Category Archives: French literature

Tenuous positions of Jews in the Ukraine before WWI and in Paris before Nazi occupation: The Dogs and the Wolves


Pros: atmosphere, plot, Ada

Cons: Ben’s character is underdeveloped

I know that Les Chiens et les loups (The Dogs and the Wolves: in that it is difficult to distinguish dogs from wolves in fading light, this is a French metaphor for dusk) was published in the spring of 1940, before Paris fell to the Nazis (and its author, Irène Némirovsky (1903-42) fled south, as represented in the two parts of  Suite Française that were found by her elder daughter (Denise), published in French in 2004 and in English in 2006. In 30-some languages, by 2008 it had sold more than two and a half million copies, and the interest has led to publication of another novel left in manuscript, Chaleur du sang (Fire in the Blood) and to publication in translation of her novels written in French, including The Dogs and the Wolves. (Némirovsky wrote a lot between fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 and being killed in Auschwitz by the Nazis in 1942.)

Whereas Fire in the Blood is about French peasants and seemingly written for a French audience that did not want to read about the troubles of Jews, most of the characters in The Dogs and the Wolves (I’d only sort one of the main characters, Ben, into the “wolf” category, though Harry’s uncles, the aged financiers, also fit it) are Jews, first in a city in the Ukraine (imagined smaller than Kiev, where the author was born), then in Paris (having relocated before World War I and the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution and protracted Civil War in the Ukraine—earlier than Némirovsky had).


There are a number of jumps of two years within the novel, but its starting point is unclear — some time early in the 20th century in an unspecified city on a river (presumably the Dnieper) in the Ukraine in which the Jews were literally stratified (the elevation of their houses correlating with their poverty/wealth):

“The Jews who lived in the lower town [along the riverfront] were religious and fanatically attached to their customs; the Jews in the wealthy areas were strict observers of tradition. To the poor Jews, their religion was so completely engrained in them that it would have been just as impossible to extricate themselves from it as to live without their beating hearts. To the rich Jews, loyalty to the rites of their forefathers seemed in good taste, dignified, morally honourable, as much as — perhaps more than — true belief. Between these two classes, each observant in their own fashion, the lower middle class lived in yet another way. They called upon God to bless their business dealing, heal a relative, a spouse, a child, then forgot about Him straight away, or if they did think about Him, it was with a mixture of superstitious fear and contained resentment: God never fully granted anything that was asked oh Him.”

The novel’s protagonist, Ada, is from that intermediate stratum. Her mother is dead, and her father (who is named Israel Sinner) takes in his widowed sister-in-law Raissa and her two children, Lilla and Ben. Ada and Ben are very close, not least when they flee a pogrom to the gates of the mansion of a cousin, also named Sinner, whose delicate only child, Harry, fascinates Ada. Especially since Ben is in love with Ada, he despises Harry…

And will continue to do so in Paris. Aunt Raissa convinced Israel to send her and the children there to be polished (educated, not so much). After the Revolution cuts off remittances from Israel (who disappears in the conflagration), Ada works for Aunt Raissa as a seamstress, and paints when she can. It takes years for Harry to notice two of her paintings of home and to fulfill her longstanding desire to be with him. Harry has married a blonde Gentile and has a son, but is never comfortable except with Ada.

Ben has been intriguing with Harry’s uncles and has to flee again before a scandal breaks. Alas, when Ada’s residence permit is revoked, she moves East instead of to South America, though before the dismembering of Poland, the Fall of France, Nazi Occupation, and French authorities’ proactive rounding up of foreign Jews (and, later, also French Jews), this was not as obvious as it is to readers now. The final optimism of the new mother is necessarily more tragic to readers of the English translation in the third millennium (C.E.) than to whatever readers of the first French edition there were in early 1940.

Though the novel is a trifle schematic, and my allegiance to incest taboos is stronger than seems operative for French (at least in books and movies), I think the book is a compelling tale of two strata of Jews in the Ukraine and in Paris. lts existence certainly belies the charge some made when only Suite Française was available in English that Némirovsky avoided writing about Jews.

There is not a harpie mother as in some other Némirovsky work, though the aunt partakes of some of the duplicity Némirovsky abhorred in her mother. As in Fire in the Blood, the female characters are well developed. The male ones seem more types than rounded characters to me and I especially wish Ben (who disappears from the narrative for quite a considerable space/time) were more fully developed. Still, Némirovsky was a very skilled and insightful writer, and in The Dogs and the Wolves, I have found a book for Women’s History Month that I can recomend as a good read, not just a historical phenomenon of fiction written in the past by a woman writer.

