A Severed Head

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I’ve enjoyed reading this book. My copy came with an introduction by Miranda Syemour but I found myself disagreeing with her. I didn’t think Martin, the main character, moves from hazy view of relationship to lucidity towards the end of the book. There’s definitely truth in this personal voyage that’s externalized with more certainty in the pursuit that Martin makes towards the end of the book. But my impression is that there’s *perceived* certainty and that makes all the difference.

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This was my first Murdoch and so I was taken by her writing and by her description of London’s fog and of the dreary weather that accompanies the novel.
My impression is that A Severed Head is a story that mocks psychoanalysis and ridicules the pursuit of the self’s happiness, this “do whatever makes you happy”. I couldn’t have imagined a different ending which I took to be more sarcastic than serious in tone.

The story
The story opens on an adulterous couple, Martin Lynch-Gibbons, mid 30s, married to Antonia, and Georgie Hands, a 26-year old student within the apartment of the latter that’s filled with gifts offered by Martin. Georgie wants their relation to be out in the open and Martin hesitates. The characters of the novel, upon hindsight, are all introduced in this scene:
Palmer Anderson, the American psychoanalyst who treats Antonia, and who’s half-sister, Honor Klein, a Jewish anthropologist, will be visiting, Alexander, Martin’s brother to whom Martin leaves his mistresses and Rosemary, Martin’s sister who seems prim but whom Martin suspects of leading a liberal life.
Back home to his unsuspecting wife, Martin is stunned by the revelation of Antonia that she is actually in love with her psycho-analyst whom she has been seeing for a while. So much is Martin in disbelief that he tells his wife to abandon her “ridiculous” idea of leaving him and to go to bed with Palmer instead, to which she replies, I already have.

 

That’s the frame of the novel; within a dozen of pages the stability of the couple is shattered and Martin will remain until the end of the book in search of an apartment to settle himself.
The story is told exclusively from the viewpoint of Martin and Martin never exteriorizes his feelings; he’s actually understanding without being forgiving:

I had been cheated of some moment of violence, of some special though perhaps fruitless movement of will and power; and for this at least I would never forgive them.

His understanding of the various changes that happen around him is unsettling, guided, or possibly mesmerized, by his friend and ex-wife’s lover, Palmer Anderson, who explains to Martin:

I know Antonia very well, Martin. Better in some ways than you do. That’s not your fault but my profession. I know *you* better in some ways than you do.

The longevity of the Palmer-Antonia couple seems to depend, almost exclusively, on their gravitation around Martin, in an effort to nurse Martin, who expresses -more than once throughout the book- his longing to his deceased mother, whose features Martin finds within his brother, Alexander.
These referrals to psychoanalytic textbook cases and this omniscience of the psychoanalyst do not shed the least bit of light on the actions of the characters. In fact, it seems to me that throughout the book, the characters react to their basic urges and provide ad hoc justifications of them. This makes them ever evasive to the reader.
To illustrate, in an attempt to explain one of the deplorable acts that Martin commits, he writes three letters to his victim, none of which overlaps with the other, sends the second and wishes he wrote a fourth letter.

This constant rationalization of basic urges finds its contrast in Martin’s unique act that reflects some kind of willpower, possibly fueled by an early admonishment from Honor Klein:

Could imply, could imply! She said. Where logic breaks down anything can imply anything. It seems to me now that you do not really want your wife back after all

The state of debauchery in which the characters find themselves throughout the book is more comical than explicit and though I found myself frequently laughing at the revelations coming from the characters, the book nevertheless felt serious in the way that it treats the frivolity of emotions in adults who, lacking any sort of moral compass, seem more like children responding to basic needs or, though not very inviting to the reader, close to juvenile dreamers.

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L’Horloger D’Everton, Georges Simenon

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Simenon wrote L’Horloger d’Everton in 1954, in Lakeville, Connecticut. It is one of the 25 works – romans-durs and Maigrets – that will be produced during his 5 years in America. That’s 5 novels per year, on average. Perhaps, because of his abundant productivity, his writing did not change between France, the US or Switzerland. What is noticeable though, in this book, is the abundance of items that are given their american labels: living room, dad, slacks, rye, high school, federal building, etc… italicized whenever utilized.

