Three stars here, as a split-decision, averaging two two-star works and two four-star ones.
This is an American Simenon compilation, consisting of four...moreThree stars here, as a split-decision, averaging two two-star works and two four-star ones.
This is an American Simenon compilation, consisting of four stories from Simenon's stay in the U.S. in the 1950s. In all of the novels we have the pure-vanilla Life magazine backdrop of fifties Americana -- but also an undercurrent of something poisonously bad trickling down the backstreets.
Two are pretty much misfires, at least to this reader. The Brothers Rico is an attempt at a Mafia pulp mashup that just doesn't read true in our era, although probably wasn't too shabby in 1954. The other is a kind of experiment with true crime, and looks at a serial-spree Charles Starkweather sort of affair, treated fictionally, called The Watchmaker Of Everton. The author's twist on things is that the account is to be told from the meekly quiet point of view of the gunman's father. It's a better title than it is a story; everything conspires toward the obvious, and for too long.
That covers the bad news. The other two novels here are top-shelf, pantheon romans dur, invested with all the normal-gone-surly that Simenon can summon : first is the beautifully compact Belle, a cautionary tale of little-town pettiness and a man who gets drawn into a conflict with himself. The second is Simenon's nasty holiday-vacation story, a superb psychological novel of a little getaway drive up the East Coast, called Red Lights.
* Worth noting that 'American Omnibus' calls Red Lights by the title The Hitchhiker, which later editions, perhaps noting the presence of way too many H's for one word, have revised to a direct translation of Simenon's original Feux Rouges. Almost needless to say, I'd skip the Omnibus and go for the NYRB edition which has an interesting introduction by Anita Brookner. Belle will be harder to find. (less)
It sometimes happens that a man at home moves about the house, goes through familiar motions, everyday motions, his expression unguarded, and, suddenly raising his eyes, he notices that the curtains have not been drawn and that people are watching him from outside.
"Belle" fits into the revitalized, refocused, Simenon-In-Exile period of the mid-fifties, the years in America that recharged his vision and distilled his ideas of the psychological novel. What is equally important is that it is near the top of the list, a peer to the likes of Three Bedrooms In Manhattan and Red Lights. Most readers will find interestingly similar concerns, continuing motiefs that are threaded through this era.
We find Simenon still pursuing the distracted Bourgeois Man, always a step or a reflex away from walking out of his middle-class environs .. This is the same man that he often documented in his European books, but now with a once-removed, refracted quality, the disenfranchised outlook of the exile who is resigned to any world that will accept him. Nearly.
What tends to go along with this loosely-connected status, this feeling of detachment from a banal society -- is a quick and unforeseen reversal of fortune, a glancing intrusion of something violent or just coarse and brutal-- that takes our antihero unaware. What could not have been predicted is that the violence or brutality resonates with something already present in our lead character, a foreign and confusing influence that somehow hits home just perfectly.
It is as if this contact with something pathological and infernal has triggered a recalibration, a new outlook for the ordinary, meek everyman who always avoided "trouble". A look behind the curtain of respectability, maybe no more than a glimpse, that changes everything.
From there we have guilt without crime, a man falsely suspected, a sense of doubt where once there was lax certainty. A whole range of paranoid, Hitchcockian emotions that must now play out. And Simenon, we know, has no mercy. If the greeks were known to set fate against their protagonist, Monsieur Simenon will certainly follow through, and bring it down around his head. (less)
This novel required no research. He nevertheless made a brief trip to Paris to pick up the scent of the neighborhood, wandering through the streets at nightfall, climbing stairways, walking through hallways outside attic rooms. Simenon needed these snapshots to recover the neighborhood's atmosphere and its light, the dreamlike light that dazzled his hero...
Hard to dislike this as a biography of a very difficult man, a peculiar sort of writer, and no doubt a fairly prickly individual. For some reason that combination of elements doesn't sound like this was a simple project to construct. There are two aspects of this biography that are important throughout: Simenon's tendency to lie outright when it suited him, and the unique position of the Inspector Maigret novels, which GS regarded as bridges between serious writing, the work that paid the tab for the interesting excursions.
