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.

DVD Review: Maigret – Season 1

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For French viewers, Bruno Cremer’s performance of Paris-based detective Maigret is the interpretation against which all others are judged. Owning the role in the way that Jeremy Brett and Joan Hickson did respectively with Sherlock Holmes and Miss Marple, Cremer’s realisation of the pipe-smoking detective is the most authentic screen embodiment of Simenon’s fictitious sleuth.

Premiering a year before ITV’s Michael Gambon starring adaptation, the Cremer series remains a regular fixture on French TV thanks to constant repeats. Running for fourteen years, the producers originally intended to adapt the entirety of the Maigret canon (75 Maigret novels and 29 short stories). 54 feature-length episodes were filmed before plans were abandoned due to Cremer’s ill health.

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Best known to English-speaking audiences for his appearance in William Friedkin’s 1977 remake of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, Cremer appeared in more than fifty films. He worked with many of Europe’s most prominent directors, including Costa Gavras and Luchiano Visconti.

Already in his early 60s at the time of casting, Cremer had the unenviable task of following Jean Richard who had played the role on French television since 1965 and for an entire nation was Maigret despite being publicly derided by Georges Simenon.
Cremer’s core appeal was that he perfectly conveyed Maigret’s world-weariness, compassion, and humour.

Restoring credibility to a character that over the course of numerous adaptations been reduced to a hat wearing sleuth, Cremer’s fondness for the novels and determination to be true to the source material resulted in the most complex portrayal to date.

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Comprising the first six feature films, this DVD boxset is more faithful to Simenon’s material than ITV’s recent Rowan Atkinson starring version. Despite its age, the series remains a satisfyingly atmospheric recreation of Simenon’s world thankfully devoid of the ersatz Frenchness which has plagued other adaptations.

If you’ve discovered Maigret via Penguin’s issuing of newly translated editions this should be your next DVD boxset purchase.

Maigret – Season 1 is available to order from Amazon.

DVD Review: Maigret

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Sacré bleu, ITV’s over hyped adaptation of Simenon’s Maigret novels is très boring.

Ranking alongside Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Phillip Marlowe as one of the world’s best-known fictional detectives, Jules Maigret was created by the prolific Belgian writer Georges Simenon. First appearing in 1929’s Pietr the Latvian,75 novels featuring the pipe-smoking detective were published between 1931 and 1972.

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Staking a claim to inventing the police procedural, Simenon’s innovations also included an emphasis on the social, emotional, and psychological aspects of criminality. Transforming the genre, Simenon used its conventions to show what could push a person over the edge. Illustrating the authors belief in man’s fundamental irresponsibility the crimes featured in the Maigret novels are a response to a moment of crisis.

With Maigret Simenon didn’t just invent a new type of hero, he also created a distinct sub-genre. Standing apart from any fictional detective published up to that point, Maigret’s methods and raison d’être established the character as unlike anything published before. Equal parts secular priest and psychologist, biographers have suggested that the detective represents the person Simenon would like to have been while the criminal elements are literary representations of who he might have become had his life taken a very different turn.

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One of the novels many innovations was its rejection of tired tropes exhausted by the puzzle school of crime fiction which focused on unmasking the killer and made little attempt to dramatise his emotional backstory. Written from a humanistic perspective, the Maigret novels seem less concerned with apprehending the assailant than discovering what had tipped an ordinary person over the edge and led to them committing horrific criminal acts. Emphasising his difference from other literary detectives Maigret’s compassionate approach to policing involved offering the perpetrators one last chance of redemption before the judicial process took over.

Famously written over several days, each of the novels is an economically told stark exploration of society’s disenfranchised and dispossessed. Deliberately using a restricted vocabulary, Simenon’s atmospheric descriptions bring alive a now vanished France. Widely read, according to the UNESCO Translation Index Simenon is the seventeenth most translated author.

A number of accomplished actors have played the pipe-smoking detective on screen and radio. For a generation, the Rupert Davies starring series is the definitive version. More recently Michael Gambon and Bruno Cremer have introduced successive generations of TV viewers to Simenon’s work.

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Following in the footsteps of some illustrious predecessors, Rowan Atkinson is the latest actor to play Maigret in a series which promised so much but ultimately failed to deliver. Simenon’s work seemed to be bullet-proof and was able to withstand a mercifully now forgotten production starring Richard Harris who seemed to be under the misapprehension he was playing the then Labour leader Michael Foot. This latest heavily promoted series reaches the screen as Penguin books is issuing newly translated editions of the books.

On paper, this series should have been a sure-fire winner. Expectations were high for the lavishly budgeted production. Initial optimism soon faded when critics realised ITV had delivered a misjudged adaptation which transforms two of the twentieth century’s most notable crime writer’s novels into a tortuous yawnfest.

Rowan Atkinson reportedly devoured the novels prior to playing the part. Physically he bears very little resemblance to the stocky detective in Simenon’s novels. Previously known as a comic actor his performance is too rigid and downplays the books’ humour. Lacking the passion of Bruno Cremer’s interpretation, Atkinson’s understated portrayal occasionally comes across as a one-note performance.

Expanded for the small screen, Simenon’s tightly-plotted novels rich with social detail have been transformed into ponderous and unfocused period police dramas devoid of anything resembling atmosphere.

A diversion to kill a few hours, even if the slow pace will make them feel like forever, Maigret is a misguided adaptation which does a great disservice to Simenon and his most famous fictional creation. Filled with a supporting cast unsure if they should play it straight or parody the material, it is an uneven series. Bland cinematography adds to the show’s many deficiencies. Avoid and buy the books instead.

Maigret is available to buy from Amazon.

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.