L’Homme de Kiev (The Fixer), by Bernard Malamud

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I read this book with a certain prejudice towards Malamud, and here’s why

I came to know of Malamud through the New Yorker’s podcasts. In one of them, Alexandar Hemon who edits the Best European Fiction Anthologies, chose to read Malamud’s “A Summer’s Reading”. The fiction editor at the New Yorker, asked Hemon why he though people no longer read Malamud as before, and he said, though meaning well, that it’s because Malamud is a 19th century writer. And so, naturally, I read the book looking for little clues that would make me pop with Aha! 19th century feeling here!

That said, I don’t know to which 19th century Hemon was referring, but this is a fiction book based on a true event and that made me think of the Goncourt brothers, among others. Had I known this fact beforehand, I wouldn’t have read the book, but I was excited to find a book by a Jewish author in Lebanon that I bought it without much thought about it.

The original title of the book is The Fixer and it won the Pulitzer prize. It is based on the Mendel Beilis affair who was wrongfully accused of ritual murder in Kiev in 1911 – 1913. The book was even made into a movie in 1968 starring Alan Bates. This is my problem with such books: how can I differentiate between fact and fiction, and therefore, judge Malamud’s writing skills? How do I know if Malamud adopts the protagonist’s views, and as a result, his own ideas. mendel beilis

L’Homme de Kiev is the story of Yakov Bok who is abandoned by his wife after years of childless marriage and who consequently takes the decision of leaving the shtetl, now that he is humiliated by his wife, and making the realization that after years of hard work there, he still finds himself in complete misery.

Against the admonishing of his father-in-law not to venture outside the safety of the shtetl, Yakov takes his tools, for he is a fixer of objects, and heads towards Kiev. No sooner is he outside of his familiar surrounding, that the real feeling of anti-semtisim starts filtering through, and he finds himself needing to conceal his real identity even to total strangers whom he helps or requests their services.

The atmosphere in Kiev isn’t better, and the rampant atmosphere of anti-semitism checks his resignation to find a better situation outside the shtetl, and he is forced again to seek refuge in the Jewish quarters of the city. One night, he stumbles on the immobile body of a drunken old man out in the cold, and decides, though he notices the black and white symbol on his coat representing the two-headed eagle of the Black-Hundreds (an antisemitic group) to help his daughter pick him up and secure him home.

His good-deed is well rewarded, first by securing employment at Nikolai Maximovitch’s (the drunken anti-Semite) house, and later, having proved his worth, by being offered the job of supervisor at Maximovitch’s brick factory. Though he is not supposed to work, nor reside in the quarter where the factory is located, he decides to brave the established rule and accepts the employment, at a rather generous salary, by maintaining his newly-assumed false identity.

Diligently working, he, naturally, encounters opposition from the workers and the superior, as he confronts them with their attempts to steal from the owner. His salary allowing him some delicacies hitherto unknown to him, he believes to be enjoying this new life, and it seems to him that his decision to venture outside the shtetl was the right one.

The above part is the one I find quite brilliant in this book. Because he “established” himself under his new identity, and was now finally able to enjoy – as much as this word can be used to describe the working class of the time – he also experienced some security; security, from the bigotry of Kiev’s social life at the time, that he kept delaying procuring himself fake papers attesting to his false identity. This is quite smart and I think it applies to people who are racially persecuted as well as to people outside of their “natural habitats” who defy traditional wisdom and believe they can make it outside their comfort zones, and if all things proceed normally, they are given a brief respite and are allowed to relish this new freedom, or this new situation, only to be violently pulled back to the reality. Of course, the message out of this is a pessimistic one: never trust in the goodness of people, always be on your guard. I wonder how many Jews who immigrated from Eastern Europe have instantly identified with Yakov Bok’s situation, right there, in his constant delaying of procuring himself these securing documents.

