Simenon’s favorite of his many, many novels

Georges Simenon (1903-89) said that if he had to choose one of his approximately 400 novels to preserve, it would be the 1964 Le Petit Saint (The Little Saint). I find this a very odd preference (I’d choose Dirty Snow), since I found the first third or more of the novel boring. I find the title character, Louis Cuchas, unconvincing, especially as a extremely naïve child. He is dubbed “little saint” for not reacting to being beaten and robbed by bigger boys at school and not complaining or reporting these to the teachers. The docility/passivity strains belief, but what I find completely unbelievable is Simenon’s explanation that bullies tire of a particular victim. This is not what I observed during my own youth (during which I avoided being a victim and mostly avoided being one of the executioners).

6304039331_d37d721acf_b.jpg

I guess I can believe that the shy dreamer is frightened by black pubic hair and avoids nudity and sex as much and as long as he can (he is acutely unhappy about having to strip with others for his draft physical during World War I). And I can suspend disbelief that Louis is the top of his class most of the way through school.

With no exposure to art, no training, and no bonding with others, Louis becomes a painter, eventually a famous one. He has no conscious program, not intellectualizations: he just does what he does without knowing why (or even how) he does it. This is believable in that I think Simenon was a hyper-prolific writer just did it (wrote his books) without knowing why or giving thought to method (craft). (Somewhere I read that Marc Chagall [1887-1985] was Simenon’s model for Luis, though it is hard for me to boil out the Jewishness, not least in subject matter, of Chagall; though the dreaminess and primacy of color are common to Luis and Chagall. Maybe Renoir?)

romanpatr_Petit saint 6.jpg

Others seem to like the first half of the book more than the second, but I prefer the second, though neither half does much to account for genius or even artistry as Louis remains, not least in his self-image, a diminutive, dreamy child. When he was a child, he was oblivious to the squalor of sharing a room on Rue Mouffletard with five siblings, his mother (who sold vegetables from a pushcart as her mother did), and the succession of sexual partners of his mother.

I’m also not sure that I believe in the characters of the red-headed twins older than Louis. They are inseparable and resist school. Simenon conjures a later life for them that is revealed late in the 180 pages of text (the first third of which were a struggle for me to get through, fueled by my curiosity that this was Simenon’s favorite of his novels).

©2015,2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

Advertisements

A late Simenon novel about politicians and suppressed scandals

I just realized that it is quite likely that I have read more books by Belgian-born Georges Simenon (1903-89) than by anyone else. There are a lot of them (75 Inspector Maigret and more than 300 others!), they are generally 150 plus/minus pages, and I have only read a fraction of them. The 1958 The President, is not one of my favorites (my favorite is Dirty Snow), and is untypical in having someone from the upper reaches of society, a former premier and frequent cabinet member from some unspecified French Republic) as its protagonist.*

2800661._UY400_SS400_.jpg

The 82-year-old, who was never president of the Republic, retired more than a decade earlier to a simple book-lined house near a cliff edge in Normandy. He does not feel any particular reason to still be alive, though he nurtures rumors that he is working on a candid memoir. (He has already published a decorous official one). Having been Minister of the Interior (head of the police), he knows about a lot of skeletons in a lot of closets of a lot of still active politicians, in particular those of a former personal secretary of his, Chalamont, who is being asked to form a new coalition government.

The old man has vowed that Chalamont will never attain the presidency. The reason and what he has on Chalamont are not clear until the midpoint of the novel. After that the suspense is what Chalamont and his former boss will do. The ex-president also has other memories, including a childhood schoolmate, Malate, who did not name his name when expelled for a prank and who has periodically haunted the politician, always vowing to attend the funeral. “There is no such thing as a harmless imbicile,” he proclaims. Having long lived among predators, “underlying a certain kind of stupidity he suspected something Machiavellian that frightened him. He refused to believe it could be unconscious.”

