Book Review: The Krull House by Georges Simenon (Trans by Howard Curtis)

cover

Considered by Simenon to be one of his most significant novels, The Krull House was written in 1938 and first published in the UK as part of the 1955 collection A Sense of Guilt.  Revisiting themes and incidents previously explored in the 1932 Maigret novel The Flemish House, the book is infused with many of the author’s recurrent preoccupations and draws heavily from Simenon’s experiences growing up in Liège.

As the events across the continent made war an inevitable reality Georges Simenon learned that he was to become a father for the first time. Contemplating raising a child in a conflict-ridden world may explain why Simenon’s non-Maigret output written during his wife’s pregnancy was divided into two strands; reflections on fatherhood (The Strangers in the House, The Family Lie), and narratives set in the author’s homeland (The Burgomaster of Furnes).  The Krull House, originally published in the UK as Chez Krull, draws heavily from incidents and people Simenon knew in Belgium and features a motif recurrent in many Maigret novels, the withdrawn and submissive father figure.

A small canal town is the setting for a complex and unsettling examination of interwar prejudices and mob justice. An ostracised family is visited by their German cousin, Hans. The Krulls are foreigners in a close-knit community. Cornelius Krull settled in the area after the cessation of World War One’s hostilities. He is seemingly ineffectual and resigned to spending his days hidden from view in the workroom. Viewed with suspicion and contempt by their neighbours, Cornelius’ family owns a grocery shop that is heavily reliant on canal workers for trade. A fragile peace in the community and at home is shattered when Hans arrives to stay with his family.

The visitation of the Krull’s cousin, Hans, reminds the community of their ‘otherness’. Simenon’s narrative suggests people of German descent living in France in the interwar period were routinely subjected to racial abuse.

When the corpse of a young girl is fished from the local canal suspicion instantly falls on the new arrival. The Krull’s are believed to be harbouring a murderer. An entire township decides to administer justice.

Injustice and mob rule is a theme which is present in several of Simenon’s ‘Roman Durs’, most notably in Mr. Hire’s Engagement and Black Rain.  In The Krull House, the family’s shop is besieged by an angry mob seeking vengeance. The author’s concerns about crowd justice and manhunts were sparked by an incident in 1919 when his newspaper editor instructed Simenon to report on a drunken brawl. A minor fight escalated into a witchhunt. One of the men fled from the scene and was chased onto the roof of a nearby hotel. Stumbling, the man clung onto the roof edge while a crowd shouted racist abuse and bayed for his death.

Variations of the incident recur throughout Simenon’s output possibly suggesting that the author was traumatized after witnessing a crowd being whipped into a state of hatred by gossip and lies. The Krull House’s representation of naked hatred is filled with chilling intensity.  In a powerful sequence, the crowd seeks to avenge the death of a local girl by attacking the two people they believe to be responsible, Hans and his deviant cousin.

While The Krull House is superficially very similar to the Maigret novel The Flemish House, it would be foolish to dismiss the novel as a redrafting of the earlier text. Freed from the confines of a police procedural, Simenon reshaped the story’s core elements into a dark and disturbing account of paranoia still has the power to unsettle readers. Written on the eve of war it was and remains a potent and all too timely warning about the dangers of unfounded suspicion and hatred in a small community.

The Krull House is published by Penguin.

Advertisements

Maigret on Screen: The BBC Series

DTvJ5FgX4AAE8Mg.jpg-large

Georges Simenon was a notorious publicity hound. Biographies are filled with accounts of stunts and statements designed to ensure newspapers ran a story. By the 1960s he was effectively creatively bankrupt. Way past his creative peak, the author was all too aware that the majority of his sizeable income was generated from the sale of film and TV rights.

The unveiling of a statue in the Dutch town Delfzijl offered one last moment of public glory for a writer who must have been aware that his books were delivering diminishing artistic returns. The town was reportedly the place where Simenon started writing the first Maigret novel although more recently published biographies have disputed this fact. To celebrate the region’s connection with a literary phenomenon a statue of Maigret was commissioned. At the unveiling Simenon once again demonstrated that he was a supreme self-publicist. Instead of standing alongside local dignitaries or noted literary figures he recognised the power of television and embraced a never again repeated opportunity to generate press coverage across the continent. At this time Simenon’s works were increasingly known via the television adaptations being beamed into people’s homes each week. Standing at the base of the statue in front of Europe’s media the author surrounded himself by actors who were portraying Maigret on television, Heinz Ruhmann, Jan Teulling, Gino Cervi, and Simenon’s personal favourite Rupert Davies.

In his memoirs, Simenon declared that Davies was best non-French Maigret. If we are to believe Simenon’s account, considering that he was an unreliable narrator, the BBC had previously attempted to acquire the rights to adapt the Maigret novels only to be rebuffed. Why did the author say yes to this request?

