Tag Archives: Belgium fiction

Monsieur: Jean-Philippe Toussaint

“Yes, Monsieur displayed in all things a listless drive.”

I’m not quite sure how I managed to have several titles from Belgium author Jean-Philippe Toussaint on my shelves, but Monsieur is the first I picked up to read. At 102 pages, this amusing tale is the story of a young executive in Paris whose private life places him in one sticky predicament after another. This is a light, airy tale dotted with absurdities and truisms, the story of a mediocre Everyman who slides by in life.

monsieur

The first thing that struck me about the protagonist is his anonymity. We know him as “Monsieur,” and when the story opens, he has a new job “on the sixteenth floor of the Leonardo da Vinci tower.” He’s a cog in the machine, but his job seems fairly useless:

Twice a week, a pile of newspapers and specialized economic and financial journals awaited Monsieur at the bottom of his in-tray. He took them into his office and read them over, leafing through them all, annotating certain articles with the fine point of his Rotring, cutting out others, which he kept in plastic folders.

Monsieur seems to have perfected the fine art of delineating being seen with not-being-seen. He joins in conversations, but in meetings he sits next to his supervisor, “scrupulously attentive to remain in line with her body, drawing back when she moved backwards, leaning forward when she moved forward, so as to be never too directly exposed.” He never seems to do much work, and his supervisor, Madame Dubois-Lacour comments, “you always seem to be bone idle,” but to her “this was the sign of the truly great worker.”

While Monsieur’s work life is stable and under control, it’s his personal life that needs reigning in. After he’s shoved by a man at a bus stop, he moves in, temporarily, with his fiancée and her parents, but after his romantic relationship goes south, he remains with his not-to-be in-laws who are too polite to tell him to move on. ….

From this moment, Monsieur’s life spirals out of control. One living arrangement after another finds him in various sticky predicaments as people expect favours, and Monsieur, naturally, is too polite to refuse. This is a man whose passivity results in some odd and funny situations, and yet, when it comes to his not-to-be future in-laws we see how passivity can also be passive-aggressive.

It’s easy to dismiss this novella as ‘fluffy’ but I have a feeling that if  when I read more Toussaint, I’ll pick up some prevailing themes.

Monsieur’s new apartment, which had three large rooms, was practically empty and smelled of paint. Only in his bedroom were there one or two pieces of furniture and a few camping chairs. All the other rooms were empty, with the exception of the entrance, where he had put his suitcases, as well as two boxes of magazines and a portable typewriter. Since the previous day Monsieur hadn’t touched or unpacked a thing. He sat in his bedroom, the light out, in a reclining chair. Dressed in a grey suit, a white shirt and a dark tie that everyone envied him, he listened to the radio and touched himself all over his body, his cheeks, or his sex, coolly, at random, but no comfort, really, came to him from having himself permanently at hand. 

Translated by John Lambert

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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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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 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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The Bells of Bicetre by Simenon

“For Rene Maugras, dates and times of day did not exist, and only later on was problem of elapsed time to trouble him. He was still sunk at the bottom of a pit as dark as the abyss of ocean, deprived of contact with the outside world. He did not realize that his right arm had begun to twitch spasmodically, or that each time he breathed out his cheek puffed up in a ridiculous way.”

Simenon’s novel The Bells of Bicetre is the story of Rene Maugras, a prominent Parisian newspaper publisher who suffers a stroke at age 54 and is subsequently hospitalized. Told in the third person, the novel begins with Maugras waking up in hospital after suffering a humiliating collapse in the bathroom of a swanky restaurant.

The Bells of Bicetre follows the progress of Maugras as he regains consciousness only to discover that he’s suffered a stroke that has left him paralyzed on one side of his body. Affluent and influential, Maugras has a private room in Bicetre Hospital and he’s tended by his friend, Dr. Pierre Besson d’Argoulet. The novel explores Maugras’ depression and his feelings of humiliation as his bodily needs are taken care of by total strangers. In spite of the fact he is paralyzed and unable to speak, Maugras develops a different relationship with each of his three nurses. While he’s sexually attracted to the earthy night nurse, Josefa, he becomes possessive of the elegant day nurse, Blanche. But it’s Angele, the coarse Sunday replacement who harasses him out of his stupor and drags him back into the world of the living.

