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Archive for the ‘simenon georges’ Category

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Translated from French by Jean Stewart

When people talk about a policeman’s flair, or his methods, his intuition, I always want to answer:

“What about your shoemaker’s flair, or your baker’s.”

Both of these have gone through years of apprenticeship. Each of them knows his job and everything concerned with it.

The same is true of a man from the Quai des Orfėvres.

This is Maigret speaking, emphasising that his astonishing expertise has been hard won through experience.  These memoirs include the years of his apprenticeship spent transferring from squad to squad learning to recognise the certain signs you cannot mistake that are associated with criminal activity and that make solving a crime so much easier – a matter of process if you will.

To know the milieu in which a crime has been committed, to know the way of life, the habits, morals, reactions of the people involved in it, whether victims, criminals, or merely witnesses.

The point is well made through case studies, and one I would do well to remember, because I have put my reading of Simenon’s series on hold after 10 novels due to frustration at the Inspector’s seeming omniscience.  Not that Maigret has penned his memoirs in response to me.  No, he has taken exception to this chap called Sim (later Simenon), an impertinent individual who showed up one day in 1927 or 1928 at the station with permission to shadow him, promising to use in his novels only what he may see or hear … in a format sufficiently altered to create no difficulties.

Except, of course, there were difficulties. Simenon used Maigret’s name, made him famous and caught him in a mesh from which he never managed to escape.  Did Simenon’s Maigret copy from the “real” Maigret or has the “real” Maigret adopted the mannerisms of Simenon’s creation? It’s enough to make a grown man grumble or  alternatively, resort to the pen in order to set matters straight!

In a hugely enjoyable metafictional conceit, Inspector Maigret takes his creator to task over the depiction of his fictional self! In the course of which he includes the charming story of  his relationship with Madame Maigret – how they met, the first few years of their marriage, and her editorship of these memoirs.  Plus the all important settling of differences between author and Inspector to form the friendship/partnership that produced 75 novels, even if they are according to the Inspector, not entirely accurate. (Best give him the last word today, I think.)

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imageHaving read 10 of Penguin’s republished Maigrets, I confess I’ve had enough. I enjoyed Rowan Atkinson’s recent portrayal of the man in Maigret Sets A Trap, but Maigret just isn’t dynamic enough for me. He sits around and thinks too much, and the plots are sometimes obvious. So for the 1938 Club, I chose to read a Roman Durs (a hard novel – although I think of them as dark novels). They certainly have more meat, typically involving a criminal,  alienated from his surroundings, with no hope of redemption.

That sounds like Europe in 1938 to me, although I don’t think that Simenon was consciously drawing a prophetic allegory of the political situation, even if many respectable citizens were about to be pushed over the edge into insanity ….

Kees Popinga is such a man. Married for 16 years, with two children, he works for a local shipping company. He has built his own house and is proud of it. The novel opens with a terrible discovery. The company is about to go bust, and, as Popinga has invested all his savings in it, he is a ruined man. His boss seems to relish telling him the hard truth, just before faking his death and making a getaway to start over.

This betrayal of trust tips the sensible Kees over the edge.  He casts off the shackles of responsibility and respectability.   With the money his boss has given in (in a fit of guilt), he decides to track down his boss’s mistress (a high-class prostitute) and make up for opportunities missed years before. She laughs at him, which leads to an accidentally fatal outcome. Popinga is no longer simply on a spree. He is now evading justice.

He escapes to Paris, but how can a Dutch murderer evade arrest? Fortunately he has plenty of money, can speak English, French and German fluently, and so can disguise himself. For a time. Inexorably, however, the downward spiral gathers momentum – not helped by his fixation with the woman he meets on his first night in Paris. Yet he remains unaware of being dragged ever lower due to his resilience and absolute confidence in his abilty to outwit the French police,

who seem not to be doing very much.  Which makes Popinga mad.  They’re not taking him seriously.  Like Maigret, they are just sitting it out waiting for him to give himself away.  Well, he’ll show them!

