Saturday, December 10, 2016

James Salter's Top Ten List

James Salter

James Salter's Top Ten List


James Salter (1925-2015) was an American writer who flew more than 100 missions as an Air Force pilot before publishing his first novel, The Hunters(1957). His celebrated prose style – sometimes described as a cross between Ernest Hemingway and henry Miller – earned him the reputation as a writer’s writer. His most celebrated work is, A Sport and a Pastime (1967), an erotic novel set in post-war France about an American student and a French girl. His other novels include Light Years(1975) and All That Is (2013). In 2013 his Collected Stories were published. His nonfiction works include the memoir Burning the Days (1997), There and Then: The Travel Writing of James Salter (2005) and Life Is Meals: A Food Lover's Book of Days (2006, written with wife Kay Eldredge, 2006). He was elected to The Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000. In 2012, the PEN/Faulkner Foundation selected him for the prestigious PEN/Malamud Award for lifetime achievement.
1.The Bible. (See appreciation below).

2. Aesop’s Fables (c. sixth century b.c.e.). Though their origins are vague —Aesop may have been born a slave in Asia Minor in 620 b.c.e.—these tales use talking animals to personify human virtues and vices. Fables such as “The Hare and the Tortoise,” “The Lion and the Mouse” and “The Fox Who Lost His Tail” show that “slow and steady wins the race,” “appearances can be deceiving,” and “misery loves company.”

3. The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights (c. 1450).  Scheherazade receives the grim honor of marrying her King, who executes his wives on the day after the wedding night. Sche­ herazade delays her death by at least one thousand nights by telling tales that grow out of each other like the designs in a Turkish rug. Those childhood familiars, Sindbad, Ali Babba, and Aladdin, are all here.

4. The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. These tales of medieval chivalry, romance, and high adventure composed primarily from the twelfth through fifteenth centuries feature a host of iconic characters: Sir Galahad, Lancelot, Mordred, Guinevere, Merlin, and the Lady of the Lake. These are stories that gave us Camelot, the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail. Versions abound but the best place to start is with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.

5. Henry IV, Parts I and II by William Shakespeare (1596–98). These plays follow the rise of Prince Hal, son of Henry IV, from wastrel cavalier to powerful King Henry V, who would lead the English army to victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415, as dramatized in Henry V. Hal’s maturation from rioting prince to deadly serious king is not without complications, however, as he renounces a festive underworld of great verbal richness, unparalleled wit, and creative energy for a ruthless, sinister, and murderous world of Machiavellian politics where might equals right. The most famous casualty of this transformation is Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, Sir John Falstaff, Hal’s boon companion in Part I, whom the prince summarily rejects in Part II.

6. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857). Of the many nineteenth-century novels about adulteresses, only Madame Bovary features a heroine frankly detested by her author. Flaubert battled for five years to complete his meticulous portrait of extramarital romance in the French provinces, and he complained endlessly in letters about his love-starved main character — so inferior, he felt, to himself. In the end, however, he came to peace with her, famously saying, “Madame Bovary: c’est moi.” A model of gorgeous style and perfect characterization, the novel is a testament to how yearning for a higher life both elevates and destroys us.

7. Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842). Gogol’s self-proclaimed narrative “poem” follows the comical ambitions of Chichikov, who travels around the country buying the “dead souls” of serfs not yet stricken from the tax rolls. A stinging satire of Russian bureaucracy, social rank, and serfdom, Dead Souls also soars as Gogol’s portrait of “all Russia,” racing on “like a brisk, unbeatable troika” before which “other nations and states step aside to make way.”

8. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky —which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end —is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.

9. Stories of Isaac Babel (1894–1940). “Let me finish my work” was Babel’s final plea before he was executed for treason on the orders of Josef Stalin. Though incomplete, his work is enduring. In addition to plays and screenplays, some in collaboration with Sergei Eisenstein, Babel made his mark with The Odessa Stories, which focused on gangsters from his native city, and even more important, the collection entitled Red Cavalry. Chaos, bloodshed, and mordant fatalism dominate those interconnected stories, set amid the Red Army’s Polish campaign during the Russian Civil War. Babel, himself a combat veteran, embodied the war’s extremes in the (doubtless autobiographically based) war correspondent–propagandist Kiril Lyutov and the brutally violent Cossack soldiers whom he both fears and admires. Several masterpieces herein (including “A Letter,” “My First Goose,” and “Berestechko”) anticipate Hemingway’s later achievement, and confirm Babel’s place among the great modernist writers.

10. Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812–14). Where Hans Christian Anderson was sweetly folklorish and gentle, the German folk tales collected by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm are gritty and fearless. Their legendary stories —among them Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty —are as violent as they are enchanting. Though versions of the Frog Prince abound, the Grimms reject sentimental romance to tell a moral tale about keeping a promise. Their princess is a brat who throws the frog against the wall rather than kissing him to turn him into a prince. Grimm’s Fairy Tales deliver enchantment and moxie.

Appreciation of the Bible by Andrew Hudgins
 The Bible is both a holy book and a work of supreme fiction; those of us who read it both ways are doubly blessed. One does not need to believe in God to hear the majesty of the story that begins, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” A great story itself, the Bible is also the source of great stories, by geniuses from Dante to Dostoevsky, Faulkner to Thomas Mann, and the poetry of the Psalms echoes through great poetry from William Blake to Walt Whitman to T. S. Eliot.
 One does not have to believe Jesus is the Son of God to understand that his parables are penetrating works of fiction that embody complex truths about human nature. One need not believe Adam and Eve existed to see Genesis is, whatever else it is, a philosophically sophisticated and psychologically acute story about people’s innate response to authority, even loving authority. And it is perfectly possible to believe Moses and King David are fictional, and yet find true to life the Bible’s stories of these flawed men who succeed greatly, if only partially, while failing God time and again.
 And what of Jesus —a god entering history as a man and living as a mortal? True or not true, “the greatest story ever told,” in the majesty of its telling and the power of its message, has taught an entire culture how to think about love, suffering, and transcendence, and it has fundamentally colored the language by which we talk about everything.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Crime pays / The dilemma of Georges Simenon


The dilemma of Georges Simenon


By Joan Acocella

Those who know anything about Georges Simenon usually know at least three things. The first is that he divided his energies between detective novels and “straight” novels. The former made him one of the highest-earning writers in the world in the mid-twentieth century, and barred him from achieving the top-rung literary status that he longed for. The second thing is that he generally devoted only about a week and a half to writing a novel, a practice that, again, was good for his bank account and bad for his reputation. Finally—and this is a matter that Simenon discussed enthusiastically with journalists—he spent a great deal of his life having sex. Once, in an interview with his friend Federico Fellini, he claimed that he had been to bed with ten thousand women.

Simenon was born in 1903 in Liège, the main economic and cultural center of French-speaking Belgium. In his highly autobiographical coming-of-age novel “Pedigree” (1948), he described his home town as a place where there was almost nothing to do except go to school and to church. After Sunday dinner, Uncle Charles would show the photographs that he had recently taken of clouds over the general post office. Eventually, Simenon discovered books: Balzac, Dumas, Dickens, the usual list for boys of his period. He also found another interest: girls. His description of his deflowering takes your breath away. He and Renée—he was twelve, she fifteen—were in the woods. He climbed a holly tree, to pick berries for her, and descended bleeding, from the thorns. She told him to lie down, and she licked the blood off. Then she pulled down his shorts and climbed onto him. “It hurt like mad,” he recalled. “She practically circumcised me.” Soon, however, he tried again and became a fan for life.

Simenon adored his father, Désiré. In “Pedigree,” too, the father is called Désiré, and, like the real one, is a minor agent in an insurance company. A sweet-natured, unambitious, and dignified man, he stands in his church pew “as calm as a saint in a stained-glass window.” He loves his lunch, his newspaper, his chair in the kitchen, and, undemonstratively, his son, Roger (the Simenon character). By contrast, the mother, Élise, has screaming quarrels with the boy. Élise is as unhappy as Désiré is happy. She weeps and throws fits daily. Her greatest concern is money. The family is petit-bourgeois, but only barely. Against Désiré’s wishes, Élise takes lodgers into their small apartment. Soon, when Désiré comes home from work, someone is sitting in his chair, reading his newspaper.

Simenon was a disobliging child, and once he reached adolescence all he wanted was to get out of Liège. He quit school at fifteen, and he went to work writing for a local newspaper. Soon, he began writing novels as well. The first was published when he was eighteen. That year, Désiré died, of angina pectoris, at forty-four. A year later, Simenon left town. He came back home for two days to marry his fiancée—Tigy (Régine) Renchon, a painter, and apparently more a friend than a lover. The two of them settled in Paris, and Simenon didn’t cross his mother’s doorstep again for almost thirty years.