Yakov wakes up one morning to the hysterical sounds of the residents around him, and finds out that a child of 12 years old, who have been pestering his factory every once in a while, was brutally murdered. This is the wake-up call, and attempting to clear his stuff from his room to flee the place, he is arrested and accused of murder.

Further on, the book no longer interests me. It is a lengthy account of Yakov’s imprisonment, his humiliation, his torture, his interviews by the officials, his solitude. It is a truthful account, no doubt; there is no unnecessary exaggeration of the details, but that is to be expected considering that it is based on a true story. Of course there are lies being spun around him, of course evidence is tampered with, well-meaning investigators are kept away, abominations against the Jews by Orthodox Christians abound, but all this seem so trifle to me. There is no originality in Yakov’s thoughts about religion, or even metaphysics.

I would have much preferred the insinuations of anti-Semitism outside the prison, this atmosphere of bigotry that follows the person of a stigmatized race. Instead, the novel suddenly took on an experimental turn, with the results of the experiment quite predictable to me.

On another note, my book’s cover had a beautiful painting by Boris Bovine Fenkel, called Le Mariage. Googling this artist didn’t produce much images, but it led me to quite some interesting articles about the school of painting this artist belonged to: l’Ecole de Paris, (unfortunately, only in French) a predominantly Jewish grouping of painters in Montparnasse in the period leading to World War 2 (1905 – 1939). And things are these days with online search, one article led to another and I found myself reading about The Night of the Murdered Poets, in Stalinist Russia (The French article on Wikipedia is here). Apparently, not even in “progressivist” Russia did anti-Semitism subside.

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Connais-moi toi-même

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Connais-moi toi-même: Guerres, humour et franbaniaiseries by Samy Khayath

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I never thought a Lebanese humorist would write a book, and for sure, I never assumed the book would be that good! The reason is I come from a generation that did not really know the likes of Samy Khayath and am stuck with subpar humorists, people who are so cheap on the stage, I wonder if they ever acquired some form of education or learning.

As it happens these days, the non-traditional book-finding procedure, somebody posted a link to a youtube video of Samy Khayath, and I went through his channel, and found a video of him signing his book in Beirut, two years ago. Luckily, there remained one or two copies in our bookstores and I was lucky to have one on that same afternoon.

Samy Khayath is part of a generation that has probably vanished from Lebanon. Francophile to the last bit, his pre-war representations demonstrated a love and a command of French that was equally appreciated by a large audience of Lebanese theater-goers, as high as around 30,000 spectators during the civil war! These days, one is lucky to stumble upon a play in French in some forgotten something-turned-theater in one of the quarters of Beirut where residents still hopelessly cling to that language.

Samy’s book was a joy to read. Written in a very literary French -some words gave me a hard time with a couple of dictionaries, yet boosted my Scrabble-playing skills- frequently in sentences that seem never to end, therefore, giving the reader the physical sensation of catching his own breath. Probably as a collateral damage, some of these figures of speech when directed towards himself bordered on vanity and self-grandeur, as in when he refers to himself as one invested with some religious mission to make people laugh.

I would understand why someone of his caliber would repeatedly employ such imagery. For one thing, here is a guy who never tired over a career of 40 years to remain faithful to his audience in being present yearly on the stage and making them (intelligently) laugh all throughout the years of war, with no support safe the loyal attendance of his spectators. For another, before the war and even after it, no explicit recognition came from the Lebanese state as a reward for his career, no serious prize of the sort exists in this country, no books or journals or reviews on Lebanese theater. I suppose the only recognition one gets is from the reviews of some newspapers or magazines in the cultural section.

Samy Khayath was famous for his physical energy on the stage, for making pranks on the audience itself whereby the play would halt because of some on-stage quarrel between the actors, or some fake props’ incident, for his special effects and magical tricks which mesmerized the audience at that time, for his parody songs boldly caricaturing Lebanese and world political figures, for his attention to details in designing brochures and advertisements for his plays, and last but not least, for his clever puns, and example of which, I reproduce at the end of this post (unfortunately in French, and I do not dare translate it for fear of massacring it).