Assouline early on sets the reader on the right track by letting him know that Simenon cannot be trusted; anything that is to follow must be judged, graded, inspected for the curve that Simenon liked to introduce into his own story. A strange dissonance there, considering that in his fiction, GS was committed to removing the unnecessary, the ornamental, the filigree; but for his own story, the facts would often be reassembled and author Assouline lets us know. Typical: That is his story. But is it history? There were no other witnesses, but a careful study of Simenon's multiple versions of this incident, recounted in many interviews, turns up a few false notes... The Simenon reader is inclined not to care, but is grateful for the tip.
"I'll manufacture Fords for a while until enough money comes in. Then I'll make Rolls-Royces for pleasure." Georges Simenon
In a more difficult vein, you have to get thru the whole biography to realize that not only Simenon but Assouline too basically disregard the internationally famous novels GS wrote featuring Inspector Maigret. If by chance you came to this bio as a Maigret fan, you would be sorely disappointed by the content. The Maigret books were a means to an end, suggests Simenon outright; they paved the way for the hard novels, the romans dur that are his real and substantial achievement. I have to agree, but they were also the foundation of a framework for writing, an outlook that persisted into the novels.
"A suicide will cost me two hundred thousand readers; what I need is a murder."Jean Provoust, Simenon's editor at Paris-Soir
What we've got, in overview, is former altar-boy Simenon rising thru the ranks of Belgian tabloid journalism, (where he gets a good glimpse of police methodology in passing), his golden years in Paris in the bohemian demimonde as he cultivates his pulp & detective technique, the money years where travel and barging on the back rivers of northern France become his delight, the war and his quasi-collaboration with the Vichy authorities, and a surprising period of exile in the United States. On his return, Simenon is now an international phenom and moves from chateau to chateau in France then Switzerland, eventually writing 200 books (fact) and bedding what he approximates to have been 10,000 women (undocumented).
Recall, he's not exactly to be trusted with his own story. But there is a staggering amount of life that is covered here, and even if some of it has been rearranged by various tellers, it is fascinating. The eras and the namedropping are stellar; already married at 20 in Paris, he makes the famous American chanteuse Josephine Baker his mistress.
In the course of the bio, we glide through interactions with Roberto Rossellini and wife Ingrid Bergman, Graham Greene, Somerset Maugham, Alexander Korda, Ian Fleming, Noel Coward, J.B.Priestly, Henry Miller, directors HG Cluzot, Jean Renoir, Marcel Pagnol, Jean Cocteau, Fellini, and, driven to meet Simenon due to a "combination of curiosity and a passion for detective novels", the reclusive T.S.Eliot. And this is a partial list; we're talking about someone cool enough to hang with Jean Gabin, and go to bed with Josephine Baker. Whilst plotting that next brutally noirish story.
"I promised myself an upbeat novel, or at least an optimistic one, but my characters would not allow it." Simenon, 1962
What should be discussed is Simenon's true material, which if not crime detection (as in the Maigret books, at any rate) is more closely seen in the 'hard' novels. It is something like: the intersection of Frailty and Brutality, meeting each other in unforeseen circumstances and melting for a minute, intermingling for a star-crossed, ill-fated blip in time. While steaming down the tracks comes the inevitable, the unavoidable, the grand consequence. Simenon is nearly greek-tragic in his sense of fate, and the way he's able to put it across comes down to the other thing that should be discussed.
