Building on the success of an enlightening and rewarding launch event, Institut Francais‘s second programme of its Noir is the Colour festival was a screening of Patrice Leconte’s adaptation of Monsieur Hire’s Engagement followed by a free and frank discussion of the film and Simenon’s legacy chaired by biographers Pierre Assouline and Patrick Marnham.
One of the 20th century’s most prolific and widely read authors, French-speaking Belgian novelist George Simenon’s prodigious output consists of 193 novels under his own name, numerous short stories, and an estimated 200 books written under a variety of pseudonyms. Effortlessly crossing the divide between literary and mass-market genre fiction, he is best known by English speaking readers for the seventy five Maigret novels which are now being reissued by Penguin on a monthly basis in newly translated editions.
Writing professionally since fifteen, his talent for producing page upon page of concise prose at a rate that astounded his peers and would entertain millions of people across the globe was honed in the competitive worlds of a newspaper’s crime desk and the pulp fiction industry. Two years after arriving in Paris he embarked on a literary apprenticeship producing erotica, romances, crime and adventure novellas under a variety of pen names including Germain d’Antibes, Christian Brulls, Jacques Dersonne, Jean Dorsage, Luc Dorsan, Georges Gom Gut, Georges d’Isly, Georges-Marin, Jean du Perry, Plick et Plock, Georges Sim, Gaston Vialis, and Poum et Zette.
A master of publicity and subterfuge, in 1927 he signed a contract with entrepreneur Eugene Merle to write a novel whilst locked inside in a glass cage. An opportunity to publicly demonstrate his gift, giving fans a literal window into the creative process along with a chance to influence the book’s outcome. Conceived as a launch event for a newspaper, the terms of Simenon’s arrangement with Merle specified that he was to provide the publication with an exclusive book which would be serialized over several weeks. Members of the public were to vote on the book’s theme and its title. Paid a princely sum of 50,000 francs upon signing the contract with the promise of a further 50,000 once the completed manuscript was delivered, the attendant media interest boosted Simenon’s profile. Over the next few decades this incident became a core part of the mythology which had grown up around the author.
In the 1990s after reading about accounts of an author so confident in his industrious output that he turned the writing process into a public spectacle science fiction writer Harlan Ellison decided to repeat the experiment. X-Files creator and showrunner Chris Carter was enlisted to supply Ellison with a sealed envelope containing the story’s theme. As each page was completed it would be plucked from Ellison’s typewriter and placed in the store window for passers by to read. At the day’s end Ellison could bask in the glory of having a completed draft in his hands and feel satisfied at following in his literary hero’s footsteps. Some time afterwards he learnt that Simenon never got to write a story in that glass cage. Eugene Merle’s newspaper Paris-Matinal went into liquidation before the publicity stunt took place although under the terms of the contract Simenon kept the advance payment of 50,000 francs. The confusion about this incident’s occurrence (or lack of) grew, in part, because the author sensed a good publicity opportunity and when confronted with people who claimed to have witnessed him toiling away in that cage never corrected them.
A gigantic figure in the pantheon of 20th century European popular culture. Penguin’s exhaustive work in ensuring that only the finest translators bring his prose to a new generation of readers in the year in which long time fans will mourn the 25th anniversary of his passing brings the spotlight firmly back onto his unrivalled literary legacy. Compared by Paul Theroux to Albert Camus. Simenon’s admirers included Ian Fleming, Dashell Hammett, Somerset Maugham, and Henry Miller.
With a fresh edition appearing on the shelves of the nation’s booksellers each month new found converts to his intensely atmospheric paintings with words may become ever more curious about the man who gave life to Maigret. An enigma every bit as perplexing as those investigated by the pipe smoking detective, Georges Simenon’s life is shrouded by a sea of misdirection, inaccuracies, and falsehoods, some of his own creation. More than twenty volumes of memoirs contain either vague or contradictory information leaving the task of peeling away layers of a densely constructed public persona to diligent biographers.
Commercially successful and critically acclaimed, the Maigret novels raised the question of whether genre fiction could be treated as serious literature. Harbouring a yearning for “respectability” he wrote stand alone psychological novels alongside the steady stream of populist detective fiction. Melancholic and filled with the trademark Simenon immersive descriptions, these texts which he referred to as romans durs (hard novels) were existential angst ridden depictions of men confronted, and often corrupted, by greed and lust. Physical, spiritual, and emotional torment were constant companions of the doomed protagonists in these fatalistic fables.
Two years after Jules Maigret lit his first pipe his literary parent wrote Monsieur Hire’s Engagement , a gritty account of obsession and murder. Adapted for the big screen in 1947 by Julien Duvivier and released as Panique the film’s depiction of an angry mob hounding a man to his death struck a chord with a country coming to terms with all that had occurred during wartime occupation. In 1989 Simenon’s novella returned to the cinema courtesy of a claustrophobic re-imagining by Patrice Leconte.
Best known to UK audiences for The Girl on the Bridge and Man on the Train, Patrice Laconte had been making films for two decades by the time Monsieur Hire was released. Displaying a chameleon like ability to work within a variety of genres his craft demonstrated an understanding of the form along with a precise individual signature. Sympathetic to the material being filmed but never fawning, his style is based on an inherent ability to know when a sequence requires cynicism or compassion, sometimes setting these two oppositional approaches upon each other within a single scene.
Georges Simenon’s tale of obsession and isolation is in Laconte’s hands filtered through the prism of Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang with a tip of the hat to German Expressionism. A concise novella translates into an equally precise motion picture that with a running time of seventy seven minutes never outstays its welcome and yet still manages to make viewers feel as though they have experienced a myriad of emotions.
The body of a murdered young girl is found and the Inspector (André Wilms) assigned to the case is convinced he has found the guilty party after hearing reports of a man fleeing from the scene, seeking refuge in an apartment block. Statements from neighbours lead the investigating officer to Monsieur Hire (Michel Blanc).
A loner, uncomfortable in his own skin and deeply unpopular with his neighbours Hire spends each night gazing at Alice (Sandrine Bonnaire) who lives just across the courtyard. One evening she catches a glimpse of her stalker and soon the balance of power is shifted… Exploiting his affections, she makes him feel impotent and it is not long before Hire is completely under her spell.
Simenon’s tale of fatalistic flaws, compulsion, repulsion, and misanthropic star-crossed pessimists is merged with Laconte’s exploration of scopophilia, paranoia, and erotomania. Highly intelligent filmmaking that plays games with the audience’s passivity, making the viewer experience the sensation of being complicit in the dark deeds whilst sharing in the pain of the inevitable downward spiral that Alice and Hire are dragged into.
Newcomers to Simenon’s legacy may have initially been unsure about the film’s place within his significant body of work. With the audience concentrating on reading subtitles a live DVD commentary explaining key plot points and recurrent themes would not have been a viable option but Noir is the Colour had the perfect solution… As the lights rose two leading Simenologists took to the stage fielding questions from neophytes and purists. Simenon’s career and life away from the printed page was dissected with the precision of a master pathologist. Shining a light into every aspect of the public and private persona, the lack of consensus about the man is something biographers have wrestled with for decades.
An afternoon that for those who were lucky to attend was a curtain raiser to many months enjoying Penguins reissues and for some the beginning of a quest to discover who was the real Simenon.
Pierre Assouline and Patrick Marnham’s Simenon biographies are currently out of print but second hand copies can be ordered from Amazon:
Monsieur Hire can be ordered from Amazon:
For more information about Noir is the Colour contact:
Institut français, 17 Queensberry Place, London SW7 2DT
Info & booking: 020 7871 3515 – http://www.institut-francais.org.uk/