'The island itself. Its throbbing heat as if in a belljar under the sun, the scorpion in his son's bed, the deafening sound of cicadas' During his first holiday on the island of Porquerolles Dr Mahé caught a glimpse of something irresistible. As the memory continues to haunt him, he falls prey to a delusion that may offer an escape from his conventional existence - or may destroy him.
This is the first English translation of The Mahé Circle, Simenon's dark, malevolent depiction of an ordinary man trapped in mundanity and consumed by obsession.
'Compelling, remorseless, brilliant.' - John Gray
'One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century . . . Simenon was unequalled at making us look inside, though the ability was masked by his brilliance at absorbing us obsessively in his stories.' - The Guardian
'A supreme writer . . . unforgettable vividness.' - The Independent
THE MAHÉ CIRCLETranslated by Siân ReynoldsPENGUIN BOOKS
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published in French as Le Cercle des Mahé by Gallimard 1946
This translation first published 2014
Copyright 1946 by Georges Simenon Limited
Translation © Siân Reynolds, 2014
GEORGES SIMENON ® Simenon.tm
MAIGRET ® Georges Simenon Limited
Cover photograph © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos.
All rights reserved
The moral rights of the author and translator have been asserted
About the Author
1. The Doctor Versus the Péquois
2. The Legionnaire’s Return
3. The Garden Gate
4. Elisabeth’s Fall
5. Péchade’s Letter
6. The Burial at Saint-Hilaire
7. The Visit to the Ramparts
8. Victory to the Péquois
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Georges Simenon was born on 12 February 1903 in Liège, Belgium, and died in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he had lived for the latter part of his life.
The Mahé Circle, completed in Spring 1944 and previously unpublished in English, is set on the island of Porquerolles, where Simenon had spent considerable time in the preceding years.
For Tigy, in remembrance of Saint-Mesmin
PENGUIN CLASSICSTHE MAHÉ CIRCLE
‘I love reading Simenon. He makes me think of Chekhov’
— William Faulkner
‘A truly wonderful writer … marvellously readable – lucid, simple, absolutely in tune with the world he creates’
— Muriel Spark
‘Few writers have ever conveyed with such a sure touch the bleakness of human life’
— A. N. Wilson
‘One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century … Simenon was unequalled at making us look inside, though the ability was masked by his brilliance at absorbing us obsessively in his stories’
‘A novelist who entered his fictional world as if he were part of it’
— Peter Ackroyd
‘The greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature’
— André Gide
‘Superb … The most addictive of writers … A unique teller of tales’
‘The mysteries of the human personality are revealed in all their disconcerting complexity’
— Anita Brookner
‘A writer who, more than any other crime novelist, combined a high literary reputation with popular appeal’
— P. D. James
‘A supreme writer … Unforgettable vividness’
‘Compelling, remorseless, brilliant’
— John Gray
‘Extraordinary masterpieces of the twentieth century’
— John Banville
1. The Doctor Versus the Péquois
He was frowning. Perhaps, like a schoolboy, he was poking out the tip of his tongue? Lips set, a sulky expression on his face, he was snatching glimpses at Gène, trying to imitate his movements as closely as possible.
But it was no good: something was wrong, because the result wasn’t the same. He was honest enough to recognize this, and obstinate enough to contain his impatience. His hand was trailing outside the boat, like Gène’s, no more or less,quite relaxed; he had immediately understood that it was essential to relax. Only his index finger was slightly raised, supporting the hempen fishing line that the locals called a boulantin.
The quality of the line wasn’t in question. His and Gène’s were identical. Just now, Gène, who always guessed what he was thinking without ever looking at him, had suggested:
‘Come over here. Take my place, hold my line. Could be you’ll have more luck then.’
The sea, calm as a millpond, without a ripple, was breathing slowly but deeply. And this imperceptible movement troubled the doctor more than the turbulent pounding of waves might have. At every shift of the liquid surface, he could feel the leadweight on his line lifting from the bottom. So he leaned over the side. He could see about ten metres down, perhaps more, a scene to which he found it hard to accustom himself, rocks separating deep purple clefts, a plateau covered with seaweed, and mostof all the fish, quite big fish, silver or rusty-red, coming and going peaceably, in silence, hesitating sometimes for an instant in front of his bait. In spite of his efforts, his hand trembled, a slight moisture broke out on his upper lip, he was ready to give a tug on his line. Why hadthat fish turned away?
