Book Review: The Venice Train by Georges Simenon (Trans by Alastair Hamilton)

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Dark story of deception and anxiety.

Mid-level clerk, Julian Calmer’s life is thrown into disarray when a chance encounter on a train shatters any semblance of normality. Another example of Simenon employing an Everyman to explore the darker recesses of the human psyche. The Venice Train is a suspense-filled novella which analyses how a turning point in a life might compel an individual to walk away from a lifetime of conformity and discover their previously repressed true identity.

Julian Calmer’s life has previously been dominated by rigidity and routine. After a family holiday in Venice, he boards a train to Paris and sits across from a stranger unaware that soon his every waking moment will be filled with paranoia. Chatting with the stranger, Calmer is surprised that his fellow traveller is taking such a keen interest in the minutiae of his life. As the conversation draws to a close the stranger hands Calmer an attaché case and asks him to deliver it to an address in Lausanne.

Calmer’s decision to take possession of the case has jeopardised the safe and comfortable lifestyle he has spent years creating for his family. The stranger leaves the carriage promising to return in a moment but is never seen again. Curious about the case’s contents Calmer delivers it and discovers the lifeless body of a manicurist.

Fleeing the crime scene he returns to Paris. Opening the bag Calmer discovers a fortune in foreign currency. With a sum of money in his possession greater than what he might earn in a lifetime working for his current employer Calmer is torn between wanting to enjoy the benefits of his find and the desire to maintain the pretence of a normal lifestyle. Fearful that the criminal underworld will find him and exact some revenge for absconding with the funds he is determined to maintain a low profile until he is sure that the no evidence of a trail exists. He trawls Paris’ newspaper stands and purchases foreign publications hoping to find some information about the bag’s owner, the deceased manicurist, and current stages of the police’s investigation.

Adhering to Simenon’s template of an individual confronting a new self when faced with a change in circumstances, The Venice Train is a below-par novella from one of Europe’s most prolific writers. Barely concealed traces of the author’s misogyny are littered throughout the book. Tension and plausibility is tossed out of the window in a deeply unsatisfying final chapter which stretches credulity and reveals a tired writer going through the motions.

One for completists. Readers new to Simenon should avoid The Venice Train.

The Venice Train is currently out of print. Used copies are available to order from Amazon.

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Betty by Georges Simenon (Trans by Alastair Hamilton)

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Lost soul’s facade conceals a dark past.

One of six books cited by Simenon to counter accusations of misogyny, Betty was reportedly inspired by a chance encounter with a drunken women in a Versaiiles bar. In the majority of his books Simenon’s mother is an ever-present figure. Men are represented as victims of symbolically castrating feminine forces. Temporarily jettisoning the recurrent mother motif, Betty features a traumatised woman who is a composite of Simenon and his second wife Denyse Ouime.

A twenty-eight-year-old alcoholic is seeking solace from the bottom of a glass in a bar on the Champs-Élysées. Trapped in a destructive cycle of exhibitionism and promiscuity, this depressed drunk has been cast out of the family home and denied access to her children. Potential salvation arrives when a doctor’s widow offers Betty a place to stay.

Confiding in her new found protector, Betty reveals a traumatic past. Loveless and hopeless, Simenon’s heroine is a war orphan, her father was murdered by German troops shortly before the cessation of hostilities. The irony of Simenon writing about the horrors of war and damage wrought upon survivors is not lost on Simenologists who have long been aware that he collaborated with the Vichy regime.

Betty is effectively an extended conversation with occasional flashbacks. The ending may fizzle out but this is fundamentally a book which reveals a great deal about Simenon’s neurosis and perversions. The inclusion of an incest subplot is particularly significant because during their conversation Swiss psychiatrist Dr Pierre Rentchnick noted that the author had a particular interest in familial abuse. Simenon’s daughter would take her own life in 1973 and many questions remain unanswered about the nature of her inappropriate feelings toward her father and the extent to which he may have in some way been responsible for both her lust and the eventual tragedy. This book certainly suggests he had entertained the notion of abuse.

Dark and unsettling, in this novel Betty reveals her trauma and comes close to exposing Simenon.

Betty is currently out of print. Used copies are available to order from Amazon.

Book Review: The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By by Georges Simenon (Trans by Siân Reynolds)

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Madman on the run seeks refuge in Paris’ seedy underbelly.

