Tag Archives: Biography

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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A glimpse of Peter the Great from Henri Troyat

I came across a section in Henri Troyat’s bio Peter the Great today, and it gave me such a good laugh, I decided to include it here.

 In 1698, Peter the Great sailed to England for “advanced studies in shipbuilding.” Once in England, the Tsar and his entourage moved to a house near the shipyards that was owned by John Evelyn. Three months later, John Evelyn went back to his house and was “horrified” by what he saw:

“The doors and windows had been taken down and burned, the hangings had been torn down or soiled with vomit and spit, precious parquet floorboards were smashed to pieces, masterpieces of painting were riddled with bullets (every portrait having served as a target), and flowerbeds were trampled as if a regiment had camped in the garden.”

I wonder if the neighbours complained?

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Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus by Laurence Kelly

‘You have not even started talking to him,’ wrote one acquaintance, ‘but he has already seen through you; he notices everything; his glance is heavy and it is tiring to feel this gaze upon oneself. His presence was unpleasant for the first minutes. But at the same time I understand the only reason for such a strong effect was only mere curiosity … this man never listens to what you are telling him; he is listening to you yourself, and is observing you. You remain an exterior force in his life, having no right to change anything in it.’

At the end of 2009, I realised that I hadn’t read much non-fiction during the year, and I decided to remedy this in 2010. What better subject than Lermontov? Especially since it was a 2010 goal to reread A Hero of Our Time. I’d been looking for an excuse to reread it, and I hoped that reading a bio would give me a bit more insight into Lermontov’s wonderful novel. And so I turned to Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus by Laurence Kelly.

Lermontov cuts a romantic but tragic figure whose brief but brilliant life ended in a duel at the age of 26. When I first read A Hero of Our Time, I was struck with a terrific sense of loss–loss on a selfish level (no more novels to read), but the loss too for Russian literature. Then on top of that I was struck by some rather eerie similarities about the novel and the life of its author. While some of this would be expected (Lermontov was a young man who, after all,  incorporated his experiences into his novel), other aspects cannot be so easily explained away. For example, Pechorin in A Hero of Our Time fights a duel outside of Pyatigorsk, and it’s here that Lermontov met his death. There are some slim but still uncanny similarities between Pechorin’s enemy Grushnitski and Lermontov’s opponent Martynov. Grushnitski, who is a figure of fun for Pechorin, falls in love and tries to impress Princess Mary. The real-life Martynov went around in “Circassian dress and wearing an enormous dagger,” trying to impress women and becoming the target for Lermontov’s ridicule instead.

Laurence’s book, Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus begins with descriptions of Lermontov’s parents, Mariya Arseniyeva who in 1812 married a feckless neighbour Captain Yuri Lermontov against her mother’s wishes. The instincts of Lermontov’s grandmother, Madame Arseniyeva,  were correct. After marriage, Captain Lermontov rapidly turned to the “traditional distractions of serf girls and drink,” and his wife died of consumption in 1817.  This left Lermontov, an infant, born in 1814, in the dubious care of his father. At this point, Madame Arseniyeva made her son-in-law an offer: she demanded custody of her grandson, and if Captain Lermontov refused, her considerable estate would pass to “her Stolyin relations.” If Captain Lermontov agreed, then his son would be the sole heir to his grandmother’s estate. Madame Arseniyeva, a woman who played to win, had experienced marital problems of her own, and in this instance, she held all the cards (her son-in-law owed her money), and so little Mikhail Lermontov “entered, at the age of three, the gilded and luxurious cage lovingly prepared for him by his grandmother.

The author details “three expeditions” undertaken by Lermontov and his grandmother to the Caucasus. These occurred when Lermontov was three, five and ten years old, and these expeditions (you have to read the details to realise the appropriateness of the author’s choice of word) were pivotal experiences and represented exciting unforgettable months which later found their way into Lermontov’s poetry. Already  “The Caucasus had become for him a temple of liberty.”

In 1825, the Decembrists failed in their coup attempt. Lermontov was 12 at the time, and two of his grandmother’s brothers had close friendships with two of the Decembrists who were executed by hanging. The Decembrists were to have a profound influence on Lermontov–especially when he found himself exiled in the Caucasus a few years later. By 15, Lermontov was attending a school for the “children of the aristocracy” in Moscow, and it’s here that Lermontov first fell foul of Tsar Nicholas I. Nicholas viewed the pupils as “potential germ carriers of liberal contraband.” And the Tsar’s visit provoked Lermontov to write poetry that was definitely anti-tsarist and ‘treasonous.’ This was the beginning of a pattern of behaviour and also the beginning of the adversarial relationship between Nicholas and Lermontov.