I should have imagined that such an acclaim should be everlasting, alas, if things do not come to an end, they radically change. The Lebanese society itself following the hemorrhage of a good portion of the population towards other countries changed, the entertainment scene obeyed other rules, francophone adherence no longer commanded such attraction on the population, and this invariably reflected on the increasingly shorter-run spectacles, and smaller audiences attending Samy’s plays. The decline in the interest showed by the spectators towards his plays is one that is so transparently laid out in the book that I couldn’t but feel sadness towards the book’s main character. Nevertheless, I was much in respect for him, painting himself in such a light in his glorious days yet faithfully able to describe this anti-climax with such clarity.

In the absence of any moral or legal guiding principle, several of his sketches have been plagiarized, or have served as “inspiration” for other comedians or writers, and I could not retain my shock at some of the sketches or puns that I see everyday reproduced quite liberally on Lebanese television, not the least of which being his sketch about our first names that people automatically use to categorize their holder into a religion, religious sect and even a certain locality.

For my part, I was astonished with how much cultural life strived in this country during its darkest hours. That people should drive under shells to attend a 2-hour play is a remarkable will for survival. Similarly, I admire the drive and commitment that the actors and the technical staff displayed in making every written script a reality. I was surprised by our own level of education, which had to be of some respectable level to appreciate the subtle jokes and cultural references Samy always made, in French nonetheless! I also admired the courage and support assumed by Christian orders in offering Samy the theater and the logistics he requested, at a time when, supposedly, the  Christian part of the country suffered under a reputation of isolationism, imperialism and backwards-thinking.

I will be looking over that book again, something I never do for non-fiction books; but the writing, probably because it is autobiographical, has such a literary force that I would recommend it, even to non-Lebanese who delight in experiencing the refined beauty of the French language.

As promised, I faithfully, reproduce the witty pun of the title Samy Khayath chose for his play, “Salam…use”

(note: at the time of the play, a time of great discordance in the country, the Prime Minister of Lebnese was Saeb Salam, Salam meaning peace)

En ce-temps-là, il n’y avait pas de place pour l’analyse lucide et sereine de évènements. Seule l’histoire dira qui avait raison et qui avait tort. En ce temps-là, j’étais toujours habité par mon rôle de témoin de son époque. En ce temps-là, il me tardait de raconter de façon vivante tout ce que mon pays a connu comme rebondissements au cours de cette année. Je me mets de suite à écrire un nouveau spectacle. Inspiré par l’atmosphère politique ambiante, je lui donne pour nom “Salam…use”. D’une part, le président du Conseil, fort de la légitimité populaire et institutionnelle qui l’a consacré, “use” de son autorité pour gérer le pays, d’autre part, il me semble, à moi humoriste, que par sa superbe et son goût accentué du panache, “ça l’amuse”. En fait, j’ai adopté ce titre définitif lorsque je me suis assuré de la situation stable de Saeb Salam. Auparavant, lorsque ce dernier avait entamé la procédure de formation du cabinet et que tout semblait facile pour lui, le titre de mon show était “Salam…beau” avec la permission de Flaubert. Mais lorsqu’il échoua dans cette première tentative, cela devait: “Salam…aigri”. Puis des scandales éclatèrent et je change à nouveau la dénomination en “Salam…aux roses” qui prend sa double signification si on fait la liaison en prononçant ainsi le titre: “Salam morose”. Mais Saeb bey a pu faire taire ses détracteurs et ce fut “Salam…mate”, avec un clin d’oeil au salut oriental “salamâtt” qui peut avoir une connotation péjorative de taquinerie dans le genre “à bon entendeur salut!” Enfin, tout s’est tassé pour le grand manitou de la République et “Salam…use” s’est imposé. Il n’empêche que la hantise d’une chute du cabinet me tracassait. Si une situation aussi grave survenait, j’aurais recours à un accent aigu et le titre sera: “Salam…usé”, un jeu de mot qui conserve toute sa saveur dans les deux sens du terme. Mais tout s’est bien passé et le nom définitif fut adopté. Je l’annonce à mes amis et à la presse en signalant que je me suis tiré d’une situation bien “salambiquée”.