The old man believes with good reason that he is being spied on by his staff (a chauffeur, a maid, a nurse), who are paid by the government. Books in which he has hidden documents are not in the exact position he left them on the shelves. And he knows that if he were in one of his prominent former positions he would have someone like himself monitored in case of any trouble.

Too much of the book is about the physical ravages of old age (which I don’t think Simenon was yet suffering himself) and the tale is less gripping than many of his others romans durs as welll as Maigret mysteries. The social psychology of menace is certainly a Simenon leitmotif (Dirty Snow, The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By), walking away is another (Monsieur Monde Vanishess).

I’d recommend the romans durs the New York Review reprint series has been issuing in preference to this, though The President is not a bad book, and seems especially germane in the season of vindictive viciousness (Chalamont seems comparably less squalid to me, btw than our beloved leader).

Georges_Clemenceau_1.jpg

*The back cover suggests that the character was modeled partly on Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929, pictured above), who was twice president of the Third Republic and attained a bit of immortality for saying war was too important to be left to the generals. He had plenty of reason to be suspicious of the generals for their part in scapegoating Dreyfus before their ineptitudes in WWI. The novel includes memories of something like the Council of Four, the group shaping the treaty that dismantled the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires and shrank Germany while saddling it with huge reparations, and its Italian member Vittorio Orlando in particular.

 

©2012,2019

Simenon’s Act of Passion

I’ve read more than forty novels by Georges Simenon (1903-89), who published close to five hundred, more than two hundred in his own name. I trust New York Review books to pick from those I have not read, and have been rewarded by finding some masterpieces (Dirty Snow, Red Lights; Tropic Moon I had already found on my own). All evoke particular locations, including the provincial towns in Act of Passion (first published in 1947 as Lettre à mon juge (Letter to My Judge) while Simenon was living in North America and had taken up with a younger woman hired as his secretary; he would divorce his wife and marry the younger woman in 1950).

act.jpg

Not just the cases intuited by Parisian Inspector Maigret, but Simenon’s romans durs (hard[-boiled] novels) focus on transgressions, chiefly murder and adultery. Martine, the woman murdered by Charles Alavoine, who is writing form to explain himself to the examining magistrate, does not appear until nearly the midpoint of the novel (which is 212 pages long).

The backstory of the conventional country physician whose second wife, Armande (a widow who entered the household no nurse a home-quarantined daughter through diphtheria), ran his life and home didn’t interest me, and I almost didn’t get to Martine. In any case, Martine is a less vivid character than the narrator’s humble mother and self-assured second wife. She is comparable in her indistinctness to the first wife, who died just after giving birth to a second daughter (who weighed in at 12 pounds).

The clipped voice of Dr. Alavoine is not especially interesting and far from insightful. Its main interest is that it is the only Simenon novel in the first-person that I can recall. The obsession with Martine, who like him misses a train in Nantes is barely credible. That the good doctor wants something of his own is credible, though he contrives to have his wife manage Martine, too, who starts working for him as a bookkeeper. His jealousy about her past liaisons is harder for me to credit, and that he feels he must kill the thing he loves even harder. (Martine has no agency and no consciousness in the novel, so “thing” is le mot juste.)

passion.JPG

The New York Review edition has an introduction by Roger Ebert (who begins by noting that he has read more words (and certainly more books!) by Simenon than by any other 20th-century writer. I don’t agree with his view of Alavoine as a fetishist. Simenon, oui; Alavoine, non! Ebert is on solider ground characterizing Simenon’s narrative voice (in general, not just in Act of Passion) as “direct, detached, factual.” Also, “he describes [Martine] slightingly. She has no particular personality. For him she is an object.”

 

In 1961 Jean Delannoy (who directed many Maigret movies) made a film  based on this novel starring Jean Gabin (who played Maigret in many movies).

©2017, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

Scapegoating in a French village

I have gladly taken guidance from New York Review Books’ reprinting of romans durs (hard, in the same sense as “hard-boiled” for American crime and passion novels) of the prolific Georges Simenon (1903-89). The Engagement in a new translation by Anna Moschovakis is the ninth one reprinted, though the earliest one published (in 1933 in French, as Les Fiançailles de M. Hire).

