Before I read this novel, I had heard of Georges Simenon here and there, mostly because recently some of his novels have been reissued by the New York Review of Books Classics series, which I love. I knew that he was French, and I vaguely knew that he was more prolific than your typical novelist. And then I happened upon two full shelves of his books in the public library when I was browsing, and most of them were relatively short – in the 150-250-page range – and since I am considering doing a book-a-day challenge along the lines of Nina Sankovitch’s sometime soon, I thought I might want to check some of his titles out. Then I read the book jacket bio on Simenon, which is written in the present tense, meaning that he was still alive when this particular edition was published, and which says that Simenon has “produced hundreds of works” in his career as a novelist. I stopped. Hundreds? Really? If so, then he is by far the most prolific novelist I have ever heard of. How many hundreds, anyway?
According to Wikipedia, Simenon has published “almost 200” novels, which does not quite qualify as the “hundreds” advertised on the book jacket but is nonetheless totally impressive. He also wrote hundreds of novellas, short stories, and articles. His life spanned almost the entire twentieth century (1903-1989), and he is actually Belgian, not French. He lived in France during the years between the world wars and during World War II, and then he spent the decade between 1945 and 1955 in the United States and Canada. The Rules of the Game was published in 1955 and is set in the fictional small town of Williamson, Connecticut.
As I read, I was struck by the a few things. First, I thought I was reading Steinbeck. I felt as I do when I talk to my cousin who looks, at thirty, exactly and I mean exactly like his father looked at the age of thirty, when I was a child. In particular, I felt as if I were reading Steinbeck’s The Winter of our Discontent. I don’t remember that novel well enough to draw direct parallels between certain characters, plot events, and situations, but Simenon’s tone, narrative pacing, and focus on the impact of seemingly minor events on the ego and psyche of a middle-aged small-town businessman strike me as profoundly similar to Steinbeck’s – and just as masterful. Similarly, I was struck by how well Simenon renders the rhythms and preoccupations of mid-century American life. There is absolutely nothing French (or Belgian) about this novel, and even in the language I caught only one small Britishism that could mark the book as European (the use of “hire a boat” instead of “rent a boat”), but even this is really an error of Howard Curtis’ translation, not of Simenon’s novel, which was written in French.
The protagonist of The Rules of the Game is Walter Higgins, the manager of a small-town supermarket. Higgins lives with his wife Nora and their four children, who range in age from six to eighteen. Curiously, Nora is pregnant again at forty-five, an age believed to be positively ancient in the 1950’s as far as childbearing was concerned, and throughout much of the novel I wrestled with Simenon’s decision to include this detail. Higgins serves on the school board and on a wide variety of boards and committees in his town and knows and is known by everyone in town. At the outset of the novel, Higgins has reapplied for membership to the local country club after being turned down the previous year, and he is positively childlike in his enthusiasm as he calls a friend on the membership committee and assumes that every passing car is a committee member coming to his home to welcome him to the club. This effect is subtle
enough that I largely missed it on my first read, but Simenon is characterizing Higgins as a Peter Pan figure: an eternal child who, while outwardly bearing the dignity and responsibility of a grown man, husband, and father, inwardly bears the need for constant gratification and affection that would usually characterize a young child.
This insecurity manifests itself in Higgins largely in the form of civic service – which, of course, disguises Higgins’ immaturity behind a façade of respectable public service. When, mid-novel, he resigns from the school board in a taking-my-marbles-and-going-home moment, he later notes that he feels completely adrift without school board matters to work on in the evenings. And because he has done so much work for his community and receives constant feedback in the form of low-octane friendship and affection, he is both shocked and terribly hurt when, first, his second application to join the country club is rejected and second, when he becomes aware that the entire community is gossiping about this rejection and about the fact that Higgins was foolish even to apply a second time.
