Tag Archives: Simenon

Magnet of Doom by Simenon

Watching the films of Jean-Pierre Melville led me to Simenon’s novel, Magnet of Doom (The First-Born). Magnet of Doom is one of Simenon’s non-Inspector Maigret, Romans Durs (hard novels) so it’s highly recommended for noir fans. Melville’s version of the novel, a 1963 film called  L’Aine Des Ferchaux stars Jean-Paul Belmondo as Michel, a washed-up boxer who latches on to a disgraced millionaire. With murder charges and a subsequent scandal about to break, Ferchaux employs Michel as his personal secretary and together they flee France.  Melville’s film strands the two men in the American deep south, and the film is a sometimes peculiar reflection of Melville’s fascination with American culture. You can see the film and then read the book without spoiling either. You’ll recognize the basic raw material, but that’s as far as it goes.

l'aine de ferchauxOne of the frequent themes in the films of Melville is loyalty between men, so it should come as no surprise to Melville fans that Michel and Ferchaux develop an usual, and even unhealthy bond–you could apply the term ‘co-dependency’ here, but while Melville’s film is ultimately positive when it comes to analyzing the relationship between the aging millionaire and Michel, the Simenon novel on which the film is based is far darker. If there’s any truth to the idea that a relationship can be judged by the way it alters the people involved with each other, then the relationship between Simenon’s characters Ferchaux and Michel Maudet is toxic.

In the novel, Michel Maudet, the son of “small insolvent tradesfolk,” is desperate for work when he applies for the job as a secretary to the very wealthy Dieudonné Ferchaux. It’s rumoured that he’s a difficult employer and the number of secretaries he’s hired and fired in the recent past are proof that he’s not easy to please. Ferchaux isn’t at his home in the Rue des Chanoinesses–he’s retreated to the country, to his villa. Maudet leaves his long-suffering wife, Lina, alone in their bleak hotel room while he applies for the job, and when he learns that Ferchaux isn’t in Paris, he pursues him into the countryside stranding Lina with no money.

Maudet’s determination to get the job may seem normal, but it sets a precedent–at least as far as his priorities. Ferchaux quickly employs Maudet and the idea emerges that perhaps Ferchaux sees Maudet as a version of himself as a young man–hungry, ambitious, and eager to carve a place for himself in the world. But if Ferchaux feels this way, it certainly isn’t reflected in his initial  treatment of his new secretary who assumes the role of a possession rather than an employee who clocks off after a reasonable amount of time. Maudet, after overcoming his dismay at Ferchaux’s Spartan lifetstyle, admires his new employer and he absorbs his stories as if he might become more like Ferchaux through extended contact. While Maudet admires Ferchaux for his courage and the way he effortlessly flouts moral laws, he also envies the power and the fortune Ferchaux possesses. As their relationship continues, Ferchaux seems to envy Maudet’s youth, and there’s definitely a mutual predatory quality to their relationship–after all, each man possesses something the other man envies:

Ferchaux had his eye on him the whole day long, scanning him, watching for his reactions. Once he had said: “you’re impatient, aren’t you?”

There was no doubt what he meant. Impatient to live, impatient to taste and enjoy all that life had to offer. More than anything perhaps, impatient for power, impatient to get to the top.

“I’m still young,” he answered. “I’ve got time.”

Ferchaux had studied the boy’s pointed teeth, his nervous fingers, his sensitive nostrils. What was he feeling? Admiration, perhaps, and mixed with it, envy.

Wasn’t it his own portrait, his portrait at the age of twenty, that he contemplated in Maudet?

“Admit that if you had to do something a bit crooked to get your foot on the ladder … “

Even though Ferchaux is a phenomenally wealthy man, he has a stingy, mean side, and as the novel continues, it becomes clear that Ferchaux’s character was shaped in the Congo where he lived for over 40 years. Ferchaux may have been brutalized by spending most of his life in the Congo, but he is also one of the brutalizers. There are various stories circulating about his life there, and one of the uglier stories which includes murder of Congo natives is perfectly true–although, of course, Ferchaux has a different version of events. One of Maudet’s duties is to take dictation of Ferchaux’s memoirs, and in the beginning–the early days with Ferchaux, Maudet almost falls in love with his employer. Let’s say it’s a kind of homage, extreme admiration of a man who can command respect and put fear into the hearts of others. Maudet would like to be Ferchaux. There’s the underlying idea that a man like Maudet, a man with few principles to trouble his conscience, would also have thrived in the Congo and, just like Ferchaux, he would made a fortune on the blood on sweat of the natives. Dieudonné Ferchaux’s brother, Emile, also spent time in the Congo, but he minimized this period and got out as soon as he could. Emile lives a life of luxury with a chateau, a chauffeur driven car, wears expensive clothing, and mingles with the cream of French society. Dieudonné Ferchaux, on the other hand, nothing less than a bold unscrupulous adventurer who lost a leg in the Congo, has kept his rough edge, and rebuffs ‘the soft life.’

We could call the beginning of Maudet’s relationship with Ferchaux a honeymoon. After Lina reenters the picture to form an uneasy trio, there’s an emerging sense of jealousy, and she also senses a sort of “vicious” quality in Ferchaux’s attitude to Maudet. At first she doesn’t understand why Maudet admires Ferchaux–a man whose soiled reputation and crimes in the Congo have made headlines, but Maudet defends his choice:

“I’ve got a chance of entering into a world that was closed to me before, as it’s closed to most people. A world in which you juggle with millions–you call the tune and thousands of little people have to dance to it…”

Shortly the three characters-Ferchaux, Maudet and Lina go on the run. With 5 million francs in a suitcase, a large amount of money on deposit in a South American bank and a stash of diamonds, the plan is to live in exile in a godforsaken hole where French law cannot reach. Fate dogs our characters all the way from France to a South American hovel, and there the relationship between Ferchaux and Maudet simmers unhealthily as each man experiences a sick, growing dependence on the other and Maudet mingles with a strange crowd of ex-pats, prostitutes, rich, lonely socialites, and a seller of shrunken heads.

