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Reading a novel of Georges Simenon’s is more like watching a film than reading a book. Simenon’s books are short, 120 pages or so, each of eight or nine chapters. He wrote three or four a year for many years, produced over 300 titles, and was for a time the world’s best selling author. You can read a book at one sitting if you desire, just as you sit through a film. The novels usually present a character going through a crisis, and the reader understands this as they do when presented with a dramatic situation in a film, or with friends or acquaintances in their own life: that is, gradually, a bit at a time, until, quite suddenly, they get the whole picture, and realise what’s going on. This development is grounded in place. Simenon is one of the greatest of all masters of mise en scène. He is able to do two things consistently that others often can not. His empathetic understanding of character enables him to involve the reader in the protagonist’s crisis, which often forms a type of catharsis, or release of conflict. And he is able to convey to the reader a perspective of the protagonist’s life, and of human life in a more general sense, which can be, for some, reassuring.
Monsieur Monde Vanishes was first published as La Fuite de Monsieur Monde in 1952. It was translated into English by Jean Stewart. The novel begins like a Maigret novel, with a depiction of a Paris police station. Ill-lit, grimy, a waiting room of working class people waiting to fill out identity forms, Simenon presents the bureaucratic side of police work here. Into this drab environment sweeps an arrogant, self-centered woman, Madame Monde, reporting the disappearance of her husband Norbert. In his delineation of Madame Monde Simenon adroitly both sets the atmosphere, and states the man’s problem. Monsieur Monde is the owner and manager of a successful export business, the fourth generation of his family to hold this position. He, it becomes clear, is both very able and very conscientious, and feels responsible as well, for those, family and employees, in his care. He has let himself become over the years a prisoner of his responsibilities. Unlike his father, who led an irresponsible, self-indulgent life which almost bankrupted the family firm, Norbert is disciplined, hard working and successful. On his 48th birthday (Simenon was 48 when he wrote the book) he does a kind of summing up, propelled to do this by the fact that no-one has remembered his birthday but himself. He has divorced his first wife, shocked by her lack of a moral sense, and married again, primarily out of regard for his two young children. His second wife, he has discovered, is one of those persons entirely taken up with her own wants and needs, and arrogantly dismissive of everyone who cannot share this obsession with her. Monsieur Monde considerately accedes to her wishes, defers to her demands, and yet earns her contempt. His daughter has married, lives with her husband in her family’s home, and has little contact with her father but to ask for money. His son, who has failed to do anything with his life, has been taken on in the family firm. It gradually becomes clear to Monsieur Monde, that while he loves his son unselfishly, the boy is, like his wife, self-obsessed, and effeminate as well, earning the contempt of his fellow workers by making sexual advances to a teenage truck driver, although ineffectually. The effort to care for others has only succeeded in attracting to Monsieur Monde a group of selfish, self-obsessed exploiters. He longs for release from this pressure, which is a constant challenge to his rather idealistic morality. He decides to leave it all behind, to just walk away, to vanish. He’s intelligent, and competent, and does so successfully.
Poor Monsieur Monde! He wants to run away from all this effort, to be carefree, to just exist, but he can’t run away from his own nature. In the seedy hotel in Nice where he ends up, he hears a quarrel in the adjoining room, hears a man leave in anger, hears a woman in hysterics, and goes in to offer aid. The woman has taken an overdose of sleeping pills, and Norbert calls a doctor. Slowly he gets involved in the woman’s life. They become lovers. Simenon draws an astonishingly concise and evocative picture of this woman’s whole life in a few paragraphs. Unlike Norbert’s wife, Julie has few expectations, illusions or inhibitions. Precisely because she does not expect Norbert to care for her or stay with her weakens the bond between them. The two remain friends and occasional lovers, but in the life Julie has led, men don’t stay around for long. And so when Norbert stumbles across his first wife, now living a drug addicted bohemian life and facing destitution, he begins to care for her, loses touch with Julie, and soon finds himself in his usual role of carer.
But Monsieur Monde is an intelligent man. He soon becomes aware of the pattern in his own life. This is something he cannot run away from. The awareness changes him profoundly. Instead of a life made up of well meant good intentions, it has become apparent to him that all people have needs, and that some people have needs that can never be satisfied. He is aware what a terrible thing this is. At the end of the book, when he has returned to his life in Paris, he is a colder, more disillusioned man, but a more accepting man as well, able to deal efficiently with other people’s limitations as he had never been before.
