#RivetingReviews: Max Easterman reviews BETTY by Georges Simenon

I suspect that many, if not most, British readers will be more familiar with Georges Simenon as the author of the detective novels featuring the Parisian police commissaire Jules Maigret – there were seventy-five of them and twenty-eight short stories! Maigret first appeared on TV screens in the UK in a 1960s BBC series, played by Rupert Davies, and Simenon said at the time that Davies had captured the commissaire perfectly, just as he’d always imagined him. However, Simenon was not just a writer of detective stories: he produced nearly 350 novels and novellas (as well as pulp fiction under a number of pseudonyms) and is reputed to have frequently turned out more than sixty pages a day. He was also, for the record, Belgian – not French. And although much of his reputation does rest on the Maigret series, critics and fellow authors insist he was something better. David Hare once remarked that, for him, Simenon’s books, Maigret included, ‘belonged more alongside Camus and Sartre than Arthur Conan Doyle’; others suggest Simenon is one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century.

Betty was written in 1961 and is one of Simenon’s psychological stories, known in French as romans durs, which explore weaknesses and sudden changes in circumstance that cause his characters to lose control of their lives. It’s a bleak, gritty, graphic tale about two women. We meet the first of these, the eponymous ‘hero’, in a somewhat sleazy club-cum-restaurant near Versailles; she is drunk and incapable, about to be assaulted by a drug addict she met earlier in a bar: 

‘… you’re not aware you have worms under your skin … you’re going to see how I hunt down these creatures … with his free hand he took from his pocket a gold toothpick with a sharp point.’ 

Betty is rescued by Laure, who takes her to the hotel where she lives and slowly nurses her back from her alcoholic bender to something approaching normality. Simenon’s blunt, down-to-earth prose – precisely and perfectly translated by Ros Schwartz – is deployed to great effect as one revelation piles upon another, and we begin to see that Betty is not what we first imagined her to be. Her claim is to be ‘fated’ – a working-class girl bound from her youth to be unhappy, and envious of those who experience happiness; ‘a sad creature … [with the] eyes of a lost animal’. Her marriage to Guy, a man from a wealthy family, has broken down and she has lost everything, including her two daughters. So why, then, does she have a cheque for a million francs in her handbag? How does this square with her knowing ‘instinctively that everything would end in disaster, even before meeting Guy’? Is she really the victim she professes to be?

Her saviour, Laure, is apparently cut from very different cloth: ‘For twenty eight years I was a happy woman … a respectable middle-class woman … whose husband and home were her world.’ But she too has something to hide: 

‘Had I been fortunate enough to have children, I wouldn’t be here … Now I consider that my life is over …’ 

Are they, then, so very different? Simenon’s storytelling is masterly, as he weaves the strands of their burgeoning friendship ever tighter. Slowly but inexorably, Betty tells Laure her story; and just as inexorably, Laure gets drawn into the narrative in ways that she could never have foreseen. She had been the master, bringing some meaning into her otherwise routine existence by caring for Betty. Betty, in her drunken stupor, was the victim, the one who needed that care and nurture in order to survive. The question is, how long can that relationship survive? The outcome is devastating.

Betty is Georges Simenon at his psycho-dramatic best: his description of the ‘crime’ – the single event that causes a life to fall apart – is both deft and ingenious. Betty’s ‘event’ not only damages her but, inevitably, those around her too, shattering not only their relationships but their whole lives. And this ‘event’ is, as we so often find with Simenon, a minor one, a slip, a stupid miscalculation that blows everything apart. In a fascinating way, Simenon is the twentieth-century heir to the nineteenth-century German theme of the tragic confusion of Schein und Sein, illusion and reality. Simenon, moreover, believed that his tales were like Greek tragedy, that they should be read in one go, and Betty is no exception. It begins as the story of Betty and ends as the story of Laure; in just short of 150 pages, their worlds collide and turn upside down.

Reviewed by Max Easterman

BETTY

by Georges Simenon

Translated from French by Ros Schwartz

Published by Penguin Classics (2021)

October 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Max Easterman is a journalist – he spent 35 years as a senior broadcaster with the BBC – university lecturer, translator, media trainer with ‘Sounds Right’, jazz musician and writer.

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