Higgins’ decision to resign from the school board takes place at a meeting where two proposals are being debated concerning the construction of a new school. Project A would build a school that clearly improved upon the town’s current school but that would itself likely need to be replaced in about fifteen years if the town continued to grow at its projected rate. Project B would invest more money in the construction of a truly state-of-the-art school that would serve the community’s needs for many decades. The question, then, is one of short-sightedness versus a more long-term vision of civic growth, and since the projects themselves concern the building of a school, the mid-century American obsession with domesticity and the rearing of children is clearly at the forefront. During this pivotal scene, I caught just slight hints of Simenon’s Frenchness, not in the novel’s language but in unspoken questions of the role of individuals versus the role of government – since France and the United States were taking very different paths in their postwar responses to Communism. Regardless of which plan the people of Williamson choose, the bulk of the cost of the new school will come from property taxes. Therefore, individuals who own property feel as if an unfair percentage of the burden of this project will fall upon them. Early in the meeting, Higgins becomes aware of what he calls “the geography of the room” (59): “He had never before wondered why certain people sat in the first few rows, and others banded together in particular sections.”
It is almost as if Higgins is trying to figure out – thirty years too late – why the basketball players and the computer geeks and the drama kids and the cheerleaders all sit at their own isolated tables in the cafeteria.
Higgins then becomes preoccupied with the question of whether various members of his community have the “right” to express their opinions about the new school – in some cases because they do not have children, in other cases because they are so wealthy that they can afford the increased taxes easily, in some cases because they do not own property, etc. Internally, Higgins is a school-aged child desperate to make the world “fair,” and all the while the subtext of his obsession is his anger at being excluded from the country club for reasons he cannot understand.
Finally, Higgins voices a series of objections, culminating in one that is calibrated as a direct hit to the admissions committee at the country club: “The difference between Project A and Project B… is less than the cost of the new buildings put up last year by the country club for the benefit of its sixty-three members” (67). At this point, Simenon introduces only a tiny taste of the argument that is central to any socialist system: the idea that a tiny portion of the population should not enjoy luxuries while the bulk of the population struggles to meet their basic needs.
If this moment had served as a major crisis point in the external elements of the plot – i.e. Higgins’ conflict with the country club’s admissions committee, this novel would be a very ordinary one. As it stands, though, absolutely nothing happens to Higgins’ standing in town as a result of this evening. He resigns from the school board by his own choice, and he continues to enjoy good relations with his neighbors when he meets them in his grocery store and at church. He tenses for a conflict that never comes.
What Higgins’ challenge to the wealthier members of his community does do, however, is serve as a crisis in the novel’s internal plot. Shortly after this moment, Simenon begins to do something interesting: he begins to provide some exposition about Higgins’ past. During the first half of the novel, we know only that Higgins grew up and spent his young adulthood in a small town in New Jersey, served as a drill instructor during the war, and worked his way up from delivery boy to manager within the Fairfax supermarket chain. We know a few details about how he courted his wife, and we know that he is a lifetime teetotaler. However, in its second half, the novel simultaneously blossoms outward, leaving Williamson, Connecticut and propelling Higgins back to his hometown while also curling inward to investigate the sources of Higgins’ inner childishness. During a Sunday dinner after the school board meeting, Higgins receives a call that his mother has been in an accident near his hometown. We soon learn that shortly after he married and began having children Higgins arranged to have his mother hospitalized in a private “rest home” for a variety of erratic behavior that seems to consist mostly of alcoholism and kleptomania (ah, the fifties!). When Higgins travels to his birthplace to deal with the consequences of his mother’s accident, the complexity of this novel begins to reveal itself. Now I understand why Nora is pregnant again, I thought: this novel is very much about the constant vulnerability of parents. Everything a parent does (drink alcohol, shoplift, embarrass himself among his town’s wealthy elite) has the potential to resonate at a thousand times its original intensity in the life of his or her children. Just as Nora is forbidden to travel by car during her pregnancy (again – ah, the fifties!) and must repeatedly stop to catch her breath during the walk to church, Higgins is in some way still a damaged fetus whose mother did not take adequate precautions.
So, to sum up: in a very short novel of just over 150 pages, Simenon manages to perfectly capture American voices and obsessions; to convey both the ordinary small-town activities and the intensely personal inner workings of a specific small-town American man; to allude with admirable subtlety to larger questions of the relationship between the individual and society that were integral to life in the Western world in 1955; and to practice a form of reverse-exposition that I don’t think I’ve seen done in precisely this way in any work of fiction.
So yes. This is a good novel, and I will be reading more Simenon.