The Neighbours was first published in 1967 as Le Déménagement, and was translated by Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson. Emile Jovis, his wife Blanche and son Alain have just moved to a new apartment on the outskirts of Paris. Emile is a self-made man, a hard worker who has built a good life for his wife and son, looks good to assume a chief managerial position at the travel agency where he has a responsible job, and is outwardly happy and successful. But things are not what they seem. Emile’s plain and unassertive wife Blanche is unable to have any more children, his son Alain seems cynical and secretive, and Emile begins to question whether he has done the right thing, whether he and his family are as happy as he thinks they are. In the new apartment the walls are as thin as paper, and lying awake one night Emile hears the couple next door making love. They seem to like exchanging obscene phrases, trying out deviant practices. This overheard conversation rocks Emile’s little world and all his assumptions.
Simenon tells something of Emile’s childhood: his father, a schoolteacher, has taught him to do the right thing, to always give of his best, but has shown him little tenderness. Emile has grown up in a narrow world where duty is the keyword. He dutifully does well at school, studies accountancy and then, later, languages, works for a solicitor and then betters himself by joining a travel agency and gaining a manager’s job. Money is scarce, but Emile is careful. He provides for his family, and eventually has enough to buy into a new apartment complex outside Paris. He has done all the right things. But no-one has taught Emile how to live. He tells himself over and over that he is happy. Or should be. Here is a sad and compassionate look into the lives of people who have been denied the possibility of fulfilling themselves, and given the opportunity of buying things instead, if they work hard and save carefully.
Once Emile’s neighbours have given him a glimpse of another world his fragile grasp on contentment is gone. He believes these people are dishonest, perhaps gangsters, totally immoral. Not only are they sexually depraved, they are seemingly shameless, confident, affluent. Emile discovers they work in a nightclub in Paris. Obsessing over the conversation he has heard, a catalyst which has uncovered the cracks in his contentment which he has hidden in his subconscious, Emile, for the first time, deceives his wife Blanche. He makes up a story to give him a pretense for being out at night, and goes to the nightclub, which features striptease dancers. He watches the women undress, has sex with one of the dancers, gets drunk. For the first time in his life he has not done his duty. While the neighbours seem to prosper in this world, for Emile the results are tragic.
Maigret and the Nahour Case was first published as Maigret et l’affaire Nahour in 1976. It was translated by Alastair Hamilton. Maigret’s friend Doctor Pardon has treated a woman who has been shot, but the woman and her companion have vanished. Then he is called in to investigate a murder. A wealthy Lebanese gambler, Monsieur Nahour, has been murdered, but everyone connected to this case seems determined to hide information. Maigret must decide whether the two shootings are connected.
The details of police work are presented realistically in this and all the Maigret stories, though the emphasis is on quick sketches of the people in the jobs. There is a wide audience for the kind of deductive reasoning a police detective needs to make (though none at all for the similar processes a tax accountant, say, or an archaeologist must pursue) and any Maigret story will satisfy this interest. Yet the dominating element in all these stories is Maigret’s mood, his reaction to the weather, to atmosphere, to what he feels about the people he interviews. In this particular story it is said that Maigret’s only friend is Doctor Pardon, and that the bond that unites them is their experiences dealing with human nature, which they enjoy talking over at monthly dinners together.
Slowly Maigret narrows the search until he has four suspects. All four are capable of murder, all four tell him lies. Only one has committed a murder. Simenon follows the conventions of the detective story, which demands that either information is concealed from the reader, or that characters act from concealed motives not apparent in the story, so as to preserve the element of surprise at the ‘solution’ of the mystery. Not surprisingly Maigret is dissatisfied at the justice of his case. Shouldn’t being capable of violence that could end in murder be the crime?
The First Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1970. The title refers to the fact that the volume includes three novels by Simenon. Monsieur Monde Vanishes 1952, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊ (where The Brothers Karamazov is rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊); The Neighbours, 1967, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊; Maigret and the Nahour Case, 1967, rated ◊◊◊◊◊.
See also The Second Simenon Omnibus, The Third Simenon Omnibus, The Fourth Simenon Omnibus, The Fifth Simenon Omnibus, The Sixth and Seventh Simenon Omnibus, The Eighth, Ninth and Tenth Simenon Omnibuses, The Eleventh, Twelfth and Thirteenth Simenon Omnibuses, 14th, 15th and 16th Omnibuses.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.