Tag Archives: Simenon

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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Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In by Georges Simenon

“The implication was that Charles Dupeux was the sort of man who might do anything.”

In Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In from author Simenon, mild-mannered accountant Charles Dupeux returns home one day, and much to the astonishment of his wife and daughters, instead of keeping to the routine of joining everyone for the evening meal, he wordlessly retreats to the attic and locks himself in. While Charles’s plump wife, Laurence can’t understand her husband’s actions, she chalks it up to some idiosyncrasy on his part. Their daughters Lulu, Camille and Mauricette are too involved with their own illicit love affairs to be concerned. But when Charles’s self-imposed isolation continues, Laurence begins to wonder if Charles’s behaviour may be rooted in something more than peevish whim.

Charles’s wealthy, unpleasant boss, brother-in-law and business owner Henri Dionnet enters the drama. A cold, harsh and cruel man, it seems somewhat out of character for Henri to become involved or concerned about anyone else’s discomfort. Henri, called to assist in the dilemma, reacts with a surprising amount of emotion. Just what secret exists between these two men is at the heart of this dark novel.

Belgium-born Simenon wrote almost 200 novels and over 15 novellas in his lifetime. Best known for his Maigret novels, Simenon also wrote a substantial number of romans durs (hard novels) known for their psychological complexity. Whereas in some of these novels, he explores the fallout of a man who simply leaves his life of routine and conformity behind (The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, Monsieur Monde Vanishes), in Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In, the protagonist does not leave home and instead we discover the dark corners of his character through his domestic and employment experiences. Locked in the attic, in self-imposed isolation, Charles Dupeux gathers his thoughts and also learns his daughters’ secrets.

Dark and unrelenting in its outlook on domestic life, Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In, presents a portrait of a raucous, extended family. Diverse, strong personalities clash at every family gathering. One wife is locked up for her drunken scenes, and various ne-er-do well relatives posture and preen in front of a captive, familial audience. But more than anything else, Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In dissects the nature of power.

Those of us who love Simenon’s romans durs should enjoy this title. Uncle Charles Has Locked Himself In was a very quick read, but in spite of that, this perceptive novella reveals layers of human psychology. Charles Dupeux has spent a lifetime as a powerless individual. Unappreciated by his wife and family, treated with contempt by his employer Henri, Charles grasps, without hesitation an opportunity to turn the tables on his boss. Once he has power over Henri, Charles doesn’t have any particular direction for his revenge, but he proceeds to explore the boundaries of his new-found power, relishing every exquisite sensation of “pure joy” until one evening….

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Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Georges Simenon

“Weren’t they starting from scratch anyway?”

Loneliness and despair are the core themes at the heart of the novella Three Bedrooms in Manhattan by Simenon. Francois Combe is a French actor who left Paris abruptly after his wife, a successful actress, left him for another actor half his age. He’s living alone in a dirty, untidy New York apartment. One evening, the routine and predictable sounds from the neighbours next door, send him out on the streets. He ends up in a bar, and there he meets a 33-year-old woman named Kay. Francois notices her immediately on the next bar stool, and “what he really liked about her were the signs of wear and tear.” She’s homeless and just as lonely and desperate as he is. After more than a few drinks, they check into a cheap hotel. This is the beginning of an affair that is based in mutual need. Both Francois and Kay need somebody–anybody–and it just so happens that they meet and connect.

The interesting thing about the story is the way in which the relationship is encapsulated within 150 plus pages. Francois and Kay immediately latch onto one another, and by the next day, they are already curiously dependant. Francois can’t bear to be parted from Kay, and she worries that he’ll never come back. Relationships always go through phases, and Francois and Kay’s relationship moves rapidly through each of these phases–the glow of the honeymoon period, the possessive phase, the disapproval of a friend–all the way to disillusion and moving apart towards self-protection.

On the unpleasant side, neither Francois nor Kay are interesting or nice people. They are overwhelming desperate, and this desperation oozes into all aspects of their relationship. Kay constantly plays the same old sad songs on the jukebox, and she “seemed to be seeking out the despair of others.” Francois treats Kay rather brutally at one point, and she just absorbs it. They quickly establish a routine together–they get up around noon, walk around the city, and drink at numerous bars along the way. This gets old, and caused me to feel a general lack of interest in the characters or the outcome. The two characters remain somewhat cold and remote in the middle of all this misguided passion. This is not my favourite Simenon.

