While I’ve read some of Simenon’s Maigret novels, I hadn’t read any of his so-called “romans durs” until now. Many people say they are far better than the Maigret novels and after having read The Blue Room – La chambre bleue I think I can understand why. I can also see the influence the romans durs must have had on some newer authors like Pascal Garnier. Luckily for me, I liked Simenon’s novel much more than the Garnier novel I’ve read so far. The Blue Room is excellent.
The book starts with a scene in a hotel room – the blue room. Two people, Tony and Andrée, have just made love and he’s standing in front of a mirror, wiping away blood from his lips. The book starts in medias res, with a conversation. Andrée, who is watching Tony from the bed, is asking him, if she’s hurt him. Apparently she bit his lip. From the way she asks, we can deduce that it wasn’t as accidental as he believes. No, she probably bit him, so his wife will ask questions. What Andrée doesn’t know is that she’s not Tony’s first affair and that his wife is likely to ignore this one just like she ignored the others. Andrée then asks Tony whether he loves her and would love to spend his life with her. Tony’s not very attentive and says yes. A fatal error as the reader will find out very quickly. At the end of the scene in the hotel room, the book seamlessly switches to the examining magistrate’s chambers, where Tony is trying to defend himself in front of a psychiatrist and his lawyer.
The scene in the hotel room is a pivotal moment. From there the book moves backwards and forwards in time, unfolding Tony and Andrée’s whole story, from when they met as kids, to when they became lovers. It also switches from scenes set in the past to scenes in the present in which Tony, who has been arrested, tells his side of the story. The way Simenon has interwoven those narrative strands is pretty amazing. Nowadays, we’d have the different strands either separated by breaks between paragraphs, or chapters. Not so here, which makes it much more fluid, much more like watching a film.
Simenon’s style is hard to describe. It’s unadorned but so precise. Everything he chooses in his descriptions works masterfully. It’s like we’re looking at his characters through a microscope. The tiniest ugly little detail is laid bare.
While I don’t think his books are about suspense, it was suspenseful nonetheless because for a long time we have no clue why Tony got arrested. Nothing in the pivotal scene let’s us suspect that.
The Blue Room is a cruel, bleak analysis of a love affair that goes terribly wrong, written in evocative and pared-down prose. A great little book.
If you’d like to read a more eloquent review of the novel, here’s John Banville’s review of the Blue Room. He goes as far as comparing Simenon to Kafka.
The Blue Room has been made into a movie. I hope I can watch it soon.
This book was on the 20 under 200 list I did last summer. I must admit, I’ve been slacking. I’ve only read five or six from that list.