The Penguin Book of Jewish Short Stories

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What can I say? I can’t believe I own this book, not because it is a collection edition or it’s rare to be found, but simply because I live in Lebanon and unfortunately we live at a time where Jewish / Israeli cultural output is not possible to be found here. Even the distinction between Jewish and Israeli is no longer made here. I was able to get this at an English bookstore in Berlin, St. George’s English Bookshop. I was also lucky to buy another Hebrew anthology: 8 Great Hebrew Short Novels. Months later, somebody in Lebanon was bold enough to sell Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (in French though, L’Homme de Kiev) and I managed to snag that one too. I read them all, and hope to be posting my reviews of them quite soon.

This book features the works of 16 Jewish authors, from I L Peretz to Muriel Spark, one short story per author except for the 19th century writers who have two stories included. It’s quite small considering the number of authors, at around 350 pages.

I started reading it expecting some Jewish humor; there is a bit of that with stories like Sholom Aleichem’s Hodel, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s A Friend of Kafka, even The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth. That said, I was quite shocked with some of the stories and the harrowing details they include, having forgotten at one point the bloody history itself of the Jews especially in Eastern Europe.

The first of those was White Chalah by Lamed Shapiro. A story of such graphical violence that I had to escape online researching it to make sure I was reading it correctly. This is how it opens:

One day a neighbor broke the leg of a stray dog with a heavy stone, and when Vasil saw the sharp edge of the bone piercing the skin he cried. The tears streamed from his eyes, his mouth, and his nose; the towhead on his short neck shrank deeper between his shoulders; his entire face became distorted and shriveled, and he did not utter a sound. He was then about seven years old.

It is told from the point of view of a gentile, Vasil,  -exceptionally in this anthology- to whom Jews were “people who wore strange clothes, sat in stores, ate white chalah and had sold Christ”. Chalah is the braided bread that observant Jews consume on Sabbath. He is recruited in the army and for the following couple of pages we ride with army destroying and crushing villages on its way while witnessing the violent deaths of its own casualties. One day someone says that all this is the fault of the Jews and the army towards internally cleansing itself from Jewish soldiers and the marches on towards villages where Jews reside. The gruesome descriptions end in a climax of Vasil, having been days without food, consuming the flesh of a Jewish woman as if it were white chalah itself.

I thought one story about the pogroms should be enough for such a small book, but as brutal as White Chalah is, I found The Story of My Dovecot by Isaac Babel Singer more gripping and yet more heartfelt. It is longer, and so allows a bit of background to filter through. It is written in the first person narrative from the viewpoint of a boy competing for admission to middle school, and on what should have been a normal day, comes face to face (literally) with the pogroms of 1905. This feeling of safety being robbed from us is an experience I should never forget as our own Lebanese history, during the civil war, is riddled with. Naturally, in such times, the synagogue offers both worldly and spiritual safety, and throughout the stories one always notices the omnipresence of the synagogue, of its warmth and of the sense of familiarity it offers to the Jews of the Eastern European countries.

Another story that echoed quite vividly with our own, recent history, is Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld.

Spring returned to Badenheim. Bells rang in the near-by country church. The shadows of the forest drew back into the forest. The sun scattered the remaining darkness, and its light spilled out along the main street. It was a moment of transition. Soon the holidaymakers would invade the town.

