William1's Reviews > Act of Passion

Act of Passion by Georges Simenon
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's review
May 15, 2012

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bookshelves: fiction, 20-ce, translation, belgium
Read in May, 2012

Epistolary. First person. Dr. Alavoine, recently convicted for murder, is writing to M. Coméliau, the Examining Magistrate in his recent murder trial. The convict believes that during discovery he established some sort of connection with the judge. For many weeks the two men and their lawyers sat across from each other discussing details of the case. Now Dr. Alavoine is writing to the judge from prison. He wants the judge to know that his opinion that he acted without premeditation was incorrect.

Dr Alavoine and the village setting in which he practices are meant to evoke thoughts of Charles Bovary. I wouldn't pursue this idea if his given name weren’t in fact also Charles. But this is a very libertine Charles. He screws any female who walks. He kills his first wife with his sexual attentions, so intent is he upon siring the traditional son and heir. Jeanne, the wife, delivers a large girl as if to spite him, though she is in fact quite docile; then she dies. Then the rare thing happens. The woman who will soon be Dr. Alavoine’s second wife, Armande, who possesses truly Madame Bovary-like beauty, waltzes into his life. She is without the flaws of her literary double. In fact, the woman is a wonder. But Charles can only think of women as either whores or sheep. How could he possibly think himself equal to such an amazing woman. He can’t. It is he who's submissive to Armande. This arrangement represents a profound humiliation for him.

His life comes to seem strange. He feels detached, as if he were watching a movie with himself in a minor role. The kindness of neighbors and colleagues, his high standing in the community -- all this leaves him in disbelief. Eventually his low self-esteem blossoms into a grander alienation. He descends into a kind of dissociative state. He sees himself as hungry, but he doesn’t know for what. Certainly it isn’t the comfortable existence at the side of this exquisite woman. He decides to be unfaithful to Armande and succeeds with a fat sleazy hooker who appalls even him.

Then on a professional trip to Nantes he meets Martine. He flips for her. She is submissive--the only sort of woman he can feel superior to. But how does this lead to murder? Martine we learn is heading to a meeting with a well-known rake in La Roche-sur-Yon, where Charles lives and practices. There's no way she can work for that lush, that reprobate, Charles thinks. He takes Martine home to his wife, explaining that she is a charge sent to him by a colleague. Martine moves into the spare room. Armande welcomes her and helps her find a flat. It's all Charles can do to stay sane when at home in his surgery seeing patients. For having Martine in the house with his wife means not having Martine.

Finally, she moves out and Charles goes to see her where she shares the home of a widow. He is the sort of man who gets jealous of a woman's past liaisons. And now that she is out of his home, out of his control, he explodes with rage. Under duress he coerces a confession of dubious accuracy from her about her past. The only way to cleanse her of this past, of course, is to kill her. This will be her deliverance.

Its not hard to see, coming from the home he did, how Charles has missed a crucial part his development. He is incapable of having an adult relationship, but must seek out a barfly half his age to fall head over heels in love with. So when the pangs of love do finally come, he is unfamiliar with them and lacks the emotional maturity to master his primitive jealousies. He begins to lay out his rationale for murder. Certainly, he believes in the distinctions he makes, but to the reader they are gibberish, madness. He’s around the bend, has been for some time, and his attempts to reconstruct, to justify the murder are pathetic, futile, meaningless.

He possesses no ability to forgive Martine much less to forget her past. His god-like attitude is 'why hasn’t this woman better prepared herself for my inevitable arrival?' He takes her failure in this regard as a personal insult. Why has she been so sleazy? Why has she fucked so many men? He reminded me here for a moment of the crazed Eric Roberts character in the film Star 80. As for Martine, from her we no longer hear a peep. She has been subsumed by Charles’s crazy scheming. He is constantly on the look out for “the Other”; that is to say, her previous libertine character. He is determined to beat any trace of it out of her. Any reminder of that previous life — he beats her senseless. Nor is she allowed to show fear.

I came to hate Charles. He is without a single sympathetic shard to his character. An utter dread builds in the reader at the prospect of what he might do next. Certainly death for poor Martine comes to seem preferable. Charles is a psycho, truly reprehensible. I didn't want to spend any more time with him and longed for the novel to end, but it didn't. I think however that this was a flaw in the reader, who does not possess the requisite macabre fascination such fiction demands.

This is good Simenon, though not his best. It's funny, the first person Simenons I’ve read tend to be his weakest. But then I've only read about eight novels or so out of four hundred, hardly a statistically reliable sample. The strongest works I’ve read are rendered in third-person; they are The Strangers in the House and Dirty Snow. 3-½ stars for this one. Recommended with some reservations.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie *only read about eight novels* - normally that would be a lot - but Georges Simenon? prolific beyond reason. Unlike Flaubert, who seems to have fought for every word.

William1 Yes yes, quite so.

William1 I agree. Look forward to what you say about The Engagement. My next is The Man Who Watched Trains. : )

message 4: by MJ (new)

MJ Nicholls Quite like the look of Simenon canon, where should the neophyte begin?

William1 I've just been reading the NYRB titles. They've selected some good ones. But with the Maigret books, I have no clue where to start.

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