L’Horloger d’Everton is the story of a father, Dave Galloway, living alone with his son Ben, 16, ever since Ben’s mother, Ruth left them when the boy was 6 months old.
Dave leads a monotonous life among the inhabitants of Everton; he is familiar with most of his neighbors because of his watch-repairing shop. Every Saturday night, he heads off to his friend Musak, and they spend their Saturdays playing trictrac with their rye drinks.

Heading back home on one of those Saturdays, Dave finds that Ben is not there. Brought out of his house by the cries of his neighbor, Mrs. Hawkins, dragging her drunkard husband up the stairs towards their home, Dave is made aware of her concern that it is a little too late for Ben and Lilian to be at the movies. This ludicrous scene, between the cries of the drunk Mr. Hawkins, his wife trying to shut him up, forcing him to stand still, while informing Dave that Ben has been a frequent guest of their house for the past three months, shakes up Dave’s impression that he and Ben were on the same page, that they understood one another, that they were a good team. In this badly-lit hallway, Dave starts to realize that his life with Ben  as he thought he knew it, is no more.

In the early morning light, the missing elements of Ben’s disappearance start falling into place: a visit by the police tells him that his son stole an Oldsmobile after, as it might seem, having murdered its owner; he is riding on the interstate along with a girl, Lilian, most probably.

The events that follow are very American in their appearance, and I got the feeling that Simenon couldn’t have written them as such had he not spent time there, whilst retaining his own rendering of Dave’s grasp of this new reality. A manhunt is set on track after Dave’s interrogation by the police and the press invades Dave’s little privacy. In a matter of hours, America knows about the police chasing the dangerous suspect Ben through the news flashes that interrupt the radio programs transmitting baseball games.

I won’t say more about the plot; it is a quick read but one that I don’t recommend. I haven’t read Simenon in almost two years, having finished Assouline’s biography of him in January 2013, and I thought it was about time to pick up something by him again.

I suppose if one is familiar with Maigret and picks up this book, then yes, I can understand being taken by L’Horloger d’Everton. However, What I saw was a repetition of characters, a repetition of expressions and almost the same setup of other romans-durs. For example, I wonder if Simenon ever wrote a novel in which the protagonist spoke or expressed himself much more than just absorbed what is going on around him, passively grasping the reality of things, acting more than just a mere observer of life. Rare are the books where the protagonist is a woman, or where woman have a positive influence on the plot.

There are variations among the novels, to be sure: cigarettes or pipes, murderers vs innocent, married or single, rich or poor, but nothing deep. These slight variations do not hold my interest much long. The plot structure triggered by a murder that transforms the reality of those affected by it without them having any influence on the course of events is a structure that works in Maigrets but not in the romans-durs.

This is why when I’ll be picking up Simenon again it will be a Maigret. At least in a Maigret, I know I will be jumping in a pre-defined environment, the Quai des Orfevres, Paris, the shady individuals, the extravagantly rich people, the wife of Maigret in the background, the heater of Maigret, his temper, his compassion with the victims, his understanding of the complexities of family life… If I read a dozen of similar Maigrets, I’m not bothered. But stumbling upon the “serious” novels which explicitly and repeatedly borrow from the Maigret is something I no loner enjoy.

To be fair, how much can an author change in 400 novels, novellas and short stories, not forgetting that I didn’t read half of those. Judging from the titles, I suppose there are novels that do not quite resemble those I’ve read so far, for example: La Veuve Coudère, Lettre À Mon Juge, and Pedigree.
Though I don’t recommend it, L’Horloger D’Everton is a book praised by TS Eliot who was also a fan of the Maigret novels, and it fared well when it was published. Perhaps, this is why there are so many covers of this book, a surprise I received when searching for a cover image to add to my post.

I picked the top cover because at least the image reflects a scene that is present twice in the book when Dave crumbles down on his bed first after suspecting that Ben might have completely taken off, and the second time when he is done with the press and is completely beat. The image also resembles his incomprehension when Ruth left him.

