The Genius of Georges Simenon – continued

2

TheHangedManThe Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien, translated by Linda Coverdale and published by Penguin Books, features Simenon’s Inspector Maigret.  A Parisian detective who starred in an impressive seventy-five novels & twenty-eight short stories. Of the three Simenon books I’m reviewing The Hanged Man… is the most conventional – being a fairly straight forward detective novel.  In it the off-duty Inspector Maigret spots a suspicious looking man at the train station and decides, seemingly on a whim, to follow him.  He goes so far as to switch suitcases  (“the kind sold in any cheap store, made of cardboard treated to look like leather”), board the same train and check into an adjoining room at the same seedy boarding house. Maigret watches through a keyhole as the man opens the suitcase, realizes it isn’t his and hurries off to find it.

He rushed back to the station, losing his way, asking for directions ten times, blurting out over and over in such a strong accent that he could barely be understood: ‘Bahnhof?’

He was so upset that, to make himself better understood, he imitated the sound of a train!

He reached the station. He wandered in the vast hall, spotted a pile of luggage somewhere and stole up to it like a thief to make sure that his suitcase wasn’t there.

And he gave a start whenever someone went by with the same kind of suitcase.

Unsuccessful, the man returns to his hotel room and the Inspector resumes his keyhole stakeout. Only to watch in horror as the man pulls out a revolver and shoots himself in the head. Everything that follows is Maigret’s attempt to unravel why the man committed suicide – for which he understandably feels a measure of guilt. Beginning his investigation with  almost no information (an old, blood-stained suit and a false id) he sets off on a madcap chase, following the rapidly fading trail of a decade old murder from city to city, person to person – in a race against someone determined on making all the evidence disappear.

The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien is fast-paced and engrossing; written in short, choppy paragraphs and containing lots of dialogue.  The kind of book you read in one sitting.  Perhaps more shocking than the denouement is the discovery that the crime on which the novel’s plot hinges was based on an event from Simeon’s own life.

ThePresidentThe President, translated by Daphne Woodward and published as part of Melville House’s Neversink Library, is (again) entirely different. An aging French Premier – said to be based on Clemenceau – has retired to the Normandy coast.   He is one of the “five great men” of his generation, but at 82 the only one left for him to engage in battle is Death.  Until his final days are livened up by an unexpected and unhoped for diversion.  Someone has been rifling through his personal effects. This is the story of a man whose mind has lost none of its acuity but whose body betrays him.  And as the plot progresses it becomes clear that the mystery is less about who is searching than what has been hidden and why.  The Premier is guarding a piece of paper that could topple the new French government.

“At forty years old, or at fifty, he had still believed himself to be a good judge of men, and would pronounce his verdicts without hesitation or remorse. At the age of sixty he had already been less sure of himself, and now he did no more than grope in the dark for momentary truths.”

Simenon maintains a claustrophobic atmosphere throughout the novel, confining his hero in an isolated house and making him completely dependent on caretakers. For a good portion of the story a storm rages outside and the power is out.  Radio broadcasts report the news from Paris, also serving to spark the Premier’s memories. It is his last remaining link to the world he once dominated.  Does he still? Should he still?

Three books, three different premises, conjuring three entirely different moods.  Thus is the genius of Georges Simenon.  He is the rare mystery writer who doesn’t merely assemble a puzzle for his readers, he also dictates the psychology by which it must be solved. These mysteries – the tones of the stories and the perspectives of the characters – are so different that it’s hard to believe that they were written by the same man.  Yet despite each book having a different translator the writing style remains consistent and consistently good from one to another. The dialogue rings true. There’s the right balance of description and action. Beautiful phrases like “Today the dawn was colorless, sketched with white gouache and charcoal, and only the whiter glow of the thickening fog showed that the light was strengthening” are more striking because they are scarce.

It’s amazing, really, when you think about it.  The author of almost two hundred books avoids the formulaic.

Gore Vidal once said in an interview that he used to be a famous novelist.  But the category, he claimed, no longer existed. Perhaps that’s as much the fault of the novelists as the readers.  Today publishers demand writers engage with readers on social media, but no one seems to demand that they be interesting.  Newspapers – once a finishing school for writers – are disappearing.  Journalists – adrenaline junkies trained on how to spin a story – are going the way of the dodo.  Over the weekend I got into a brief discussion on the value of MFA programs.  They are everywhere these days, blanketing the literary landscape like Kudzu vine. But does theory really trump experience in the making of better writers?

The old saying goes “write what you know”.  That seems to have worked out amazingly well for Georges Simenon and his contemporaries – men and women who made it their mission to have something worth writing about.

 

The Genius of Georges Simenon – Part 1

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

1

TheStrangersIntheHouse

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.