The book’s title, Magnet of Doom refers both to the relationship between the two men and to the idea that the conclusion is ominously unavoidable. In the Congo, Ferchaux did whatever he deemed necessary to bolster his success–he didn’t shrink from murder, torture, & there’s one great scene detailing the very deliberate humiliation of a groveling employee & his wife who’ve established a bourgeois “suburban villa” in the Congo. Morality is absent from Ferchaux’s mind, and so his actions are based on success and survival rather than any moral code. One of the issues between the two men is the question of whether or not Maudet is made of the same material:

“You see Maudet, the question you ask me is one to which no one has the right to answer…. A leopard doesn’t hesitate to jump over a paling, because it knows its strength. But when a jackal tries the same thing and gets caught on the pales….It’s not a pretty sight, that…. I’ve seen it….”

Clearly Maudet initially worships the much older man, but as his power wanes, so does Maudet’s admiration. It’s almost as if Maudet saps the strength from the other man, and perhaps some of this is a natural process. In these two men, however, a terrible and unhealthy dynamic exists with Ferchaux initially baiting Maudet  to see just how far he’ll go:

What Michel wanted to know and what he sought for in Ferchaux’s eyes was the answer to a question that was so vague and terrible, a question which he had never formulated, yet which both men understood, a question which could be summed up in the words: how far?

Translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury

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The Train by Simenon

“It was the hour of my meeting with Fate, the hour of an appointment which I had had a long time, which I had always had, with Fate.”

The Train, an excellent roman durs (hard novel) from Simenon, is another fine example of one of this author’s most frequent themes: escape. Simenon has an incredible ability to show how his male characters lead average lives of bourgeois conformity until routines and habits are derailed by fate. Some of Simenon’s male characters, uncoupled from the engine of industry, sink into crime or are drawn to the sordid underbelly of life. The male protagonist of The Train, however, simply steps away from his family for a moment and is literally caught up in an entirely different life.  Simenon shows us ten, twenty or even thirty years of the same life, the same routine, the same habits, and it only takes a moment to turn a corner into an entirely new life–one that seems to have been waiting, patiently, there in the shadows.

The Train is told by its thirty-two-year old protagonist, Marcel, a married man with one small child and a wife, Jeanne who’s 7 1/2 months pregnant. When the story begins, Marcel is reasonably well-set in life and freely admits that he “had become a happy man” who loves the life he’s established. He owns a small home and a modest electronics repair business. There’s the sense–that’s often in the background of Simenon’s romans durs–that Marcel hasn’t actively chosen the life in which he now finds himself. It’s just somehow happened. The novel opens with the invasion of Holland by the German army, and here’s Marcel’s reaction:

Straightaway, that particular morning, I realized that something was happening at last. I had never known the air so crowded. Whatever wavelength I picked, broadcasts were overlapping, voices, whistles, phrases in German, Dutch, English, and you could feel a sort of dramatic throbbing in the air.

Does Marcel feel a sense of excitement? Then later:

A month earlier, at the beginning of April, the 8th or 9th, my hopes had risen when the Germans had invaded Denmark and Norway.

Yes, it’s safe to say that Marcel does feel excitement–or at least a sense that change is on its way. To Marcel, whose poor eyesight negates the possibility of conscription, impending war represents a designated meeting:

This war, which had suddenly broken out after a year of spurious calm, was a personal matter between Fate and me.

Life changes dramatically and within just a few short hours Marcel’s wife decides that they must flee the area before the Germans arrive, and so Marcel, his heavily-pregnant wife, and highly nervous child take a train….

Since Marcel’s wife and child are the physical embodiments of his life and responsibilities, it’s perhaps inevitable, since this is a Simenon novel, that they become separated. It only takes a moment, and Marcel is left behind on a different part of the train.

Why does Marcel feel a sense of excitement about an impending invasion? Given that he and his family are fleeing from the German army, his reaction is a little odd, but Marcel has some hidden memories of what happened to his mother in WWI, and feels that fate awaits him once more in the form of an invading army. In many ways, war costs Marcel not only security, but also much more interestingly, identity:

I had just lost my roots. I was no longer Marcel Feron, radio engineer in a newish district of Fumay, not far from the Meuse, but one man among millions whom superior forces were going to toss about at will.

Simenon’s romans durs explore the way we are defined by our lives, and how once separated from familiar social environments, we can easily become completely different human beings. Of course when Simenon’s characters become criminals as in the marvellous novel, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, there’s the underlying idea that a respectable bourgeois life isn’t as much a choice as much as it is a lack of opportunity. In this story, however, Marcel is not the only man to leave his old life behind, and for those who take the train, societal expectations and polite behaviour rapidly fall away.

Marcel writes the story of what happened when he fled his home town near the Belgium border, but since he quickly becomes separated from his family, this is essentially his private, secret story, and one that he hopes to leave to his son:

Perhaps Jean-François will go on behaving as his mother and his schoolmasters teach him to and as I do more or less sincerely myself.

It is also possible that one day he may rebel against our ideas, our way of life, and try to be himself.

If Marcel’s time without his family was an attempt to “be himself” was he successful? Marcel’s account, he argues, is written as a way of “leaving my son another picture” of himself. He doesn’t want his son to think of his father as only “the shopkeeper and timid husband he had known, with no ambition beyond that of bringing up his children to the best of his ability and helping them to climb a small rung of the social ladder.”

Yet while the account of exactly what Marcel did in the war may shift his son’s perceptions of the life his father led, Marcel doesn’t seem to grasp–or at least acknowledge–that some of his behaviour–at the last–smacks of a failure of courage.

Simenon acknowledged that he used incidents from his real-life as creative springboards for his novels, so it should come as no surprise here that in WWI Simenon witnessed something that sounds rather similar to the incident involving Marcel’s mother. Also in WWII Simenon was living in La Rochelle when Belgium refugees began pouring over the border in May 1940, and the Belgium embassy asked Simenon to act as Commissioner for Belgian refugees. According to Patrick Marnham, Simenon’s biographer, Simenon claimed he was “responsible for 300,000 Belgian refugees,” so it’s easy to imagine that many of the scenes described by Marcel in The Train were witnessed by Simenon himself. 

Marnham goes on to say that many of the trains “had been moving for three weeks before reaching the city. Some had been machine-gunned or bombed  and were crowded with wounded or dying people.” Simenon set up a reception centre for the refugees–along with a camp where they could be fed, clothed and housed–and these details appear in The Train.