This productive man now became more so. In the next seven years, he brought out more than a hundred and fifty novels and novellas. All were unabashed pulp—Westerns (e.g., “The Eye of Utah”), adventure tales (“The White Monster of Tierra del Fuego”), and what he called “spicy” stories (“A Girl Who Learned a Thing or Two”)—published under pseudonyms. Tigy quit painting in order to help him. They hired a housekeeper, Henriette Liberge, nineteen years old, whom Simenon nicknamed Boule, or “ball” (she was plump), and he made her his mistress in short order. Other lovers came later, and he visited brothels frequently. Every morning, he sat down and completed his self-assigned daily quota of eighty typewritten pages. Then he would vomit, from the tension, and spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing. Thus, by the age of twenty-seven, he had established the pattern of his life: lots of books, lots of women. In the words of his excellent biographer, Pierre Assouline, “the train was on its way.”

But Simenon was discontented with being a writer of potboilers. In 1931, he produced the first novels that he was willing to sign his name to. They were detective stories, about a police superintendent named Jules Maigret.

At the opening of a Maigret novel, as of any detective novel, a body drops, and at the end of the book we find out who did it. But the point of the Maigret stories is by no means the plot. The dénouement, which, in classic detective stories, is usually the crucial matter, often makes only a slight impression in the Maigret novels. In many cases, the culprit turns out to be the person we suspected all along, or the opposite— someone out of left field, a person we’ve never met before. Julian Symons, an expert on the detective novel, claimed that the Maigret novels were not really part of that genre, because, he said, Simenon was not interested in detection.

What interested him was his characters and the world they moved through. The central matter in the Maigret novels is Maigret. We see him more clearly than we do any other character in Simenon’s fiction. In most of the books he is middle-aged, and a famous man. Because he is the head of the homicide police, his picture is frequently in the papers. When he gets into a taxi, the driver often says, “Where to, Inspector?” He is tall (five feet eleven) and broad-shouldered. He smokes a pipe almost continuously, as did Simenon. He likes to drink. Not rarely, he will stop in a bar by 10 a.m. He also loves to eat, and he is no longer thin.

Which brings us to his wife. As one critic said, Mme. Maigret looks after her husband as if he were a toddler. She makes splendid meals for him, not just at dinnertime but also for lunch. Often, he does not arrive to eat them, because he is out solving crimes, but if Maigret misses the foie de veau en papillote at lunch he still gets the chicken with tarragon for dinner.

Appropriately, Maigret’s first encounter with this woman has to do with food. In what is probably Simenon’s most poignant book, “Maigret’s Memoirs” (1951), our hero remembers a time when he was an apprentice policeman, on a bike. A friend invites him to a party given by some government people. He goes, but he feels awkward and ill-dressed. At one point, he is standing next to a full plate of petits fours. He reaches out for one, then, without thinking, another and another. Eventually, he looks down and sees, to his mortification, that he has eaten every last one of the little cakes. Furthermore, other guests have noticed and are staring at him in disbelief. At that moment, a girl in a blue dress comes up to him with another plate of petits fours. Would he like one? she asks, and advises him that the ones with the candied fruit on top are the best. This is the niece of the hosts, and what she is saying is that Maigret should have all the cake he wants. Her name is Louise, but she is almost never called that again, because she is soon Mme. Maigret.

This episode made me recall the chapter in “David Copperfield” where David, penniless and alone in the world—his mother has died in childbirth—walks all the way from London to Dover, to the home of his great-aunt, Betsey Trotwood. Miss Trotwood brusquely tells the maid to give him a bath and put him to bed. Then comes a paragraph famous in Western literature. David sits in darkness, gazing out the window, over the Channel,

looking at the moonlight on the water, as if I could hope to read my fortune in it, as in a bright book; or to see my mother with her child, coming from Heaven along that shining path, to look upon me as she had looked when I last saw her sweet face. . . . I remember how I thought of all the solitary places under the night sky where I had slept, and how I prayed that I never might be houseless any more.

Maigret’s mother, too, died in childbirth, when he was a boy. His father rarely spoke again. Maigret wanted to be a doctor and went to medical school for two years, but then the money ran out. He went to Paris and became a beat cop. Like David, he had no money, no protectors, no proper shoes. Much of the time, he was hungry. (Hence the petits-fours episode.) Unlike Dickens, Simenon is abstemious. In his account, there is no moonbeam, no mother. But when the girl in the blue dress appears, to save his honor, you feel, as with Copperfield, that an act of grace has occurred.

