essays on history, myth, ideas, books, film, music…
This project is to review the novels published in the Penguin Simenon Omnibus series.
The Little Saint was first published as Le Petit saint in 1965. It was translated by Bernard Frechtman. The book was very successful in France and England when first published: Simenon said of it that if only one of his books could be kept, he would like it to be that one. It is the story of Louis Heurteau, a painter reminiscent in some ways of Chagall, and told in two parts, the first showing the little boy growing up in the neighbourhood of Les Halles, where his mother works selling vegetables, and the second part covering his adult years when he is recognised as a painter of talent.
In effect it is a self portrait of Simenon himself. For this reason (as Simenon was a writer not a painter), the first part, which recreates vividly the life in the rue Mouffetard and the personalities of Louis, his family members, neighbours, and the atmosphere of the immediate locality, is by far the more successful. In many ways it parallels the achievement of Pedigree, his long autobiographical novel of 1946 which I think his greatest work (unlike Simenon himself and most critics). This first part of the novel contains an astonishingly vivid portrait of Louis’ mother Gabrielle, unfortunately heavily idealised. Simenon seems here and in Pedigree to be able to recreate the way a child sees the world in a very convincing way. Louis is an observer, so overwhelmed by sensory information he can hardly react emotionally, and acquires the nickname ‘the little saint’ for his forbearance in accepting the rough treatment meted out by his school fellows.
As an adult, Louis sees himself as a little boy still, thinking that the innocence and astonishment with which he sees the world around him is the source of what success he has had as a painter. The second half of the book lacks the richness of particularisation that the first part had. It is a series of vignettes depicting Louis’ adventures with women, his rising fame, and his late growing self realisation. The characters from the first part of the book are mentioned only to tell of their death (interestingly Louis’ mother Gabrielle is shown as vital into her seventies and her death is not recorded, which to psychologists may reveal the source of Simenon’s creative powers). It is told from a point of view in the future, when, long after Louis’ death, people have recognised Louis’ talent, and there has been much written about him, his life and his work. Simenon achieves an elegiac tone in this part of the book which may explain its popularity, but it is a retreat from the vivid immediacy of the first part which I myself regretted. Of course it tells you nothing about an artist’s development, neither Chagall’s nor Simenon’s. The first part brings Simenon’s and Louis’ childhood to life as overwhelmingly as Simenon’s one time mentor Colette was able to do in her reminiscences of childhood: that’s quite an achievement.
Maigret and the Headless Corpse was first published as Maigret et le corps sans tête in 1955. It was translated by Eileen Ellenbogen. Body parts of a dismembered corpse are found in the Seine when a coal barge goes aground, and Maigret is called in to investigate. On the very first day he stumbles across the solution, quite by accident. Perhaps for that reason, he feels compelled to investigate the causes of the crime, hidden deep in the past of the people concerned.
Quite unlike most conventual mysteries, where the solution is the main point of the story, here it is the motive that is investigated. Maigret delves several generations into the past, and finds a repellent nouveau riche, and a daughter deeply divided between adoration, and hatred and contempt. The daughter Aline, perhaps feeling an incestuous passion like Simenon’s own daughter, and mired in self hatred, elopes with a peasant retainer on her father’s estate and shuts herself up in a canal side bistro with him, where each lives their own life. Her rationale, if she has one, is to mortify and hurt her father through her own degradation. Now Omer Calas, her husband, has disappeared. Could he be the man whose body was found in the canal?
Maigret and Aline feel their way to some kind of understanding as the investigation continues. Maigret, like Simenon, knows there is no crime, and there should be no punishment. He desperately tries to understand, in the belief that with understanding will come forgiveness, and with forgiveness, the troubles that drive people to crime will be somehow lessened.
The Man with the Little Dog was first published as L’Homme au petit chien in 1964. It was translated by Jean Stewart. I once heard a religious drama broadcast when I was a child, I think it was called ‘The Hour of St Francis’. It was about a man who had died in the street, and who had no identification. Nobody knew who he was. Eventually, someone recognised him, and he was taken to the apartment where he had lived. There, it transpired, nobody knew anything about him. He had lived his life without, it appeared, human contact. As far as other people were concerned, he was a cypher. The point of the broadcast was, I think, that such a life might appear to be meaningless, but it was not meaningless to god. The Man with the Little Dog is Simenon’s take on this story, about a little man, who in this case had at least a little dog he cared for, who dies in the street and seems to be a nobody, with no other human being to care for him, whose life appears to have been meaningless.
Felix Allard and his little dog Bib have their story told by Simenon, and so Felix turns out to be far from a nobody. Felix keeps a notebook. He is ill, and has resolved to kill himself by an overdose of sleeping tablets before his illness can incapacitate him. Before doing this, he attempts a summing up. It turns out to be the life story of a rather frigid, complacent man, well-off, learned, who ineffectually drifts through life until overtaken by financial ruin, jealousy and, finally, crime. It’s the story of a man here purely because a spermatozoa fertilised an egg, bound to develop in a certain way because of biological processes he has no control over, living in a society which determines his opportunities, and through that, his personality. A cypher. Simenon’s genius makes him an everyman.
It’s hard not to be moved by this book. Felix’s attitudes are limited, and many of his actions are foolish. His attitude, though, and his reflections, are those of any person who has ever reflected on the question, “why?” His plight is that of every human being who has ever lived. Not that different from Bib the dog, who gives his affection, performs his tricks, follows his instincts, and is rescued from one animal shelter only to end up, at Felix’s death, in another.
The Fourth Simenon Omnibus, Penguin Books, 1971. The Little Saint, 1965, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊; Maigret and the Headless Corpse, 1955, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊; The Man with the Little Dog, 1964, rated ◊◊◊◊◊◊◊.
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