This psychological portrait of a criminal on the run and his descent into madness is the core of the novel. Bang on the money too. Next time an overconfident criminal starts sending letters to the press, pick up Simenon’s novel. It will inform you of the mind games behind the press releases and psychological profiling.  Police methods haven’t changed that much in the almost 80 years since Simeon published this.

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The end of the year approaches and with it thoughts re the best of 2013 and objectives for 2014; one of which is usually a book-buying ban.  Not this year, in fact not for the next 6!  The plans of Penguin Classics to publish Simenon’s Inspector Maigret chronologically over the course of 75 months (73 months remaining) have seen to that.  Particularly as multiple translators are involved in the project.  I’m not sure whether 75 translators are involved.  Only time will tell.  Certainly the first 6 in the series have different translators and there’s got to be some scope for a few translation duels somewhere down the line.  For now though, let’s just sit back and enjoy the first two in the series.

1) Pietr The Latvian (1931) – translated by David Bellos 

2) The Late Monsieur Gallet (1931) – translated by Anthea Bell

The simplified and modernised English titles are the first items of note. Originally translated as The Strange Case of Peter The Lett and The Death of Monsieur Gallet.   Like the directness of Pietr The Latvian – it’s more engaging in this age of economic  migration, even though that isn’t an actual theme.  And besides, who,would have known that Lett meant Latvian?  The Late Monsieur Gallet is quite simply more elegant and focuses attention on the person of Monsieur Gallet, whose enigma Maigret must first solve before he gets a real handle on what turned him into a corpse.

I’m not going to go into details here because the plots aren’t very complicated and certainly don’t compare to the sophistication of some contemporary crime fiction or even Simenon’s romans durs (psychological thrillers).  However, they do  demonstrate the same fascination with human psychology, which lies at the heart of Maigret’s investigative technique.  Maigret cracks the case of Pietr The Latvian which involves foreign crime gangs and doppelgangers through the analysis of the faces in an old photograph.  Monsieur Gallet’s secret is discovered when Maigret identifies the motivation of the dead man who lived in poverty while prioritising the payments for a seemingly extravagant life insurance.

So the crimes at the heart of these novels remain current, and good, old fashioned logical deduction (minus spurious Sherlockian flashiness) together with psychological insight solves the cases. Neither are there any hints of the artificiality of a typical Agatha Christie setting.  (See footnote.) Very enjoyable. 2 down, 73 to go …..

Footnote: Nothing against Agatha, everything against Sherlock!

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So we know that Ian McEwan loves to build his novels around the critical crossroads moment – the moment when a life on the rails goes off it. Does anyone know if he is in any way influenced by Georges Simenon?

Steven and Nancy Hogan are driving to pick up their children from camp in Maine. It’s Labour Day and the bank holiday traffic is horrendous. Yet Steve (incomprehensibly in this day and age but obviously not so in 1953, when this was written) insists on taking a few drinks despite the fact that he is driving. Husband and wife begin to bicker as he stops at one bar after another on the way. Finally they approach a shabby looking bar and that moment comes:

“If you stop,” Nancy was saying, carefully pronouncing each syllable, “I warn you I’ll go on alone.”

It gave him a shock.  For an instant he stared at her, incredulous, and she met his gaze steadily. ….

Perhaps nothing would have happened, and he would have given way, if she had not added:

“You can always come on to the camp by bus.”

He felt his lip twist in a queer sort of smile and, as calm as she was herself, he reached for the ignition key, which he took out and put in his pocket.

Nothing of the kind had ever happened to them before.  He could not turn back now.  He was convinced that she needed a lesson.

And so he leaves and thus begins the night which gradually strips Steve of all his self-delusions … and his hitherto comfortable existence.    Told in the matter-of-fact way of the quotation cited, the reader experiences the story from Steve’s point-of-view.  While I was miles ahead in character analysis – it didn’t take me as long as it took Steve to work out what an idiot he is – I didn’t anticipate all the narrative twists and turns fuelled by bad choice upon bad choice.  Actually I should have because Steve takes Nancy’s departure as an excuse to go on a bender (or to enter “the tunnel” in his parlance) and never did a drunk make a good decision.