Simenon treats the Maigrets’ marriage in the same fashion: great emotion, greatly muted. On Sundays, they usually walk, arm in arm, to the movies. Every year, Mme. Maigret goes to visit her sister in Alsace for a month, and Maigret moves into a hotel, because he can’t bear to be at home when she’s not there. Physical exchanges between the two are seldom described. I know of only a few exceptions. In “Maigret and the Dead Girl” (1954), the superintendent turns around and kisses Mme. Maigret—in bed! I was very embarrassed.

The Maigret books are full of moral teachings. One is about the ordinariness of crime. In “The Bar on the Seine” (1931), a guest at a country weekend party is killed, and the police put up a roadblock. The neighbors find this a great nuisance, “especially for a small scale crime that had very little coverage in the newspapers.” In “Maigret and the Killer” (1969), a young man is stabbed to death on the sidewalk in front of a café. Four men playing cards in the café hear the commotion and go to the door, but they don’t venture out. It’s raining.

Correspondingly, in these books Simenon tends not to give us the violence straight on. In my experience, we never see the murder happen. Maigret’s initial reaction to a crime is an itch to solve it, but by the end his emotion is usually sorrow. Once, he watches some men playing boules, and he envies them, he says, because when they win they are entitled to feel joy. When he wins, someone loses his liberty, or his life.

Probably the most admired quality of Simenon’s books is his scene-setting, his power to describe and to make the description call up emotion. “The Bar on the Seine” opens on a glorious day:

The sunshine almost as thick as syrup in the quiet streets of the Left Bank. And everything—the people’s faces, the countless familiar sounds of the street—exuded a joy to be alive. . . . When Maigret arrived at the gate of the Santé [prison] he found the guard gazing soppily at a little white cat that was playing with the dog from the dairy.

In the clear air, Maigret’s footsteps ring on the pavement. “Does he know?” Maigret asks a warder. “Not yet,” the warder answers. “He” is the prisoner. What he doesn’t know is that his appeal has failed, and that he is going to die. By juxtaposing this with the lovely day, and the dog playing with the little cat, and the guard looking at them tenderly, Simenon is telling us that though life is beautiful, it is also appalling.

In many of Simenon’s other novels, life is more appalling. Just as he decided, after ten years of producing potboilers, to get serious, and started writing the Maigret novels, so, two years after that, he came to feel that the Maigret books were not serious enough, and he began writing “straight” novels, which he sometimes characterized as romans durs, or “hard novels,” meaning hard on us.

The greatest of these is “Dirty Snow” (1948), in which Frank, the nineteen-year-old son of a brothel owner (he lives in the brothel, spying on the whores at their work by standing on a table and peering through the transom), makes his way in an unnamed city under military occupation. In the first chapter, we see Frank with his friend Kromer. Kromer has murdered people. For example, he was once having sex with a girl in a barn loft, and she became sentimental. She said that she hoped he was impregnating her. “The idea of having a child with that stupid, dirty girl he was kneading like a piece of dough had seemed grotesque” to him, so he strangled her. That was the first time he killed someone. “And let me tell you,” he says to Frank, “it’s very easy.” Frank is overcome with admiration. Kromer shows Frank a knife that he has just acquired. Frank asks to borrow it. Soon afterward, he is lurking in a snowbank when an officer comes by. He kills him. He doesn’t know the man. He just wants to try out Kromer’s knife, “to feel what it was like when it . . . slipped between bones.”

Not “Dirty Snow” but many other romans durs follow a single plotline: a man walks out on his life—his job, his family, often the town, too—and gives himself up to a kind of obsession. As Simenon put it, his characters “go to their limit.” Often, this involves their committing a crime, which is all the more shocking in that it receives no authorial comment. Simenon’s novels are almost always strict point-of-view narratives. We see things only as the main character sees them. Sometimes this is half comical. In “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” (1938), a prototypical roman dur, the first action that the hero, Kees Popinga, takes upon leaving home is to try to seduce his boss’s mistress. When she casually refuses him, he kills her. “I just can’t understand why Pamela laughed at me,” he writes in the diary he is keeping of his adventures. She’ll think twice about doing that again, he figures. But what if she goes to the police? That might be nice, though. His name will be in the papers. He has forgotten that he killed Pamela.