The grey cover right below does not reflect the content of the book because we’re only in Dave’s workshop in the first pages of the book, the second one in red plays on the mystery of the Oldsmobile, the Livre de Poche cover is too abstract for our story, and the last cover promises a love story as it seems.

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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.

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. 

A Burnt-Out Case by Graham Greene

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I was given A Burnt-Out Case by a philosophy professor in early January because I was feeling quite dissatisfied with my job and I was considering starting from scratch, embarking on a different track to study comparative literature. Because I knew my professor was a Catholic Christian, I assumed the book would deal with Catholicism; doubtless, the subject matter revolves around faith, but I also had the feeling that other topics were similarly present.

The book packs a handful of concurrent themes. Readers of Greene might be expecting to read about matters of faith, morality or politics. I found that the book dealt more with choice, and this central presence of decisions and alternatives that are felt in the insignificant details of our lives, yet, somehow they end up throwing us into different trajectories, sometimes independently of our intentions.

On the surface, yes, matters of faith are examined, especially Christian theology. Since faith and choice cannot be separated, in particular, the interpretation of theological subjects, I felt that the fabric of the plot is woven around the characters’ responsiveness and flexibility to their own  choices.

That said, I suppose that someone with Greene’s experience and unstable life, must inevitably conclude that choosing any course of action, any form of companionship, or even any belief system must seem quite an absurd and random decision.

The book starts with an ambiguous European, later to be identified as (aptly-named) Querry, arriving at a leproserie, somewhere on the borders of a river in Congo, because the boat he embarked upon cannot go any further. It is clear from the first pages that he is in torment, for he is unable to smile, unwilling to talk, isolating his inner self to avoid facing questions he cannot reasonably answer.

As the story unfolds and Querry gets in contact with the other characters: Dr. Colin, of the dispensary, the order of the Fathers, the manager of an oil factory and his wife, the reporter and his own African servant, we are informed that he lost the ability to love: not his work, wherein he excelled as an architect, nor women, nor God.

With the contact of the inhabitants, both Africans and Europeans, of this leprosery, a mild metamorphosis occurs to him: he begins to care, even if fleetingly, for his African servant, a cured leper and he offers his services as a builder to the people working on establishing a new hospital. Though both changes are quite diluted and meager in comparison with what the others are and have been doing in this isolated enclave, yet they form the connecting threads of this plot for they rally the other characters around them. For instance, the Superior of the order of the Fathers accepts them without moralizing about them, without analyzing their motives. The rigid Father Thomas is too enthusiastic to declare victory of faith over disbelief in this man’s heart. The manager of the oil factory glorifies such acts to reflect the humility of the famous Querry; “the” Querry, as he calls him, against whom he would like to measure his intellect and his actions.

Following these “heroic” acts, as they were dubbed, by the inhabitants of the leproserie, Querry does not feel regret for doing them, but he spends a frustratingly long time, attempting to refute them, to reflect their true worth, in vain. “The innocence and immaturity of isolation” as Greene writes inevitably compels people to project their own needs, their own aspirations even, to this new change in their environment.

My own interpretation of why Querry undertook these two actions does not take me far. As plain as it may be, I assume that the drive behind these actions is the interaction that Querry felt with the people of the leproserie; in particular, with Dr. Colin, the atheist physician who thrives to cure his patients, sometimes against all reason, without the demotivation which such disappointments might bring. Dr. Colin is content with his atheism; Querry is fighting an inner struggle against disbelief.

What I liked about the book is that throughout a good chunk of it, nothing obvious happens. The inner transformations and reactions of the characters are what brought the plot to such a climactic ending. Additionally, I liked the equidistance Graham Greene takes towards his characters. I did not detect any judgement against them; I felt they were ‘honest’ characters, acting within a margin of behavior which faithfully entraps them. Perhaps this is why in the introduction to the book, Greene states that these characters are pure fiction and cannot be identified. One has the feeling that he was accurately reporting on real people he encountered.

