RARA-AVIS: Simenon's Chez Krull

From: Moorich2@aol.com
Date: 16 Aug 2003

Continuing my celebration of Simenon month I have just completed CHEZ KRULL completed by Simenon on July 27, 1938. The edition I read is a U.K. paperback reprint by Four Square from the 1955 Hamish Hamilton edition. My bookseller, the usually accurate Jeff Meyerson, says there was not a U.S. edition. The translation is by Daphne Woodward and while seldom noted, translators are so very important. Some regular Simenon translators, primarily Geoffrey Sainsbury, have been termed butchers for the changes brought to the original text.

This novel centers on the combined home and shop of the family Krull, Germans who have lived for many years in France and are naturalized citizens. They have their place in the community even though they have not at all won true acceptance. The matron of the family and her oldest daughter look after the shop where they service the barge operators, often utilizing a drunken old woman who serves as a go-between. The father, who has never learned French although he is losing his German, weaves baskets and such with a hunchback assistant. To complete the family there is a son in the mid-twenties studying for his final examination to become a doctor and a teenage daughter.

They live a very self-contained life, aware that most of their neighbors will walk a long distance to buy from a French shop, yet prospering from their barge operator customers.

Into this mix comes a relative, Hans Krull, fresh from Germany where he has had to flee or, as he often states, he would have been sent to a concentration camp. Hans is the nephew of the elder Krull although he neglects to tell his host that his father died 15 years ago. From that initial lie, Hans goes on to betray the trust of his welcoming relatives in every way imaginable. He seduces the youngest daughter, he flimflams the family's best friend out of a large sum of money and he spys on everyone's movements. Extraordinarily insightful, he soon understands and "has the number" of just about everyone in the house. But most disruptive of all, he parades himself in the neighborhood so openly, so very obviously German, that he attracts attention to the entire household which has done everything imaginable to blend in with their surroundings.

The teenage daughter of a drunk woman who serves as a conduit of commerce between the Krulls and the bargemen likes to present herself as someone older, much as a kid today might dress like Brittany Spears. Her body is discovered in the canal and she has been raped and strangled. Although the discovery across from the Krull shop, the family would have escaped attention but for the visiting Hans. Technically he was first to see the body and he made much of this fact and was everywhere under the nose of the investigators and neighbors. Eventually, again as a direct result of Hans, the neighbors turn against the Krulls first with graffiti accusations of responsibility for the murder (and the Krull son is suspected more than Hans) and eventually with mob action.

This is a brief novel, as would be expected of Simenon, but even for the Belgium master this one is crammed with vivid characters and a logical progression of events that proceeds to a shocking climax. Every one of the Krull family is brought fully to life. Hans is a viper in the nest like Peake's Steerpike yet the family member who eventually gets past his defenses surprised me.

There are some nice touches here as during a tense, competitive conversation the observation "...she was playing a game, just as a peasant, at market, will criticise a cow he is keen to buy."

And in a moment of confrontation with the police the matron of the family still clings to the old normality. "Whe was on the verge of looking at herself in the mirror, in an attempt to discover what there was about her to account for their rudeness."

The reading has left me with so many things to ponder that I have to say this is one of Simenon's best, a profound, brilliant achievement. And this from a novel about which I have never heard a word of comment or praise.

Richard Moore

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