©2015 Stephen O. Murray



Modiano, Modiano, Modiano

A few years back (before winning the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature and the French publication of So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood), Patrick Modiano said “I have the impression of writing the same book for 45 years.” Besides being very repetitious from novella to novella, Modiano’s plots are wispy without any counterweight of character development: that is, his novels are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. Indeed, I’d say they lack narrative drive. They have a protagonist life experiences match Modiano’s, one who is curious about people with whom he interacted (I can’t say that “he knew”) as a child or as a young man or (though not in this case) with whom his petty gangster father interacted at some time in the past. The protagonist, almost always a writer, is definitely not a professional investigator or researcher: he gives an additional meaning to the “private” in “private investigator”!


As usual, in “Lost” the writer (given a name other than Patrick for a change: Jean Daragne) never attempts to investigate the police records involving the adults whose relationships with each other were mysterious to him when he was a child left by his mother with shady friends, one of whom was murdered.

When he finds someone who might know something about those about whom he is recollecting and speculating, Modiano’s investigator is too diffident to talk to them and ask any questions.. This one asks a physician across the street in the Parisian suburb where Jean was stored for a time as a child some questions, but his absurd cover story prevents him from asking much of what he really wants to know. Similarly, though he has a cache of old papers in a suitcase, he has lost the key and is unwilling to break it open to try to ground his feeble memories and extremely limited analytical abilities.

And, as usual in Modiano novels, at the end of the wispy book, the investigator does not know why the subject of his investigation did what they did decades earlier (let alone who the murderer was!). Even what Jean has blocked from his memory is something readers of Modiano’s Prix Goncourt-winning Missing Persons will already know.

The novel begins with someone else, an inveterate gambler, interested in writing about the murder of Colette Laurent and the girlfriend of the gambler. These two characters are MacGuffins (to borrow Alfred Hitchcock’s term) and disappear from the book fairly early on.

Modiano is hyper-specific about place names (mostly, but not only Parisian ones), often noting both what once stood at an address and what is there now. Perhaps these details covey more to readers who have lived there whole lives in Paris than they do to me, but can that substitute for plots and characterizations, even for native Parisians?

I don’t know what the writer of the cover cop could mean by “psychological insight” in the novel, and I think the Swedish Academy made another mistake in awarding the Nobel Prize to a very bad mystery writer of very limited scope. (Joseph Kanon, who provides solutions to the murder mysteries in his novels that also have developed characters and diverse settings, seems to me a better choice, though my first choice for the Nobel Prize is Michael Ondaatje.)

(My Amazon Vine review of the forthcoming translation recycles a lot from what I wrote about earlier Modiano novellas earlier this year, I know! And in responding to comments:)


I have read variants of Modiano’s story in multiple volumes and have yet to notice much in the way of gifts, at least any that make it across translation. “Lost purpose since 1945” (not 1940?) is wooly, but Modiano’s picking at the wounds of his youth (especially his gangster Nazi-collaborator father) are far, far, far less grandiose. And in the present instance, keeping the same number of years back to last meetings with childhood caregivers from 2012 makes no sense.

As I wrote, his novels lack character development (his characters are barely even wispy and definitely boneless), plot development, ideas (about anything, macro or micro), or any serious attempt to solve/resolve even the minor mysteries that slightly pique his characters’ (variants of himself) interest. Simenon’s non-Maigret novels (of which there are a great many) don’t provide the “solutions” you demean (Agatha Christie wrap-ups). Moreover, I think Simenon’s Dirty Snow, the Simenon novel focused on occupation/collaboration, is far superior to any Modiano novel.

It seems to me that Modiano (and his autobiographical protagonists) are treading water that is not very deep: if they stretched their legs, they could find they could walk. And to press my analogy, the man flailing in the water has his eyes closed speculating about how far from shore he is and if he opened them could see it is not very far.


©2015, Stephen O. Murray


Staying in the fog with Patrick Modiano: Suspended Sentences


Pros: Afterimage

Cons: Flower of Ruins

When the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature going to Patrick Modiano  was announced, I was not aghast (as with awards to Daniel Fo, Mo Yan, and Herta Muller). Admiring two films about the Occupation of France (Lacombe, Lucien; Bon voyage), I gave the Swedish Academy the benefit of the doubt. Having now read four novels by Modiano (Out of the Dark and the three that were originally published separately that were recently bundled by Yale University Press as Suspended Sentences), my doubts have become acute.