A notorious frequenter of brothels, Simenon boasted of visiting thousands of sex workers. His experiences in houses of ill repute, cheap backstreet hotels, and conversations with prostitutes were mined for a credible recreation of a shadowy world filled with dawn police raids, jealous pimps, and treacherous friends. An ice cold naked city seen through the eyes of a man rapidly losing his grip on reality, The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is a supreme novel that explores many of the writer’s recurrent preoccupations and asks if truth is absolute.

Everyman Kees Popinga’s life falls apart when he learns that his employer has gone bankrupt and is about to flee from his creditors. Popinga has lived a life of strict routine in the Dutch city Groningen. A respectable mid-level executive with a wife and two children, thirty-nine-year-old Popinga travels to Amsterdam and attempts to seduce his former boss’ mistress. Convinced that his previous life was a form of self-deception, he views the probable imminent loss of family and home as an opportunity to discover his true identity.

Feeling emasculated after his boss’s former mistress laughs at his request he strangles her and boards a train to Paris unaware that he has killed the woman.

Hiding in France he mingles with the criminal underworld and finds temporary refuge in prostitutes boudoirs. Shortly after his arrival newspapers print stories about the murder of his boss’ mistress. Enraged at innacurate reporting Popinga writes to the papers to correct the information they are presenting about him and his crime. Deliberately ambiguous, at least initially, Simenon plays with the reader suggesting that a similar transformation of fortunes could transform anyone into the person Popinga has become.

Swiss psychiatrist Dr Pierre Rentchnick interviewed Simenon and published a paper entitled Simenon sur le gril. The psychiatrist who had spent a day questioning the author would later state ‘We all thought he was schizoid but we did not want to write that.’ The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is a study of psychosis and it is highly probable that Simenon was using the format of a thriller to dramatise his personal desires and torments. Rentchnick’s study revealed that Simenon was an exhibitionist seemingly trapped in a state of perpetual adolescence so writing a wish fulfillment novel is no less improbable than the author’s oft quoted claims to have slept with 10,000 women.

Powerfully evocative The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By contains details plucked from Simenon’s life. Popinga’s arrival at Gare du Nord and subsequent discovery of back streets filled with street walkers recalls a similar journey made by Simenon in 1922.

Supremely crafted this taut exploration of dark desire and insanity is one of Simenon’s greatest novels.

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By is published by Penguin.

Book Review: The Pitards by Georges Simenon (Trans by David Bellos)

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Disappointing novel offers few glimpses of Simenon’s greatness.

Determined to retire his most famous creation Inspector Maigret, Simenon intended to focus on writing literary fiction. Simenon used the term ‘roman dur’ to refer to his portraits of deviance. Freed from the crime genre’s conventions he explored themes present in the Maigret novels without the restriction of having to include a police investigation and a tidy resolution.

The famously prolific author was determined that his literary reputation would be based solely on these studies of aberrant behaviour and psychological torment. Unflinching in their examination of moral, social, and sexual transgressions, the novels presented accounts of people transformed by a moment of crisis. Unremittingly pessimistic, the 171 roman durs suggest that in an unstable world a change of fortune can shatter the veneer of a normal existence and transform an individual into a murderer, thief, or a sexual deviant. In Simenon’s fictional universe the everyman has lived a repressed life and is finally set free once their basest desires are revealed to the world.

The extent to which Simenon succeeded in transforming his reputation from that of a producer of well-crafted pulp fiction to a master of literary novels is debatable. In purely commercial terms his legacy largely rests on the widely translated seventy-five Maigret novels.

Simenonlogists consider the roman durs to be the author’s most significant literary achievements. The critical breakthrough came with the publication of seafaring saga The Pitards. French newspaper Les Temps published a critical essay by André Thérive which declared ‘I believe I have just read a masterpiece in its pure state, in its basic state.’ The journalist conceded that Simenon’s productivity had previously prevented critics from taking his work seriously and suggested that if The Pitards had been his first novel ‘there would be great enthusiasm in the republic of letters.’