As the days progress and Maugras improves, he feels mesmerized by the church bells that remind him of his childhood and his long-dead mother. Paralyzed and unable to communicate, Maugras finds his mind focusing on certain pivotal, central moments in his life–his love affairs, his friendships and his marriage. Trapped in a hospital bed, he analyzes his bizarre married life with the much younger, unstable, and self-focused Lina.

While I can’t say that The Bells of Bicetre is by any means my favorite Simenon novel, it’s certainly a change of pace. Simenon, an extremely prolific Belgium writer penned nearly 200 novels and over 150 novellas during the span of his long career. Best remembered for his series of Maigret detective novels, I prefer Simenon’s romans durs (hard novels) for their bleak, noir outlook. Nonetheless, The Bells of Bicetre told mainly from the mental meanderings of a stroke patient is testament to Simenon’s skill as a writer.

The Bells of Bicetre doesn’t seem to fit into the romans durs category, but it’s certainly a fascinating read. There’s little interaction between Maugras and his various caretakers and relatively little conversation. The novel is basically a record of Maugras’ painful recovery and his thoughts as he lays helpless in bed. Here he’s finally forced to examine the intimacies of a life he’s largely managed to avoid by concentrating on superficialities and his driving ambition:

“He felt no bitterness. And if he pursued his self-analysis he would discover that he felt no regrets. On the contrary! Deliberately he recalled his previous way of life, up till that last Tuesday morning, and he was surprised at having led such a life, at having attached any importance to it, at having played a game that now struck him as puerile.”

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The Venice Train by Simenon

 “I know what happens to men once they’re on their own.”

In Simenon’s novel The Venice Train, middle-aged, portly Justin Calmar returns home to Paris from his annual holiday in Venice, leaving his wife and two children behind to spend a last few days on the beach. On the train, he shares a compartment with a mysterious man who questions him intensely about his life and routine. Calmar finds himself answering all the stranger’s questions, even though he has the feeling that he’s being cross-examined. He’s basically too weak-willed to object to the stranger’s continued scrutiny, and he also considers it a matter of pride to be “honest” when it comes to answering a series of probing questions.

The stranger asks Calmar for a favour, and before he grasps the peculiarities and dangers of the request, Calmar finds himself agreeing to deliver an attaché case to an address in Lausanne. Suddenly, Calmar, a mild-mannered man who’s led a life of boring, predictable respectability, is up to his neck in intrigue and murder. Finding himself in possession of a fortune, Calmar tries to return to his regular routine. But the fact that he has a fortune, and that other people–perhaps even people capable of murder–are searching for the money in his possession–makes Calmar a nervous wreck. He is a changed man.

While Calmar is plagued with nervous obsession about the money, he vaguely and dully grasps some aspects of his life that escaped him before. With the sudden need to keep secrets and avoid his wife’s observations, Calmar develops a hidden life that revolves around stashing his stolen money. Everyone in Calmar’s life realizes that he hasn’t been the same since returning from Venice, but people draw different conclusions about these changes.

While Belgium-born Simenon is best known for his Maigret novels, he also wrote many romans durs (hard novels). The Venice Train falls into this category. One popular theme in these psychological novels is to explore what happens to a man when some event, some quirk of fate reveals the seamy underbelly of life. In The Venice Train, for example, Calmar becomes a criminal without ever intending to be one. He simply takes one wrong step, makes one wrong decision, and from that point on, his life is never the same. Calmar “had a vague admiration for people who were tough, who didn’t need anyone else, who required no rules, who didn’t smile when they were spoken to, who remained themselves at all times, without caring what others thought of them.” And this admiration of a different sort of man is partially responsible for Calmar’s problems. Calmar is a man who’s never examined his life or the decisions he’s made. In some ways he’s simply drifted along the path of least resistance–even marrying a workmate’s discarded mistress at one point. A creature of obedience and conformity, Calmar is easily manipulated by the stranger on the train, and he finds himself agreeing to participate in some very suspicious activity rather than refuse and risk offending the stranger.