It seems (not just from my sample but from what I have read about others) that Modiano’s plots are wispy without any counterweight of character development: that is, his novels are neither character-driven nor plot-driven. Indeed, I’d say they are not driven at all. They have a protagonist whose age and life experiences match Modiano’s who is curious about people with whom he interacted (I can’t say that “he knew”) or with whom his father interacted at some time in the past. The protagonist is definitely a professional investigator or researcher: he gives an additional meaning to the “private” in “private investigator”!

Not least in that Modiano frequently calls this man haunted by and speculating about the past “Patrick,” I will, too. Patrick turns up some material in old newspapers and magazine, but never attempts to investigate the police records of Paris. When he finds someone who might know something about those about whom he is recollecting and speculating, he is too diffident to talk to them and ask any questions.

Those who interest him, particularly those who were adults during the Occupation, were furtive and elusive, both then and later. Patrick’s father, Albert (1912-77) was a low-level black-market operator who kept his Jewish ancestry secret from the Nazis with whom he got along. He defied the legal requirement to wear the yellow Star of David that marked Jews. Though Albert was, nonetheless, rounded up and stored in Drancy, a transit camp for Jews being shipped to Auschwitz, he was mysteriously sprung by a collaborationist racketeer, Eddy Pagnon, about whom Patrick would like to know more (but not at the cost of having to ask anyone about the man who seemingly saved his father from a Nazi death camp).

The same story, or, rather, the part of the story Patrick/Modiano knows recurs—without elaboration. Author and narrator fail even to try to imagine details to fill in the very sketchy historical record.

Modiano’s fictions are extremely specific about objects in vanished rooms, often in buildings that no longer exist, and Modiano is hyper-specific about place names (mostly, but not only Parisian ones) where he was in the 1960s (or, less often, the previous and the following decades), often noting both what once stood at an address and what is there now. Perhaps these details covey more to readers who have lived there whole lives in Paris than they do me, but can that substitute for plots and characterizations, even for native Parisians?

Reading Suspended Sentences (in which the three novellas are not placed in chronological order of publication or in chronological order of the part of the narrator’s past that is the blurry focus of the work), I grew more impatient and critical with each doomed attempt to understand someone from the past. Perhaps my dismay was cumulative, though I liked “Afterimage” (1993, a rendition in English from the untranslatable idiom of its French title Chien de printemps, which means literally “dog of spring”).

Patrick is recalling when he was a 19-year-old university dropout who volunteered to catalog the archive of Francis Jansen, a MAGNUM photographer (and friend of the legendary Robert Capa), who is getting ready to leave Paris for Mexico (disappearing like Ambrose Bierce) and evading a mistress who intrigues Patrick. Jansen was, perhaps, trying to teach Patrick to “train his gaze on something very specific to avoid thinking about anything else,” as Patrick thinks Jansen did.

The second novella, “Suspended Sentences” (from the 1988 Remisse de peine, a phrase with different connotations in French: remission of pain would be a literal and cognate translation) is more obsessive and even more fragmented. Patrick (often called the affectionate/diminutive “Patrice,” but also “blissful idiot) recalls a year or so during which he and his younger brother Rudy (who was to die at the age of ten and has haunted Modiano as much as his father’s nefarious past) were housed with Annie, a possibly lesbian possible prostitute who wore a black leather jacket and jeans when no other women did). Her circle included some swindlers and other sorts of criminals Modiano père probably knew. The fragments of memory and suggestions of romantic malefactors do not add up to anything. At the end the police have arrived at the house where the young Modianos have been staying, but though her car remains parked out front, Annie has vanished forever (at least from Patrick’s view).

In the longest of the three, “Flowers of Ruin” (a literal translation of Fleurs de ruine, 1991), a desultory investigation into what happened before a young couple, Urbain and Gisèle T., committed suicide in 1933, shifts to trying to sort out the trajectory of a waiter who had served the Ts at a night club, seemingly lied that they were there alone, and much later (late-1940) took on the identity of a Peruvian(-father)/Italian(-mother) called Pacheco, a collaborationist, Philippe de Bellune, who disappeared after WWII (the “Liberation”). It is the failure to develop any of the characters (including Patrick’s) or even a tentative solution to the mysteries of the suicides, the disappeared ex-waiter or the ersatz nobleman (and collaborationist sought by the postwar French authorities) that irritated me more than the open-ended other three Modiano novels I’d read.