This bender lands him in deep, hot water.  Yet there’s no sense of justice because of the consequences to his poor wife.

Life at the end of Steve’s tunnel is not light.

Red Lights is a fast compulsive read, and it was my second Simenon “roman dur” (hard psychological thriller).  When I read Dirty Snow at the beginning of the year, I suspected that I’d found something seriously addictive.  Red Lights has confirmed that instinct and you know, what?  I’m going to let it happen.  If I can find a definitive list of Simenon’s romans durs, I shall add them to my completist page.   In the meantime, I shall work my way through all the NYRB Simenon titles.  It’s probably the best place to start with the author of over 200 novels.

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Returning from California to Scotland in the grip of its worst winter for 30 years was a shock to the system particularly when we had to dig our way back into the house. A few choice epithets were (still are) in use. “Dirty” not the adjective of choice here – the countryside is rather beautiful when bedecked with the white stuff – but it is a rather mucky business commuting and shopping. And you should see the state of me when I return from sledging! However, shovelling away 2 feet of snow from the paths to get to the front door had the not-so-curious effect of securing an immediate read of Georges Simenon’s “Dirty Snow”.

“There was still the dirty snow, piles of it that looked like they were rotting, stained black, peppered with garbage. The white powder that loosed itself from the sky in small handfuls, like plaster falling from a ceiling, never managed to cover up the filth.”

Filth like Frank Friedmaier an 18 year-old boy who decides that it is time that he makes his first kill – but for it to count it must be done in cold blood.  The first chapter shows how Frank selects his modus operandi, then his victim and, in executing the murder,  he unexpectedly ensures that there is at least one person who knows that he has done it.  The rest of the novel follows from this with Frank, spiralling ever further downward  in a moral sense, until he commits an act that is beyond despicable.   This descent into ever greater amorality is narrated from Frank’s point-of-view.  It’s told matter of factly, stripped of any emotion because Frank has none.

He didn’t feel pity, not for anyone.  Not even for himself.  He didn’t ask for pity, didn’t accept it, and that was what irritated him about Lotte (his mother), whose eyes brooded over him, anxious and tender at the same time.

While this may well be the result of his upbringing, there is no omnisicient narrator to dot the i’s and cross the t’s.  Whatever, it is a blessed relief when Frank is eventually arrested. 

Although  a short-lived relief. Frank doesn’t know for which crime he was arrested and because the narrative is from his point-of-view, neither does the reader.  This means experiencing the ensuing mindgames, interrogations and torture in the second half of the novel almost at first hand.  At first Frank’s confidence remains intact.  But, when finally the authorities reveal why he is there (and in so doing reveal the depths of their own amorality), the gravity of his predicament becomes clear.  Even so, he remains obstinate.  Life is the way it is,  he has no regrets.

A bleak, unrelenting portrayal of a moral no man’s land.  Existentialism packaged as psychological crime noir.  Magnificent – just one faux pas – the scene in which Simenon introduces a redemptive element (no details or I reveal the nature of Frank’s most callous act).  It just would not happen that way and for that I’m deducting a star.

It’s a mistake that Simenon may have made because he was too wrapped up in Frank and thus, somewhat delusional?  In his Paris Review interview (fortuitously reprinted by Canongate), Simenon revealed the intensity of his writing experience.

Simenon:   When I am doing a novel now, I don’t see anyone, I don’t speak to anybody.  I don’ t take a phone call – I live just like a monk.  All the day, I am one of my characters.  I feel what he feels.

Interviewer:  You are the same character, all the way through the writing of a novel?

Simenon:  Always, because most of my novels show what happens around one character.  The other characters are always seen by him.  So it is in this character’s skin I have to be.  And it’s almost unbearable after five or six days.  That is one of the reasons why my novels are so short; after eleven days (the average time it took for Simenon to write a novel) I can’t – it’s impossible.  I have to – it’s physical.  I am too tired,

I’ll bet.  Reading Frank Friedmaier’s point-of-view for 11 hours was emotionally exhausting.  Being Frank for 11 days must have been devastating.

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