The Flemish House is a novel about borders. A key passage early in the book interrogates the notion of such boundaries, but also declares them “unmistakable” in their force:
But how exactly could you tell that you were at the border? Was it the transition to Belgian-style houses with their ugly brown brickwork, their freestone doorsteps and their windows decorated with copper pots?
The most obvious border here is political – the line between France and Belgium. The Flemish house itself lies midway between the outskirts of the village of Givet and a border checkpoint and thereby marks a zone of transition, a place no longer France but not quite Belgium. Simenon was well-qualified to write about such liminal matters, of course. Given his Belgian background, his status as the quintessential chronicler of 20th-century French life is an interesting paradox, but hardly an unprecedented one in a society that also adopted Van Gogh and Chopin.
Stranded in that cartographic no-man’s land, the Peeters family also suffers from a pronounced cultural isolation. The grumblings of the French are mostly petty – “They don’t think the same way as we do,” “They consider themselves a cut above,” and so on – but at times escalate into something more sinister. These insinuations and whisperings are oddly reminiscent of the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the early Thirties – a discourse with which Simenon would have been quite familiar, even if he did not mean to evoke it.
Anna Peeters has recruited Maigret because her brother is under suspicion for the disappearance and possible murder of a French girl from Givet. She sees Maigret as a neutral party, one whose position as an outsider she can exploit to form a kind of coalition against the locals. Yet Maigret himself has little interest in the case, and only the incompetence of local officials leads him to continue investigating. About the Peeterses he feels the same subdued horror he always feels at the grubby lives of the bourgeoisie – the ugliness of their homes, the muted respectability of their manners, the petty meanness of their ethics.
So why does he stay? The answer involves yet another border, the one between the personal and the professional. Maigret is clearly obsessed with Anna Peeters. Her appeal is sexual, but not in the usual sense. Unlike Anna Gorskin in Pietr the Latvian, who elicits what might be called philo-Semitic lust from Maigret, this Anna is emphatically not attractive, so much so that Maigret wonders “if her unappealing flesh had ever trembled.” Yet he cannot stop thinking about her. In one extraordinary scene, he finds an excuse to send Anna out of the room and immediately starts rifling through her dresser, focusing in particular on the lingerie. So that we do not miss the slightly unsavory nature of the Inspector’s interest, Simenon refers to Maigret’s “fat fingers” pawing the undergarments and adds: “An onlooker would have probably taken him for a lover, or even for a man satisfying some hidden passion.”
The moment is clearly a violation – a crossing of a line, so to speak. It culminates not in some criminological breakthrough, but in the discovery and theft of a hidden photograph of Gerard, brother of the missing girl and a local ladies’ man. By taking the picture, Maigret takes possession of Anna’s desire. The exhilarating sense of privacy violated, of sexual intrusion, leads him, the next time he looks on the Flemish house, into ever more sexualized imaginings – “Madame Peeters, lowering the shutters, Anna, all by herself, undressing in her room . . .” It is as if his ultimate goal were to reduce Anna to a merely sexual being, rather than the mystery that her whole self presents.
As any reader knows, Maigret novels often conclude with a curious deflection of punishment, as if the mechanism of police and courts had little to do with the real interest of the case. In The Flemish House, the underlying mystery turns out to be Anna’s extraordinary devotion to her brother, a fealty that is bizarre because of its absolute ungroundedness. Years later, when Maigret comes across Anna in a shop in Paris, she seems diminished by age, disillusionment, and bitterness – and Maigret is strangely satisfied, as if he has pushed her safely across some internal border and can finally move on to the next mystery.
Simenon, Georges. The Flemish House. trans. Shaun Whiteside. London: Penguin, 2014.