My copy of The Train (translated by Robert Baldick) came courtesy of netgalley and was read on my kindle. For this Simenon fan, it’s marvellous to see publishers taking interest in a writer who deserves much more critical acclaim than he’s received to date. But with Melville House Publishing and New York Review Classics reprinting Simenon, I can only think that new readers will discover this incredible author.

Max at Pechorin’s Journal also reviewed The Train, so for his review, go here. I liked it more than Max, but then I’m not rational about Simenon.

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George Simenon by David Carter (The Pocket Essential)

I’ve had a few comments lately about one or other of the Simenon reviews. For those who want to start getting seriously into Simenon, I recommend making the modest purchase of a slim, but invaluable paperback: George Simenon by David Carter (The Pocket Essential).

The author’s a huge Simenon fan, and he’s certainly done his research. The intro contains how his interest in Simenon started, a brief bio, and an article on the origins of Maigret. Then comes the invaluable info for the serious collector: Carter lists the Maigret novels and then the romans durs chronologically. Each entry includes a brief synopsis and a rating of the novel on a 5 point system. He includes the French title and then the various translated titles, and this is invaluable because when you go to buy out-of-print Simenon titles, it becomes very easy to buy duplicate copies of the same novel as there may be 3 or 4 titles given to the same book.

Also, Carter includes the contents of various Simenon omnibus editions, so this makes it possible for the collector to buy one omnibus edition that includes several titles–again that helps in the duplication and cost department.

Finally there’s two articles:  Simenon on film & Simenon on TV and Radio followed by a couple of pages of reference materials. So for all you Simenon fans out there, do yourself a favour, and if you plan to get seriously into Simenon, the best advice I can give is to use this wonderful little book as your guide. It’ll save you in the long run, and you’ll easily be able to keep track of which titles you’ve read and which ones you’d like to read.

And if you’re in the mood for a bio of this phenomenal author, try The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret by Patrick Marnham.

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Dirty Snow by Simenon

I’m glad I read Simenon’s Three Crimes and Patrick Marnham’s excellent biography of the author  before arriving at Dirty Snow. That’s not to say that you can’t read Dirty Snow on its own merit, but I arrived at the novel forearmed, and, as it turns out, forewarned.

Dirty Snow is the bleakest, darkest Simenon I’ve read so far. I’m not keeping count of how many I’ve read from this author’s dizzying body of work. If you’ve read any of my other posts on Simenon, you know that I’m trying to read my way through his Romans Durs. If I ever manage that, I’ll move on to the Maigret novels, but for now, I’m sticking to the Romans Durs–the so-called Hard Novels. This is no small task as Simenon’s biographer, Marnham even admits that there’s no firm count of Simenon’s books, but it’s fairly safe to say “He had written 193 novels under his own name and over 200 under eighteen pseudonyms.” I’ve read other counts that put Simenon’s novels (the ones he put his own name on) at around 250.

The German occupation of Belgium during WWI was a morally corrupting experience for Simenon and that sense seeps through his autobiographical novel Three Crimes. In this novel, we see a young Simenon running around with a gang of lowlifes and hanging out with an unsavoury crowd. Hyacinthe Danse, a bookseller who coerced underage girls into sex acts that took place at the back of his shop, was one of two of Simenon’s acquaintances who later turned to murder. Three Crimes gives the reader the sense that during the occupation, ‘normal’ rules of behaviour were suspended or warped, so we see ‘ordinary’ people committing crimes, and yet what are ‘crimes’ during a period of occupation? Was it a crime to rob or kill German soldiers? Well the answer to that depends on who you are talking to. Three Crimes effectively recreates a morally muddied period; it’s a marvellous novel, though not Simenon’s best.

Patrick Marnham’s biography explores just why Simenon felt that he was permanently marked by the occupation. Simenon’s mother, for example, rented rooms to lodgers, but when the source dried up during the occupation, she rented to Germans. The biography also details how Simenon & his mother smuggled food using a system in which Simenon turned on an annoying temper tantrum so that German soldiers wouldn’t search them. It’s clear that as a teenager Simenon absorbed the fact that morality was a matter of expediency. 

As an author, one of Simenon’s techniques (if that’s an appropriate word) was to use life experiences and then leap out from that point into fiction. So it’s no surprise that Dirty Snow is the story of a teenager during the WWII occupation.

The protagonist of the story is nineteen-year-old Frank Friedmaier. When the novel begins, Frank is a petty crook, a bully, and a pimp. Not that he’s reached these lofty heights on his own accord; his mother runs a prostitute or two out of their small apartment– an operation too smalltime a concern to be called a whorehouse. Frank picks up a girl, usually hungry and poor, lures her back to the apartment where she starts servicing a steady stream of male customers. If the mother-son team are on a roll, they will keep two girls–one of whom also cleans the apartment. Since the Friedmaiers don’t exactly have a stable of women, they need a frequent turnover so that the male customers don’t get bored. For this reason, girls are only kept for a few weeks before they are turfed out.  Frank notices that the girls become increasingly sloppy the longer they stay in the apartment:

It was always that way at first. They had to be tamed. In the beginning they didn’t touch a thing. They looked at a piece of sugar as though it was something precious. It was the same with the milk, with everything. And after a certain time they had to be sent away because they stole from the cupboards. Although, granted, they would have been sent away in any case.

Frank has nothing but contempt for the weak, the needy or the fearful, and since he’s surrounded by people who live in fear of being snatched up by the Germans, he grows to despise everyone around him:

From the very onset of the present situation–and he had been barely fifteen at the time–Frank had felt contempt for abject poverty and for those who submitted to it. It amounted to a revulsion, a sort of disgust, even for the girls, thin and pale, who came to his mother’s and threw themselves on their food. Some of them would weep with emotion, fill their plates, and then be unable to eat. 

The road where the streetcar ran was black and white, and the snow on it was filthier than anywhere else. As far as the eye could see it was transected by the streetcar rails, black and shining, curving together where the two lines met. The sky was low and not too bright, with a luminosity more depressing than any uniform gray. That whiteness, glaring, translucent, had something menacing about it, something absolute and eternal. Under it, colors became hard and mean, the brown or the dirty yellow of the houses, for example or the dark red of the streetcar that seemed to float in the air. And opposite Kamp’s , in front of the tripe seller’s, stretched a long ugly line of people waiting, the women in shawls and the little girls with their skinny legs stamping their wooden soles on the pavement, trying to keep warm.

