Book Review: Pedigree by Georges Simenon (Trans by Robert Baldick)

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Joycean novel recreates Simenon’s childhood.

Intended as the first volume of a trilogy, Pedigree stands apart from the rest of Simenon’s output. Borne out of a long-standing ambition to write an extraordinary novel and a response to a personal crisis, the prolific author’s magnum opus is a fictive redrafting of a memoir that has yet to be translated into English.

After an accident chopping wood Simenon experienced acute chest pains. Fearful that he might have broken a rib Simenon visited a radiologist in Fontenay-le-Comte. Misreading an X-ray the radiologist told Simenon that because his heart was enlarged he would be dead within two years.

For decades this misdiagnosis and the subsequent decision to write a memoir so that his son would about his lineage was an accepted part of Simenon’s mythology. Pierre Assouline’s biography claims that the spectre of death was lifted two weeks later when Simenon consulted several doctors who advised that the initial prognosis may have been due to wrongly positioned photographic equipment.

This reminder of mortality occurred during a period of renewed literary activity.

After an abortive attempt to retire Inspector Maigret Simenon sought to cement his literary reputation with a series of ‘roman durs’ (hard novels). Determined to transcend the confines of genre fiction the books written immediately after the publication of Maigret Returns were bleak studies of deviancy without the prospect of redemption.

Declining sales for the ‘roman durs’ forced Simenon to revive his most famous character. In the early days of World War II as the conflict spread to Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands he completed work on Maigret and the Spinster before being appointed “High Commissioner for Belgian refugees for the Département of Charente-Inférieure.”

Before the war Simenon had mentioned in correspondence his ambition to write a different form of novel. Contractually committed to writing three Maigret novels, he had to wait until the manuscripts had been delivered before commencing work on what was intended as his signature work. The recent misdiagnosis and France’s occupation may have preyed heavily on Simenon’s mind as he sat down to create a historical account of his family. Dedicated to his son Marc, the finished text was eventually published as Je me souviens. It remains one of the few Simenon books not translated into English.

After reading Je me souviens prior to publication André Gide advised Simenon to abandon the book and redraft all material as fiction. The revised text was published in 1948 and is an essential read to understand the biographical significance of themes prevalent throughout the ‘roman durs’ and Maigret novels.

Chronicling a family in the Belgian city of Liege during the years 1903 to 1918, Pedigree’s length, time taken to write, subject matter, and narrative structure marks it out as an atypical entry in the Simenon canon.

Simenon typically wrote in novel in seven to ten days. The writing of Pedigree represented an exorcism, possibly a painful one. In a break from his ritualised routine, it took him two years to finish the novel. A further five years would pass before it was published.

Confronting his feelings about people and a city that he had left behind in 1922 Simenon may have intended to finally purge himself from the influence of a life which continuously manifested itself through his novels.

In a repeat of the furore that greeted the publication of Je me souviens, Simenon was hit by several lawsuits from people who felt they had been libelled. Pedigree’s second edition removed offending passages and left blank spaces. The available version is sans the visibly noticeable blank spaces but has not restored the offending passages.

Simultaneously bildungsroman and a roman-fleuve, Pedigree largely corresponds with what is known about Simenon’s early life. The chronology of certain events have been rearranged while others are purely fictitious. While some characters remain relatively unchanged from their real-life counterparts others are composites, or inventions.

The absence of Simenon’s brother has provided scope for analysis by numerous biographers. Representations of Christian Simenon appear in several Maigret novels, most notably Pietr the Latvian. His exclusion is either revisionism as wish fulfillment, an acknowledgement of irreconcilable differences, or an attempt to avoid controversy concerning allegations that Christian collaborated with occupying forces during the war.

Demonstrating that Liege’s inhabitants, weather, and topography would appear repeatedly in transposed form throughout the Maigret novels Pedigree is also a portrait of influences and obsessions that remained with Simenon for the rest of his life.

Pedigree is published by NYRB.

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