He raised his head and sighed. He found it impossible to stay long peering deep into the water. His heart was palpitating. He had a pain at the back of his eyes and a headache. It was becoming a nightmare. Every time he looked at the Mèdes rock,he had the sensation that the little boat, with its two pointed ends, was getting nearer to it. They didn’t even have an anchor. Gène had simply dropped a large stone into the water on the end of a rope. Was he watching out for the rock? You could see quite clearly how the sea rose andfell, uncovering a large strip of viscous moss and shellfish. Without any breakers, the water was nevertheless covered with white foam, and some of the enormous bubbles washed up against the hull of the boat.
Gène sat on one of the thwarts, an old cap on his head, as motionless as a statue of Buddha, his gaze apparently ranging with indifference far into the dazzling horizon.
Of this, the doctor could only see a blaze that irritated his retina, whereas Gène, who could see everything, announced expressionlessly:
‘Here comes the Cormoran, she’s back from La Tour-Fondue … There’s Joseph setting his nets by the lighthouse.’
As he spoke, he was pulling in his line, unhurriedly, as if checking that the hooks were still baited, but there was always a fish on the end.
And he slipped it into a container full of fresh algae, picked up a hermit crab (they called them piades here), smashed its shell and threaded it on to the hook.
Rattled, the doctor hauled in his own line. It was jerking, alive. Every time it did this, he sensed he had a big catch, that a miracle was happening and that he was going to amaze the fisherman. And every time, it was one of those nasty fishcovered with spines, not even a scorpion-fish, but what Gène called a diable, which had to be taken off the hook – first wrapping one’s hand in a cloth – and thrown back into the water.
Why could he only catch these diables, or at best tiny sérans? They were fishing in the same place, no more than a metre apart. You could see quite clearly down in the water the pink tips of the hermit-crab shells moving acrossthe sea floor; twice their lines had become entangled. You could see the fish too. The doctor was certain he was making the same movements as Gène. He wasn’t a novice. Back in Saint-Hilaire, he was the only angler capable of light fly-fishing on the Sèvre, a more delicate skill thansea-fishing.
He had taken a sudden dislike to that great rock rising up out of the sea so close to them, which continued, heaven knew why, to frighten him. He was getting equally irritated with the sea itself, the perfectly calm blue sea, on which he had beenso happy to sail out on this little white boat with its blue gunnels.
His wife had not dared to tease him when he had come back from the cooperative store wearing a straw hat in the shape of a pith helmet, such as he had seen worn by the locals: she had simply said, with herprovincial accent:
‘You bought a hat, then?’
He had only to look up to see her, perhaps three hundred metres away; it was difficult, with the water in between, to gauge distances. In the curve of the bay lay one of the island’s sandy beaches, Notre-Dame Beach, shaded by umbrellapines. That white patch on the sand was his wife, sitting quite still, occupied in sewing or knitting. The black patch alongside her was Mariette, their young housemaid, whom they had brought on holiday with them from Saint-Hilaire. The tiny figure doing somersaults on the sand or climbingon to the women’s laps was their son Michel, and the little girl, who was called back every time the water reached her knees, their daughter.
He could see them, and from where they were, they could see him, sitting at one end of Gène’s small boat. It was very hot. Skin exposed to the sun would bake, and by next morning would have turned brick-red. He had experienced this the daybefore. He had gone out for a walk with his shirtsleeves rolled up. Now, as far as the elbows, his arms looked like raw meat, while higher up the skin seemed pale and unhealthy.
He felt light-headed. He was regretting having hired Gène for an afternoon’s fishing. He would have liked to turn for home, but dared not suggest it.
It was looking down into the depths especially that did it. That clear landscape, so strange and inhuman that he felt he was discovering another planet. The smells too, the salt water, his fingers, which hadbeen handling fish and shellfish, the fragrance from the sun-baked Mediterranean shrubs, carried out to them on the breeze.
He still clung to the childish hope of hooking a good catch and surprising Gène; he frowned even harder, and leaned out over the water until he was dizzy.
They had been in Porquerolles only four days, and already he was tired of it. Utterly worn out. The sun was exhausting. Everything required an effort, an effort to adapt, an effort to understand. The island was indeed beautiful, as his friendGardanne, the painter of the river Sèvre near Nantes, had assured him. Probably he was just a fish out of water here himself.
‘Pull in!’ Gène said.
He hauled sharply on his line. There was something on the other end, but he had drawn up no more than two metres of it before the fish had escaped.
Now all he could think of was his headache. He was smoking, which was the wrong thing to do because it made him thirsty, and the local wine, which they had brought with them, had warmed up lying in the boat and made him feel sick.
Now and then the sound of an engine could be heard. It would be a boat like theirs, a little larger or smaller. Almost always, there would be one or more summer visitors aboard, while a local man stood motionless at the tiller. As it came levelwith them, he would lift his arm in greeting and Gène would do the same.
‘It’s Ferdinand,’ he would say simply, as if that was enough, as if Ferdinand was world famous.