When the novel begins, Frank has ‘lost’ his virginity (I loathe that phrase) and now contemplates “another loss of virginity,” and that translates to committing a murder. Frank lives in a world of women–women he can bully and rape without compunction, and as a result, he’s grown into a revolting little thug. He hangs out at Timo’s bar, a place full of lowlifes and criminals, and there he listens to stories of murder and rape. An early quote sets the tone for the novel; this is a society in which the old rules don’t apply, and people can commit crimes in new ways:

Everybody at Timo’s had killed at least one man–in the war or wherever. Perhaps by informing on someone, which was the simplest way. You didn’t even have to sign your name.

Frank’s role model is an older man named Kromer–a criminal who repeatedly brags about a woman he murdered. Kromer’s tales convince Frank that he needs to murder a man, and to Frank murder is the next necessary step in his life.

Frank commits his murder, and the crime leads to more depravity. With each incident, Frank appears to grow more calloused–even savagely betraying a young girl who lives in his apartment building. It’s as though he pushes through the limits of morality and feeling through his actions.

Dirty Snow is a splendid book; I’ll go as far as to say a masterpiece, but at the same time this is not a novel for everyone. It’s grim reading, dark and full of pure evil at some points. Frank is a petty, puffed up little bully who’s far too big for his boots. But it should be remembered that Frank is tough from bullying his mother and the starving girls he lures to his apartment. While he thinks he knows everything (and he is not unintelligent) in many ways, he is still a callow youth with no idea how things work. As a result he’s incautious.

At one point, Timo, the owner of the bar warns Frank not to flash his money around, and he tells the story of a German colonel, who after too much drink, became careless and allowed two women to pass his papers back and forth:

“And just then I saw a guy get up, someone I hadn’t even noticed, just an ordinary-looking guy, a civilian, like anybody you’d see in the street. He wasn’t even well dressed. He went over to the table and the colonel looked at him sort of startled, but still trying to smile. The other man said just one word, and I tell you, that officer got right up and stood at attention. He took his wallet from the women. He paid his check. You could see the starch go right out of him. He left the women there, without a word of explanation, and went out with the civilian.”

“What’s that got to do with me?” Frank mumbled.

“The next day he was seen at the station, headed for an unknown destination. That’s what I mean. Some of them seem powerful, and maybe for the moment they are. But they’re never–and don’t forget it–as powerful as they pretend, because no matter how powerful they are, there are always others who are more powerful still. And they’re the ones you never hear about.”

This is a story of moral degradation, but it is also a story of redemption. While Simenon glides through this complex spectrum, questions lurk beneath the surface. How much, for example, does Frank’s environment contribute to his corruption?When Frank shows incredible courage, has he become a ‘better’ person or is he merely unconcerned about his fate? Is his lack of concern about his life a continuation of the blunting of his emotions, or does Frank simply not want to become one of the weak he despises so much?

On a final note, I’ve always thought that an occupation would offer additional opportunities for criminals. I’m thinking of Doctor Petiot here. This translates to an interest in the activities of The Gang des Tractions Avant, The Bony-Lafont Gang, and especially Abel Danos (Le Mammouth), so if you know any good books on these subjects, recommend ‘em.

Dirty Snow is yet another marvellous reprint from New York Review Books Classics. Translated by Marc Romano and Louise Varèse.

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The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon by Patrick Marnham

For those who don’t know, I am a fan of the romans durs (hard novels) written by Belgium author, Georges Simenon. I may also be a fan of his Inspector Maigret novels, but it’s too early to say as I haven’t read any yet. I am still ploughing my way, slowly, through Simenon’s romans durs.

Out of curiosity, I picked up Patrick Marnham’s bio of Simenon–The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret: A Portrait of Georges Simenon. I often avoid reading biographies of authors as I don’t want the biographies to deter me from reading the novels. Authors aren’t perfect people, but sometimes knowing the details of an author’s private life can be a disillusioning experience. Tolstoy is a case in point.  How can someone write a novel as sensitive as Anna Karenina and then be such an arse at home. That’s a rhetorical question, of course,  but my point is that sometimes I’d rather not know about an author’s life. This brings me back to Marnham’s marvellous bio–a book that is so good, so insightful, that it’s sealed the decision that I need to overcome my qualms and read more bios of my favourite authors. Balzac & Zola…this means YOU.

Marnham’s book traces Simenon’s incredible life–from his childhood in Liege, through WWI, WWII, his years in America, his marriages, affairs, and, of course, his literary career. While Marnham obviously admires Simenon and appears to view him as a criminally underrated writer (we agree on that last one), Marnham maintains his objectivity and is also able to identity Simenon’s flaws and his personal demons. If I had to sum up Simenon, I’d say that he was a man who never did anything in moderation. During his lifetime:

He had written 193 novels under his own name and over 200 under eighteen pseudonyms. His world sales were said to be over 500 million copies in 55 languages, exceeded among writers of fiction only by Jules Verne and William Shakespeare, which made him the world’s best selling novelist. … He had taken less than two weeks to write most of his books and in the forty-four years up to 1972, when he retired from writing fiction, he had produced an average of four and five titles each year. … He had been married twice and had twice conducted lengthy affairs with his wives’ maid. He had been a devoted father of four children and had once sent his son 133 letters during a separation of three weeks. And as almost everyone knows, he once claimed to have made love to 10,000 women.

In writing this biography, Marnham had his work cut out for him. He states that Simenon’s “mastery of publicity”  made him a difficult subject–especially on the subject of his personal life:

Simenon wrote two autobiographical novels and four autobiographies, and after his retirement as a novelist [he] dictated twenty-one volumes of memoirs. But his autobiographical writings formed a complex web of fact and fantasy which he ended by partly believing himself. He once said that he found it difficult to tell the story of his early years “because we make up the memories of our childhood for the rest of our life, and we change them as we go along.” Certainly in his own case this was true.