44158.jpg

It centers on what seems to me to be an autistic purveyor of mildly pornographic pictures who has a talent for bowling. The special talent fits my diagnosis well. The corpulent Mr. Hire is very diffident and uninvolved with other people and a creature of very rigid habit. He is also a voyeur, though with a not just willing, but calculating voyee across the way, Alice

When the corpse of a prostitute is found nearby, Mr. Hire is the police’s prime suspect, an easy target. As in many a noir film and Hitchcock film, the prime suspect is innocent of the crime, but hardly an innocent.

There is a bit of a surprise ending after Mr. Hire is shadowed by the police, framed by someone pretending to be afraid of the real killer, reviled by the neighbors (who eventually turn into something like a lynch mob).

mrhire.jpg

The main indication of the novel’s age is that Mr. Hire has to get wood for his stove. The psychodynamics of scapegoating someone who is different/diffident and the inability of someone without friends or family to extricate himself from suspicion is timeless. Mr. Hire has a devastating visit to the police station, where he hears the sordid/sometimes criminal history of his father and himself. That he is Jewish is one more strike against him in the judgmental policeman’s eyes.

The police want to get the case closed, and don’t care who did what they consider social cleansing. All the better if they can frighten a disreputable, friendless Jew to confess. If not, surely he will slip up under intense surveillance.

Though the text is only 127 pages, I think there is extraneous detailing of Mr. Hire’s shopping, cleaning, and boiing water. The NYRB edition has an informative afterword by John Gray.

 

The novel was the basis for two excellent films, “Panic” (1946) directed by Jules Duvivier (Pépé lo Moko) and “Monsieur Hire” (1989) directed by Patrice Leconte (Ridicule, The Hairdresser’s Husband, similarly harsh portrayals of amoral social milieux).

 

©2010, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

Simenon’s The Strangers in the House

New York Review Books has brought many excellent mostly 20th-century books back into print, including nine* of the romans durs (hard[-boiled] novels) of the exceedingly prolific Georges Simenon (1903-1989), best known for his Inspector Maigret police procedural novels and stories. Simenon published 175 novels under his own name and more under pseudonyms, so guidance in picking titles is welcome.

15672.jpg

There is something of a Perry Mason-like whodunit in The Strangers in the House (Les inconnus dans la maison. 1940), though the novel is primarily a character study. A number of Simenon novels have couples coexisting without liking each other. The acute antagonism of the couple in The Cat leaps to mind along with the vanishing M. Monde.

The couple in Strangers in the House is Hector Loursat de Saint-Marc, scion of one of the leading families of Moulins and a very able attorney and his nominal daughter Nicole. Eighteen years before, when Nicole was two, her mother/Hector’s wife ran off with another man. Hector has never paid much attention to Nicole, whom he suspects is not really (biologically) his daughter. They are civil to each other, but barely speak at the meals they share. “It had always been understood that there was no place in that house for affection. They were never rude to each other, but they never had occasion to be, as they practically never exchanged a word…. Even from the domestics he demanded the barest minimum.”

Nicole has been raised primarily by an ugly cook, [Jose]Phine. Housemaids come and go rapidly. Hector spends most of his time in his study, reading, smoking, and downing three bottles of burgundy a day. Ever since his wife left him, he has been hibernating: “He drank, but he did so privately, in his own home, without causing a scandal.”

One night, however, he is roused from his stupor by the sound of a shot from another part of the house. Investigating it, he goes through parts of the house in which he has not been for many years. (It is the house in which he grew up, and has spent his whole life within. Still, he has become a stranger in it, and his daughter is a stranger to him.)

He is just in time to see Big Louie, a burly criminal die. He also sees a slender man in a beige raincoat rush down the stairs. Nicole is preternaturally calm, even when her lover, Manu is arrested for murder.