You’d think that you are in for some idyllic novel, but the date in the title never leaves your mind, and you are reading with apprehension knowing that 1939 can’t bring anything good for the Jews in Europe.  Badenheim is getting ready for the yearly festival, and artists and bands and spectators are flooding the town. Amidst the normal commotion and preparations and the lives of the locals who endure the coming of the visitors, the Department of Sanitations tarts making more than usual inspections and little by little its jurisdiction grows, and the inspections become more like interrogations, and yet the people and the organizers go on with their habitual preparations; all except one Trudy who is prone to hallucinations and who senses that the faces of the people are looking paler than usual.

Without spoiling the rest of the story, I wonder whether Appelfeld wasn’t harsh on the Jews who went on with their lives not expecting or probably not giving due attention to the changes the Nazis started enforcing on their living conditions. The parallels that Badenheim 1939 presents with our own history are remarkable. In July 2006, we also were going on with our regular lives, expecting a flood of tourists for the months of July and August and barely waking up form the euphoria of the end of the World Cup of 2006, we come face to face with the shocking news that Israel is bombing the airport to retaliate for an attack perpetrated by Hizbollah on the southern border with Israel. Gradually, the dream (as it is for every Lebanese) of a busy summer start crumbling, and slowly we find ourselves under an aerial and naval embargo, with half the country in war against Israel and the other half stuck in queues trying to get gas for their cars and food from supermarkets. Of course the proportion between World War 2 and the July War is negligible and the July War only lasted 33 days, but it felt that all this was too real, and too vivid in my mind when I was going through Badenheim 1939.

To conclude, this anthology is one to be considered as an introduction to Jewish literature, and it presents such a wide array of Jewish authors – it even features a South African Jewish writer I have never heard of – that the reader is sure to select one author for further consideration. It’s a pleasant read and because the editor, Emanuel Litvinoff wonders what can be considered Jewish writing and who can be considered a Jewish writer, the reader gets the chance of enjoying the variations of Jewish writing across periods and locations as well.

Other stories I would recommend are: Setting the World to Rights by Amos Oz about the disappointment or the realities of the Kibbutz life, a theme that is partially reconsidered  in The Hill of Evil Counsel (to be reviewed soon), The Conversion of the Jews by Philip Roth, about the blindly gulped religious indoctrination by religious institutions, and The Man in the Drawer, by Bernard Malamud (Malamud, who’s book The Fixer, L’Homme de Kiev, I will be reviewing soon as well). I think the latter story is directly inspired from Philip Roth’s smuggling of Eastern European literature in the mid 70s during Communism.

Cover Her Face / Maigret Tend un Piège

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I bundled these crime stories together because I did not enjoy either.

I got Cover Her Face by P.D. James for a bargain of 3.99 Euros in Frankfurt on my visit there. It’s a Faber Firsts edition; apparently, they are reissuing the first works of several authors to celebrate Faber’s eightieth birthday. This also was my first P.D. James, and most probably my last.

The book is not boring or anything, but it did not interest me one bit. At the time, I was also listening to an Agatha Christie, The Body in the LIbrary, an audiobook read by Stephanie Cole. Because I have gulped so many Christies in my youth, I have a natural tendency to compare similar works to hers, and more often than not, they usually fall short. Additionally, the audiobook, if read by a professional, opens up a different experience for us, especially us who are not native English speakers, and one gets the opportunity of sensing the subtle variations among characters through the vocal performance of the reader.

I suppose all these factors contributed to my indifference towards Cover Her Face. The story is quite simple: at a fête in St. Cedd’s Church, a yearly event, the new maid of the family who usually organizes the fête, the Martingales, is found murdered. Early in the book, we are told how the new parlour maid has been hired as a nice gesture from Mrs. Martingale, even though with time passing by she proved to be not the smoothest helping hand to deal with… The subtle interactions among the family members and their friends were the interesting part (for me) in the book. What I disliked was Inspector Dalgliesh himself, and his procedures, if he has procedures. I couldn’t frame the guy: was he indifferent? was he someone focused on the police procedures rather on the psychology of the people? Was he a combination of both?