Contemporary records contradict information about the contract between Simenon and the BBC printed in biographies. According to Simenon the terms of the agreement stipulated the rights were sold for twelve years. The BBC was not allowed to export film prints to America in case it jeopardised attempts to launch a Hollywood series. The proposed American version never materialised. Sales reports contradict statements made by Simenon and conclusively prove that the BBC series was offered to American networks. The decision not to purchase is reported to have been due to network executives being uncomfortable with what they considered to regular displays of loose morality.

The series was aggressively marketed to overseas broadcasters and according to surviving records it was sold to Australia, Canada, Germany, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Kenya.

Simenon would later claim that his contract with the BBC contained a clause requiring the broadcaster to destroy all prints at the end of the twelve-year licence. Wiping TV was standard practice in an era before broadcasters recognised the value of exploiting their back catalogue. Simenon’s statement may have been made when no copies were known to exist. Today, only the pilot episode is believed to be lost. Dubbed versions of all surviving episodes are now available on German DVD.

DTvK0l3X0AAwzre.jpg-large

Ask viewers of a certain age who they most identify with as Maigret and the answer will invariably be Rupert Davies. Today forgotten except by Simenologists is the first BBC Maigret, Basil Sydney.

With the rights secured to adapt any Maigret novel of their choosing, the BBC elected to trial the series with a pilot that was broadcast as part of the Saturday Night Theatre strand. Despite a mixed critical response, viewing figures were strong enough to convince the BBC to commission a full season.

Viewers accustomed to seeing lavish location filming on ITC series produced for ITV may have been surprised when the previously predominantly studio-bound BBC drama department attempted to compete on an equal footing with its commercial rival. Two days of location filming in Montmartre were scheduled to ensure the adaptation was an authentic recreation of Simenon’s novel. As was standard practice back then, interior sequences were recorded “as live” in a BBC studio.

Actors from that period frequently talk about the experience of working in a TV series. Television drama was effectively filmed theatre. Actors would rehearse over several days in a youth club, church hall, or at the BBC’s facility known as the Acton Hilton. After four or five days of rehearsal, the cast would relocate to a studio and commit the production to tape. For a twenty-first century viewer looking at 1960s television drama, the number of mistakes immediately becomes apparent; fluffed lines, boom microphone shadows, camera equipment and production personnel suddenly appearing on screen. Editing technology was available albeit in the primitive form of a razor blade and adhesive tape. It was estimated that a tape could only withstand three edits before being considered permanently unusable and so consequently the transmitted programme contained many mistakes.

The prospect of working all year round under these conditions was a key factor in Basil Sydney’s decision to relinquish the role after a single episode.

DTvLgFFW4AA5S4o.jpg-large

Tasked with finding a new actor to play Simenon’s detective, the producer remembered an actor who had appeared in 1950s series Sailor of Fortune alongside Lorne Greene the future star of Bonanza and Battlestar Galactica. Unusually, Rupert Davies didn’t learn his craft at drama school or via being a member of a repertory company. During the war, he was captured by German forces and spent five years in Prisoner of War camps. Incarcerated in the notorious Stalag Luft III the future Maigret took up acting to alleviate boredom. After his release, Davies balanced a career on stage with character roles in the then-emerging medium of television. By the early 1960s after appearances in Emergency Ward 10 and Quatermass II he was a recogisable face to most viewers.

Already familiar with Simenon’s novels, Davies auditioned for the role and was subsequently flown out to Lausanne for a meeting with Maigret’s creator. Simenon famously gave the actor a novel inscribed with the dedication: ‘At last, I have found my perfect Maigret.’

DTvIJzfX4AA9dFg

Over three years the BBC produced fifty-two episodes. The series reached a natural conclusion when the producers ran out of books to adapt. At its peak, the series was seen by 14 million viewers. Davies was voted British actor of the year in 1961 and also won the Pipe Smoker of the Year award.

In 1965 Rupert Davies returned to his most famous role in a stage production of Maigret and the Lady. The play opened in Manchester before transferring to the Strand Theatre, London. Reviews were mixed. Jeremy Kingston, a reviewer for Punch, wrote ‘The justification of all this is the opportunity to see Rupert Davies’ gruff avuncular figure and wrinkled dumpling face in the real. He doesn’t come on at the beginning and strike a match against a Watney’s wall, but when he does light up, curls of tobacco smoke (genuine Maigret pipe tobacco) waft across the footlights for all to share. It’s just a pity he and the rest of the cast weren’t given a better play.’ Play and Players reviewer Frank Cox was more positive and wrote that he had enjoyed a ‘satisfying evening.’

Maigret on Screen: The Man on the Eiffel Tower

Man-on-the-Eiffel-Tower

Simenon’s relationship with his most famous literary creation was filled with contradictions. Resentful at being primarily known as a crime writer he nonetheless enjoyed the royalty cheques that enabled him to travel widely and savour a comfortable lifestyle.

Despite his publicly proclaimed aversion at being solely identified as the author of the Maigret novels, he recognised that securing a film deal would be profile-boosting and offer the promise of long-term financial security. In interviews, Simenon would frequently claim not to have viewed the adaptations of his work before offering a detailed critique of the actors who had played Maigret. Simenon’s public stance of indifference is at odds with the actions of a man who acquired and destroyed prints of adaptations he thought had failed to convey the true essence of his novels. In interviews, he talked of drawing up contracts that specified the adaptation had to be destroyed after a set number of years.