Marnham painstakingly picks apart the fact from the elaborations. While some of Simenon’s versions of events can reasonably be explained away as the tricks of time, other versions–the story of the fate of Simenon’s brother, for example, cannot.  Simenon remained vague about his brother’s death, but the book reveals some of the shady details of Christian Simenon’s activities in WWII and his subsequent enlistment in the French Foreign Legion. While Simenon adored his father, he had a troubled relationship with his mother, yet in spite of the fact he avoided her for long periods of his life, he didn’t write for a year after her death. As can be expected with a man of Simenon’s temperament and his self-confessed “devouring need for women,” his domestic relationships were sometimes difficult. But this is all Simenon’s personal life–fascinating stuff but what of the writer? Marnham details Simenon’s incredible talent. As a child he exhibited an ability to write essays for his schoolmates with phenomenal speed. As a teenager, he mingled with criminals and narrowly escaped a life of crime. At 15, he landed a job as a journalist at the Gazette de Liege (several versions of how he got the job), got mixed up in a blackmail gig, and by the time he was barely an adult, he had throughly learned his trade as a journalist and the art of self-publicity. He was ready to move on.

Marnham covers Simenon’s progress as a writer, his typical working schedule, his elusive literary aspirations, and the central themes of his books. In 1928 alone, Simenon wrote 44 novels, so it’s no wonder that Simenon is frequently compared to Balzac. But apart from covering the details–which make rewarding information, Marnham also includes the far more complicated area of Simenon’s sources of inspiration.

While I can’t say that any part of this wonderful book was boring, the WWII years were of particular interest. Marnham describes Simenon’s life during this period, and this section of the novel explores the fine line artists sometimes trod when it came to collaboration with the Nazis. As a film fan, the information about the collapse of the French film industry and its cannibalization during Nazi occupation by Continental, the German production company makes for fascinating reading.

There’s a sense of doom and underlying sadness in these pages when Simenon meets Denyse in 1945, and the bio tends to speed up from there. To give credit to Marnham he gives Denyse’s view of the suicide of their daughter, Marie-Jo.

Marnham presents a portrait of a complicated man who never really overcame the profoundly corrupting experience of WWI, and Simenon emerges from these pages as complex human being who “acquired the habits of a man pursued.” As I read this biography’s exploration of various episodes in Simenon’s long life (1903-1989), I recognised plot elements from some of the novels: alcoholism, relationships between brothers, relationships between family members, nagging controlling wives, husbands who long to escape from their boring mundane lives, and middle class men whose lives of bourgeois correctness are derailed by fate. For fans of Simenon, The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret is highly recommended and is an invaluable companion book to Simenon’s work.

The book includes numerous photographs, a chronology of Simenon’s life, a map of Liege, a bibliography and an index.

 

Thank you, Mr. Marnham.

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The Brothers Rico by Simenon

Simenon is best remembered for his Inspector Maigret novels, but I am trying to work my way slowly through this prolific author’s more than 100 romans durs (hard novels). Although I am a rabid Simenon fan, I was a bit skeptical when I picked up The Brothers Rico as it’s atypical for its American setting and its focus on organised crime. 

Some of Simenon’s novels concern middle-class protagonists who are derailed by fate from their lives of boring bourgeois respectability. Cast adrift (sometimes physically, sometimes mentally), they frequently embark on a life of crime or sink into the bowels of a lurid underworld. These protagonists seem to be ‘nice’ respectable people simply because fate handed them certain cards, and some plots underscore the idea that these characters will take to a life of crime with zest if given the opportunity. So I was curious to see how Simenon wrote about characters who chose the Mafia as a way of life. What moral quibbling, I asked myself, could exist in these pages?

In The Brothers Rico, although the story is a change of pace for Simenon, the author makes it clear that he is the master of his multiple fictional worlds. This is a superb and deceptively simple novella that explores guilt, divided loyalties, the sticky depths of human behaviour, and the mercurial ability to lie to oneself.

The protagonist of The Brothers Rico is Eddie Rico. At 38, he’s the eldest of the three Rico boys, born and raised in Brooklyn by their widowed mother. Mamma Rico still lives in Brooklyn and runs a sweet shop. Years before, Eddie’s father was gunned down and killed by a bullet intended for Sid Kubik. Kubik is now a big man in the Organisation, and he’s acted as a benefactor to the Rico boys ever since they lost their father.

When the book begins, Eddie Rico is settled in Florida. He kids himself that he’s out of the Organisation, and while he’s out of the murkier side of their activities, in reality he manages their West Florida gambling operations. Eddie is a slick businessman. He’s never cheated, he’s never refused to do anything asked of him, and he’s been a good employee. In return, Eddie’s been amply rewarded. He has a  large house pretentiously called “Sea Breeze” located  “in the most fashionable part of Santa Clara between the lagoon and the sea.”  He runs a legitimate, profitable business, the West Coast Fruit Emporium. Eddie, called “boss”  by his employees and various tradesmen is a respected man, and he’s loved and cherished by his wife, Alice and three children. Eddie is a “fastidious man” and  he feeds his self-image by wearing only the most expensive clothes and pampering himself with twice weekly manicures and facial massages:

“He was no bigshot. he was never mentioned in the papers and only rarely talked about in the bars of New York, New Jersey or Chicago. But in his own territory he was boss. And every single night club paid up without a fuss.

None of them ever tried to welsh any more. He knew his figures too well. He never got mad, never uttered any threats. On the contrary, he always talked quietly, used as few words as possible, and everyone understood.”

There are vague rumblings that Eddie’s world is beginning to collapse. The book opens with blackbirds disturbing his sleep, and the very first warning comes that morning in a guarded letter from his mother. She wants to know if Eddie has seen either of his younger brothers, Gino or Tony. Gino is supposed to be in California, and Tony has simply disappeared. The letter hints that the whereabouts of the two youngest Rico brothers is connected to a Grand Jury investigation into the murder of underworld figure Carmine–a man who “stopped those five slugs of lead,” and Mamma Rico warns “there’s a rumour that someone’s been singing.”

