Saturday, 1 January 2011

Sinister Simenon. . .

Georges Simenon was such a prolific writer that I've been a bit wary of reading him - could someone who regularly cranked out three to twelve books a year, really be that good?

Well, let's just say that this may be the start of a lifelong addiction.

I dove in with an Inspector Maigret mystery from 1932. Maigret and the Tavern by the Seine, translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury, was a completely enjoyable read. It's a hot summer, Madame Maigret keeps imploring her husband to join her in the country and he keeps finding excuses to miss his train. On the trail of a six year old murder, he warily starts participating in the weekend partying of a group of dissipated and dissatisfied friends. The case takes a new twist when one of them is found shot and the one discovered holding the gun makes a run for it. The plotting was solid, although I did guess the murderer, though not the motive. Nevertheless, I loved Maigret's unrushed gloominess and self-righteous cynicism:

The case didn't taste nice. A musty taste of commonplace existence, with a remote undercurrent of something a bit crooked.

Simenon's writing has often been compared to that of Patricia Highsmith or Jim Thompson - both writers that I admire - and they certainly share an ontological fascination with doubles, with characters fantasizing about becoming somebody else, and with exploring how jealousy, envy and even (perhaps especially) boredom, can break down the social and psychological barriers between ordinary and evil. It's there in Maigret and it definitely seems to be a major theme of his romans durs. I followed up the mystery with the much darker The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, translated by Marc Romano and D. Thin, and first published in 1938. This is the story of Kees Popinga, a respectable Dutch manager who learns that his boss plans to fake his suicide and escape to a new life because he's driven the company into bankruptcy. After the initial shock, Popinga decides to emulate him and also run away from his family and the inevitable stresses that losing his job and savings will entail. But first, he'll pay a visit to his boss's former mistress. Who laughs at him and pays the price with her life. The novel then moves to the streets, cafes and bars of Paris where the fugitive Popinga, while trying to avoid the police, and extricate himself from a gang of car thieves, becomes incensed with the way the newspapers are portraying him. This isn't so much a crime novel as a major identity crisis - the story of a man who relishes the freedom to become someone completely different, but who plummets into a delusional, obsessive fury when he realizes that society not only doesn't comprehend and admire who he really is - they don't even care:

He'd made only one mistake: right from the start, he should have considered the whole world his enemy. Now they didn't take him seriously. They weren't scared. It made perfect sense for them to treat him like a clown.

Luc Sante sums the novel up perfectly in his introduction to this NYRB Classics edition:

You the reader assume the fears and tribulatoins of a character you cannot possibly like. You live and die (so to speak), sweat and cringe with him. You carry a knot in your chest as he drags himself around ever bleaker and more remote corners of Paris. You become almost physically uncomfortable on his behalf, even as you are repulsed by him. And then, after you have closed the book and put it back on the shelf, you realize that all along you have been reading a comedy.

More please!

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