"At bottom, I am not a writer." Simenon, 1965
Simenon's style is non-cryptic, direct, foreshortened and generally blunt. And yet he's able to use it to couch complex, contrary material, as above, in commonplace, banal descriptions. His atmospherics are precise, draftsmanlike, and without prosy bloat. Pierre Assouline offers a nice full chapter toward the end of the bio, discussing the style aspects in Simenon. If there is any formula, it is reduction, and direct reportage, delivered on-time without slant or skew. Simenon "was less sensitive to the music of words than to their weight". So in the end the policier grounds and frames the delicate balance of the hard novels, while the crime, in noirish tradition but contrary to the detective genre, remains observed, but unsolved.(less)
A man of a certain age, a man of some experience and accomplishment, in deceptively true-to-form Simenon style, falls out of his regular run of experi...moreA man of a certain age, a man of some experience and accomplishment, in deceptively true-to-form Simenon style, falls out of his regular run of experience and routine. What follows is a never-considered detour in the generally very comfortable life of a Parisian newspaper publisher. A man who is by profession an adept journalist, master of holding onto all threads of a story, very suddenly finds himself at a loss.
Simenon is always fascinated by this kind of unpredictability, this skip in the record of life. The difference here in The Bells Of Bicetre is that the author has reduced the formula to its bare essentials: this story will be the account of a man immobilized in a hospital bed after a stroke.
Fine, thinks the Simenon aficionado; the writer is giving himself a kind of personalized challenge, having the protagonist lashed to the mast throughout, requiring the story to be told by introspection and remembrance. But once we're on the way, permanently forced into the memory banks of the hero, it can become a trudge. To have absolutely no chance of the narrator exerting any change in the present circumstances too closely resembles narrative paralysis.
At a teasingly crucial point, right in the middle of the book, there is a shift in the dynamic. An unexpected visitor tells our frozen hero of a peculiar news story unfolding-- for a startling change-- in the Present :
"It was two years ago . . . The antique dealer turned burglar. Remember ?..." The headlines of the time had been, The Arsène Lupin Of The Chateaux. For nearly a year, chateaux in Touraine, Anjou, Normandy, almost every province in France had been visited by a burglar who picked out the most precious objects with amazing flair, and had not once been taken in by a fake or an imitation. In each case, he had appeared to be familiar with the place, to know where the various objects were to be found, whether he was liable to meet servants, and whether there were dogs..."
This information is offered to the convalescent but still paralyzed publisher at hospital bedside, by one of his editors. Aha! thinks the regular Simenon reader. The old man has deliberately lulled us with all this internal monologue business, tranquilized the reader's inquisitive nature with all the backstory and remembrance. What's going to emerge, senses the (energized) reader, is that we'll be solving a crime taking place in the real world, but solving it in the up-on-the-facts mind of the hero, who cannot move or speak but can very possibly solve the crime ?
This could be an unusual wrinkle on the many wrinkly and twisted criminal topics that Simenon has contrived over the years. A kind of detection in exile; a variation on the locked-room mystery, but the lock being the paralysis of the investigator .. ?
Well, no. Hold your horses. I think it was the overworked imagination of this particular reader that jumped the gun there. And unfortunately Simenon had no such plan; this is, of course, no Maigret novel, and the author has every intention of making the entire novel a contemplation of one man's mortality and memory. Nothing but stream-of-consciousness threads entwining themselves, around and around.
In fairness to this particular reader, hoping for a easy, exciting narrative escape, it must be said that Simenon doesn't slow or contour his usual sense of pace and drive, even though the hero never leaves the hospital bed. So at any juncture, the minute an opportunity presents itself, the reader may be tempted to go off like a rocket in search of some narrative Bang or Crash.
It's not there. This is the original no-frills metronome-tight narrator of legend, but telling a drifting, endlessly remembered spiral of little narrative fizzles. Many other, better tales that are similar come to mind, often from the movies. From Citizen Kane to Sunset Boulevard and from the Singing Detective to the English Patient, there is a tradition of narrators who are locked in position. At its best, Bicetre touches nicely on a man's vulnerabilities and contradictions, a bit in the way that Simenon's real-life friend Fellini worked the theme in his 'Amarcord'. However, even with a valiant effort, the patient here pushes toward something he can't quite get at, and the reader can't help, try as he may. (less)