BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 11, 2005
By Georges Simenon
Translated by Marc Romano and Louise Varse
(New York Review Books, 257 pp., $14)
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan
By Georges Simenon
Translated by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman
(New York Review Books, 158 pp., $12.95)
Monsieur Monde Vanishes
By Georges Simenon
Translated by Jean Stewart
(New York Review Books, 174 pp., $12.95)
Georges Simenon famously claimed to have slept with ten thousand women during the course of his lifetime. Or perhaps it was twenty thousand—the figure varies. He also produced between four hundred and six hundred novels in various genres and under various pseudonyms, as well as innumerable short stories and thousands of pages of dictated memoirs. It does not take a mathematician to calculate that he must have been a very busy man, not to mention an overachiever. It is said that in the 1920s he broke off an affair with Josephine Baker because in the year that he was with her he managed to complete only twelve novels. She was a distraction from his work.
Simenon was born in Lige, Belgium in 1903, the son of an under-achieving accountant and a disapproving and (by her son's account) less than warm-hearted mother. When he was sixteen he left school and went to work as a reporter on the Gazette de Liege, and he published his first novel the following year. At the age of twenty he moved to Paris and began his career in earnest as a writer. He submitted stories to Colette, then literary editor of the newspaper Le Matin. She urged him to pare his style to the bone, surely the best advice that he ever received, and which he wisely took. He set to writing pulp fiction, in which he was highly successful, churning out books under a couple of dozen pen names. By his mid-twenties he was rich, and embarked on a series of travels that would take him throughout Europe and to Africa and, in 1934, all the way around the world. It was a pattern of unremitting work and obsessive restlessness that was to endure for most of his life.
In 1923 he married a young painter named Rgine Renchon, but the marriage was to end in divorce. In New York just after World War II he met Denyse Ouimet, a French Canadian seventeen years his junior, whom he had interviewed for a secretarial job; the couple were married in 1950, in Reno, and moved to Connecticut, where they lived for the next five years. Returning to Europe in 1955, the Simenons settled in Lausanne in a huge house, Epalinges, that was as ugly and clinically functional as a hospital. As the marriage disintegrated—Simenon carried on a long affair with a servant in the house—Denyse floundered into depression. In 1964 she left Epalinges for a real hospital.
Shortly afterward their daughter also entered into a course of psychiatric treatment, but to no avail, and in 1978 she killed herself. In a volume of his memoirs published in 1981, Simenon blamed Denyse for the girl's death, but Denyse had already made her case against her husband in an angry memoir of her own, Un Oiseau pour le chat (A Bird for the Cat), published the year their daughter died. It could all have been a plot for one of Simenon's novels, although he probably would have rejected it as too melodramatic.
PIETR-LE-LETTON (1930) THE first novel that Simenon published under his own name, introduced his best-known character, the pipe-smoking detective Inspector Maigret. Between 1930 and 1973, when he retired from fiction writing and devoted himself to dictating his memoirs, Simenon produced more than eighty Maigret novels. It is on these books that his fame chiefly rests—it has been calculated that half a billion "simenons," in fifty languages, have been sold; but his finest work is in the romans durs, or "hard" novels, three of the most striking of which have now been republished by New York Review Books.
The romans durs are extraordinary: tough, bleak, offhandedly violent, suffused with guilt and bitterness, redolent of place (Simenon is unsurpassed as a scene-setter), utterly unsentimental, frightening in the pitilessness of their gaze, yet wonderfully entertaining. They are also more philosophically profound than any of the fiction of Camus or Sartre, and far less self- conscious. This is existentialism with a backbone of tempered steel.
Dirty Snow is an astonishing work. Signed off at "Tucson (Arizona) 20 March 1948," it was published in that year in France as La Neige était sale and in 1951 in an English translation by Marc Romano and Louise Varèse. (It is this translation that New York Review Books has now issued in a new and heavily revised version.) Nasty, brutish, and not very long, the book presents a thoroughly Hobbesian view of life on this dwindling planet; here indeed is the war of all against all. The novel is set in an unnamed European city, most likely Lige, during the German occupation. Over the course of a seemingly interminable winter, Frank Friedmaier, the central character, turns nineteen. When we meet him he is standing at night in a snow-filled alley with a borrowed knife in his pocket, waiting in grim excitement to commit his first murder, a Gidean acte gratuit the gratuitousness of which would have shocked Gide himself.
Frank's victim is to be a "noncommissioned officer" known as the Eunuch, a member of the occupation forces. Frank has no particular reason to kill him; it is simply a rite of passage to be performed, a losing of virginity. For Frank, we are told, "it was a question of killing his first man and breaking in Kromer's Swedish knife." Frank is driven partly by a determination not to be outdone by his friend Kromer, who has already carried out a killing, described on the second page of the book. It is worth quoting this description at length, for even in translation it is richly representative of Simenon's brisk, sleek, and seemingly effortless style (or non-style), glassy-eyed in its impassivity and yet thoroughly, horribly compelling. Coming out of Timo's bar, the small- time hood Kromer is confronted by a "skinny little man, pale and feverish," with red hair, to whom apparently he sold something unsatisfactory and who now is seeking reparation. The little man grabs Kromer by the collar of his coat and begins yelling at him.
