A Severed Head

Standard

I’ve enjoyed reading this book. My copy came with an introduction by Miranda Syemour but I found myself disagreeing with her. I didn’t think Martin, the main character, moves from hazy view of relationship to lucidity towards the end of the book. There’s definitely truth in this personal voyage that’s externalized with more certainty in the pursuit that Martin makes towards the end of the book. But my impression is that there’s *perceived* certainty and that makes all the difference.

41fb1ramj3l-_sx324_bo1204203200_
This was my first Murdoch and so I was taken by her writing and by her description of London’s fog and of the dreary weather that accompanies the novel.
My impression is that A Severed Head is a story that mocks psychoanalysis and ridicules the pursuit of the self’s happiness, this “do whatever makes you happy”. I couldn’t have imagined a different ending which I took to be more sarcastic than serious in tone.

The story
The story opens on an adulterous couple, Martin Lynch-Gibbons, mid 30s, married to Antonia, and Georgie Hands, a 26-year old student within the apartment of the latter that’s filled with gifts offered by Martin. Georgie wants their relation to be out in the open and Martin hesitates. The characters of the novel, upon hindsight, are all introduced in this scene:
Palmer Anderson, the American psychoanalyst who treats Antonia, and who’s half-sister, Honor Klein, a Jewish anthropologist, will be visiting, Alexander, Martin’s brother to whom Martin leaves his mistresses and Rosemary, Martin’s sister who seems prim but whom Martin suspects of leading a liberal life.
Back home to his unsuspecting wife, Martin is stunned by the revelation of Antonia that she is actually in love with her psycho-analyst whom she has been seeing for a while. So much is Martin in disbelief that he tells his wife to abandon her “ridiculous” idea of leaving him and to go to bed with Palmer instead, to which she replies, I already have.

 

That’s the frame of the novel; within a dozen of pages the stability of the couple is shattered and Martin will remain until the end of the book in search of an apartment to settle himself.
The story is told exclusively from the viewpoint of Martin and Martin never exteriorizes his feelings; he’s actually understanding without being forgiving:

I had been cheated of some moment of violence, of some special though perhaps fruitless movement of will and power; and for this at least I would never forgive them.

His understanding of the various changes that happen around him is unsettling, guided, or possibly mesmerized, by his friend and ex-wife’s lover, Palmer Anderson, who explains to Martin:

I know Antonia very well, Martin. Better in some ways than you do. That’s not your fault but my profession. I know *you* better in some ways than you do.

The longevity of the Palmer-Antonia couple seems to depend, almost exclusively, on their gravitation around Martin, in an effort to nurse Martin, who expresses -more than once throughout the book- his longing to his deceased mother, whose features Martin finds within his brother, Alexander.
These referrals to psychoanalytic textbook cases and this omniscience of the psychoanalyst do not shed the least bit of light on the actions of the characters. In fact, it seems to me that throughout the book, the characters react to their basic urges and provide ad hoc justifications of them. This makes them ever evasive to the reader.
To illustrate, in an attempt to explain one of the deplorable acts that Martin commits, he writes three letters to his victim, none of which overlaps with the other, sends the second and wishes he wrote a fourth letter.

This constant rationalization of basic urges finds its contrast in Martin’s unique act that reflects some kind of willpower, possibly fueled by an early admonishment from Honor Klein:

Could imply, could imply! She said. Where logic breaks down anything can imply anything. It seems to me now that you do not really want your wife back after all

The state of debauchery in which the characters find themselves throughout the book is more comical than explicit and though I found myself frequently laughing at the revelations coming from the characters, the book nevertheless felt serious in the way that it treats the frivolity of emotions in adults who, lacking any sort of moral compass, seem more like children responding to basic needs or, though not very inviting to the reader, close to juvenile dreamers.

Mon Ami Maigret

Standard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I woke up last Saturday to a gorgeously dark sky brooding with heavy clouds, I knew it was ripe time to pick-up a new Simenon.