Bottom line: I think the Nobel committee should have chosen Michael Ondaatje, a great writer in diverse media and very varied settings, rather than Modiano. For a French writer, I think they should have chosen Michel Tournier (1924-) (before either Modiano or their previous pick, J[ean]. M[arie]. G[ustave].Le Clézio, and I regret that they did not anoint Modiano’s original patron, Raymond Queneau (1902-76)… or Marcel Proust (1871-1922).


Honeymoon: Another private and inconclusive investigation from Patrick Modiano [Rating:2/5]

Pros: ? (geographical specificity? but that only highlights lack of specificity about other, more important matters)

Cons: mystery is not even illuminated, let alone resolved; neither character-driven nor plot-driven

Patrick Modiano, who won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, has frequently said “I have the impression of writing the same book for 45 years.” Honeymoon, originally published in French in 1990 as Voyage de noces, is very like the other (four) short Modiano novels I’ve read with characters who disappear themselves (against a background of the roundup by French police of Jews to send to death camps).

The narrator, Jean B., has just disappeared himself, having stayed in Paris when he was scheduled to go to Brazil to work on a documentary film. He is tired of that line of work and is working desultorily on a biography of Ingrid, a woman who once (1950s? 60s?) picked him up hitch-hiking in the South of France (trying to get to Saint-Tropez). With her somewhat older husband, Pigaud, she took him in for a few days (he had been robbed and had no money). Later, she committed suicide in Milan.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who has read other Modiano novels that by the end of his investigations, Jean has no more idea of why she killed herself than he does at the start of the novel. Modiano’s protagonists give a whole new, additional meaning to “private” in “private investigator.” Jean speaks to the man who has been caretaker of Pigaud’s Paris apartment, where Pigaud has not been in more than a decade (usually the narrator is named Patrick and is too diffident to speak to anyone who knew the person whose life and disappearance intrigues him).

As usual, there is no character development and only wisps of a plot. The honeymoon was in 1942 with Pigaud having whisked the presumably Jewish Ingrid out of occupied Paris. They stay in a villa on the Côte d’azure owned by an American as nominal caretakers (and having at first claimed to be on their honeymoon, actually get married).

As vague as Modiano(‘s narrator) is about what happened both in his own past and in that of persons with whom he briefly interacted, he is typically hyper-specific in unreeling place names: the narrator moves into a hotel or apartment on a specific street in a specific arrondissement , visits bars or nightclubs on other specific streets in another specific arrondissement often with specified Métro lines and stations. That is, readers intimately familiar with Paris will know where the inconclusive narrative is at every point while rarely learning why they (the reader and the narrator) the geography is so specific and what happened to the characters of interest to the narrator remain so wispy. (Pacheco, from Suspended Sentences makes a brief appearance that also clarifies nothing about his character or fate.) And, as usual for Modiano, there is no marking of shifts from one past time to another past time to the present.


I hoped, but did not expect, that Missing Person (Rue de Boutiques Obscures), which won the 1978 Prix Goncourt, might be better than the other wispy Patrick Modiano novels I have read, but it is another inconclusive inquiry with hyper-precise Paris geography into the murky late-1930s and the time of the Occupation, culminating in the amnesiac narrator remembering being separated from his female companion trying to sneak into Switzerland. So what? In addition to extensive specification of Parisian street addresses, there are meticulous inventories of objects, as in the nouveau roman and an uninterest in psychology (motivation). As usual, I have difficulty crediting amnesia, and even more the way the detective(‘s assistant) initially called Guy Roland recovers memories (though generally not recognizing himself in the stories he elicits from a large group of interviewees, many of whom give him mementos they have preserved (for? It’s unclear when the novel’s present is). As in my favorite Modiano fiction, “Afterimage,” the character I find most interesting is a mentor/spiritual father who leaves Paris early in the narrative/inquest, in this case the detective who has employed him, Hutte, who relocates to Nice but continues to communicate (unlike the painter Francis Jansen in “Afterimage”) and whose contacts supply the narrator with many a dossier specifying the successions of addresses of persons of interest to him.


©2015, Stephen O. Murray

Lasting psychic wounds of counterinsurgency and torturing

[Rating: 4.8/5]

Pros: searing

Cons: searing

Laurent Mauvignier’s 2009 Des Hommes (Some Men, translated by David and Nicole Ball as The Wound) is a haunted and haunting novel. Mauvignier was born in 1967, after France gave up compelling Algeria to remain a subordinate part of the country (in the Evian Accords of 1962).


