Sunday 20 July 2014

'The Mahé Circle' by Georges Simenon (Review)

As many of you will know, Penguin Classics have committed themselves to bringing out new translations of all of Georges Simenon's 'Maigret' detective novels/stories over the new few years (and there are a lot of them).  However, as someone with little interest in crime novels, I didn't really expect to get involved in reading the Belgian author's work - until, that is, I was tipped off about something a little different.  You see, Simenon's work isn't all about Maigret, you know...

The Mahé Circle (translated by Siân Reynolds, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short novel set on an island in the South of France, and on the first page we meet our 'hero', the good doctor François Mahé, out in a boat, trying to catch fish in the company of one of the locals.  It's the first time Mahé has brought his family to the island of Porquerolles, and initially his decision seems to have been a poor one, as both he and his family struggle to adapt to the southern way of life.

However, once he returns to his comfortable bourgeois existence, the doctor realises that he misses the unstructured, chaotic life of the south, and he gradually begins to loathe his daily life.  At the age of thirty-five (and tipping the scales at ninety kilos), Mahé slowly comes to think of his world as a conspiracy against him, an identity which has been gradually built around him, without his permission - a stifling circle preventing him from living his own life.  It's inevitable that by the time the holidays come around again, Doctor Mahé is itching to pack up the car and head South again...

Simenon's short novel is an excellent portrait of a man whose average, unthinking existence is shattered by the realisation that there's something more to be had from life than Sunday dinners with friends and a spot of fishing at the weekend.  While most of the 'action', as it is, happens on the island, much of the psychological drama takes place back at home.  It's a place where he should be in his element, an environment of his own, yet this simple truth turns out to be an enormous lie.

The truth is that Mahé, like many people, has been formed by his environment.  He lives in the house of his dead father (his mother still lives with him), and his wife is a woman chosen more for her ability to fit into the running of the house rather than from any true feelings of love.  Mahé realises that most people would be happy:
"What more could he ask for?  He had a quiet life, plenty of free time to go hunting and fishing whenever he wanted to.  Good dogs.  And anyone from the village would readily keep him company."
p.52 (Penguin Classics, 2014)
For him, though, those village people, many of whom bear the same family name as him, form a tight circle, smothering his hopes of freedom.

Where there's a mid-life crisis, there's usually a catalyst to set it off, and while life on Porquerolles is lazy and sunny, it's not just boules and pastis in the evening that have the doctor in a spin.  At the start of the novel, he is called to the house of a dying woman in place of the absent local doctor, and a glimpse of her elder daughter, an eleven-year-old girl in a red dress, sets off an explosive chain reaction of thoughts in his head.
"No, it was an obsession, that was the word, a haunting obsession.  And it had started that very first day, but faintly, insidiously, like those incurable illnesses that you only become aware of when it is too late for treatment." (p.75)
It's here that his rebellion against 'normal' life begins, and the comparison above is remarkably apt in many ways...

...all of which will undoubtedly trigger Lolita warnings in most readers' minds, but that's not quite the way The Circle of Mahé goes.  The young Elizabeth is less a real sexual target than an embodiment of the allure of the South, a representative of the freedom Porquerolles offers in the face of the staid, stifling village of Saint-Hilaire:
"Here men drained the life out of day after day, with tasks that followed the inexorable rhythm of the ploughman's almanac.
 There..." (pp.111/2)
The implication here is that in Saint-Hilaire, life is merely a form of serving time, whereas back on Porquerolles life is truly worth living - which sounds suspiciously like a hankering after greener grass.

The Mahé Circle is a brief read, 150 pages (with fairly large type), and you can skip through it at a brisk pace, thanks in part to a nice, breezy translation from Siân Reynolds.  By keeping some words in the original French, particularly in the Porquerolles chapters, she gives the book a Mediterranean air, one which would be spoiled by translating absolutely everything into English (don't forget, many of these things are alien to Mahé too).  I have absolutely no idea what the English for péquois is, but I suspect that if the fish the doctor is obsessed with catching does have an English name, knowing it would make me none the wiser ;)

While the Lolita comparison doesn't stand up, I was reminded of a few other works over the course of the book (not least Moby Dick, in Mahé's obsession for catching a péquois!).  One is Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, particularly in the way Newland Archer's life is skilfully manipulated in Wharton's novel by the women in his family circle.  For a more contemporary slant, though, I often thought that Mahé's troubles could see the book fit right into Peirene Press' 'Male Dilemma' series - Simenon's work is a book verging on a novella with a male protagonist at a pivotal point in his life...

In the end, though, The Mahé Circle is an excellent story that stands on its own, a clever work which, in a way, forms its own circle, leaving the good doctor back where he started in more ways than one.  It's a book I enjoyed immensely (for more than just the hour or so it took me to read it!), and while I'm still not convinced about crime fiction, I may just be tempted to give Maigret a go.  You see, I did get another book along with this one, and... well, it can't hurt, can it? ;)