The Krull House by Georges Simenon review – a dark masterpiece

First published in 1939, this eerily prophetic study of race hatred and mass hysteria in a small French town is vintage Simenon

We all think we know Georges Simenon, even those of us who haven’t read his books. However, the more of those books we do read, the stranger a writer he becomes. There is Maigret, of course, like a kind-hearted but slightly grumpy uncle, with his pipe and his hat – originally a bowler – his mid-morning petit blanc and his evening marc, and his inexhaustible fund of sympathy for wrongdoers, who he knows are probably people to whom worse wrong was done in the first place. But even Maigret has his uncanny side, which no doubt Madame Maigret could explain to us, if she cared to. The feeling that pervades Simenon’s work is Freud’s unheimlich, simply the commonplace made strange by being brought to our attention in unfamiliar form. Simenon’s world is extraordinary through being uncannily ordinary.

And then there are the romans durs, as Simenon called them, the “hard novels”, Maigret-less, bleak, unheimlich meditations on the folly and essential pettiness of human beings, whose strongest driving force, in Simenon’s estimation, is boredom, and the fear of being bored. Novels such as Dirty Snow, Monsieur Monde Vanishes and Strangers in the House are among the finest fictions of the 20th century.

Many of the romans durs have as their protagonists oddly jaunty, feckless and reckless malefactors – for example, the wonderfully named and absent-mindedly murderous Kees Popinga, in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By. Hans Krull, in The Krull House, could be first cousin to Kees. We first meet Hans as, cheerful, carefree and malignant, he arrives from Germany on a visit to his relatives, who keep a shop in a small town in rural France.

As always, Simenon sets the scene with inimitable economy and vividness. As Hans approaches the shop, he absorbs a world in a glance: “‘Drinks’, painted in yellow, some of the letters on the left-hand pane of the door, the others on the right; a window cluttered with ropes, lanterns, horsewhips and harnesses; finally, somewhere in the sun, there was a canal, trees, motionless barges and a yellow tram advancing along the quayside, ringing its bell.”

The German Krulls, although they speak French, more or less, are entirely unassimilated immigrants. The paterfamilias is “Old Krull, Cornelius Krull, the one who, after travelling first around Germany, then around France as a basket-maker, had settled in this town, for no reason, like a man automatically stopping when he’s reached the end of his journey.” His family consists of his enigmatic wife Maria, two daughters, Anna and Élisabeth, and a son, Joseph, who is 25, the same age as Hans.

Just as Hans arrives, we are plunged into a minor squabble that we know will later blossom into serious trouble. An old woman of the town, called Pipi, half-mad from drink and the general misery of her life, is being ejected from the shop, noisily: “You’re all perverts in this house! Not just thieves, dirty little thieves, but perverts!” Hans seems to agree. He has hardly arrived, cuckoo-like, when he inquires lightly of his cousin Joseph, “Aren’t you all a little bit ... a little bit strange in your family?” They are, but not more so than any other family, though the town disagrees, and presently will come to disagree violently.

Red-blooded Hans loses no time in seducing Élisabeth, the youngest daughter, a melancholy, limp little creature who never expected to be loved – except that it isn’t love, of course – by someone so dashing, debonair and cosmopolitan as her cousin. The Krulls tolerate the affair, such as it is, in the way that they tolerate most things, with a kind of uneasy listlessness.

Although by Simenon’s standards this novel, at just over 200 pages, is positively bulky, the plot moves along with an awful, brisk inevitability. It has hardly got under way before a body is discovered in the canal. The reaction of the town and the authorities is less than galvanic – “They’ve fished up a body.” “Bodies are brought up out of the water every month” – until the citizens, egged on by the ever more frantic Pipi, become convinced that Joseph Krull is the murderer.

The Krull House, in this extremely handsome and freshly translated edition, is vintage Simenon, a dark masterpiece. A calmly, almost diffidently narrated yet terrifying study of race hatred and mass hysteria, it was eerily prophetic of the violence and horror that were to engulf Europe and much of the world in the years following its first publication in 1939. Simenon knew the worst there was to be known about the human heart, and told it always as it always was, and is.

• The Krull House, translated by Howard Curtis, is published by Penguin Classics. To order a copy for £9.67 (RRP £10.99) go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.


John Banville

The GuardianTramp

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