The novel open in rural France ca. 2002 at the retirement party of Solange, Her derelict/drunkard (but not homeless) brother Bertrand, a veteran of the French army in the Algerian conflict, now generally called “Feu-de-Bois” (wood smoke) embarrasses her and outrages his other siblings by giving her an expensive jeweled brooch. Family dynamics (dysfunctions) will be revealed over the course of the four parts (afternoon, evening, night, morning) of the novel—with the longest part (night) heavy on flashbacks. The narrator, who was also drafted and sent to Algeria, Rabut, is Bertrand’s cousin and not lacking in a guilty conscience and PTSD sleep disturbances.

Rabut wishes he was not related to Bertrand, and, still more, was unfamiliar with the atrocities committed by and against the French in Algeria. What emerges with Faulknerian indirection (if in simpler syntax) is a searing portrayal of racism, torture, and the insecurities of counter-insurgency (with an invisible enemy easily mistaken for visible noncombatants), along with an awareness that occupation of France (by Germany) was resented and feared much as the French counterinsurgency in Algeria was.

Rabut has a cache of photographs he took in Algeria (he has taken no photos since his return), just as Mauvignier’s father (who served 28 months in Algeria did). Mauvignier told Julian Bisson (in an interview published in France Today): “My mother used to show me pictures my father took in Algeria, where he was stationed for 28 months. In these photos there was no sign of war, or of the violence my mother would talk about. They were almost like holiday pictures, with smiling kids, nice landscapes, sun, the city of Oran. But when my father committed suicide, the question began to gnaw at me: Did the Algerian war have something to do with it? If so, who will speak about what has been silenced? What is it that has been silenced?”

It does not take much imagination to transfer the story from rural France and Algeria to the rural US and Iraq (and only a bit more to the rural US and Vietnam). Rabut and, even more so, Bertrand fail to suppress memories of atrocities (committed by both sides) in which they were involved and knowledge of France’s abandonment of the Arabs and Berbers who fought in the ranks of the colonial army (I would especially like to forget knowing of one form of retaliation against “collaborators” that Rabut recalls!).

The book is not a very easy read, not because of its syntax, but because the reader must put the pieces of what happened (and is happening in the 24-hours of the present day) together. Nick Flynn (who worked in a Boston homeless shelter into which his father came: recalled in a memoir filmed at “Being Flynn” and in the memoir of the making of the movie, “The Reenactments”) has some insightful things to say in his foreword. I don’t agree with him that “the books that come the closest to The Wound’s energies are J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Albert Camus’s The Stranger.” The murder of an Arab in Camus’s native Algeria of the latter has some similarities, but not the tone or structure; the one of Coetzee’s novel is more similar, with torture figuring centrally, and a similarly open ending. In awarding Coetzee the Nobel Prize for Literature, the prize committee categorised Waiting for the Barbarians “a political thriller in the tradition of Joseph Conrad, in which the idealist’s naiveté opens the gates to horror.” Though Conrad’s narrators were more detached from the stories they related, Conrad is plausible a forerunner of Mauvignier in my view.

I’ve already opined that its indirect revelation of traumas reminds me of Faulkner (and his famous statement “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” applies to the aftereffects of the Algerian counterinsurgency as well as to slavery, the US Civil War, and Jim Crow). The novel has reminded others of the movie “The Deer Hunter” (with Bertrand having a despair similar to the character played by Christopher Walken, Rabut more of a survivor, like the character played by Robert DeNiro).

Les Hommes won the Prix Virlo and the Prix de librariries, and the English translation was aided by French Voices.

©2015, 2019, Stephen O. Murray


An early and Murky Simenon Novel favorted by Brits

I don’t know why Anita Brookner pressed Simeon’s Chez Krull/ Krull’s House (1939) on Julian Barnes. It seems one of the becalmed books set around WWII I hsve been reading (this one not freshly translated and prepublished by NRYB. It has the same circulating rather than progressing movement. The reader eventually learns who strangles the pale, naked, violated girl fished out of the canal at the start, and why the foreigners (Krulls) continue to appear different to their hostile (Catholic) neighbors in a canalfront town near the Belgian border on the eve on Nazi invasion (not that the Krulls or Nazis or have any “politics” (like those tacitly colluding the Trump and his white suprematicst supporters).


