“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.