Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Iron Staircase (Book Review)

The Iron Staircase
Translation of: L’Escalier de Fer
By Georges Simenon
176 pp. Harvest/HBJ 1981

Etienne Lomel believes his wife Louise might be poisoning him. Although he is only 40, he is in terrible physical condition. He is breathless after walking up stairs, visibly losing weight, and always tired and apathetic.

After eating meals, he often feels a burning sensation in his throat, dizziness, and a pain in his chest. The doctors aren’t sure what the problem is and tell him to make a note of what happened just before each attack—what he ate, what he was doing.

Sometimes he feels ashamed of his “evil thoughts” that maybe Louise wants him dead. Perhaps it isn’t really true. After 15 years of marriage, he still loves her and wants to continue their relationship. But is she having an affair?

They live above a stationery shop. It is his wife’s business, having inherited it from her father. Everything belongs to her. Lomel owns nothing of his own and must ask her for money. He is totally dependent on her. She’s the boss. The iron staircase of the title leads from the first floor up directly to their bedroom and the other rooms where they live.

Lomel often stands at the top of the staircase listening to what is said downstairs at the shop. He wonders about the men Louise meets there every day—perhaps she is serious about one of them? He spends his days fretting and speculating about his wife while trying to recover from his illness.

We learn how Etienne and Louise first met 15 years ago. She was married to her first husband at the time. Etienne came to her shop on business and they soon began an affair. Louise’s callousness is seen when her sister-in-law died: all it meant to her was the chance for a long rendezvous with her lover, Etienne, since her husband had to go away for the funeral.

Etienne and Louise agree to marry, but what about her husband? During one of his visits, she tells Etienne that her husband has become seriously ill. After a few weeks, the husband dies. Etienne doesn’t question her about it.

He believes she poisoned her husband, as she might be poisoning him now, to get him out of the way and marry a younger man. Etienne has the same symptoms that her previous husband had immediately before he died: weight loss, tiredness, and heart trouble. For the 15 years of their marriage, he had never asked his wife how her former husband had died.

Part II opens with Etienne seeing a doctor and asking if it’s possible to determine if he is the victim of arsenic poisoning. At first, the doctor isn’t sure. Etienne resolves to stay with Louise in spite of her and not to die. He takes the blame for his poor attitude. He tells her and their friends that he is a new person.

Later he goes to the doctor again for more arsenic testing and the doctor finds positive results. Etienne finally has proof that Louise is trying to murder him. He tries to figure out what he will do. The doctor suggests he is obligated to go to the police but Etienne refuses to give him any information and leaves.

Etienne goes back home and acts naturally. Whenever he eats or drinks something he believes is spiked with poison, he leaves the house and throws it up. He decides to spy on his wife by following her and find out where she goes. Etienne sees her at the post office where she reads a letter that makes her very happy. He sees her receive additional letters in the following days, probably from the same person, her new lover.

Etienne follows his wife as she leaves the shop one day and sees her go to a restaurant. He waits and after an hour, he sees her leave arm-in-arm with a man. He sees them kiss as they part. He recognizes the man as Roger Cornu, son of a printer in their stationery shop.

Even now, knowing everything, Etienne still wants to keep Louise, and to keep living. He realizes he is as much to blame as his wife for the death of her former husband, since he agreed to marry her while she was still with him. Feelings of guilt over the death of the ex-husband often possess him. He wants their relationship to remain as it is, keeping to themselves with their silent secrets.

Etienne follows Cornu to his workplace and home, not finding him. But he is told the name of the restaurant where he usually hangs out. He then goes to a gun shop and buys a revolver. Afterward, Louise will understand, he believes, because he did the same thing she did before. He can’t afford to lose her because he is completely dependent on her.

He goes to Cornu’s favorite restaurant and sees him there, writing a letter, probably to Louise. Etienne then goes to Cornu’s home and lies in wait for him during the night. When Cornu arrives, he notices Etienne standing outside, and calls to him. Etienne is surprised Cornu recognizes him so easily, but shouldn’t have, since they are so similar, two steps on a staircase.

Simenon masterfully sets up the reader throughout the narrative for the strange, brutal resolution. Etienne hesitates to pull out his gun. He is unable to kill Cornu, as he is the same as himself and Louise’s ex-husband. Unable to change from the kind of person he is to someone like his wife, he can’t traverse the “iron staircase” that separates them. Cornu, knowing his own guilt, is stunned that Etienne doesn’t pull out a gun and shoot him. He bids him goodnight and goes inside. Half an hour later, sitting outside, Etienne shoots himself.

Long out-of-print in English, The Iron Staircase, with its psychological drama and pervading existentialist atmosphere, echoes Simenon’s French peers, such as Sartre and Camus. It is one of his finest efforts.

1 comment:

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