Having finished the book, I went on to check out Greene’s biography [I am a fan of this website on writers’ biographies: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi] and I was stunned to discover how much aspects of his life, including people he encountered, are represented in his books; this one in particular. For example, Greene hated being labeled a Catholic novelist, much like Querry despised being referred to as a Catholic architect. Another point of interest to the readers of the book, Querry’s love life seems to revolve around affairs with married women, not unlike Greene’s.

I think A Burnt-Out Case is one of those books that one enjoys reading without putting them down; I finished it in a couple of days, which is quite the record for my reading habits. The absence of any dynamism in the plot allows one to enjoy Greene’s furtive comments against colonialism, (“Yet in our century , you could hardly call them fools. Hola Camp, Sharperville and Algiers had justified all possible belief in European cruelty.”), his remarks on the specificities of African culture (“Father Thomas, when you have been in Africa a little longer, you will learn not to ask an African a question which may be answered by yes. It’s their form of courtesy to agree. It means nothing at all”), and why not, his theological interpretations (“Bad things are not there. They are nothing. Hate means no love. Envy means no justice. They are just empty spaces where Yezu ought to be”)

Mon Ami Maigret

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When I woke up last Saturday to a gorgeously dark sky brooding with heavy clouds, I knew it was ripe time to pick-up a new Simenon.

I have 6 Volumes of the Tout-Maigret, from Omnibus, and I am starting with the fourth volume.
To my (slight) disappointment, the story I chose Mon Ami Maigret, is set at an island, Porquerolles, with its flanelle-clad dwellers and harsh sunlight casting golden reflections over the sea. One of the rare “sunny” cases, but yep, it had to be this one.

Brushing such a minor letdown aside, the book was fun to read. The first chapter opens up a tad on the hyperbole, when the reader learns that Mr. Pyke, the title name of the first chapter, is dispatched from Scotland Yard to observe the investigative methods of Maigret. Since this is Simenon writing, this inflated Maigret figure, himself suddenly under scrutiny from Mr. Pyke, is barely given much space, and we are directed back in, to the reality of the Quai des Orfevres, a bit too bluntly even, when Maigret receives a phone call from a brigadier relaying him the news that a man was murdered in Porquerolles because of his friendship with him.

Though I find Simenon favoring, often too much, the silent dialogues between the guest characters and Maigret, in Mon Ami Maigret, I had the feeling that such an exchange between the two was not given enough space to develop. Perhaps, this has to do with the sunny, not quite serious Porquerolles, which allegedly strikes new visitors with “Porquerollite” a virus that causes people to shed all formalities and embrace the sun and the sea, and the joie-de-vivre.
Nevertheless, what furtive exchanges occur between Maigret and Pyke remain the most interesting parts of the story; in fact, it is because of one of those, that I thought it would be interesting to review this book.

Here we are in 1949, an Englishman of the same profession as his French host, expresses his opinion about a suspect in the case. We are outside the café of the hotel, under the warm sunlight, there was between the Englishman and the suspect no interrogation, only a game of chess, and yet the Englishman is able to draw a portrait of the suspect, who is Dutch, because of general traits that he noticed and which are common among young people coming form morally rigid countries (comparing the Netherlands, back then, to England, is funny to me). He is even able to extend such an observation to the host country, France, claiming that the Dutch suspect must not seem a unique specimen to the French. Incidentally, his profiling of the Dutch came to confirm a mild uneasiness that Maigret felt around Mr. Pyke, because of the different approach he adopted questioning some of the suspects.

Maigret était un peu soucieux, un peu crispé. Sans être attaqué, il était chatouillé par l’envie de se défendre

Further ahead, Mr. Pyke informs Maigret that the Dutch speaks perfect English, an additional characteristic that adds definition to the Dutch’s portrait.

I appreciated those two pages for the simple reason that they feel quite distanced from us; how easy was it back then to sketch the identity of a character out of the general identity of a group, of a bigger sample. I find that these days everything is about assuming one’s own identity, about finding ourselves, uniqueness, differentiation. A crime writer of this present age cannot risk going into the familiar, or into the assumption, or into pre-defined types.