Significant for ensuring critics began taking Simenon seriously, The Pitards is nonetheless a minor work from a major author. Unevenly plotted, the patchy novel is a laborious read. The account of a marriage disintegrating during a voyage to Reykjavik is a muddled work which only comes alive during the final twenty pages. Simenon’s trademark atmospheric prose is not enough to lift a novel tries to simultaneously romanticize the seafaring life, settle old scores (Simenon’s mother is present in the form of the ship captain’s wife Mathilde), and offer commentary on the French class system. The text’s primary appeal is that Simenon consciously drew from his life experiences. A lesser work in comparison to the remainder of the roman durs canon, it is nonetheless a key novel to read in order to solve the mystery of Georges Simenon.

The Pitards is published by Penguin.

Blu-ray Review: Invention for Destruction (Vynález zkázy)

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Retro-futurist classic from the Cold War era continues to delight.

One of the most significant names in the history of Czech animation, Karel Zeman has frequently been referred to as the Czech Méliès. Working in the pre-CGI era, his pioneering use of special effects anticipated digital techniques used in contemporary science fiction films.

Admired by Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson, Zeman was one of the few Czechoslovakian directors to receive international acclaim in the period before the Czech new waves searing satirical bite lit up art house cinema screens.

Previously the head of a department store’s advertising section, in 1943 he was offered a job at the Bata Film Studios in Zlín after film director Elmar Klos submitted a report on Zeman’s window-dressing. At the studio he collaborated with Hermina Tyrlova on the short film A Christmas Dream. Released in 1945, the film was Zeman’s first attempt at combining live-action footage with animation. The film won the Grand Prix International for best short fiction film at the Cannes International Film Festival.

In 1955 Zeman directed his first feature-length film Journey to the Beginning of Time. Predating Jurassic Park by several decades the film was a semi-educational adventure story that extensively employed animation, models, matte-paintings, and puppetry.

Today the director is best known to international audiences for his cycle of Jules Verne inspired films and The Fabulous Baron Münchhausen. Four years after the release of Journey to the Beginning of Time the director received widespread international acclaim for Invention for Destruction.

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A strong contender for the first steampunk film, Invention for Destruction (alternatively known as The Fabulous World of Jules Verne ) was exported to 72 countries. In America, a dubbed version was initially released as the bottom-half of a double bill with the kids’ friendly circus film Bimbo the Great. At one point 96 cinemas in New York City were simultaneously screening Zeman’s film.

Marketed in America as a children’s film, in other territories it was recognised as a major achievement in the development of European cinema. The film won the Grand Prix at the International Film Festival at Expo 58 in Brussels and was praised by André Bazin in Cahiers du cinéma.

Ostensibly based on Jules Verne’s 1856 book Facing the Flag, Zeman’s film incorporates plot points from the French writer’s Voyages extraordinaires novels. The film presages the phantasmagorical imagery offered up in CGI heavy blockbusters.

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A 2010 Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs publication stated that Invention for Destruction was the most successful Czech film of all time. Despite the acclaim washed upon it and international box office success, the film is perpetually out of time. The techniques employed by Zeman may have been reused by Terry Gilliam but the experience of watching the film offers no other reference point except other Zeman movies. The director created cinematic art which was undeniably unique and stretched the boundaries of what it was possible to achieve with special FX in a pre-Star Wars era.

Commentators have suggested that the film is Zeman’s response to the detonating of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A warning of the dangers of technology should it fall into the wrong hands. The film celebrates science’s advances but strikes a cautionary tone.

Emphasising artifice the film’s distinctive retro-futurist visual style is a homage to woodcuts and illustrations featured in early editions of Verne’s novels. Posters for the film’s American release declared it was ‘The First Motion Picture Produced in the Magic-Image Miracle of Mysti-mation!’ Zeman’s smorgasbord of techniques incorporates multiple layers of effects and live-action to create one of Czechoslovakia’s most visually distinctive films.

Narrative cohesion is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of visual splendour but when every frame is filled with wit and inventiveness any discontinuities are swiftly ignored. Zeman’s playful juxtapositions emphasise the fantastic. The film is an inventive steampunk odyssey filled with mechanical wonders and an exploding octopus.

Invention for Destruction is available to order from the Karel Zeman Museum.

Desert Island DVDs: Douglas Skelton

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Douglas Skelton is a former journalist. He has written eleven acclaimed true crime and Scottish history books before making a splash on the Tartan crime fiction scene with his dark novel Blood City. Years spent researching Glasgow’s criminal underworld for newspapers and his non- fiction books have ensured his novels are packed with authentic details. His fourth novel, Open Wounds, was nominated for the 2016 McIlvanney Scottish Crime Book of the Year Award. His most recent novel is Tag You’re Dead.

