On the role of timepieces and bells in keeping Simenon “on time”
SIMENON SIMENON. QUELQUES SYMBOLES DE L’ORDRE DANS SA VIE
Sur le rôle des garde-temps et des cloches pour maintenir Simenon “à l’heure”
SIMENON SIMENON ALCUNI SIMBOLI DELL'ORDINE NELLA SUA VITA
Il ruolo di orologi e delle sveglie per mantenere Simenon "in orario"
Despite omitting a chapter from Pierre Assouline’s biography Simenon, the English translator did see fit to condense a six-page presentation on the importance of time to Simenon from it and incorporate it into his final chapter. Some discussion of this subject might interest Anglophones.
According to the biographer, Simenon’s “fear of not being on time” explains his lifetime “maniacal control of his time” and, thus, “the watch is one of the keys to Simenon’s personality. It is the external manifestation of his permanent need to put himself in order.” As a result, “there is no shortage of examples” of this symbolism in his works, and, in proof, Assouline lists 14 novels that include timepieces (9 watches, 2 chronometers, 2 clocks, and 1 wristwatch) and discusses their role within the stories. For instance, in The Pitards, the biographer points out that “the ship captain’s watch is a metaphor for life. It has ‘palpitations’ like a human heart.”
My reading of the novel, however, does not support the idea of this particular watch being important or a prominent symbol at all. It is certainly true that aboard ship—and this novel is all about life aboard ship—time is crucial to sequencing the daily 24-hour ship’s watch activity and its navigational tracking. Yet, this captain’s watch rarely appears. Oh yes, “the tic tac of the watch was always accompanying him” and it did have “palpitations” and “from time to time Lannec used to pull his watch out of his pocket,” but that’s about all Simenon has to say about this watch. Thus, all by itself, it hardly seems symbolic.
On the other hand, if one is willing to extend the word ‘watch’ on to all sorts of timepieces, then The Pitards becomes pertinent in displaying Simenon’s fixation on time and order. Traditionally, bells rang and do ring out all through the day and night on ships. These soundings—invariably determined by timepieces—repeatedly regulate functional activity and more aboard ship. From them, the crew in The Pitards could tell the beginning, duration, and end of their watches and those watches made up their shipboard ‘life.’ For example, Simenon states that “the bell ultimately called” characters for “comings and goings,” that is, what they did in ‘life.’ Similarly “when the dinner bell rang out,” the crew knew it was time to eat, another essential moment in ‘life.’ As well, when “the bell struck midnight,” that told the protagonist Laennec the precise timing of a significant event at that instant in his ‘life’ and the novel’s action. Finally, once the ship reaches Iceland, after all the tragedies have played out, Simenon plays up the way the town’s bells regularly rang out, stating that ‘life’ goes on: “do you hear the bells?” and “two, three, five bell towers sent out the songs of bells” and “the bells were ringing for the Sunday services.”
In summation, Assouline asks: “Pendulum clocks, watches, timepieces… what better symbol of that order to which Simenon aspired so strongly?” Adding bells to this listing further underlines how timepieces were important ‘life’ symbols for Simenon. What’s more, at least to my eye, they also symbolize his affliction with what might be labeled Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) in modern medical lingo.
David P Simmons
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