Kromer, in the middle of the dark alley between the two banks of snow, took the cigar out of his mouth with his left hand. He punched with his right, just once. Then two arms and two legs were in the air, just like a marionette, and then the black form sank down into the pile of snow along the sidewalk. The strangest thing was that there was an orange peel beside the head—something you probably wouldn't see anywhere in town except in front of Timo's.
Timo came out without his overcoat or cap, dressed just as he had been at the bar. He poked the marionette and stuck out his lower lip.
"He's had it," he growled. "In an hour he'll be stiff."
Had Kromer really killed the redhead with a single punch? That's what he wanted people to believe. The little runt wouldn't say one way or the other. At the suggestion of Timo, who wasted no time, he had been carried some two hundred yards away and dumped in the Old Basin, where the sewers drained and kept the water from freezing over.
So Kromer could claim he'd killed his man. Even if Timo was right, even if the marionette, which had had to be tossed into the air over a little brick wall, hadn't been quite dead.
Frank lives with his mother Lotte, who runs a brothel in their apartment. He does not know the identity of his father, but suspects that it is the police inspector, Hamling, a frequent visitor who acts, it is implied, as Lotte's protector in these dangerous times. But Frank has fixed on another and far more preferred father figure. He is Gerhardt Holst, his neighbor in the apartment building, an intellectual out of favor with the authorities who has been forced to take a job as a streetcar conductor. Holst makes only the most fleeting of appearances in the book, yet for Frank he is a presiding deity, at once remote and fascinating, an object almost of veneration. Holst passes by as Frank waits in the alley to commit his murder, and Frank wishes the older man might pause a moment and "see the thing done," for it seems to him that there is already a secret bond between the two of them, that "it was really as though he had just chosen Holst, as though he had always known that things would turn out this way, because he wouldn't have done it for anyone but the streetcar conductor."
Holst has a daughter, the innocent and pure-hearted Sissy, who falls in love with Frank, and whose love Frank repays by tricking her into sacrificing her virginity not to him, as she believes, but to Kromer, with whom he switches places in a darkened bedroom. Discovering how she has been betrayed, Sissy flees the house and almost perishes in the snow. Meanwhile Frank has killed again, in the course of robbing a cache of antique watches that will be sold to a German officer. Frank is at last picked up by the authorities, not for the killings he has committed, about which nobody seems to care in the least, but because of his tenuous connection with the German officer, who it turns out has paid for the watches with money stolen from official sources. Frank is suspect also owing to the fact that one of the girls working for his mother turns out to be a member of the resistance on the run.
These details are of scant interest to Frank. In imprisonment, interrogation, and torture he has found a sort of holy task, a ritualized process of atonement and even (although neither he nor Simenon would dream of using the word) redemption. As the days and weeks of his incarceration go on, he descends deep into himself. It is an existential journey, and along the way he comes to understand himself and the impossible predicament in which he is caught—not the predicament of being a prisoner but, on the contrary, of being free, the most burdensome state of all. What his interrogators require of him is reasons; did he do this because, did he do that because...? "There was no because. It was a word for fools." In reality, he sees, "he had resisted just to resist." At the end Holst and Sissy are allowed to visit him—perhaps in a devilish stratagem by the authorities to get Frank to confess. Sissy tells him, to his astonishment and joy, that she still loves him, but almost more important than her declaration of forgiveness is the moment when Holst "laid his hand on Frank's shoulder exactly as Frank had always known a father would." After that, death for Frank is a mere incidental, a supererogatory closure to a life already completed.
Dirty Snow is a bleak masterpiece, its darkness, as William T. Vollmann writes in a perceptive afterword, "as solid and heavy as the interior of a dwarf star." What Frank wants, Vollmann points out, is to be known: "He scarcely knows himself, or anything else worth knowing. But if he can somehow stand revealed to the gaze of the Other, then maybe he will achieve some sort of realization." What makes the book so harrowing is that at the culmination of this search for authenticity, despite Holst's paternal gesture and Sissy's vow of love—Vollmann suggests, and he is right, that the prison visit by Holst and Sissy is the one false note in the book—what Frank discovers is that even authenticity itself is no great thing, that in the end there is no because.
UNLIKE JOYCE, WHO boasted of being nowhere to be found in his work but is everywhere visible in it, Simenon really was a disinterested observer, standing apart from the world that he created, paring his fingernails. Still, in the atmosphere of Dirty Snow, sweaty and soiled and rife with insinuation, we might be permitted to detect a hint of the mauvaise conscience of a writer who lived in France contentedly enough through the occupation and at the war's end found himself accused of collaboration, so that, although the charges were eventually dropped, he had to flee to Canada, later moving on to the United States. In Trois chambres à Manhattan, first published in 1946 and now translated by Marc Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman as Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, the protagonist, Franois Combe, a famous Parisian actor in his late forties who has fled to America after a scandalous and shaming breakup with his actress wife, is a scarcely disguised self-portrait.
