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

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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heavily from incidents and people Simenon knew in Belgium and features a motif recurrent in many Maigret novels, the withdrawn and submissive father figure.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.

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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.

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.