Kelly argues that Lermontov was in spirit, a  “Decembrist without December.” While Lermontov wasn’t vehemently opposed to serfdom, he held several “dangerous” attitudes–attitudes that he shared with the Decembrists and attitudes which were the root cause of exile (Yermolov is mentioned as an example). Kelly does an excellent job of outlining the poisonous system of censorship within Russia, and the key players within the system–Count Benckendorff & General Dubbelt.  Censorship and any hint of so-called “shameless free-thinking” raised the ire of both the Tsar and his censors–after all, one of the Decembrists’ goals was for freedom from censorship. After the Decembrists were either executed or sent into exile, censorship was enforced with new gusto. When Lermontov wrote “The Death of a Poet” after Pushkin’s death as the result of a duel, the poem eventually found its way into the Tsar’s hands. Nicholas decided that Lermontov should be “inspected” in order to ascertain “if he is demented.” Lermontov, a military officer, was put under house arrest and then exiled for the first time.

Lermontov’s first exile was fairly brief and evidently it was supposed to be a lesson in how to conform. Lermontov either didn’t learn that lesson–or refused to learn it (I argue the latter). It’s a very bizarre thing that Nicholas loved sending off those who offended him into exile, and yet very often those sent away found far more freedom in the destination that was supposed to be a punishment. In the Caucasus, Lermontov mingled with others in exile and he socialised with some of the surviving Decembrists.

Lermontov was soon pardoned and made his way back to St Petersburg–all in all he was gone less than a year. He was still a military officer, but found time to complete A Hero of Our Time. Here’s a nasty little excerpt of a quote from Nicholas I on the novel:

“I have now read and finished the ‘Hero’. I find the second volume odious and quite worthy to be fashionable [a la mode] as it is the same gallery of despicable, exaggerated characters that one finds in fashionable foreign novels. It is such novels that debauch morals and distort character, and whilst one hears such caterwauling with disgust, it always leaves one painfully half-convinced that the world is only composed of such people whose best actions apparently are inspired only by abominable or impure motives….I therefore repeat my view that the author suffers from a most depraved spirit, and his talents are pathetic.”

Reading the Tsar’s opinion is chilling. This is a man whose limitless power crushed and destroyed those who displeased him. And Lermontov displeased him very much.

Back in military life in St Petersburg, it was just  matter of time before Lermontov fell in disgrace once again. Excerpts from his letters show a bitter despair combined with a sense of suffocation. Kelly systematically lists the events that led to Lermontov’s second exile: his appearance on parade with a toy sword, his membership in the “Circle of Sixteen,” the Empress’s “weakness” for flirtation, and Lermontov’s duel with the son of an ambassador. Lermontov was arrested for this duel, sent to the guard-house and ordered back to the Caucasus. The Tsar wrote a nasty little note titled “Bon Voyage a M. Lermontov” and Kelly argues that the Tsar’s intention was that Lermontov’s spirit be broken by assigning him to the boring mundane assignment of training–not that he be killed by being sent to the front lines. While the Tsar understood what made Lermontov tick and evidently knew that boredom could destroy him, he completely underestimated Lermontov’s self-destructive streak and his sheer refusal to bow to the Tsar’s authority. Once out in the Caucasus again, Lermontov went wild and by pulling strings, he participated in a number of daring campaigns. Lermontov basically rewrote his assignment thus effectively thwarting the will of the Tsar. After being nominated by medals by his commanding officers, he returned on leave to St Petersburg, and here perhaps Lermontov finally understood that the damage was irreversible. The Tsar was furious that Lermontov’s exile–which was supposed to be a humiliating experience–had been converted into heroism. Lermontov was turned down for medals and returning to the Caucasus, he managed to get diverted to the spa town of Pyatigorsk….

Kelly’s book pays marvellous attention to the work of Lermontov, connecting strands in the poetry, plays and novel with real life incidents. However, there are some frustrating gaps. At one point, for example, the book mentions that Lermontov suffered from arthritis as he had badly crushed knees from an accident that had happened years before. This was only mentioned as an explanation for some of his health problems, and I would have preferred this sort of detail to appear in the chronology of Lermontov’s life. But the book does give a marvelous sense of who Lermontov was–his sense of humour, his friendships, his melancholy streak, his despair and his self-destructive urges.

