The Little Man from Archangel by Georges Simenon: A harrowing, haunting tale of exclusion, paranoia and loneliness.
One small lie – told to protect his young and flighty wife – becomes a lie that threatens everything a middle-aged bookseller holds dear in a profound and moving novel from one of the most feted European authors of the 20th century.
Georges Simenon, creator of the world renowned Inspector Maigret detective series, is one of the most translated French speaking authors and the second most translated author of all time in Italy after Shakespeare.
A prolific author, Simenon who died in 1989 aged 86, could write sixty to eighty pages per day and his work includes nearly 200 novels, over 150 novellas, several autobiographical works, numerous articles, and scores of pulp novels written under more than two dozen pseudonyms.
The Little Man from Archangel, first published in in 1957 and flawlessly translated by Sian Reynolds in this new edition, is a harrowing, haunting tale of exclusion, paranoia and loneliness, and one of a selection of Simenon’s celebrated standalone novels being published by Penguin.
At the heart of the story is Jonas Milk, a timid man of Russian-Jewish descent, who lives quietly above his second-hand bookshop in a small French town. He feels at home there until he marries his maid Gina, a woman with a bad reputation who proves to be neither a good housekeeper nor a faithful wife.
Jonas is used to Gina disappearing… everyone in town knows that she goes off with other men but she always returns soon afterwards. ‘She was beautiful, full of vitality, and he was sixteen years older, a dusty, lonely bookseller whose only passion in life was collecting stamps.’
Then one day Gina disappears and this time she takes her husband’s valuable stamp collection as well. Jonas is embarrassed and tells a small lie to protect her, saying Gina is visiting a school friend, but it eats into him like an illness.
As the days pass and Gina doesn’t come back, his lies are believed by fewer and fewer neighbours, provoking hostility and resentment of this timid little bookseller who always thought he had been accepted.
And then somebody informs the police and as suspicion mounts, Jonas’s true and terrifying isolation is revealed…
Simenon delivers a masterclass in character study and storytelling as readers witness Jonas’s life spiralling out of control and a once-friendly community turn on the man who, despite the appearance that he had been accepted, was always considered to be the outsider.
Emotional instability, trust and alienation are brilliantly explored in The Little Man from Archangel… as Jonas is shunned by his neighbours, he cannot but recall the events of the Russian revolution which split his family and scarred his early years, and so the cruelty of the community becomes a universal and timely reminder of the plight of immigrants in all timelines.
Insightful, resonant and bleak, this is Simenon at his unique and powerful best.
(Penguin Classics, paperback, £8.99)