Title: The Strangers In the House
Translator: Geoffrey Sainsbury, with revisions by David Watson & others
Publisher: New York Review Books, New York
ISBN: 978 1 59017 194 3
Title: The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien
Translator: Linda Coverdale
Publisher: Penguin Books, London
ISBN: 978 0 141 39345 2
Title: The President
Translator: Daphne Woodward
Publisher: Melville House Publishing, Brooklyn
ISBN: 978 1 935554 62 2
Remember when being a writer was a glamorous business? Bloomsbury, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Gide, the Algonquin Round Table, Kingsley Amis, the Surrealists & Oulipo, the Beats… in between the books they had affairs, friendships & fallings-out, drowned in cascades of alcohol, found time to create intellectual movements and still attend wild parties. Even Salinger, who publicly claimed to stop writing books, managed to make moving to New England and refusing to talk to anyone seem interesting. These days, only Kardashians get to be glamorous. The world has changed.
Example: The most exciting thing on Jonathan Franzen’s Wikipedia page is the theft of his eyeglasses.
Georges Simenon was one of those writers who knew how to live. Belgian, born 1902, he began his career as a journalist. He associated with artists and anarchists, met at least two future murderers, eventually married and moved to Paris with his wife, Tigy. There, he became a familiar feature at the city’s nightclubs – rumored to have had an affair with Josephine Baker. After discovering on assignment that he enjoyed boating he had one built and moved his family on board. He corresponded with Gide and Henry Miller. Throughout his life he traveled the world – sending back reports to the newspapers. During WW2 he was both suspected of being Jewish by the Gestapo and accused of being a Nazi collaborator by his neighbors. Which may or may not have prompted his move to America for 10 years (supposedly to avoid questioning). He had affairs with not one, but two housekeepers. His wife left him only after finding out about the second one (the first, called Boule, traveled with the couple for years as a member of the family even after her ongoing affair with Simenon was discovered). His daughter tragically committed suicide at the age of 25. He eventually died in Switzerland in 1988 at the age of 86. And all the while he found the time to write – often under pseudonyms – almost 200 novels and numerous shorter pieces.
Now that’s a Wikipedia page!
Have you read Simenon? Faulkner, Camus, P.D. James, Muriel Spark, Peter Ackroyd, Anita Brookner, John Banville and John Le Carre have. To name a few. They are/were all fans. Ostensibly, he wrote mysteries and thrillers, but a different variety of mystery and thriller than modern readers are used to. His books were written in a time before every killer was a sociopath and every crime scene was staged like an art installation.
The Strangers In the House, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury and published by New York Review Books, features a hero whose physical appearance is among the most repulsive in the history of mystery writing. Hector Loursat comes from an old, well-respected and wealthy family. Reclusive, misanthropic, alcoholic – eighteen years before the events in the book his wife ran off with her lover leaving behind their two-year old daughter. A child Loursat suspects might not be his. In response he has sequestered himself to three rooms of the family mansion and allowed the remaining structure to disintegrate around him. He has been known to sporadically leave the haze of cigarette smoke, burgundy and filth in which he exists to practice the law. Loursat is a bit of a legend in the courtrooms of Moulins. Considered brutally intelligent and a keen judge of human nature – a great lawyer when he chooses to put on his robes. But that is seldom and his long isolation has made him uncomfortable and unable to interact meaningfully with those around him. Until he discovers a dead man in an upstairs room of the house.
‘… He said it again: “He must be dead.”
And then, more naturally: “Who is he?”
He wasn’t drunk. As a matter of fact he never was, whatever people might say. As the day wore on, his whole being seemed to become rather ponderous, his head especially, and his thoughts lost their outlines. They were strung together by a thread that was not that of everyday logic. Sometimes he would come out with a few words grunted under his breath, the only indications of what was going on inside his head.
Nicole gazed at him in a sort of stupor, as though the extraordinary thing that night was not the revolver shot, the lamp left burning on the second floor, the stranger dying in the bed, but this man, her father, who stood there before her calm and weighty.’
It’s difficult to decide whether it was the body or learning that a group of young people (among them his daughter) have been using his home as a a meeting place for months without his being aware – but the circumstances result in his immersing himself in the world again. Enough, at least, to take on the defense of his daughter’s young lover. The story of the murder unfolds slowly and methodically. These days we forget that most murders are committed for fairly mundane reasons and are solved through plodding investigation. That most murderers are not serial killers or criminal masterminds. Loursat is no Sherlock Holmes. He questions everyone who might have information on what took place in the days leading up to the murder and pieces together the story of what happened from the information he gleans. The Strangers In the House is an honest, if cynical, examination of the way human relationships work. And when it’s over you are sad. Sad because you’ve finished the only novel Simenon wrote featuring Hector Loursat – a hero you will find yourself wanting more of.
This seems to be a hallmark of Simenon’s novels (or at least the three I’ve read). Heroes who are men of gravity and weight (both literally and figuratively); men closer to the end of their lives than the beginning. Who, despite their outward similarities, live vastly different lives and operate under very different psychologies.
*Part 2 of this review will be posted tomorrow.