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).
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?)
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