Not Great Men

With its focus on a destabilized European government, currency manipulation, and the frailty of technocracy, Georges Simenon’s novella The President seems a surprisingly timely book, especially considering it was originally published more than 50 years ago. The scene in which Simenon describes various ministers meeting at a country retreat to decide the fate of the franc in the midst of a financial crisis could easily be taken for a fictionalized rendering of any number of the E.U.’s serial efforts to save to the euro. “After the disastrous experiments made by previous governments, which had lived from day to day, robbing Peter to pay Paul, the only solution was a large-scale devaluation…”

But the novella also explores the timeless theme of the pettiness engendered by power and the cumulative personal sacrifices it necessarily compels. Simenon, whose attitude toward writing was something like ordinary people’s attitude toward breathing, seems to have known something about pettiness and certainly about compulsion. In a 2007 Bookforum profile, Luc Sante summarizes some of the highlights of Simenon’s prolific career: his anti-Semitic journalism, his boasting about sleeping with thousands of prostitutes, his becoming a collaborator during the Vichy regime, his ego-driven feuds with publishing houses, and so on. Sante suggests Simenon was one of those writers “whose finer qualities have been siphoned off into their books,” which means, considering the hundreds of novels he wrote, he might have been an extraordinarily fine man.

Simenon is mainly remembered for his series of detective novels featuring Inspector Maigret, but he also wrote scores of other books, his so-called roman dors (hard novels), uncompromising examinations of human moral weakness. Reissued in November by Melville House as part of its Neversink Library series of overlooked works, The President is one of these. It ushers readers into the mind of a retired politician, referred to only as the Premier, who believes he has accumulated enough blackmail material on his colleagues during his time in government to assure that he will be a power player until his death. Hobbled by a stroke and sidelined in a provincial town, the Premier — a character Simenon based on Georges Clemenceau, France’s Prime Minster during World War I who survived an assassination attempt in 1919 — spends his days surly and half-sedated, fretting impotently about his legacy. The action, such as it is in this glacially paced novella, takes place entirely in the Premier’s desiccated interior world, as he waits to be consulted about the formation of a new Cabinet and mulls over the various shifts he employs to uphold his dignity among his retinue of servants.

Of course, those helpers, who have been hired by the state to provide him material and emotional support, are also spying on him, rooting through his books and collected papers and photographing the incriminating documents he cherishes. We learn that the Premier’s sense of embattled privacy, so intrinsic to his own conception of his identity, is entirely an illusion, stage-managed by his servants and the protection agency responsible for guarding him. His apparent status of national figurehead emeritus merely masks his true condition, that of a political prisoner under house arrest.

The implication is that the exercise of power confines as it seems to liberate. The figures who scramble to wield power find themselves vampirically drained of their personal agency, becoming puppets to the larger forces of history. Even self-aggrandizement cannot survive this metastasis of ambition; the point of private thoughts becomes elusive, the ability to harbor true grudges and succor on personal accomplishments disappears with the loss of autonomy as one is entombed as a living legend. The Premier knows full well that the sleights he has stewed over in his life have not been matters of policy but amour-propre: “For what did he think about all day long, while people crept like mice about the great man whose slightest sneeze was turned into a drama? About himself! Himself! Always about himself!” But in the end his preoccupations are not even personal. Nursing grudges, Simenon demonstrates, is the only way the Premier could maintain an emotional investment in politics once he discovered that the political life is inescapable.

The Premier laments to himself, “When the future of the country was a stake he had always been prompt to take the most fateful decisions, with no fear of committing an error, but, faced with the question of what he should reveal about his own life, he became hesitant and tormented with scruples.” But these scruples are pure vanity.

Ultimately, as Simenon patiently reveals, no one cares about his memoirs, which can reveal nothing. The Premier’s perspective is valuable only insofar as it confirms the legend, suits the narrative shaped by the innumerable functionaries within the communication industries and corresponds with what the political system demands for its maintenance. Bureaucracy, corruption, and endemic cynicism steer where democracies will go, not the Premier’s sense of his destiny. His power shrivels to an alibi for an inhuman, indifferent system. He becomes another template for the Great Man, but almost no one has cared about the man himself, save a few poignantly arbitrary classmates from his youth.

In this light, death can appear as a comforter. Death makes all the illusions of power and their loss irrelevant. Simenon emphasizes the solace this can bring a spent man. Feeling betrayed by his alliance with history, the Premier surrenders his political concerns and allies with death against his captors, seeking to withhold all feelings, all gestures, and stymie his household with implacable patience. Personal greatness, it turns out, consists of the stubbornness of silence.