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Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon

“There are things in life that sometimes you just have to do.”

Simenon’s novel Tropic Moon examines colonialism and how it corrupts those who wield the power–in this case the French residents in West Africa. Simenon presents a world of “ethical blankness” centered around a small town ironically named Libreville. A young, naive Frenchman, Joseph Timor begins to feel a vague disquiet when he arrives in the sweltering African heat. He’s supposed to take up a position stuck in the middle of the jungle at a merchandising outpost. When he arrives, Timor learns that the man he is supposed to replace has gone bonkers and is threatening to shot his replacement if one shows up. If this isn’t bad enough, the boat necessary to take him to the outpost is broken, so in the meantime, Timor heads to the town’s only hotel–the Central–until the boat is fixed.

Socially and culturally, Timor is unprepared for the Central Hotel and its inhabitants. It’s the local hangout for all the bachelors, and Timor soon discovers why when he meets the hotel owner’s notorious wife, Adele. Both Adele and her husband were white slavers in France who were sent in exile. While Timor is at first shocked to see how the French abuse the native population, a combination of constant whisky and Adele’s occasional nocturnal visit to his room soon conquer any scruples he once had. Unfortunately, Timor is too innocent to realize that Adele’s way of welcoming Frenchmen to West Africa is just another means of adding them to her coterie of followers.

As Timor’s code of ethics is washed away by the whisky he imbibes and by the knickerless Adele, he gradually becomes immured by the morals of the colonialists. He becomes disinhibited, and events that would have shocked him just days earlier soon seem perfectly normal and acceptable. When the murder of a young black man occurs, Timor sinks further and further into a moral quagmire until it’s almost too late.

Written in a minimalist style, Simenon doesn’t focus on the psychology of his characters–rather the emphasis is on the gradual desensitization of Timor to colonialism. Timor begins by noting with horror the social and cultural behaviours of the unleashed French, but a few bottles of whisky later, he’s joining in. Things he would have refused to do when he arrived, he grabs with gusto as his morality erodes. Simenon maintains a distance from his characters by not exploring their motivations, and this serves to illustrate that colonialism becomes almost an instinctive reaction for those who embrace its corrupting tentacles.

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Monsieur Monde Vanishes by Georges Simenon

“Nothing lay behind him anymore: nothing lay before him as yet. He was in space.”

Norbert Monde is a responsible, successful Parisian businessman, but on his 48th birthday, he withdraws 300,000 francs from the bank and simply disappears. While his unpleasant wife descends on the police station, he takes a train to Marseilles and quickly becomes absorbed into a new life. Oddly enough, while many people would take the money and whoop it up somewhere glamorous, Monde becomes involved in a tawdry domestic drama.

Author Simenon (author of the Maigret series) subtly explores the possibilities and realities of escape through his protagonist’s adventures. Monde’s desire to simply step out of his life into another is traced back to a childhood memory. He’s always picked up the slack left by the irresponsible behaviour of other people in his life, and then a simple trigger causes him to drop the burden of his old life with its accompanying heavy responsibilities. As Monde escapes, he asks himself, “Was life beginning at last?” But as the saying goes: ‘wherever you go, there you are,’ and Monde is still essentially respectable and responsible no matter the circumstances. He can dump his bourgeoisie life, but he can’t step out of his skin, and so some patterns of behaviour are humorously repetitive.

Monde possesses striking emotional detachment from the drama that surrounds him, but at the same time the novel emphasizes sensory and tactile sensations. Exiled from the cushion of an upper-middle class existence, the odours of poverty assault Monde’s nostrils almost immediately. Stimuli from various sensations flood into Monde’s consciousness and his responses seem to be the only signs that he’s functioning emotionally. A lifetime habit of allowing others to dictate his life has blunted his feelings to the point that they hardly exist. To some, this means he’s a pushover, but Monde finally discovers long-buried resources of determination. In the seedy hotels and bars of Marseilles and Nice, Monde has an unexpected opportunity to resolve some old business and regain his humanity in the process. Monsieur Monde Vanishes is a dark novel certain to please Simenon fans.

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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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