I suppose P.D. James further developed the character of her inspector but for now; I had the same feeling with Wallander when I read another first Mankell. I suppose if I lay my hands on an audiobook rendition of one of her books, I might give her another chance.

In Maigret Tend un Piège (Maigret Sets a Trap), I felt that Simenon decided this time to focus on the working environment of Maigret rather than on his abilities to identify with the victims and the suspects. Having read his biography by Assouline, I discovered that actual detectives found his books rather funny and quite far from the realities of real police work.

Because of that, this story departs from several fixtures of previous Maigret stories. For instance, this is one of the few times where the weather in the story is nice: sunny, no rain, no fog, no overcoat under which Maigret must cover himself… 

Another difference to other Maigrets is that, for the first time, if I’m not mistaken, Maigret finds himself in front of a serial killer. The story has some similarities to Jack The Ripper’s, though of course it is not set in Whitehall but in Montmartre. In the narrow streets and alleys of Montmartre women are either murdered or aggressed with the intention of murder. The trap that Maigret sets takes the form of a policewoman who is supposed to lure the murder into aggressing her right on time for the police to capture him. His scheme fails, yet sets him on another hypothesis that he explores to its limits. One of the few times where Maigret actually employs the police in his investigations to something more substantial than stakeouts and information gathering

Consequently, we find ourselves in front of a SuperMaigret: he barely sleeps, turns the circle of action where the crimes are happening or might happen into an artificial enclosure, turns himself into a one-man-show central command, is quite aware of the press and manipulates it to his own advantage, all the while managing to evade the inquisitive questions of the Juge Coméliau who is taking heat from his superior.

The police procedures of Maigret’s investigations have never been Simenon’s forte, and because Maigret has an indifference towards his superiors, one usually takes them more in humor than in seriousness. The real interest comes to us when the suspect is apprehended thereby revealing his psychology, his past, and his working environment; I was more looking forward to when Maigret returns to the atelier of the suspect than to when he returns home or to his office.

Because the book has an air of solving a serial killer mystery, it takes the form of a whodunnit, and here too I found myself waiting for the page before the last to have the identity of the murderer revealed. The book was made into a movie starring Jean Gabin and Annie Girardot. Unfortunately, the movie has nothing to do with the book. I never liked Jean Gabin as Maigret: I found him too loquacious to be a Maigret. The movie also introduced a relationship between two characters, probably to throw us off, that was not even in the book. One final detail I like to mention about the movie, because I suppose this must have irritated Simenon: it rains over Jean Gabin in the ending scene when he walks out to the streets, having solved the mystery. Simenon was, at a moment in his life, attempting to react against his publishers and the press who were requesting the typically Simonian “atmosphere” of rain and fog and cold, and I was very much surprised to find it there at the last scene of the movie.

Simenon by Pierre Assouline

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I always imagined Pierre Assouline to be a Simenon parasite. This is because I had bought his biography of Simenon two years before he published the Auto-dictionnaire of Simenon, and I wondered how much more would he milk out of Simenon’s reputation.  

In all honesty though, both books are quite nice to have for Simenon fan(atics)

“Simenon” is the first biography I read (I think… at least not counting the political figures’ biographies). I normally don’t like to know the hidden details of the lives of authors – or people in general – whom I admire; but I rationalized that I have read too many Simenon books that I could take the blow, if there would be one. And boy are there plenty in this book! 

Assouline managed to write 940 pages on Simenon and he still has tons of unpublished material; this is hardly surprising, as Simenon was such a prolific writer. Around 400 published books of hard novels, Maigret stories, crime stories without Maigret, some fluffy romance novels, screenplays, and memoirs… Surprisingly, the material for those romance novels and for the crime stories (the bulk of his work) come from Simenon’s youth: he had little exposure to the world of police and courts after his journalist years. 

