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la mort d'auguste

3 july 2013

La mort d'Auguste is a tersely-told novel of a family that is functional enough despite the alienation of one member from another. It doesn't have much drama or many scenes of even interpersonal psychological action; in an odd way, it seems to read like the sketch of a novel situation that somebody else could fill in with events. Here, Georges Simenon imagines a family with special insistence, but then finds not much for his deeply-conceived characters to do; he simply brings them to life and then releases them again, like Prospero freeing Ariel.

Auguste Mature's death happens a few pages into the novel. He's showing off a photograph of himself in his youth to a young couple at his trendy Paris restaurant, and he slumps over, pulling the tablecloth and their dinner on top of him. He's dead before his son Antoine can say a word to him: and Antoine, his partner in the restaurant, serves all his customers and closes the place for the night before calling his two brothers.

Therein lies the central problem of La mort d'Auguste. The restaurant is trendy because Auguste built his trade around breads and recipes from his rural village. Antoine has stayed home, made his wife the cashier and chief clerk, and kept the restaurant in the van of fashion. The other two brothers are a judge and a con man, but they're more alike than their professions would indicate: by abandoning the family business, they've abandoned the family, and made themselves into atoms in modern mass society.

But Antoine has become an atom too. "La père était mort et il y avait soudain un grand vide," Antoine reflects: "His father was dead and there was suddenly a great emptiness" (242). As the narrator puts it, "Aujourd'hui, il y avait des vides partout [Today, there were emptinesses everywhere]" (236). Even sharing his father's home and business for decades hasn't given Antoine any sense of grounding in the Universe.

His brother Bernard is rootless; his brother Ferdinand, the judge, lives in a sterile house in a planned community on the outskirts of the city. Antoine's own restaurant, in the vibrant district of Les Halles, is due to be demolished in a few years' time, as the Paris authorities rationalize and rebuild their market center. Ways of life, in Simenon's 1960s, are yielding to one another in such quick succession that even identities are becoming unstable.

The cash nexus is still reliable, of course. The three brothers stand to inherit a tidy sum: a half-interest in the restaurant, plus a million (new!) francs that their father had saved out of his share of the profits. But this dream of riches proves as ephemeral as the family bonds among the Matures. Auguste had invested in South American mines on the advice of yet another con man. He'd faithfully saved his bonds and coupons – long after the mines in question had failed or been nationalized.

Simenon works some melodrama out of the inheritance plot. (No money! but a safe-deposit key. To an empty box? no, one full of securities. But worthless securities …) And then the plot and novel end together, because they have nowhere else to go. It's been a pretext for a character sketch that had no other raison d'être; but for all its terseness and lack of elaboration, still well worth reading.

Simenon, Georges. La mort d'Auguste. 1966. In Tout Simenon 13. Paris: Omnibus, 2002. 215-314.