Kelly details Lermontov’s early relationship with the woman who was arguably the love of the poet’s life–Varvara Lopukhina. They met as teenagers and apparently Lermontov was devastated when she later married a much older man. She was the inspiration for some of Lermontov’s early poems and paintings. The book also outlines the versions of the quarrel with Martynov and also versions of the duel, and there’s a great index included along with illustrations. Basically if you are interested in Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time or just Russian literature in general, Kelly’s book is highly recommended.

On a final note, after my initial reading of  A Hero of Our Time I felt as though I’d been cheated by Lermontov’s early death. Now after reading Kelly’s book, I also feel anger that he was tossed away by a Tsar so controlling and dictatorial that Lermontov, a man whose work the Tsar purported to despise, was in reality so threatened by this painfully young writer’s talent that he attempted to silence him.

Here’s a short poem written by Lermontov as he left Russia for the last time:

Farewell, unwashed Russia

Land of slaves, land of lords,

And you blue uniforms,

And you submissive hordes.

Perhaps beyond Caucasian peaks,

I’ll find a peace from tears,

From Tsars’ all seeing eyes,

From their all hearing ears.

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Not Simply Divine by Bernard Jay

“I’m less trashy than I used to be.”

After reading Francis Milstead’s delightful biography, My Son, Divine, my attention was drawn to the biography Not Simply Divine, written by Divine’s personal manager, Bernard Jay. I read many reviews of Jay’s book, and Francis Milstead also referred to the book with a hint of negativity. As a Divine fan, I wanted to read the book and gain my own opinion.

Bernard Jay became Divine’s (Glenn Milstead) manager in 1977 until Divine’s sudden death in 1988. Not Simply Divine provides Divine fans with details of Divine’s film roles, recording career, and disco engagements, and Mr Jay, in his introduction writes that this is a “warts and all” portrayal of the star. Jay explains that he is aware Divine is often shown to be a “selfish and insensitive person,” and he contends the book is a honest portrayal of the Divine he knew. The book includes scanty details of Divine’s life prior to Bernard Jay (reasonably enough), and for the details of Divine’s childhood and teen years, fans must read My Son, Divine, written by Glenn’s mum.

Bernard Jay had a somewhat turbulent relationship with Divine. Obviously, Mr Jay believed, ultimately, in Divine’s potential for stardom–after all–he committed to Divine’s career–but managing Divine was not an easy job. Jay and Divine agreed that their mutual goal was to alter the perception that Glenn was simply a drag queen, and establish Glenn as a character actor–whose most successful character was Divine. Jay’s task was fraught with problems–for starters, Divine didn’t earn enough money to warrant the entourage who accompanied him on tour. It was even questionable that Divine’s income warranted a personal manager (whose only client was Divine). Bernard Jay’s attitude to his subject is problematic–at times he is extremely complimentary–extolling Divine’s work ethic, charisma, and talent, but at other times, Jay sneaks in a snide comment–and one example is Jay’s description of Glenn eating “feverishly.”

Divine is no longer here to defend himself, but this is one case in which being maligned in print after death, backfires, and the negative comments about Divine reflect badly on the author. I can’t imagine that anyone other than a Divine fan would buy this book, and so Jay created an interesting dilemma in writing a book that includes several rather negative comments about Divine–that will, it is hoped, sell to Divine fans. I have no difficulty accepting that Divine was a flawed human being, but the glimpses of revulsion Jay shows for his subject are quite gratuitous.

However, on the plus side, the book, Not Simply Divine, filled in many of the gaps and detailed Divine’s career. As a result, at the end of the book, I was not shocked by Divine’s flaws–in fact I had even more respect for this hard-working actor who kept going in spite of the fact that he suffered many set-backs in his career (including never receiving adequate compensation from several record labels).

I think a Divine fan can read My Son, Divine, and have a fairly good idea about Divine–his career and the flawed human being that he was, but Not Simply Divine is an essential supplementary book–especially if you want specific details about Divine’s career. BUT, the reader should be aware that there are several very unpleasant and negative comments made by Mr Jay (and I’m not talking about the fact that Divine was a compulsive spender)–the comments that I found a bit much were cruel and gratuitous. But consider the source–Bernard Jay’s star slipped away just as he was about to prove that Jay’s faith was warranted. Jay was left the rather thankless job of mopping up the financial mess left after Divine’s death, organizing an auction of Divine’s belongings,and paying off the IRS.

This is a well-written book, and I enjoyed it–although I do wish that Mr Jay had been a little more forgiving with some of his nastier comments, and although there really weren’t that many nasty comments (and once unleashed, they seemed to arrive on a page in waves), this would have been a better book without the nastiness, and I’d hazard a guess that the book would have enjoyed more success.

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