There is a more assimilated German-born family, the Schoofs, who seem present more for contrast with the Krulls than to advance any plot. The Schoofs speak Dutch at home and are not really German. (The supposed Krull money has made it only as far from Germany as Belgium.) Cousin Hans ‘blatantly and deliberately offends against the first law of the immigrant: do not draw attention to yourself. And by drawing attention to himself, Hans Krull also draws attention to those ‘impure’ relatives of his who live beside the canal where the town runs out. Simenon lays out with ruthless exactitude the way selfish, conscience-free greed exploits modest, hospitable decency” (Barnes).


Not one of my favorite Simenon romans durs, but I’m not British, and ethnic chauvinism is definitely again all too topical.

©2019, Stephen O. Murray







Ill-met by sunlight: Meursault Investigation


Pros: first chapter and implicit critique of post-independence Algeria

Cons: rambling and disingenuous

In the Meursault Investigation, Algerian Muslim Kamel Daoud provides something of a counter-narrative the Albert Camus’s 1942 novel L’étranger (The Stranger in the US, The Outsider in the UK and Commonwealth), elaborating on a peripheral character, the Arab never given a name in the account of a pied noir (Algerian-born man of French descent) clerk Meursault, as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea did on the madwoman locked upstairs in Jane Eyre. At least the first chapter (excerpted and easily standing alone as a story published in the New Yorker) somewhat fills in the character of the heretofore-nameless Arab who was shot on the beach. The first chapter of The Meursault Investigation is a memoir by Harun (the Arabic form of Aaron), who was seven in 1942 when Meursault shot his brother Musa (the Arabic form of Moses) on an Algiers beach.

The murder of Musa haunts the rest of the aged Harun’s rambling memoir (which is more like Camus’s La Chute/The Fall than it is like L’étranger). Harun exacted a delayed and displaced revenge on the Algerian French by shooting one, Joseph Larquais, just after the independence of Algeria in 1962. Although the Algerian police were annoyed that this murder occurred after independence, Harun was not tried (whereas Meursault was tried and executed). Harun is affectless, like Meursault.

Harun treats L’étranger as testimony not as fiction (while Daoud has faulted his Islamist critics for failing to distinguish his fiction from factual narration). Harun/Daoud occlude a rather important fact from Camus’s (Meursault’s) book: Harun’s knife. Earlier in his last day of life, Harun (according to Meursault) was one of three Arabs who attacked and knifed Meursault’s friend, Raymond. According to Meursault’s account, later, on the beach, Meursault saw the Arab alone on the beach. After the man took out his knife, Meursault shot him. That is, it was not just the disorientation of near-sunstroke, but a semblance of “self-defense” that resulted in the death of the unnamed Arab now named Musa. It may have been unjustified, but it was not entirely gratuitous, as Harun/Daoud claim.

Leaving aside the implausibility of Camus’s plot in the colonial court system in which a pied noir is sentenced to death for killing an armed Arab who had already knifed another pied noir (Raymond), there is a significant asymmetry between Meursalt’s murder and Harun’s. In my reading of the two novels, neither killing was premeditated, nor philosophical, though Harun’s was more cold-blooded—and illuminated by the moon in Oran rather than the mid-day sun on an Algiers beach.


Both killers are haunted by their mothers for whom they cannot muster proper filial piety: Meursalt’s died shortly before he killed the Arab; Musa’s not only egged him on but (very implausibly) is still alive seventy years after her elder son’s death. Musa himself recognizes that he “was practically the murderer’s [Meursault’s] double.” (with a name resonating both with the author (Camus) and the murderer (Meursalt, who is denied a first name).

An imam of the Islamist Awakening Front proclaimed a fatwa against Daoud for his fictional character (Harun’s) apostasy. Harun does not question that there is one god, or even that Muhammad was his prophet (the two essential beliefs in determining whether someone is a Muslim), although Harun finds it implausible that God would speak to only one person (though he also suggests, “Friday? It’s not a day when God rested, it’s a day when he decided to run away and never come back.” Daoud was not even born in 1962, and no more committed murder in 1962 than Camus did in 1942. (I suspect the characters’ disdain for religion reflects that of both authors, however).

That Daoud is in danger from a fatwa does not make his novel a good novel, nor does the awards the novel won in France (the Prix François Mauriac,  the Prix des cinq continents de la Franophonie, and the Prix Goncourt for first novel). I think that the opening chapter about Musa is a bracing protest against the denial of a name to the man killed in Camus’s novel, but that the rest is ill-structured and sometimes tedious, as Harun increasingly becomes like a garrulous Camus character (and Musa remains a shadowy figure even if he now has a name).

©2017, 2019, Stephen O. Murray


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).


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


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.*


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).


*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.



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).


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.)


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).


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).


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