the girl and all she symbolises are persistent reminders of everything his life isn’t. Indeed, she is “the disavowal of his own life”.
Mahé’s dissatisfaction continues to bubble over. “Because he was trying to escape from the circle, quite simply. He was a Mahé. And because they were Mahés and because these other Mahés whom he didn’t know were embedded throughout the region, they were all linking up to prevent him from escaping.”
Here is a dark and desolate picture of a tormented life, a mediocre and trapped man bound by conventions, disgusted by his own weak existence.
Clever fellow that Simenon. Sneaky too as the novel slowly takes a grip. Ultimately we realise that staid bourgeois life and internal suffering are being laid bare. Don’t expect a happy ending.