By the late 1940s, the character of Maigret had already appeared on screen in productions starring Pierre Renoir, Abel Tarride, Harry Baur, Albert Prejan, and Maurice Manson. English-speaking audiences were introduced to the character with the release of an American adaptation of The Man on the Eiffel Tower.

c29ba3dd7a2c8435aec3eb6ebe959f37

A versatile actor, Charles Laughton is perhaps best remembered for directing the Film Noir The Night of the Hunter. In the late 1940s he was one of British cinema’s most significant screen talents. Accustomed to playing a wide range of parts the acclaimed performer was the first actor to play Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Despite being no stranger to crime drama having also played a gangster in the mould of Al Capone in Edgar Wallace’s play On the Spot his casting as Maigret may have surprised audiences but it pleased Laughton’s bank manager.

When Laughton was initially approached to play the part producer Irving Allen was slated to direct the film. The Man on the Eiffel Tower had previously been filmed in 1933 as La Tête d’un Homme. Erroneously reported as the first English language adaptation of a Simenon novel, the 2013 discovery of previously lost quota quickie film Temptation Harbour based on the short story Newhaven-Dieppe starring Robert Newton and future Doctor Who William Hartnell has forced Simenologists to redraft the author’s screen history. Despite the relegation to second English language adaptation of a Simenon story The Man on the Eiffel Tower still holds the notable distinction of being the first American production based on the author’s work.

getImage

Based on the ninth Maigret novel A Man’s Head the film was a joint American-French co-production. In addition to introducing a new audience to the work of Georges Simenon, the film showcased post-war Paris.

At the time of production Simenon was living in Arizona. Yet to achieve anything resembling mainstream success in America he had a dedicated cult readership. With an acclaimed and bankable star on board, the film may have offered the opportunity to attract a wider audience for his books. Surprisingly, considering the film’s importance in establishing the Maigret novels commercial viability in a previously indifferent territory, Simenon elected to be critical of the central star’s performance.

For several decades The Man on the Eiffel Tower was considered to be a lost film. Reports suggest that Simenon ordered the destruction of all prints. Little known among Laughton aficionados and Simenologists, a false perspective about the film and it’s perceived failings became accepted as fact. UCLA’s discovery of two projection prints enables the film to be studied for the first time since its original release. What was previously a minor entry in the history of post-war cinema takes on a fresh significance in terms of offering previously unknown evidence about the French film industry’s strategy for representing Paris within the context of genre cinema and for how approaches taken by the film have influenced subsequent English language adaptations of the Maigret novels.

MV5BYjdiMzUzYzctZmJhYy00M2IyLThiODktZDgyMmY5ODI2NzJhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTQ1NDUyNzI@._V1_

According to biographical accounts, Laughton was financially embarrassed when he was offered the opportunity to play Maigret. His acceptance in all likelihood probably was due to the need for an instant cash injection rather than a fondness for Simenon’s novel. Having agreed to play the part Laughton was thorough and diligent in his preparation. Intensely studying all available translated editions of the Maigret novels he soon gained a sense of the detective and his world. Determined to be truthful to Simenon’s creation, Laughton searched multiple Hollywood costumiers for clothing that would enable him to build an accurate and sympathetic character. Having constructed his version of Maigret before the cameras started rolling Laughton may have anticipated a stress-free shoot. According to contemporary press reports, it was a tortuous production.

Precisely who directed The Man on the Eiffel Tower is far from clear-cut. Producer Irving Allen was originally slated to direct the film. After three days of shooting, he was forced to resign the director’s chair when an enraged Laughton threatened to quit the production. To mollify the lead actor Allen agreed to his request that Burgess Meredith who had already been cast in a supporting role oversee the remainder of filming. More recently, reports have suggested Laughton directed several key sequences without credit. Scholars have also claimed that co-producer Franchot Tone directed scenes which featured Laughton and Meredith in the same frame.

ft-manoneiffiel

Promoted as the first American colour production to be filmed in Paris, the screenplay was adjusted to showcase the city’s most famous monument. Throughout filming production was held up due to a variety of unforeseen factors. Weather delayed filming, the co-producer and Laughton argued ferociously, and electrical problems led to frequent blackouts.

Praised by Renoir and warmly but not effusively reviewed by critics, the film fell into relative obscurity and for decades the only available information was found in biographies. UCLA’s discovery of two previously unknown prints has resulted in a reappraisal. Now seen not only in terms of its place within the canon of Simenon screen adaptations, critics have suggested that the film is a rare example of a colour film noir.

The Man on the Eiffel Tower is available to order from Amazon.

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

2800538._UY630_SR1200,630_

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.

Betty by Georges Simenon (Trans by Alastair Hamilton)

91qMWU2+z6L

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)

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707 (1)

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)

cover.jpg.rendition.460.707

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.