Hector is intrigued to find out that she has been hosting wild parties in the house for a fast crowd led by his nephew, Edmond, the son of Hector’s sister (which is to say another member of the local aristocracy). Manu works as a clerk in a bookstore; his mother gives piano lessons (including to Nicole); his father is long dead.

romanpatr_Inconnus dans la maison 10.jpg

Manu fervently denies having shot Big Louie, though he had run him down while intoxicated, so was responsible for Big Louie being installed in the house. Well, in that the others pressed drinks on him, the responsibility is shared, but it led to Nicole’s bed, a place others wished to be (though Edmond seems not to be heterosexual).

Hector takes an interest and takes the case of defending Manu. Not caring about the opinions of others, he is indifferent to the scandal involving not only his daughter but also his own negligence in knowing, let alone controlling what had been going on in the family mansion. He cuts back his wine intake (though the rum that he drinks has a higher alcohol content). Nicole aids in organizing files, and they converse about the case… though not advancing to the intimacy of tutoyering (using “tu” rather than the formal “vous”).

The enthusiastic foreword to the NYRB edition by P. D. James gives away the answer to “Whodunit?”, so I would recommend not reading it before reading the novel. The whodunit aspect is less important than Hector awakening to having a daughter and a life, but still…

I liked her contextualization: “In 1940 Simenon was in France following the German invasion and perhaps in a sense all places were to him occupied territory, streets where he walked alone wit the concentrated wariness of a stranger, all his senses alert.” NYRB has also published Simenon’s novel about collaboration and treachery in an occupied country, Dirty Snow (1948), which I highly recommend.

* In my ranking, Dirty Snow, The Arrangement, Red Lights, Tropic Moon, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, The Strangers in the House, Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Act of Passion, and Three Bedrooms in Manhattan. (I have no read Pedigree.) All have alienated characters who have not despaired and have found ways of being, albeit often little involved in the world and unconcerned by social conventions.

©2010, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon (1903-1989) churned out 400-some novels. So far I have done well letting the New York Review select non-Aigrette Simenon novels (Simenon also wrote 75 policier novels and 28 stories with Chief Inspector Jules Maigret). Dirty Snow may be the best book written about participation by the occupied within the conquests of the Third Reich. Red Lights is a very hardboiled (roman dur) nightmare of an American alcoholic’s drive in heavy Friday night traffic out of New York City (ranked 14 on the list of 15 best thrillers). The noirish French world of bitter marriages and errant husbands is is grippingly shown from oblique angles in Monsieur Monde Vanishes and in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By. Simenon also wrote trenchant accounts of French colonials in Africa in Tropic Moon (and two other novels) and terrorists and surveillers in The Suspect.

Though sailing through dark waters, my guide (NYR) had not failed me before. Alas, I think that Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, originally published as Trois Chambres à Manhattan in French in 1945 (and then in English as Three Beds in Manhattan), should not have been exhumed.

Three-Bedrooms-in-Manhattan_large.jpg

In it, François, who had long been a major stage star in Paris, went to America after his wife (whose career he had made) left him for a young actor. Having failed to transfer his skills and stardom to Hollywood, he is living in a West Greenwich Village walkup, living on some radio work.

In a bar that could have been painted by Edward Hopper, he picks up a cosmopolitan woman of a certain age (late 30s, a decade younger than François). Catherine/Kate is Hungarian by birth, fluent in French from living six years in Paris, where her husband was first secretary of the Hungarian embassy.

It takes at least a hundred pages for the information I have given to get told, as they restlessly move from bar to bar, walking a lot, taking taxis, and sometimes subways. The slowness with which Kay eats annoys François along with her always needing one more cigarette before moving on. (I attribute this to her wanting to stay off her feet and save her only pair of shoes, but such considerations do not occur to François.)

Kate is locked out of the apartment she shared with a woman whose husband has seized her from an affair, and walks the many miles in high heels that were uncomfortable in the first short barhop.