Another event to break the pattern comes when Eddie gets the order to hide Brooklyn gangster, Curly Joe. Perhaps it’s not so odd that Eddie is asked to hide Joe, but it’s Joe’s derisive, disrespectful manner that begins to sound alarm bells in Eddie’s head. But the most alarming event in Eddie Rico’s day is the unannounced arrival of his brother, Gino. Gino tells Eddie that Tony has gone into hiding, swears the Organisation intends to kill Tony if they find him, and he asks Eddie to track Tony down and get him out of the country. Gino is evading the mob, and in his reluctance to trust Eddie, Gino is not particularly forthcoming with information. There’s a lingering suspicion between the brothers and Eddie’s first response is to curse his brothers’ stupidity:

Eddie hated talking about such things. It was all very remote now, almost in another world. Deep down, he would have preferred not knowing. It is always dangerous to know too much. Why hadn’t his brothers gotten out like he had?”

With Gino’s departure, a net begins to close slowly over Eddie. It’s quite clear to the reader that the net was firmly around Eddie all these years, yet he was either oblivious of its existence or happily in self-denial. First, he is summoned to Miami where he meets Sid Kubik and his henchman Boston Phil. While Kubik’s demeanour is the almost the same as usual, that veneer of affected emotional attachment slips when he asks Eddie about his brothers and asks him to track down Tony….

The story presents Eddie Rico as a confident man whose self-assurance is gradually stripped away as the story unfolds. Eddie’s day begins with his self-congratulatory routines, and the dark uneasy undercurrents in his life are assuaged by his material wealth and the respect of his employees. This all shifts, and under orders to find his brother Tony, Eddie begins the hunt, exploiting his mother, and breaking her trust. The Rico brothers find themselves in the deadly position of divided loyalty. Is their duty to the Mafia, the family or to themselves? While Tony makes his stand quite clear, Gino and Eddie make different choices. The book successfully builds with tension and also illustrates a growing paranoia in Eddie. As the net tightens, every move he makes is anticipated, and he’s shadowed every step of the way. This, of course, underscores one of Simenon’s themes–the inability to escape one’s fate–even though his characters all too often create cages of their own making. As Rico searches for Tony, he runs into many old friends and acquaintances. Do they treat him with veiled contempt or is it Rico’s imagination? Perhaps Rico’s greatest humiliation is that in spite of his intelligence, his years of faithful service, his square dealing with the Organisation, he is still a little man who’ll do what it takes to protect his own skin.

Of particular note is the motif of a  mole on Eddie’s face which is mentioned frequently in the novel. Its presence disturbs Eddie but he mostly ignores it except when he cuts it during shaving, but the mole troubles him, niggling away like a conscience–an unpleasant reminder of morality.

It’s worth noting that the females in the book are presented quite differently from their cinematic counterparts. In the book, Eddie Rico selects an Italian wife who will understand and ask no questions, but in the 1957 film version, his wife is a hysterical shrew. While Tony’s wife is made of steel, the cinematic version is a clingy woman who faints when the going gets tough. Similarly, Mamma Rico is a canny old woman who knows what’s going down in Brooklyn, but the film presents her as an emotional woman who turns to religion in between tears.

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Three Crimes by Simenon

“Is this where our taste for mystery and squalor comes from?”

Simenon is perhaps best remembered for his Maigret novels, but I prefer the edgy, darker realms of the romans durs (hard novels). I’d like to think that I will read everything Simenon wrote, but according to David Carter, who both translated and wrote the introduction to Three Crimes, this might be an impossible goal. Carter states in his first sentence that Simenon “acquired a reputation for excess,” and Carter gives credence to that reputation by listing some of sheer numbers attached to Simenon’s name: “sexual relations with about 10,000 women,” 19 Maigret novels “in the space of three years,”  “Twenty two volumes of memoirs,” and “scholars still argue about the precise number of books he wrote…at least 230 works in his own name … and a further 200 under various pseudonyms.”

Now I’m no longer sure that I will be able to read everything Simenon ever wrote, but I have a shelf full of unread romans durs ahead of me. And this brings me to Three Crimes–written in 1938, this is a must read for the Simenon fan. It’s not the best thing ever written by Simenon, and it’s certainly not his usual style, but it’s a really important novel for devotees of Simenon who’d perhaps like to gain some insight into what made this phenomenal writer tick. This new translation is dated 2006 and is published by Hesperus Press.

If you’ve read a few Simenon’s romans durs already then you’ve probably experienced that moment of putting aside the novel and wondering what sort of man created these devious little tales. Three Crimes goes a long way to answering that question. The book, which is nonfiction by the way, examines a fairly short period in Simenon’s life. According to Carter, Simenon “considered” the book to be a novel stressing that “nevertheless all the details in Three Crimes come directly from his own experience, including the names of all the characters. The work is novelistic, however, in its evocation and dramatisation of situations and events.”

Three Crimes takes place in Liege, Belgium, Simenon’s birthplace and it’s the story of crimes committed by people Simenon knew well. At 16, Simenon worked in a bookshop as a “colleague” of the unsavoury Hyacinthe Danse, an obese bookseller who “specialised in so-called saucy works” and who coerced under-age girls into sex acts at the back of his shop. Then, Simenon (still 16) became the youngest reporter on a local paper, and this job brought him into the company of fellow reporter, the dandy and pimp, Ferdinand Deblawue. Simenon and Deblawue later operated the small rag, Nanesse, and here Simenon unwittingly became an accessory to blackmail. A few years later, both the slovenly, perverted bookseller Danse and the vain Deblawue became murderers. The book isn’t a mystery–the murders are mentioned very quickly and then Simenon, always intrigued by “the why and the how” of crime goes back over time to detail the  events.

One argument Simenon includes in these pages is that war had a negative influence on the people who endured those years. I’d say that war offers situations for the opportunistic (I’m thinking Dr. Petoit here), and certainly Danse took every advantage of the war. Here’s Simenon talking about his childhood and the merging of crime and anti-German activities.

“They taught us to take advantage of shady corners, to live in the semi-darkness, to whisper. As we could not move around in the streets after such and such an hour of the night, we went to each other’s houses via the roofs, in the moonlight.”

Three Crimes is a strange book, and it goes a long way to explaining Simenon’s psychological make-up and his fascination with the criminal mind. He describes his early life in Liege and mentions Danse and Deblawue often, obviously looking for signs that he missed that these men would murder in the future. Similarities and differences between the two men and their lives are noted frequently. Of the two murderers in these pages, Danse is the most repulsive and the most dangerous. The lumpish Danse builds elaborate fictions about himself, and like a bloated cobra, he both fascinates and repels his victims and acquaintances.

