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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Mahé Circle

Georges Simenon

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To purchase The Mahé Circle

Title: The Mahé Circle
Author: Georges Simenon
Genre: Novel
Written: 1946 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 151 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Mahé Circle - US
The Mahé Circle - UK
The Mahé Circle - Canada
Le cercle des Mahé - Canada
The Mahé Circle - India
Le cercle des Mahé - France
Die Ferien des Monsieur Mahé - Deutschland
Il clan dei Mahé - Italia
El círculo de los Mahé - España
  • French title: Le cercle des Mahé
  • Translated by Siân Reynolds

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Our Assessment:

A- : terribly, wonderfully dark

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The National . 19/6/2014 Malcolm Forbes
Sunday Times . 8/6/2014 David Mills

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a novel that prioritises mood over incident, reaction over action. There is little physical drama, only Mahé’s inner turmoil. (...) Despite its sunny setting, The Mahé Circle is not a jolly beach-read; rather it is a dark, deep journey into the human soul. It convinces all the way." - Malcolm Forbes, The National

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In his mid-thirties, Dr. François Mahé finds himself in the depths of a mid-life crisis. He is doing well enough as a doctor, and has a wife and children, but none of this really satisfies him:

     He found that at thirty-five, here he was, too big, too fat, too full of rather vulgar life, with a wife and two children and an existence all laid out for him, a fixed schedule worked out for every day of the week.
       His domineering mother found his wife, Hélène, for him, but was more concerned with hitching him to a woman who would allow her to maintain her position in the household than finding the right fit for Mahé. Mahé has always played his part, and dutifully does so in marriage, too -- but there's no passion here.
       One year the Mahés -- husband and wife, the two children, the housemaid -- come to vacation on the island of Porquerolles. It doesn't seem to suit them particularly well and hardly seems a place they'd return to -- indeed, after they return home: "All year, he had been determined never to go back there" -- but like the moth to the flame, Mahé can't resist: they return over the next few summers, becoming regulars.
       The flame that draws Mahé is, in no small part, that in Porquerolles he is very much out of his element -- meaning also out of his rut of a life. At home:
Everything was in its proper place.
     Whereas in Porquerolles, things were hostile to him. He had tried in vain to lessen their impact. Down south, all the time, he had felt as if there was a tremendous chaos around him, a kind of life that was too vivid, so that the slightest contact with it made his blood pulse more quickly, and prompted a rising fever inside him.
       Triggering this was the sight, that first summer, of a girl in a red dress, the eldest of three children living in dismal poverty to whose mother's deathbed the doctor is called. He finds out her name is Elisabeth, and she makes a deep impression on him. It is this girl that then draws him back to Porquerolles, year after year, even as he has essentially no contact with her. It's not passion that exerts this pull, either, not of the predictable, conventional sort:
     He wasn't even in love, it wasn't that. If he had been in love, the problem would no doubt have been simpler.
       He tries to soil and spoil the object of his fascination by setting his nephew on the girl when the boy joins the family on vacation one summer -- "What he had hoped for, what he had wanted, was for her to be soiled, broken" -- but even this debasement doesn't ruin her, and what she symbolizes, for him.
       Year after year, Mahé drags the family back to Porquerolles. Elisabeth takes charge of her family and maturely sees to it that she and her siblings have a future; unsurprisingly, this eventually takes her away from Porquerolles (though not far) and from her father -- a pater familias who, like Mahé, is not up to the demands of the role. Mahé remains obsessed with Elisabeth, yet finds himself failing in his weak, flailing efforts to reach out to her.
       Mahé begins to let himself go a bit, after losing one of the holds at home that kept him in line. His dissatisfaction continues to bubble over:
     Because he was trying to escape from the circle, quite simply. He was a Mahé. And because they were Mahés and because these other Mahés whom he didn't know were embedded throughout the region, they were all linking up to prevent him from escaping.
       Conventions hold him in place, while the freedom of the girl in the red dress and everything she symbolizes are constant reminders he can't get out of his head of everything his life isn't; indeed, she is: "the disavowal of his own life".
       A slim novel, The Mahé Circle moves easily across four years of Mahé struggling with his obsession, and with trying to break free from his old life. A man of only limited action, even he is struck by the absurdity of the conclusion he's drawn (or pulled in)to -- leaving him then with only one other way out.
       The Mahé Circle is terribly dark. There's actual wretchedness and misery -- the conditions Elisabeth grew up in; the ravages of disease -- as well as Mahé's no less grim internal suffering. Staid bourgeois life and convention is shown in all its crushing horror, with only the barely glimpsed girl in the red dress a glimmer of hope.
       It is a dark and in many ways horrible novel, but also a very fine one, a convincing portrait of a mediocre man who glimpses what life could be but, mired in the only family and society -- essentially that 'Mahé circle' of the title -- he has ever known, has no way of reaching it.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 April 2015

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The Mahé Circle: Reviews: Georges Simenon: Other books by Georges Simenon under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of French literature

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About the Author:

       Belgian author Georges Simenon (1903-1989) wrote hundreds of books, and is especially famous for his detective-fiction.

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