In a Manhattan bar, Combe encounters Kay Miller, a Viennese expatriate living in America pretty much by her wits, and falls for her altogether despite himself. "She smoked like American women—the same gestures, the same pouting lips you saw on magazine covers and in movies. She struck the same poses, too, shrugging her fur coat off her shoulders to reveal her black silk dress, crossing her long legs in their sheer stockings." Kay in her turn is undoubtedly a portrait of Denyse Ouimet. Through the bars and the night streets of the city, and the three bedrooms of the title—the first is in a cheap hotel, the second is Combe's rented bolt-hole, the third is Kay's room in her shared apartment—the two stumble over some serious emotional obstacles, including Combe's violent jealousy and Kay's emotional fecklessness, into a love that seems to leave Combe as much dismayed as happy. In her introduction, Joyce Carol Oates accepts the book as a fictionalized memoir, and sees Simenon, "master of irony ... overcome by wonder at what is happening to him, succumbing to romantic infatuation in jaded middle age."
The urge to flee life's embroilments and disappear into anonymity is an obsessively recurring theme in Simenon's work. Nowhere is it worked out more neatly and persuasively than in La Fuite de Monsieur Monde, published in 1952, and in English in 1967 as Monsieur Monde Vanishes, in a translation by Jean Stewart now republished by NYRB. Norbert Monde (Simenon had a wonderful way with names) is a cautiously successful Parisian businessman running the brokerage and export firm founded by his grandfather. On the morning of his forty-eighth birthday—the same age, not incidentally, as Franois Combe in Three Bedrooms, and as the writer himself just after his marriage to Ouimet—Monsieur Monde has his barber shave off his moustache, withdraws 300,000 francs from his bank account, exchanges his tailor-made suit for an anonymous secondhand outfit, and walks out of his life without a word to anyone.
Monsieur Monde's flight is not provoked by any grand crisis. True, his marriage is unhappy, his daughter is interested in him only for his money, he has had to come to the reluctant acknowledgment that his son is homosexual, and his work has ceased to engage him, if ever it did. But when he leaves it all behind he does not run so much as drift, "following a preordained plan, for which he was not responsible." He takes a train to Marseilles and checks into a featureless hotel, and in the morning half-wakes to find himself in tears, an "endless flow from some deep spring," and speaking to himself without moving his lips: "He was telling of his infinite aching weariness, which was due not to his journey in a train but to his long journey as a man." The state into which Monsieur Monde has fallen, or risen, is at once numbed and ecstatic. "He was lucid, not with an everyday lucidity, the sort one finds acceptable, but on the contrary the sort of which one subsequently feels ashamed, perhaps because it confers on supposedly commonplace things the grandeur ascribed to them by poetry and religion." The insinuation of shame here, utterly unexpected, utterly right, is pure Simenon.
In Marseilles, Monsieur Monde takes up with Julie, a nightclub performer—"and presently her lips stained the pallid tip of a cigarette with a vivid pink that was more sensuously feminine than a woman's blood"—and they travel together to Nice. No sooner have they arrived in that city than all of Monde's money is stolen. The ever-resourceful Julie at once finds jobs for them both at the Monico, a nightclub and rundown casino. It is at the Monico that Monsieur Monde re-encounters his first wife, Thérèse , whom he has not seen for eighteen years. Thérèse is, or was, a nymphomaniac, who kept obscene photographs in a secret drawer in her desk and "who had sought out their chauffeur in his attic bedroom and who, when he drove her into town, had him stop in front of dubious apartment houses." Now fallen on hard times, she is acting as companion to a rich old bag known as the Empress, a habitué of the Monico.
When the Empress unexpectedly dies, Monde is compelled to take responsibility for Thrse, who has become a drug addict. He returns with her to Paris, installs her in an apartment in the suburbs, instructs a doctor friend of his to supply her with whatever quantities of morphine she requires, and washes his hands of her. Then he calmly walks back into his old life, to the consternation of his wife, who during his absence had been happily settling into the position of rich widow:
She felt impelled to remark: "You haven't changed."
He replied, with that composure which he had brought back with him, and under which could be glimpsed a terrifying abyss: "Yes, I have."
That was all. He was relaxed. He was part of life, as flexible and fluid as life itself.
These three romans durs, and the ones that will follow them, including the insouciantly gruesome The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By, another tale of a husband on the run, and Tropic Moon, a frightening study of lust and violence in the Belgian Congo, are superb and polished works of art masquerading as pulp fiction. Gide, who admired Simenon, felt that he did not achieve his full potential as an artist, which may be true: if he had tackled his obsessiveness and found a way of slowing himself down, he might have written the leisurely and longfermented work that Gide apparently expected of him. But that book would not have been a "simenon," and it is in the "simenons," and most particularly in the romans durs, that Simenon displayed his prodigious, protean, and genuine genius.