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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The President

Georges Simenon

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To purchase The President

Title: The President
Author: Georges Simenon
Genre: Novel
Written: 1958 (Eng. 1961)
Length: 152 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The President - US
The President - UK
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Le Président - Canada
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Le Président - France
Der Präsident - Deutschland
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  • French title: Le Président
  • Originally published in English as The Premier (1961)
  • Translated by Daphne Woodward
  • Made into a film, The President, in 1961, directed by Henri Verneuil and starring Jean Gabin

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Our Assessment:

B : fine study of power and powerlessness, politics, and old age

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/5/1966 Hans Koningsberger
The Observer . 10/3/2012 Kristen Treen
Time . 27/5/1966 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Out of this brush of the old man's shrunken life of introspection with an ugly actuality, Simenon has fashioned the structure and climax of his novel. But its essence is the past of its hero, as remembered by himself, and here the author has pulled off the tour de force of presenting, entirely convincingly, the private thoughts of a great public figure." - Hans Koningsberger, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Simenon constructs a meticulous and astute psychological portrait of a public figure struggling to come to terms with his own mortality. (...) While its attention to economic crisis, civil unrest and a precarious coalition government might explain the novel's resurfacing after 40 years of neglect, Simenon's eye for detail, for the tragicomedy of life's trivialities, provides a refreshing shift of focus." - Kristen Treen, The Observer

  • "Belgian-born Georges Simenon is a great tattletale. His endless series of novels now total about 500, include a mound of pulpy romances, scores of Inspector Maigret mysteries, and dozens of gritty, graceful character studies such as The Premier and The Train. (...) Both are typical, tidy iterations of an old Simenon thesis: escape in any real sense is impossible. In The Premier, the intended escape is from oblivion." - Time

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:

       France is in political crisis in The President, with negotiations for a new government going deep through the night. That's where the action is, in Paris -- but the (in)action of the novel takes place elsewhere, at the distant and isolated estate of a retired former career politician and one-time French head of state, known here only as the Premier. Now eighty-two, he's feeling his age -- literally hobbled -- and, on this decisive stormy night, finds himself: "cut off from the world even more completely than usual owing to an electric failure and a telephone breakdown".
       Life (and death) go on -- these days see the birth of a sibling to one of those who work for him, as well as the death of a former classmate of the Premier's on an operating table -- but what concerns the Premier most is the power-play going on in Paris. He thinks, too, he has a say in the matter, expecting a late-night visit, a consultation that will have him have the final say in the matter; only slowly does it dawn on him how marginalized he has become.
       The President is a study in the losing of a grip that comes with old age: nominally, the Premier has command of his little fiefdom, his household, but has become almost entirely dependent on those around him. A once powerful political figure, he here finally is disabused of the belief that he matters in the least any longer (despite what he thinks is an ace he holds).
       The President describes the very mundane life the Premier now leads. He still commands, but little he does is of consequence, as he is reduced to following the latest news on the radio, or answering letters from the public. He reflects on his past, too.
       Part of his obsession is with life-stories -- his own and those of others. He reads: "memoirs, confessions, private diaries" despite the fact that:

     Coming to the end of one of these books, he was invariably disappointed, irritated, feeling the author had cheated. He wanted pure truth, truth in the raw, as he was trying to find it in his own case, even if it turned out to be sickening or repugnant.
     But all the writers he had come across had arranged their material, he was far enough on in life to know that. All of them held, believed they held or pretended to hold, a truth, and he, despite his grim search for truth, had not found it.
       Among the things he keeps himself busy with is writing his real memoirs. He had published a successful and much-translated autobiography; the version he now works on isn't a new manuscript, but rather consists of marginal notes in the official record -- even as he wonders:
     Would he go on to the end of his notes, his genuine memoirs, which in a way were a correction, or would he leave behind him, uncaring, the image that had grown up by slow degree and had so completely ousted the real person.
       The events in Paris hammer home just how marginalized he has become -- the central figure, who the Premier has reason to believe he has considerable influence over, simply "behaving as though the Premier were dead". And by the end of the novel the Premier uncovers even more truths about his situation, suggesting that far from being the one in control, he has long been put in his place and very carefully maintained there. (Simenon heaps it on good and thick throughout; among the nice touches is that the original name of Les Ebergues, the estate he has retired to, is Les Ebernes -- apparently, as he discovered, taken from the verb 'eberner'; "to wipe excrement off a child".)
       The President is a psychological study, and does without any sort of more obvious crime -- i.e. it's not your usual Simenon-thriller. But it's still a typical Simenon-novel, and in its depiction of power and powerlessness -- and with a creepy dénouement (all truly is not as it seemed, at least for the Premier, who turns out to be more puppet than master) -- it's an effective little novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 July 2012

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The President: Reviews: The President - the film: 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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