As usual, Simenon reveals some fascinating aspects of human nature in the novel. Calmar isn’t a ‘good’ man–he’s simply a conformist trained to obey societal rules. Presented with a questionable, possibly criminal situation, Calmar’s conditioning to conform even overrides common sense and self-preservation. Calmar’s conditioning, which substitutes for morality plunges him into an abyss from which there is only one way to escape….

This novel raises the spectre of choice and ‘freedom.’ Just how free are we to chose our paths in life? Or are we just conditioned to be drones? And what happens to one of these drones (Calmar in this case), when another person who’s outside of the bounds and confining restraints of society reveals another way of living? If you enjoy The Venice Train, then I also recommend Red Lights–another Simenon novel that deals with an unhappy married man who takes a walk on the wild side.

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Striptease by Simenon

“Did he realize that he was making a fool of himself? He thought he’d put his ‘mark’ on the new girl, to use his phrase, but in fact it was she who had out her mark so oddly on him.”

Simenon’s novel Striptease concerns the lives of four strippers who work in the seedy Cannes nightclub, Monico. The nightclub isn’t exactly the sort of place we tend to conjure up when we think of the Riviera, and its patrons, for the most part, are the less well-heeled visitors to the resort. The Monico is owned and operated by the middle-aged husband-and-wife team Monsieur Leon and Madame Florence. Leon, an ex-convict and ex-pimp quickly establishes sexual dominance with any new stripper by claiming sex as a ‘right’–something that goes right along with employment. Madame Florence, a former prostitute, now turning to fat, chooses to runs a blind eye to these liaisons. To her these encounters between Leon and the strippers are brief, meaningless, and expected.

When the book begins, the Monico employs four striptease ‘artistes.’ They are a sad lot. One girl has problems keeping clean, another one is fat and unattractive. Natasha, a statuesque girl holds herself a little aloof from the dingy aspects of the Monico. Celita, now 32 years old, and Leon’s current interest is determined to oust Florence and take over the management of the nightclub. Enter Maud–a fresh young girl–just nineteen–who has ambitions, it seems, to become a striptease artist.

Maud’s arrival on the scene has terrible ramifications on the staff of the Monico, and exactly what occurs is the heart of this wonderfully dark novel from Simenon. Belgium-born Simenon, an extremely prolific writer who penned almost 200 novels and over 150 novellas is best known for his Maigret novels. But he also wrote many romans durs (hard novels). These psychologically complex novels are great favorites of mine, and once you start reading Simenon, you are likely to get hooked.

The world of Simenon’s romans durs novels is an ugly place, and this holds true for Striptease. The Monico’s four strippers are in a desperately vulnerable position, but they don’t seem to see that, and they certainly don’t acknowledge it. Night after night, wearing torn and faded costumes they perform their pathetic, amateurish routines. In between stripping for the customers, they serve as dance hostesses, racking up drink bills on the customers’ tabs. And then when the club closes, the strippers assume their final roles for the night and prostitute themselves to earn a few extra francs between paychecks. The strippers are just one step away from becoming streetwalkers, and it’s the seediness of the Monico that allows them to pretend they have careers and that prostitution is a minor aspect of their lives. In reality, they became prostitutes the moment they were employed by Leon, and he became their pimp, rapidly establishing his sexual dominance and ownership.

Celita is not a particularly sympathetic character, but then none of the characters in these pages are sympathetic or even likeable. These are people who just want to survive and improve their circumstances in the process if they can. In Celita’s case, she eyes Florence’s superior position behind the cash register, and decides to take her place. Florence is middle-aged, fat and unattractive, so Celita thinks it’s perfectly natural for Leon to give Florence the old heave-ho. Florence is quite aware that her husband’s usual fleeting sexual encounter with each girl has extended, in Celita’s case, to a full blown affair. For this reason, she hates Celita. But when Maud appears on the scene, the new girl becomes a threat to both women….

In this novel, Simenon establishes himself as a master of atmosphere as he creates the tawdry world within the nightclub, and as the light fades, The Monico comes to life. Its employees eagerly capture and draw in stray tourists, and once inside, the dimmed lights, candles and alcohol disguise the squalor and dinginess of this third-rate club. The novel includes some unforgettable characters–Emile whose job it is to hustle suckers inside the Monico, and the enigmatic customer who is interested in Celita because she has “all the vices.”