The story has a fragmentary quality–almost as if Simenon jotted down notes with the intention of returning and refining those notes later. The writing is rife with exclamation points and ellipsis (which the translator purposely kept in order to remain faithful to Simenon), and these stylistic peculiarities emphasize  Simenon’s reaction to the events that took place. Simenon still very clearly has a sense of incredulity about what happened; not just that he knew these men–murderers in embryo, but that they committed crimes that included incredible luck. Simenon meditates on the question: “when was it he [Deblauwe] started to become a murderer?” Simenon still seems to feel a sense of shock–even years later, and this brings other issues to the fore–Who is capable of murder? Can we predict the course that leads to murder? These are issues that echo throughout his novels. And then there’s the issue of the victims…why do victims sometimes accompany their own murderer willingly, knowingly….

Now I’m using the ellipsis. It’s contagious.

Here’s Simenon noting the influence of the real-life crimes on his novels and the difference about the real crimes of Danse and Deblauwe and fictional crimes:

“The three crimes of my friends resemble all the crimes that I have related. Only, due to the fact that they are true, and that I know their perpetrators, it is possible for me to write: ‘He killed because…’

Because of nothing! Because of everything! At certain moments I think I understand everything and it seems to me that, in a few words, I will be able to…

But no! A moment later this truth that I touched upon almost vanishes into thin air and I see again a different Deblauwe, and a smiling plump Danse behind his counter, I hear a phrase…Or is it the characteristic lingering odour of the Fakir, which rises up in my throat and I think I am wandering under the lamps daubed with blue in the wartime.

It is impossible to relate truths in an orderly and clear way: they will always appear less plausible than a novel.”

The translator, David Carter argues that the title–Three Crimes–is misleading as it refers to four murders (two at one time counting as one incident). obviously Carter knows a lot more about Simenon than I do, but my interpretation of the title, Three Crimes is this: The three murders committed by Danse, the murder committed by Deblauwe, and the death of Little K. Simenon continually refers to the death of Little K throughout Three Crimes, and it’s an incident that both haunts and intrigues Simenon. On one level no punishable crime has been committed, but a man is dead due to the collective actions of others.

Three Crimes is so intriguing, I bought Simenon’s bio written by the translator David Carter, and I’m really looking forward to reading it. Anyway, if you’re a Simenon fan, then Three Crimes is highly recommended. It’s not his best, but it’s certainly one of his most fascinating.

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The Murderer by Simenon

“The longing of a middle aged man to kick over the traces , to break out of the rut.”

I first came across the novels of Belgium author Simenon a few years ago. I’d heard the name before but had never felt compelled to read any of his work. Then after reading a little background on this author, I suspected that I’d really enjoy his novels. Simenon is probably best remembered for his  Maigret series, but I am more interested in his Romans  Durs (literal translation=hard novels), which are mostly out-of-print. Considering how prolific Simenon was during his lifetime–producing nearly 200 novels and more than 150 novellas, it seems unlikely that I will ever read them all. Still I have a respectable number of Simenon novels on my shelf and from time to time, I am more than ready to sink into the dark world of the romans durs: the sleazy side of life, a bleak sordid world of violent, meaningless crime, inhabited by bored prostitutes, brutal pimps and the middle-class businessmen who stumble into their midst.

The Murderer is not Simenon’s best romans durs, but even so it contains some of the essential, satisfying elements. Set in Amsterdam, the novel’s protagonist is Dr. Hans Kuperus a middle-aged man who receives an anonymous note stating that his wife, Alice  is having an affair with the town’s most notorious bachelor, Herr de Schutter. At first Kuperus is stunned. Alice, at least on the surface, doesn’t seem the sort of woman who would engage in a love affair. She’s a plump woman who looks “like a bonbon. She was sugary to the core. She stuffed herself with pastries, and her skin was as pink as sugar icing. For a week at a stretch she could fuss and fiddle with samples before buying a new pair of curtains.”

When the novel begins, the doctor buys a gun and has a vague, ill-conceived plan to commit murder. Fate hands him an opportunity, and the crime is emotionless and startling in its swiftness. Then the novel concentrates on the aftermath….

Following the crime, Kuperus begins to undergo a transformation “as though the bonds that held him down to earth had suddenly snapped.” The small, gossipy town of Sneek rocks with the crime and Kuperus delivers a crafty, believable performance to his colleagues and friends at the local billiard club, but as time passes Kuperus becomes giddy with his success and begins to change his habits. Formerly a much loved town doctor, he imagines that people secretly fear him, and he begins abusing patients, drinks too much and scandalizes the town’s matrons with his behaviour. One of the most disturbing and blackly amusing parts of the book occurs when Kuperus realizes that he has killed Schutter not for cuckolding him, but because Schutter was elected as the president of the local billiard club–a position that Kuperus covets.

Simenon often explores the psyche of the middle-aged, boringly respectable bourgeois male unleashed by some bizarre twist of fate who then derails somewhere along the way to a passive, meek old age–Popinga  in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, for example. The underlying message in the case of Kuperus (and his fictional ilk) is that we are not ‘good’ or well-behaved as much by choice as by conditioning, and when Kuperus commits a heinous crime, he gets a taste of life without restrictions and goes wild with his perceived freedom.  These characters, such as Kuperus, startle with their seemingly inexplicable aberrant behaviour. Simenon creates worlds in which these characters don’t explode but simply, and silently change direction, and Kuperus is more intriguing and much more dangerous for the sea change that seems to be wrought from nothing whatsoever but begins when routine habits slip just a fraction….

What did it all amount to? That Kuperus was wrong. That he’d been wrong all his life. That he’d been led up the garden path–the straight and narrow path, into the bargain–and been led nowhere.”

 My edition of The Murderer is translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury.

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The Grandmother by Simenon

 “I’m not nice and I’m too old to start now.”

