It is difficult to know where to begin or where to continue dipping into the oeuvre of the amazingly prolific Belgian-born writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989), who wrote published roughly four hundred novels between 1924 and his retirement from novel-writing in 1973. The BBC productions of adaptations of Simenon’s mystery novels starring a meditative pipe-smoking Michael Gambon as Parisian Chief Inspector Jules Maigret (that were shown on PBS ‘s”Mystery”) led me to read more than a dozen of the Maigret detective novels and When I Was Old, the first of twenty-some very unreliable memoirs.
I might have delved into his non-detective novels based on which ones had been adapted to the screen (notable movies adapted from Maigret novels include “The Cat,” “Monsieur Hire,” and “Betty”), but IMDB lists 174 movies based on Simenon books. Instead, I have been guided by what the New York Review series of reprintings has chosen. The first Simenon novel they reprinted was what is widely considered Simenon’s most important novel, Dirty Snow, about a collaborator with a vicious regime a lot like the Nazi occupiers.
The second, Monsieur Monde Vanishes (a title that in my opinion somewhat improves upon the original (1952) French title Fuite de Monsieur Monde) is about an affluent Parisian businessman (who has rebuilt an import-export firm that his father had let slide), the titular M. Monde. (Can anyone really have the family name “Monde”—world?). On the evening of his 48th birthday—an occasion no one has remembered—and after overhearing gossip about his effete son pursuing a young workman with unwanted attentions, M. Monde decides to change his life, to abandon his responsibilities and a family (wife, a married daughter constantly hitting him up for money, and the son who works in the office and is sexually harassing junior employees). He withdraws all the money from the firm’s bank account (3000,000 francs), leaving a much larger horde in a safe deposit box to which his wife has the key and power of attorney), buys an off-the-rack suit and takes a night train south to Marseilles.
In a threadbare hotel he hears a lovers’ quarrel next door and after the man storms out, what he correctly surmises is the woman attempting to commit suicide (though taking a handful of barbiturates does not make a lot of sound!). He forces her to throw up. Eventually he and the reader learn than her name is Julie. The two go on to Nice, where she gets a job that involves getting customers to buy champagne and he gets a job as a comptroller for the casino (watching that what is purchased gets to the purchasers and the money gets back to the cash box). The brief sexual relationship fades away. She is a pragmatic survivor (one can image the young Simone Signoret playing the role) whose suicide attempt was an aberration. Once in Nice, neither depends on or clings to the other.
If Monsieur Monde Vanishes were a mystery novel, I’d say that Simenon cheats the reader in that the denouement involves the introduction of a character (his first wife who left him) about whose existence there has not been a hint (clue) before. Her reappearance in his vicinity is also a rather implausible coincidence. After leaving him, she developed a very bad habit, which he accommodates with grace, and takes her back to Paris, where he explains nothing about where he has been and what he has been doing for the previous three months to anyone. No one dares to press for details. He steps back into his position as head of the firm, finds out that no one had been able to get at the money in the safe deposit box pending determination that he was dead, clears the detritus of his wife from his study, and seems fairly content to have demonstrated his detachment to those around him.(Winter is also over by then.) It seems he never becomes aware that the police were searching for him as a missing, possible amnesiac person (at the behest of his wife, whose visit to the police opening the novel is a masterful set piece, police stations being the haunt of Simenon’s best-known character). He does not consciously evade the police, and has none of the baggage coming back to haunt him of, say, Jacques Tourneur’s great 1947 noir film “Out of the Past.”
The temptation to run away and start over is a very American leitmotif, though it can be traced back at least to the parable of the prodigal son (and, arguably,to the Greeks going off to besiege Troy, with protracted difficult returns from the Odyssey through Cold Mountain as a major subcategory). The major exemplar from 20th-century world literature is Luigi Pirandello’s novel The Late Mattia Pascal, in which an Italian takes advantage of mistaken reporting of his death (and is also later robbed of a substantial, though less substantial amount of money) finds making a new life very difficult and, when he gives up, finds that he cannot take up his old life either. Mattias Pascal was in difficult financial straits and had no nostalgia del la boue (a longing to roll in the gutter and consort with the base), which is more a bourgeois French (and American) longing than at Italian one. M. Monde finds a position of some responsibility (though not a well-paid or prestigious one), gives hardly a thought to those he left behind, and has no wish to return to the comfort of his old life.
The prose is lean in the usual Simenon roman dur manner, with fairly hard-boiled dialogue between M. Monde and those who work at the casino and live in walk-up rooms. I am not quite sure what M. Monde learned in his flight, but the new life in a Mediterranean climate agreed with him.
The novel was not translated into English until 1967. The NYR edition includes an afterword by Larry McMurtry. There was a 2004 French/Swiss coproduction television version.
©2005, Stephen O. Murray