THE BELGIAN WRITER Georges Simenon was the creator of Jules Maigret, one of the greatest of all fictional detectives: the anti-Holmes, the stout "mender of destinies" who fuels himself with copious amounts of beer and calvados and gets to the bottom of things, not through deductive process, but by intuition and his compassionate feeling for the outer reaches of human behavior. Most literary detectives embody their creator's fantasy; Maigret is especially unusual in that the jumping-off point seems to be Simenon asking himself not, what would I be like if I were clever or tough, but, more intriguingly, what would I be like if I were a good man?
Simenon certainly didn't see himself as a good man. He once made the outrageous claim that in his life he slept with 10,000 women (or was it 20,000?), most of them prostitutes. And he was just as prolific on the page. In fact, he's remembered chiefly for the swiftness of his output; he reckoned he could crank out a first draft in eleven days or so, and once agreed to write a book in public, in a glass booth.
Simenon was a relentless self-mythologizer, but a pitiless self-analyzer too, from which emerged the invaluable second strand of his output, the so-called romans durs, or "hard novels." Most of these deal with more or less the same predicament: a character, usually a man, is caught in a trap of his own devising and then pushed to the limit. The best of the romans durs feel raw and electric, because Simenon, despite all his worldly experience and his enormous wealth, never stopped seeing his own life in such anxious terms. He always thought the roof was about to cave in.
Over the last few years the New York Review of Books Classics Press have been steadily issuing these remarkable books in paperback, featuring new or substantially revised translations, and with introductions by writers as eminent, and different, as Larry McMurtry, Joyce Carol Oates, P.D. James, Luc Sante, Anita Brookner, William T. Vollmann, and Roger Ebert. Now the Brookyn-based publisher Melville House has joined the Simenon party, with handsome new editions of The President and The Train in their Neversink Library series.
The Train is a good place to start. It's an untypical Simenon in that it deals with World War II, and springs from the pangs that he felt about having remained in France throughout the German occupation. In another way, however, it's perfectly true to form, in dealing with a character who seizes the opportunity to flee his everyday life and finds himself trapped nonetheless.
The time is May 1940. The place is a cattle truck on the train of the title, heading south through demoralized France, one step ahead of Hitler's Panzers. The narrator is Marcel, short-sighted and tubercular, traveling with his heavily pregnant wife Jeanne. But then Marcel glimpses someone else:
I could see her from a distance, standing in front of our wagon, and her dusty satin dress, her figure, her tousled hair, seemed foreign to everything around her. She was stretching her legs without paying any attention to what was happening and I noticed her high pointed heels.
This alluring, highly sexualized figure (Simenon's narrator acts like both voyeur and erotic camera here: that "stretching her legs" is great, a note struck by a man who really did look at and notice such moments) turns out to be Anna Kupfer, a Czech Jewess just out of prison. Marcel falls in love with her and they have a brief passionate affair. By journey's end, however, Marcel rejoins his family, and only sees Anna again years later when, in flight from the Gestapo, she asks for his help. He refuses, and she understands. A month later Marcel reads a notice on the wall, and learns that Anna has been shot. He concludes, deadpan: "I have a wife, three children, a shop in the Rue du Chateau." Thus Simenon distills huge themes of guilt and betrayal into a tale of ruthless compression.
The President also uses a moment of national crisis to explore matters of individual history and conscience. A former president of France, referred to as The Premier, now in his eighties, lives in seclusion on the Normandy coast, and has to decide whether to allow the elevation of his former protégé Chalamont to a position of supreme political power. "For a man who had nothing left to do except die in a manner worthy of the legend that had grown up around him, this was an unhoped-for diversion," notes Simenon's narrator (he tends either to inhabit his characters in full-blown first person, or else sit on their shoulders in deftly close third) with cool irony. The Premier takes mischievous glee in this return to importance, and an old lion's teeth are bared once more in a story that is lighter than The Train but no less fluent and compelling.