The Grandmother by Simenon focuses on the relationship between two women, an affluent young woman and her elderly grandmother. When the novel begins, Sophie Emel is living with her friend, Lelia in a large Parisian flat. A police superintendent with a rather sensitive problem contacts Sophie. It seems that fifteen years earlier, Sophie’s grandmother, Juliette, simply disappeared. At age sixty-five, she walked away, and there’s been no news of her since. But it seems that for this entire time, Juliette has actually been living nearby in a house that is about to be demolished. The old lady, now eighty, is the last tenant left, and although there are no utilities, she refuses to leave, threatening suicide if anyone tries to storm her tiny flat.

With no clear plan in mind Sophie agrees to try to persuade her tenacious grandmother to leave the depilated flat. To everyone’s surprise, Juliette agrees to leave, accepting Sophie’s offer to move into her flat. But almost immediately Sophie makes the offer, she begins to regret it.

A strange, creeping power struggle starts to take place within Sophie’s flat: “a complicated game full of subtleties and nuances.” The maid, Louise, who was at first hostile to Juliette’s presence shifts loyalties from Sophie to her grandmother, and even though Juliette occupies a tiny room in the flat, somehow Sophie feels stifled by the forced relationship. While Sophie has a horror of sharing her life with a man, she finds that she resents Juliette’s suffocating, constant presence.

Sophie leads a peculiar life. She’s a dilettante, a playgirl who largely avoids men and engages in thrill-seeking sports as a pastime. There are hints of lesbianism between Sophie and Lelia, and Juliette understands that her granddaughter tends to patronize a series of troubled young women, and ultimately flings them aside when their emotional baggage becomes too messy and complicated.

Sophie becomes obsessed with her grandmother, and she frequently attributes sinister motives to the grandmother’s simplest act. Are her suspicions correct? Is Juliette insane as the superintendent implies or is she just a lonely old lady? They are too much alike, and Juliette is capable of seeing and understanding the darkest corners of Sophie’s soul. Recognition of each other’s true characters make them both uncomfortable, and their domestic arrangement becomes increasingly impossible until it becomes obvious that something must change….

The Grandmother is perhaps one of the more puzzling Simenon novels I’ve read so far, and certainly not my favourite. But that said, I’m still mulling over some of the book’s implications. Georges Simenon is perhaps best known for his Maigret series, but The Grandmother is one of his psychological romans durs (hard novels).

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The Widow by Georges Simenon

“When he came out of prison, he had also gone to eat ice cream. They handed him some money, two hundred-odd francs–he did not know exactly why. He had taken a bus. He had slept in one town, then in another, he was committed to nothing, nothing he did possessed either weight or importance.”

George Simenon’s novel The Widow is the latest offering in NYRB’s Simenon revival, and for this fan, long may the reissues last. While this extremely prolific Belgium author who penned nearly 200 novels and over 150 novellas is perhaps best remembered for his Maigret detective books, the psychological complexities of Simenon’s disturbing romans durs (hard novels) should create a legion of devoted fans.

Many of Simenon’s romans durs focus on the lives of perfectly ordinary, conformist middle-aged males who one day abandon their bourgeois lifestyles for the darker side of life (Monsieur Monde Vanishes, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By). In the process, these characters discover that the lives they led were not a matter of choice–but a matter of conformity and conditioning. The protagonists sometimes embrace or at least experiment with danger after meeting an unorthodox male who introduces an escape route through a particular event (Red Lights, The Venice Train). The Widow  is an atypical romans durs as it presents a strong central female character–the middle-aged, stocky and domineering Tati Couderc who presides over a farm in the Bourbonnais region. Originally a servant girl, Tati married and outlived the farmer’s son, and then threw out his two sisters. While she controls the household, her father-in-law (referred to as “Old Trash”) still owns the farm. According to his displaced, resentful daughters, Tati takes advantage of their father’s creeping senility, but Tati is convinced he’s far more craftily cognizant of his situation than his daughters realize.

When The Widow  begins Tati is riding a country bus home from market when she spies a fellow passenger–a strapping young man named Jean–newly released from prison for murder. While the other passengers on the bus try to ignore this obvious outsider, the widow makes eye contact; something passes between Jean and Tati: “the two had recognized each other.” When Tati gets off at her stop, Jean follows. The widow precipitously employs Jean as a handyman, and he begins living in the house, performing various chores around the farm.

It’s just a matter of time before Tati and Jean begin a sexual liaison, but Tati makes it clear that she also has sex with her elderly father-in-law. Both men accept the fact that Tati periodically services them both–there’s no trace of jealousy, no hint of romance–just uncomplicated couplings based on proximity and need. Tati isn’t a sexy or attractive woman by any means–she’s dumpy, and while a ferocious housekeeper, her personal cleanliness leaves a great deal to be desired.

But while sexual relationships between Tati and the two men in her life are uncomplicated, volatile passions rage over questions of ownership and inheritance. At first the farm offers an idyllic refuge for Jean, but it soon becomes obvious that this seemingly peaceful setting is a nexus of simmering violence, greed and hatred. Jean, the outsider, fresh from prison and the scion of a very wealthy local family, becomes a catalyst for the explosive events that take place.

Paul Theroux’s excellent introduction analyzes the novel and also argues that Simenon is criminally overlooked by academia. And part of the explanation, argues Theroux, is that Simenon was so prolific that “his detractors put him down as a compulsive hack.” Still under appreciated today, many people have yet to discover Simenon’s bleak vision of despair, and that’s really incredible given the sheer number of Simenon novels transferred to the screen. If you’re curious, just visit the Internet Movie Data Base www.imdb.com  and search on Georges Simenon. Watch the list of credits appear; it’s impressive.

Theroux compares The Widow  favorably to Camus’ L’Etranger, and while I agree with his introduction, I would add that Simenon’s “implicitly existential novel” is also perfect noir fiction. Just consider the Sam Ross novel He Ran All the Way or Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice–novels that present protagonists trapped in a maze of despair and indifference from which there is no escape. In The Widow, Jean is an emotionally numbed drifter who arrives in a seemly idyllic spot only to see it morph into a personal hell. If character is fate, then conditions at the farm force Jean to confront his personal demons once again. His character led him to commit murder 5 years earlier, and the same pressures uncannily re-emerge–this time through an uneven and savage love triangle. Any reader of noir novels will appreciate Jean’s final acceptance of his inescapable fate: “He waited for what could not fail to happen.”

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