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en cas de malheur

24 march 2010

En cas de malheur is one of Simenon's romans durs, his hard-edged novels. As opposed to his soft murder mysteries? But En cas de malheur really does have an uglier turn than the typical Simenon, and as a psychological study it is one of the more interesting non-Maigret novels by its author that I've read. Of course, there are about 200 others I haven't read.

En cas de malheur is unusual for Simenon in having a first-person narrator. Lucien Gobillot is an eminent defense attorney. He starts a dossier on himself, "en cas de malheur": in case something goes wrong, as the French idiom has it. Lurking in the French idiom is the sense of discontent that connects malheur "misfortune" with malheureuse "unhappy."

Gobillot is in potential danger because he is basically unhappy. He's reached Johnnie-Cochran-like heights in the Paris legal world by getting his clients acquitted no matter their guilt. His career has nowhere to go except toward riskier and riskier cases. He's just won a doozy: Yvette, a young streetwalker who has pulled off an armed robbery in front of several witnesses, dares Gobillot to take her case for no compensation except her own body, cheerfully offered up in advance. Like the highly ethical guys who advertise on daytime TV, Gobillot takes no fee until his client has won. But after she wins, he embarks on a feverish, obsessive sexual relationship with Yvette.

Somewhere along the line, Yvette, out of gratitude or a deep-seated need for comfort and protection, seems really to fall in love with Gobillot. But we have only his unreliable word for it. And despite her affection for the lawyer, Yvette can't seem to help but attract other erotomanes, such as the desperate medical student Mazetti.

While the Yvette-Mazetti plot is taking its sinister course, Gobillot reflects in his dossier on the history of his marriage to Viviane. She had been the wife of his first legal mentor. Much younger than her first husband, Viviane hooked up with Gobillot in a searing, animal passion. Her husband killed himself after she left him. But then passion abated, and Gobillot found that Viviane's main interest in life was to become his mentor. A parallel subplot involves a society hostess who turns her lover into a prime minister. All this female mentoring is bad for the male ego, it seems. Though Gobillot has never gone in for mid-life crises, he now seems helpless against the charms of the jail-baity Yvette.

En cas de malheur is not a great novel. It despatches a central character, and all its accumulated tensions, rather abruptly on page 219, as if Simenon had other things to get on with and hurriedly had to bring down the curtain. But while it lasts, it's a sordid story of a man who doesn't know himself very well, despite elaborate introspection.

My copy of En cas de malheur is a 1956 first edition that I scored somewhere for $2.50 about 15 years ago, a book that remained uncut till I read it last week. Fifty-four years only, but it might as well be a different universe. The contrast of cultures is nowhere better revealed than by the photo on the back of the book: a black-and-white Georges Simenon in a sharply-creased fedora, his pipe trailing a waft of airbrushed smoke. They don't make 'em like they used to.

Simenon, Georges. En cas de malheur. Paris: Presses de la Cité, 1956.