Translated by David Bellos
Reviewed by Annabel
By 1934, Georges Simenon had published the first 19 Maigret books, and he temporarily shelved the series, resuming ten years later. He went travelling around the world but didn’t stop writing, trying out a different form. These standalone books would come to be known as his romans durs (hard novels), tending to be dark and serious psychological dramas and he would carry on writing them alongside the Maigret books. I read somewhere that he described the Maigret books as ‘Fords’ and the romans durs as ‘Rolls-Royces’, (which is perhaps a little unfair on Maigret!).
The Pitards (Les Pitard) was one of the first of the new style. Published in 1935, it concerns some of Simenon’s favourite themes, a claustrophobic story set at sea.
When Captain Lannec and his Mate Moinard buy a cargo ship, the Lannec’s in-laws – the Pitard family – stand surety for the loan required to complete the purchase. They’re very proud to be owners of the Tonnerre-de-Dieu as they’ve rechristened the English-built ship, and a first cargo has been secured, when the equilibrium that exists between the crew is thrown totally out of balance.
The Captain’s wife Mathilde insists on joining them onboard. Simenon doesn’t present her in a positive light, she’s temperamental and a snob. What small sympathy she elicits is despite having been married for two years, she and Lannec don’t know each other very well – he’s been at sea for most of it. With this tension, the atmosphere in the mess room starts to get tense indeed:
“Émile!” his wife called out.
“I want to inform you of one thing: I shan’t set foot in the mess room again unless we eat together alone.”
“The others can easily have their dinners separately.”
Upon which, she shut the door.
Later, while the unhappy couple are dining, Lannec is going over things in his head and asks:
“Why ever did you think of coming along?”
He wasn’t yet saying it, but the answer was in his mind: ‘Because your mother wanted you to keep an eye on her money, didn’t she?’
When Mathilde elects to stay on board for a second voyage to Iceland, they begin to really question her motives and things get worse still – and that’s not just the weather. Lannec does hope that the storms ahead will finally make her seasick and give travelling with them again.
Simenon’s descriptions of the rough seas, the constant putting on and off of oilskins when going between cabins and bridge, the shifting cargoes and slippery decks give great atmosphere to contrast with the internal stormy weather. Conditions continue to deteriorate and the Tonnerre-de-Dieu is called to go to the rescue of another sinking vessel, leading to the climax of his short novel.
Funnily enough, I’ve just read Simenon’s 8th Maigret novel, The Grand Banks Café. This is set along the same stretch of the French coast; it involves a ship onto which the captain had taken a woman. She was the Captain’s mistress, hidden in his cabin, and he ends up murdered after her presence on board is discovered. Simenon will repeatedly revisit themes in his novels, but serving them up in different combinations. Mathilde, although cut from a different cloth (yet not so different after all, we learn), plays a similar role here.
Although you can’t excuse Lannec’s uncharitable treatment of his wife by today’s standards, the merchant navy is still mostly a man’s world that has few women (excluding cruise ships etc) in today. When you have a small crew and cramped conditions at sea, any change can upset the applecart. Jealousy and resentment left to simmer in these claustrophobic conditions can so easily overboil. The Pitards is an interesting early entry into Simenon’s list of romans durs in this sailorly new translation by David Bellos, and a new Penguin Classics livery with Eric Ravilious on the front cover.
Annabel is one of the Shiny Eds, and has never fancied a life on the ocean wave.
Georges Simeon, (tr. David Bellos) The Pitards (Penguin Classics, 2017). 978-0241299890, 138 pp., flapped paperback.
BUY The Pitards from the Book Depository.