Ahead of his appearance at Bloody Scotland Douglas Skelton chatted about the five DVDs he’d take with him if he was stuck on a desert island.

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Spain, 1966)

‘I’m a huge fan of westerns and, although not overly enamoured by the so–called spaghetti western genre (apart from the music), I am very fond of the Sergio Leone films. This one carries all the trademarks of his later work – big, loud, bags of style and sly humour. And, of course, there’s Morricone’s score.’

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The Guard (Ireland 2012)

‘Proudly and defiantly profane, John Michael McDonough’s blackly humorous thriller is a sheer delight. Very much in the vein of his brother Martin’s classic ‘In Bruges’ – and sharing a star in the always wonderful Brendan Gleeson – this is pitch perfect and stands up to multiple viewings.’

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The Three Musketeers/The Four Musketeers (Spain, 1973/74)

‘No, not cheating here – these were originally supposed to be one long epic but the producers released the footage in two parts, much to the annoyance of the cast who were paid for only one film. Director Richard Lester and screenwriter George MacDonald Fraser tapped into the humour of the novel, attracted an international roster of stars and mounted a sumptuous production. Funny to think the producers originally planned it as a vehicle for The Beatles.’

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ZULU (South Africa, 1963)

‘Good old British grit was served up in this classic adventure along with a fine cast of well–known faces (Stanley Baker, Jack Hawkins, James Booth, the marvellous Nigel Green and, of course, Michael Caine), stunning location shoots, exciting battle scenes and a thunderous score from John Barry. ‘

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The Ipcress File (UK, 1965)

Michael Caine (again), Nigel Green (again) and composer John Barry (again), this time competing against director Sydney J. Furie’s camera angles in a stylish adaptation of Len Deighton’s book. The agent is given a name – Harry Palmer – and a pair of glasses and an icon is born. Nicely chilly and downbeat. And let me mention Barry’s work again – twangy, evocative and so sixties.’

Bloody Scotland booking information.

Douglas Skelton is published by Contraband

DVD Review: The Juniper Tree

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Slow-burning Icelandic Folk Horror.

Bleaker than Disney adaptations, this version of a Brothers Grimm fairytale is an overlooked film that viewed from a twenty-first-century perspective is a much-needed antidote to Twilightified narratives.

Director Nietzchka Keene was originally in Iceland on a Fullbright scholarship to make a different film when she decided to jettison the project and bring the dark Grimms story to the screen.

Keene’s melancholic and austere film evokes the story’s unsettling tone without being too slavish in following the original text. Wisely choosing to be free with the source material, the director relocated the story to Iceland. Removing the narrative from its original Germanic setting and placing it in a new historically specific context gave it a grounding which would have been resonated with Icelandic audiences. Trimming the story’s more fantastical elements, the director was committed to communicating a sense of plausibility.

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Recording a then vanishing folklore tradition, the Brothers Grimm fairy tales were originally written for an adult readership. Sanitized by publishers and Disney screen adaptations, the original versions of the tales are dark and disturbing explorations of a society’s social, cultural, psychological, and psychosexual fears. Nietzchka Keene had studied the narratives and wanted to wed their commentary on female sexuality with a study of Icelandic folklore traditions in the period immediately after the nation converted to Christianity.

In Icelandic folk tales, the divide between the worlds of the living and dead is not firm and fixed, deceased family members return to issue warnings or tempt the living into tasting death’s embrace. Nietzchka Keene’s changes to the Grimm’s narrative incorporates this strand of folk literature. Adding the ghost of a deceased mother to the story accentuates the already palpable sense of unease.

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Filmed in the summer of 1986, the film seemed fated to rot in an archive. Lead actor Bjork’s propulsion to internationally successful recording artist resulted in funds to complete editing being made available and the film was released in 1990.

Self-consciously meshing contrasts, the film demands total concentration. Its commitment to historical authenticity is deliberately offset by the decision to get Icelandic actors to record their dialogue in English. Filmed in stark monochrome, the dramatic beauty of an Icelandic summer has never before seemed so menacing on screen.

This Nordic Folk Horror is worthy to be placed alongside The Wicker Man, BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, and Witchfinder General.

The Juniper Tree is available to order from Amazon.