As with most of Simenon’s novels, Striptease is long out-of-print–although the NYRB has republished a few titles in recent months. Can we expect to see a Simenon revival? I certainly hope so.

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Red Lights by Georges Simenon

“She needed a lesson.”

The characters in Simenon’s romans durs always make me think of rats stuck in traps of their own making. Steve and Nancy Hogan in Red Lights experience a nightmarish event that is entirely avoidable–but in a sense it’s also the natural consequence of the domestic politics of their strained marriage. It’s the beginning of the Labour Day weekend, and Steve and Nancy meet in a small New York bar that’s close to both of their offices. The plan is that they will drive to their Long Island home, grab a suitcase and then pick up their two children from summer camp in Maine. Well … that’s the plan, but the evening starts out in an ominous fashion as Steve chugs back alcohol while the television announcer makes dire predictions about the number of highway deaths that will occur over the course of the weekend.

A few drinks later, Steve and Nancy hit the road–with Steve stopping at bars every few miles. Steve and Nancy have been mildly irritated with each other all evening, but soon the tension in the car mounts in proportion to Steve’s alcohol consumption. Steve’s drinking always brings out resentments towards his wife–resentments that he feels he can’t express when sober. He finds Nancy too “perfect” and secretly hopes she gets a “good dose of the humility she so badly needed.” With an air of defiance, Steve stops at a remote, seedy bar, and Nancy threatens to leave. Steve pockets the ignition key and attracted to the flashing neon lights, he enters the bar. When he returns to the car, Nancy has disappeared ….

One of the main complaints Steve has about Nancy is the fact that she “always stayed on the rails.” But when Steve and Nancy each step outside of their nice middle class lives they meet violence and terror. Exactly what happens to Steve and Nancy unfolds in this suspenseful, mesmerizing thriller. Simenon maintains an emotional distance from his characters and creates an atmosphere that resonates with ominous overtones. If you enjoy the book, I highly recommend the film version Red Lights from French director Cedric Kahn.

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The Man Who Watched Trains Go By by Georges Simenon

“The impossible suddenly breaches the dykes of everyday life.”

Kees Popinga is a respectable middle-aged Dutch businessman who works in the office of a major shipping company. Popinga is extremely smug about his boringly predictable life and is particularly proud of his material possessions–“the best that money can buy.” One evening, chance intervenes in Popinga’s life, and he sees his employer Julius de Coster inside a bar getting drunk.

In a few startling minutes, Popinga learns that the company he works for is bankrupt, and that his boss is about to abscond with what’s left of the money. Popinga’s boss urges his employee to do the same. Stunned, Popinga returns home and goes to bed.

Whatever motivating factors have kept Popinga on the straight and narrow are suddenly absent. At first, he takes to his bed and refuses to leave, but then he develops a plan of escape, and abandoning his family, he goes to Paris. Popinga steps out of his respectable businessman skin and soon goes underground in the criminal underbelly of Paris. Amongst the fences, thieves and prostitutes of Paris, Popinga tries to lose himself, and discovers that in this fringe society, he is easily accepted. He masquerades with the “new personalities people kept finding for him.”

The Man Who Watched Trains Go By follows the adventures of Popinga as he eventually becomes an internationally sought murderer. Author Simenon keeps his usual clinical distance from his characters, yet at the same time enters the mind of the deranged, egomaniac Popinga. By revealing Popinga’s innermost private thoughts and fantasies through a series of hilarious letters sent to the newspapers telling ‘his side’ of events, Simenon creates a masterful, fascinating portrait and case study of a true psychopath. Simenon keeps tight control of his text while exploring the bizarre cat-and mouse game Kees plays with the Parisian detective hot on his tail. As Popinga tries to evade the police, episodes from his past reveal odd traits of behaviour that explain his sudden moral derailment. Popinga’s predicament and his grandiose perception of his brilliance merge in this novel to create a surprising, delightfully ironic and darkly humourous tone that remains to the very last page. I have read a number of Simenon novels, and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By is one of the best ones I’ve read so far.

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