Assouline divides the book into titled chapters including the timeframe the chapter deals with. I think Assouline did a very good job reflecting the gradual transition Simenon undertook from a simple reporter to an author hugely admired by Gide and supported by the prestigious Nouvelle Revue Francaise. Then again, Simenon himself aids Assouline in this clear-cut division of his working years; it seemed that Simenon knew exactly where he wanted to be at particular points in time. 

He knew how much time span to give writing popular novels, before moving to Maigret, building his reputation there, before again taking the risk to write serious literature. Assouline presents to us a writer who was in control of the the minutest details that affect his work: for instance, he had a daily writing routine that he changed little wherever he would find himself around the world: waking up at 6 am, soundproof bureau, his pipes charged and ready before him, yellow envelopes, white paper, the yellow pages, dictionaries, coffee (and Coca Cola when he was writing in America).

He exercised a lot of control over his author’s rights, and he was one of the few who were able to command such high royalties and advances over his books. Assouline goes into the intricate details of Simenon’s accounting books, unearths correspondence between Simenon and his publishers to demonstrate what a tough businessman he was; a reputation that became solidly established in the world of publishing at that time. Even when he was young in the business, he would be furious at the manipulation done to his books when they were transported into movies (though having his books made into movies at that time was a feat by itself) and he learned, early on, to be quite cautious with production houses, screenwriters and directors. Similarly, once he familiarized himself with the English language, living in America, he rechecked the English translations of his books, and it did not take him more than a year before he broke off his contract with his English translator, the respected Geoffrey Sainsbury.

Though Simenon had such a rigorous system when he was writing, yet he managed to get in touch with the local culture, wherever he found himself, but only as an observant. Assouline tells of an incident where Simenon sensed the suspicious looks of two gentlemen at a cafe in Lakesville, Arizon who suspected “The Frenchman”, as they used to call him there, fishing around for stories. Nevertheless, his environment never influenced his writing style, and it would be quite the challenge to point out which novels were written in Paris, which ones in America, and which ones in Switzerland, later.

What I particularly loved about the book are the thorough investigations Assouline undertakes when digging out little details. He does an excellent job, since early on in the book, in setting apart the memorialist from the writer. Frequently, he will point out to some incident that Simenon writes about in his “Mémoires Intimes” or in his previous memoirs, and will detail the differences between the two, supporting his claim by other evidences. Early on, we are told that Simenon is not be trusted when he remembers the past events of his life. 

Assouline reveals, albeit towards the end of the book, what could be (because we are never sure) the true source for the name Maigret, he also reveals personal, family details about the Simenons, about Marie-Jo, about Denyse, Simenon’s second wife. He shocked me with how little Simenon read and how little interested he was in the literary world. By itself, this is not a bad thing, but Simenon in this biography is quite the self-centered type. For example, it wasn’t until later that we realize, from his own letters, how little he paid attention to Gide and how ignorant he was of his novels, even though Gide was quite helpful in pushing him upon Gallimard, in proofreading his stories, in helping him draw his characters… Though I write this months after reading this book, I still remember how horrified I was when I read Simenon’s notes about Gide – sometimes, his egocentricity bordering on ungratefulness and hypocrisy. 

Having said that, Simenon himself suffered from his Maigret-writer reputation, his voluminous production – though with all the care and business strategies in the world – could never shift the light from Maigret to his hard-novels. He was never the recipient of the Goncourt prize, never made it to the Académie; his “presidency” of the Festival de Cannes was a big flop. 

At the end of the book, it seemed to me that he was quite a mechanical writer, quite modern in his production: he was able to structure his novel in such a way to attract the regulars yet with slight variations to keep readers asking for more, but rarely, if ever, showed much originality. This is clearly reflected in the sales figures of his books, his Maigret books outselling his romans-furs 3 to 1, but both maintaining more or less the same publication figures: the Maigrets at around 60,000 copies (in France) and the romans-durs at around 20,000 copies.

In conclusion, I found the book quite entertaining, very enriching, as objective as a biography could be, and quite honestly a must-read for Simenon fans.