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le coup de vague

23 march 2010

Near the beginning of Le Coup de Vague, young protagonist Jean learns that his girlfriend Marthe is pregnant. At first he is nonplussed, but then he realizes it can't be all that complicated a situation.

Il essayait de penser et il ne pensait pas de tout, parce qu'en somme il n'y avait pas à penser. C'était simple! Ou bien il épousait Marthe, ou il ne l'épousait pas . . .

[He tried to think and he couldn't think at all, because basically there was nothing to think about. Either he was going to marry Marthe, or he wasn't going to marry her . . .] (19)
Of course, since this is a novel by Georges Simenon, the reader immediately considers a third alternative: he could kill her . . .

In the event, nobody technically kills Marthe, though she dies a death much approved of by Jean's suffocating aunts (who, in Edith-Whartonesque manner, turn out actually to be his mother and his aunt, though he is never quite certain which is which). Marthe is murdered not by a traditional crime-novel perpetrator, but by the very culture of her village, which visits the sins of the parents on their children with great thoroughness. Marthe and Jean live on the Atlantic coast of the southwest of France, farming mussels and oysters for export. Their ultra-traditional, well-isolated village consists of elders who delight in the fact that youngsters are bound to repeat their mistakes.

I bought my copy of Le Coup de Vague in the early 1990s, at the first Borders bookstore to open in North Dallas. "Un roman dont les pages n'étaient pas coupées," as Simenon described neglected books. Printed in 1960, my copy was an uncut first edition till I cut the pages (hey, a guy has to read). It had sat in various warehouses for 30 years, and then on various of my bookshelves for another 20. Le Coup de Vague was issued in the "Collection Blanche" that Gallimard published for Simenon, consisting of the books he felt had more literary merit than his usual fast-paced policiers. Physically, it's a book of Spartan elegance, a combination of literal pulp and clean, restrained design.

If literary quality can be established by omission, Le Coup de Vague is a cut above. It has no actionable crime, no detective, no suspect chased by police with revolvers drawn. But paradoxically, novels like L'assassin and L'homme qui regardait passer les trains (also in the Collection Blanche) are greater achievements. By avoiding the louche elements of those tracked-killer novels, Simenon hoped to attain greater psychological and philosophical insights in books like Le Coup de Vague. But when it lacks a few good murders, Simenon's fiction lacks energy, too.

The dominant theme of Le Coup de Vague is that human communities are always in flux. Today's old coots, old maids, and doting parents were yesterday's headstrong lovers. Nothing and nobody stays the same; growing up consists of realizing that everything flows. As Jean asks himself,

Comment avait-il pu vivre jusqu'à vingt-huit ans sans s'aviser d'une vérité aussi simple: que rien n'est définitif, stagnant, que personne ne peut s'arrêter un instant, ni se soustraire au courant qui l'emporte, au fleuve qui passe? Un mois plus tôt, Jean était un jeune homme qui ne s'inquiétait pas davantage de l'avenir que de passé, comme s'il eût été seul au monde. [How could he have reached the age of 28 without realizing such a simple truth: that nothing is definitive or stagnant, that nobody stays still for a moment, nobody gets out of the current that carries them along, the river that flows onwards? One month before Jean was a young man who didn't worry any more about the future than the past, as if he was alone in the world.] (105)
But though it waxes pre-Socratic, Le Coup de Vague gets its momentum from misogyny. Jean is appalled by Marthe's sexuality and disgusted by her body. He is even more appalled to think of his aunts as having been sexual beings when they were Marthe's age. Just as Marthe became pregnant out of wedlock after a tryst in the woods, one (or the other!) of Jean's aunts had become pregnant – with Jean himself.

It's too much for the young man to bear, so he withdraws into apathy and lets the novel's events take their sordid course. It's a passive, unpleasant story. I don't think that Simenon is essentially misogynist. Well over 70 Maigret novels pass without much overt woman-hating – indeed with a strongly sympathetic character in Mme. Maigret – and they feature several admirable, realistic female victims and perps.

But Simenon certainly liked representing misogyny. He liked representing women undone by overt sexuality. He sensed good stories in the evil things that befall women at the hands of men, and he told many of them. Le Coup de Vague is one of the lesser ones, but it holds the reader's attention for its short span.

Simenon, Georges. Le Coup de Vague. Paris: Gallimard, 1960.