Simenon novels generally move rapidly, are free of sentimentality, and rarely stretch to 200 pages. Three Bedrooms in Manhattan comes in at normal Simenon length (brevity), but is astoundingly sentimental about the couple, each damaged goods from earlier disappointing relations, who find each other. And nothing else happens, though a few characters impinge, mostly in recollections. François is jealous of everyone in Kay’s past, not least the daughter and ex-husband now in Mexico City. Indeed, François has paroxysms of neediness, jealousy, and self-hatred along with raging at the wife who dared to leave him.

3 beds.jpg

Simenon, while remaining a Belgian citizen, was in North America from 1945 to 1955, met and married Denyse Ouimet, who was 17 years his junior, was wracked by jealousy (while wracking up 10,000 female conquests by his own reckoning or boasting) and drove into psychosis (or descended into it; the couple was married in 1950, divorced in 1964, by which time the author had taken up with the housekeeper…)

There is no mention of World War II in the novel. It makes no sense for an aristocrat of an ancient baronial family to be an ambassador for communist (postwar) Hungary, though the Manhattan atmospherics seem postwar. François’s exile could be postwar or prewar, but not during the war…

In introducing another volume, Paul Theroux wrote that Simenon characters, “are usually strong enough to kill but seldom resourceful enough to survive.” The lovers in Three Bedrooms in Manhattan are an exception that provoked my complaint of uncharacteristic sentimentality, though they certainly seem initially to be lost souls like those in other Simenon novels.

(I’m not sure what the third bedroom is: the one in the Hotel Ivy where they spend their first two nights together, the one in his apartment, and? The one in which a mistress from Boston comes once a week in the adjacent apartment? The one in the apartment Kay had lived in?)

©2010, 2019, Stephen O. Murray

Simenon writing about terrorists and increasing surveillance

Generally, I wait for the New York Review Books editors to decide which of the hundreds of Georges Simenon romans durs (hard-boiled novels) to read next. I picked up The Suspect without their imprimatur, because it is about dissension within a terrorist cell — anarchists in France in the late 1930s (the book was first published in French in 1938). The protagonist is in Brussels, wanted by the French police. An inept member of his group comes, trailed by police, to tell Pierre Chave that the Paris group, at the impetus of K, who may be an agent provocateur, is planning to blow up a factory during the day while many people are working in it.

suspect.jpg

Pierre is firmly opposed to killing workingmen and sets out to sneak back into France and stop the bombing. The police think that Pierre is returning to do the deed or at least to co-ordinate it. (They know something is about the happen, but not what or where.) Both the new leaders and old members of the Paris cell think that Pierre is in cahoots with the police. Pierre’s former protégé, Robert, has switched his loyalty to K and is the one designated to plant the bomb, so Pierre has to try to find and dissuade him

Though there is exploration of the psychology of those alienated from the dominant society, I think The Suspect qualifies as a thriller. There is more action than in many Simenon novels, including the Maigret police procedurals, and a proto-existentialist protagonist choosing life over violence while being suspected by both sides.

There are also scenes I find entertaining in which the Brussels policeman, Inspector Meulemans, has moved into the Chaves house with Chaves’s wife and often-crying (sick) baby, Pierrot. Simenon generally worked in some droll humor.

Fanatics willing to die while killing others (I hesitate to classify anyone in Simenon’s universe as “innocent”) are of renewed interest. I think of anarchist bombings as late-19th-century than between the world wars, and more focused on killing rulers (US presidents, the Hapsburg crown prince), but the book is a reminder that what become invitations to increase surveillance are recurrently made by those who believe a few explosions will change the world to their way of thinking (also see the recent Frankenstin in Baghdad).

I don’t think that The Suspect is as interesting as Dirty Snow, Simenon’s novel of collaborationists with Nazi occupiers, but prefer it to some of the recent of the NYR reprints I’ve read, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (with another Frenchman getting by in exile) or Monsieur Monde Vanishes (M. Monde going into exile without leaving the country).

©2010, 2019, Stephen O. Murray