Before I close my review, and since this is Simenon writing, I find that the receding importance of the investigative techniques and procedures (to the disappointment of Pyke and his Scotland Yard superiors) and the untangling of the mystery in the background are what I enjoy most about every Maigret.

We are nearing the end of the story, the interrogation of the two suspects, which Maigret wanted to be done in confidentiality, at least as much as the island would allow it, is almost over

“Avouez, Monsieur X, que vous n’êtes pas fâché que ça craque!”

Jusqu’à ce “monsieur” qui blessait Y ay plus profond de lui-même.

at the same time, outside the interrogation room:

Le déjeuner avait commençé à l’Arche. Jojo n’avait pas dû se taire tout à fait, ou alors les gens flairaient quelque chose car on voyait de temps en temps des silhouettes rôder autour de la mairie.

Even though Maigret gave his orders to Jojo,t he girl who works at the café l’Arche, not to blabber about who is being interrogated and where, “word got out” as the saying goes and people started to gather around the mayor’s office.

We, readers, will never know how exactly word got out, and if it did, for that matter. It’s a totally inconsequential matter, because the book ends shortly after that, but I love that Simenon is able to move from ascertaining the psychology of the suspect, down to its minutest details, then gradually leaving the focal point of the interrogation to what is happening out there, without himself offering much about it, but nevertheless, creating a completely realistic and tangible atmosphere, very vivid in our mind, despite of (or maybe because of) the lack of any attempt to clearly resolve out every detail of the plot.

 

La Neige Était Sale -The beginning-

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To read Simenon in his native language; to grasp his world, to indulge in every word he carefully selects, to capture his elusive characters is, without a doubt, to be privileged.

This book, “La Neige Etait Sale” (In English, Dirty Snow) is supposedly his best. Perhaps.

I’m only at the 22nd page and already feel the need to write something about them.

The story, I don’t care much about it to be honest, starts with Frank losing his virginity. Nothing sexual; it’s the first time he kills, not commits murder. Simenon differentiates between the two. (In Maigret et le Tueur, he highlights this distinction). The opening sentence reads: “Sans un événement fortuit, le geste de Frank Friedmaier, cette nuit-là, n’aurait eu qu’une importance relative.” Knowing Simenon beforehand, one assumes that this act could only mean killing; and it sounds alarming; taking another human’s life does not represent much of a significance to Frank. But Simenon is rarely harsh on his protagonists, possibly because he lives with them this short time span writing the novel.

We can only guess why Frank does what he does or thinks the way he thinks; Simenon generously distributes question marks when defining his characters: “Est-ce parce qu’il était à l’affût que cela a fait figure d’occasion?” […] “Alors pourquoi toussa-t-il juste au moment ou l’homme allait atteindre l’impasse?” […] “Est-ce à cause de Sissy, la fille de Holst?”

But I daresay that it’s because of these questions, because of so many “cela etait sans aucune importance” that one enjoys his books… Because this protagonist is not a murderer, he is not a calculating psychopath, his psychological portrait is open to interpretation; Simenon’s characters do not fit a pre-defined classification; after all they are people whom he sees in cafés, strolling down sidewalks, strangers he briefly encounters. These everyday beings, he transports them into his world, and proceeds with his social and psychological experimentation. (As much as writing allows experimentation)

Moving a couple of pages along, Frank starts making some sense to us, not because of a psychological elaboration; rather we begin by sensing this relation that develops between an individual and a surrounding society. This relationship is paradoxical; it feels as if Frank is dependent on it, yet at the same time he wants to detach himself, he wants to demonstrate his indifference towards it; this is perfectly reasonable in Simenoian world: being part of this society was not Frank’s choice. It was imposed on him, not in the negative sense, no; simply, as a matter-of-fact.

For the moment, I content myself with this short introduction, transcribing below, what I consider to be, Simenon at his best.

“Il les obligeait presque à manger. Il mangeait avec elles. Il les pelotaient devant tout le monde. Il regardait ses doigts mouillés et il riait. Puis, régulièrement, un moment venait où il débouclait son ceinturon et le posait sur la table.

À ce ceinturon, il y avait un étui contenant un revolver à répétition.

En soi, tout cela était sans importance.”

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