I have 6 Volumes of the Tout-Maigret, from Omnibus, and I am starting with the fourth volume.
To my (slight) disappointment, the story I chose Mon Ami Maigret, is set at an island, Porquerolles, with its flanelle-clad dwellers and harsh sunlight casting golden reflections over the sea. One of the rare “sunny” cases, but yep, it had to be this one.

Brushing such a minor letdown aside, the book was fun to read. The first chapter opens up a tad on the hyperbole, when the reader learns that Mr. Pyke, the title name of the first chapter, is dispatched from Scotland Yard to observe the investigative methods of Maigret. Since this is Simenon writing, this inflated Maigret figure, himself suddenly under scrutiny from Mr. Pyke, is barely given much space, and we are directed back in, to the reality of the Quai des Orfevres, a bit too bluntly even, when Maigret receives a phone call from a brigadier relaying him the news that a man was murdered in Porquerolles because of his friendship with him.

Though I find Simenon favoring, often too much, the silent dialogues between the guest characters and Maigret, in Mon Ami Maigret, I had the feeling that such an exchange between the two was not given enough space to develop. Perhaps, this has to do with the sunny, not quite serious Porquerolles, which allegedly strikes new visitors with “Porquerollite” a virus that causes people to shed all formalities and embrace the sun and the sea, and the joie-de-vivre.
Nevertheless, what furtive exchanges occur between Maigret and Pyke remain the most interesting parts of the story; in fact, it is because of one of those, that I thought it would be interesting to review this book.

Here we are in 1949, an Englishman of the same profession as his French host, expresses his opinion about a suspect in the case. We are outside the café of the hotel, under the warm sunlight, there was between the Englishman and the suspect no interrogation, only a game of chess, and yet the Englishman is able to draw a portrait of the suspect, who is Dutch, because of general traits that he noticed and which are common among young people coming form morally rigid countries (comparing the Netherlands, back then, to England, is funny to me). He is even able to extend such an observation to the host country, France, claiming that the Dutch suspect must not seem a unique specimen to the French. Incidentally, his profiling of the Dutch came to confirm a mild uneasiness that Maigret felt around Mr. Pyke, because of the different approach he adopted questioning some of the suspects.

Maigret était un peu soucieux, un peu crispé. Sans être attaqué, il était chatouillé par l’envie de se défendre

Further ahead, Mr. Pyke informs Maigret that the Dutch speaks perfect English, an additional characteristic that adds definition to the Dutch’s portrait.

I appreciated those two pages for the simple reason that they feel quite distanced from us; how easy was it back then to sketch the identity of a character out of the general identity of a group, of a bigger sample. I find that these days everything is about assuming one’s own identity, about finding ourselves, uniqueness, differentiation. A crime writer of this present age cannot risk going into the familiar, or into the assumption, or into pre-defined types.

Before I close my review, and since this is Simenon writing, I find that the receding importance of the investigative techniques and procedures (to the disappointment of Pyke and his Scotland Yard superiors) and the untangling of the mystery in the background are what I enjoy most about every Maigret.

We are nearing the end of the story, the interrogation of the two suspects, which Maigret wanted to be done in confidentiality, at least as much as the island would allow it, is almost over

“Avouez, Monsieur X, que vous n’êtes pas fâché que ça craque!”

Jusqu’à ce “monsieur” qui blessait Y ay plus profond de lui-même.

at the same time, outside the interrogation room:

Le déjeuner avait commençé à l’Arche. Jojo n’avait pas dû se taire tout à fait, ou alors les gens flairaient quelque chose car on voyait de temps en temps des silhouettes rôder autour de la mairie.

Even though Maigret gave his orders to Jojo,t he girl who works at the café l’Arche, not to blabber about who is being interrogated and where, “word got out” as the saying goes and people started to gather around the mayor’s office.

We, readers, will never know how exactly word got out, and if it did, for that matter. It’s a totally inconsequential matter, because the book ends shortly after that, but I love that Simenon is able to move from ascertaining the psychology of the suspect, down to its minutest details, then gradually leaving the focal point of the interrogation to what is happening out there, without himself offering much about it, but nevertheless, creating a completely realistic and tangible atmosphere, very vivid in our mind, despite of (or maybe because of) the lack of any attempt to clearly resolve out every detail of the plot.