It would do Simenon a gross injustice to suggest that he's merely a writer's writer, although it's true that he fascinates other practitioners, not least because of his craft and his unsurpassed skill with locale and atmosphere. He can summon up a bar or a street or the situation in a dismal room with almost fiendish economy:
The round table was laid with a white cloth. Across from Loursat sat his daughter, Nicole, who ate with a sort of mournful earnestness. Neither spoke. Loursat sat hunched over his plate like a grazing animal, chewing noisily and sighing every now and again from boredom or tiredness.
This, from the opening of The Strangers in the House (one of the NYRB re-issues) delivers in a few terse strokes a setting, two principal characters, and a powerful sense of the relationship between them.
The stories, likewise, unfold with a laconic simplicity that is spellbinding. In The Strangers in the House the lawyer Loursat awakens from a drunken stupor to realize that a murder has been taking place in a distant bedroom of his dilapidated mansion. The event summons him back to life, and forces him to confront long-drowned feelings about his daughter. In Red Lights a husband and wife, Steve and Nancy, fight in the car while on their way to pick up the kids from summer camp. Nancy decides to continue the journey by bus, whereupon Steve is targeted by an escaped convict. By now Steve, drunk, doesn't much care, and his transactions with the dangerous criminal turn into a warped version of his marriage. In Tropic Moon, Joseph Timar arrives by boat in French colonial Africa. He falls for, and marries, a woman whose good nature and warm sexuality disguise the fact that she's a murderess. Dazed by heat and sex and drink, Timar begins his vertiginous descent.
These tales are rooted in crime, but turn into studies of personality in extremis. Booze features heavily (as it did in Simenon's life), as do characters who, like him, are always subconsciously ready for disaster. It takes one little nudge to shake them from their passive shell. The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By, perhaps the most famous and most perfect of the cycle, features Kees Popinga, the chief accountant of a shipping company. Popinga is a typically bourgeois character whose life is turned inside out when his seemingly respectable boss is discovered to be a scamster and the business goes belly up. Thus begins his slide towards murder and psychosis, a journey that liberates him while heightening his loneliness and loss of sanity:
For forty years I have lived like the hungry urchin who flattens his nose against a teashop window and watched other people eat cake. Now I know that cakes are there for anyone with guts enough to go and get them.
Frank Friedmaier, the amoral anti-hero of Dirty Snow, is another provincial mediocrity, a teenager who lives in a brothel run by his mother in an unnamed city that is occupied by an unnamed enemy. Simenon is thinking about Brussels and the Nazis, one presumes, though he deliberately leaves the specifics vague, focusing instead with a near-anthropoligical curiosity on Freidmaier, a highly unlikeable man living in a very dark time. He's a petty criminal, not a member of the resistance, and at the start of this story he commits one casual murder, then another. He is captured by the authorities, who suspect him of being something better than he is, a part of the political underground. Torture and grueling interrogation ensue, baffling and enraging Frank before he submits to injustice's grim irony and inevitability.
The Engagement places center-stage a voyeur, another psychological type with whom Simenon could identify. Hire is not only a peeping tom but a methodical, habit-stricken pornographer too. Everybody finds Hire creepy and when a prostitute is killed the cops naturally suspect him. He turns out to be innocent, but that doesn't stop fate brushing him aside like a crumb.
Not all of Simenon's non-Maigret romans are quite so dur. Pedigree is a wonderful extended evocation of his own troubled childhood in Liege, and deals hauntingly with his relationship with his mother. The President sparkles with an old man's wicked glee, while the American-set Three Beds In Manhattan and the wonderful Monsieur Monde Vanishes explore with a lighter, almost comic, touch the lives of characters who awake from their dreams of a previous existence and gladly turn themselves into something else.
Simenon presents his specimens precisely and always with compassion. His female characters, who, like Anna in The Train, tend to drive the stories while not leading them, are, if anything, even more memorable. Simenon understood women, used them, loved them and was afraid of them. Here again, the self-knowledge is applied with amazing drive, truth, and weight. Many of us have manias, but Simenon had the genius to turn his into patterns, and beautiful novels. He wasn't always the most graceful stylist. Some of his sentences sound like slogans; but you can't stop reading these books once you pick them up. They have the impact of a bullet.