Such anomie sounds very much of Simenon’s time: the Fascist-breeding thirties, the war, the postwar despair. It seems to echo the work of the existentialists Sartre and Camus, and Camus acknowledged that he had learned from Simenon. But the most influential of Simenon’s colleagues, and the most admiring, was much older—André Gide, who called him “perhaps the greatest and the most truly a novelist in contemporary French letters.” Other respectable artists also spoke of Simenon as a serious writer. At the same time, many of his top-drawer literary fans, clearly meaning well, praised him as a supplier of page-turners. The Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda said, “There is nothing like winter in the company of a keg of brandy and the complete works of Simenon.”

Sad to say, Simenon endorsed this snobbish position. He called his Maigret novels quasi-literary. Like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, he tried to ditch his famous detective. From 1935 to 1941, he wrote no Maigret novels. Then, he said, he yielded to popular demand, which is another way of saying that he yielded to financial considerations. Very early on, Simenon learned to spend what he earned. He had fabulous houses—he once rented a sixteenth-century château—and fancy cars to park in front of them. At one point, when he was living in the country, he had a menagerie, including a white stallion that he liked to ride to the market, and two wolves. (The latter, unfortunately, ate the family cat and had to be given to a zoo.)

Living in such a manner, Simenon could not ignore his sales. In his mature period, he wrote almost twice as many straight novels as Maigret novels—a hundred and thirty-four versus seventy-six—but it was the Maigrets that made the real money. Simenon was legendary in the publishing world for driving a hard bargain. Eventually, he obtained full subsidiary rights to his books. This meant that he received the money from all translations, which have appeared in some fifty-five languages. But far more important—a gold mine—were movie rights. Fifty-three films were made of Simenon’s work during his lifetime, and that’s not counting the television adaptations. Of course, it was the Maigrets that were most often adapted for film and TV. (The ITV series, of the nineteen-nineties, with Michael Gambon as Maigret, is the best.)

Nevertheless, the widely held view that he wrote primarily for money infuriated Simenon. He thought that he deserved the Nobel Prize in Literature, and, in interviews, where he was always incautious, he predicted that he would. On the day when it was announced that Camus had won the prize, Simenon got drunk and hit his wife. In 1933, as part of his campaign for acceptance in the high-art league, he had changed publishers, signing on with Gallimard, France’s most prestigious house, whose list included Gide, Proust, and Valéry. Gallimard unquestionably took him on so that he could make some money for them. He obliged, but that did not prevent some of the Gallimard editors from treating him like a gate-crasher. He responded with defiance. When he went to Gallimard’s offices, he would sing (not hum) as he walked down the hushed hallways where editors were curating the modernist money-losers they considered superior to his work.

So there were, fundamentally, two competing views of Simenon. He was a hack or he was an artist. Both are half right. The finest things Simenon ever wrote—“Dirty Snow,” “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By,” “Pedigree”—are non-Maigrets. These few books are not just his best novels; they are among the best novels of the twentieth century. But many of the durs have serious weaknesses, the worst being that the hardness often comes off as luridness. This month, a 1947 novel, “Act of Passion,” is being reissued by New York Review Books, which has a long and distinguished line of Simenons. This is a classic dur, in which a man, Charles Alavoine, escapes from what he feels is a mediocre existence in favor of a sort of self-immolation. Near the end, he has just made love with the woman, Martine, for whom he gave up everything. He is holding her in his arms and stroking the place on her thigh that he likes best. “And to think that I shall have to kill her one day,” he says to himself. Then he goes on caressing her thigh. You’re surprised, but are you impressed? Or does it just seem an effect, as if the book were an existential comic?

Martine’s case brings up another matter. Simenon was repeatedly accused of misogyny. He indignantly replied that he had great female characters and that when the women weren’t strong, and got kicked around by the men, that was the way of the world. But the strong women of the durs are, for the most part, frightening bitches. The nicer women are generally weak, even masochistic. Many, like Martine, are killed by their men, and the man likes it better if she doesn’t resist. “I felt that she was encouraging me,” Martine’s lover recalls. (Of course, he says that it hurts him more than it hurts her.) Others are not killed but just shamed. The early “Tropic Moon” (1933) takes place in Gabon. (Simenon, who loved trips as much as paychecks, wrote many travel articles, and thereby spent some time in Africa.) In it, a group of white men get drunk one night and drive out to a village, where they herd three women into the back of their truck and continue on to a clearing, where they have a little orgy. Then they pile back into the truck. The women try to get in, too. “Hey, baby, just a second!” one of the men says. “Whites first!” The women obediently stand back and wait their turn, whereupon the men drive off without them. The women, shrieking, run after the truck, but it is soon gone. They are left naked, fifteen miles from home, in the middle of the night.

In “Dirty Snow,” the officer whom Frank will eventually kill is a regular at the local bar. He usually has two women with him. While drinking at his banquette, he fingers them under their skirts and then raises his wet hands to the light, laughing. Simenon may have called this the way of the world. I call it pornography, of a familiar sort. I dislike the scenes of humiliation more than the murder scenes, because they are more realistic, more possible. But it’s all pretty bad, not just politically but also artistically: because it involves the abuse of a mere woman, not a man, it can just be thrown off, as a kind of flourish. This encouraged Simenon to rely on such gestures, as in Alavoine’s decision to murder Martine in “Act of Passion.” It gave him access to cheap effects.

Underlining this easy evil is Simenon’s fondness for a sort of pat irony, like something out of Maupassant. In a 1956 book, a man who tells his wife that he will take her to Cannes for Christmas—he is lying; he intends to go skiing with his mistress—is seen, in the last chapter, in Cannes with his wife. His mistress has come to a bad end. At the conclusion of another novel, a man who has labored for months devising a way to poison his wife and run off with his mistress looks on in horror as his mistress eats the arsenic-laced meal he had cooked for his wife.

Such things don’t happen often in the Maigret books. You could say that, being police novels, they are conservative, bent on making people behave. But when you read them and see the sorrows and the bad boyfriends and the too many drinks that they, too, describe, you realize that this is not really the case, any more than, say, with Raymond Chandler’s books. Simenon respected his Maigrets less, and as a result they are, on average, more relaxed, more witty, even more poetic.

Nevertheless, they share one serious fault with the durs: they are often sloppy, and that, unquestionably, was owing to Simenon’s writing method, his habit of completing a novel in ten to eleven days. Usually, he took seven to eight days to write a novel, and then two or three days to revise. Furthermore, when he started a book, he had no outline of the plot, only a sketch of the characters. He said that, upon beginning, he entered into a trance, in which, chapter by chapter, the plot came to him. This was obviously a high-pressure business, but he seems to have taken pleasure in it. When he felt a novel coming on, he cancelled all appointments and had a checkup with his doctor to make sure he could endure the stress. Four dozen freshly sharpened pencils were lined up on his desk, and a “Do Not Disturb” sign, stolen from the Plaza Hotel in New York, was hung on his study door. He wrote one chapter per morning, but even in the afternoon his family and staff were ill-advised to speak to him. For each book, he had a “lucky shirt.” It had to be washed every night.

This method damaged his work terribly. Halfway through some books, subplots get dropped, characters change weirdly. If Simenon had cared about revising, he would have seen the problems and either fixed the book or given up on it. Surely he noticed that the few novels for which he violated the schedule and took more time—notably “Pedigree,” which contains the most beautiful writing he ever did—were among his finest. But, again, this wasn’t just a case of not knowing. He didn’t want to bother. Once more, we should not forget about the money. In the words of Luc Sante, Simenon had a working-class view of his profession. The more product he turned out, the more he expected to earn. Commentators exclaim over his sales, but his publisher Gaston Gallimard pointed out that his books, on average, sold only about eight thousand copies. The reason people bought so many of his novels per year is that he produced so many novels per year—an average of five after his potboiler period. Stanley Eskin, whose “Simenon” (1987) is the best critical study of the author, says that, at heart, Simenon had little respect for intelligence. Fine, but then you have to ask: why did this man expect to win the Nobel Prize?

Despite the vomiting, Simenon appears to have enjoyed himself for many years. He didn’t do much besides writing. He apparently didn’t waste a lot of time reading his contemporaries’ novels, including those of his useful friend Gide or his other fervent literary fan Henry Miller. It seems that when Simenon and Miller got together they talked mainly about girls. Miller told Simenon that he had “a six-inch bone in his cock.”

After Tigy and Boule—or together with them—Simenon had two more wives, or “wives.” In 1945, in New York, he hired a beautiful, nervous French-Canadian woman, Denyse Ouiment, seventeen years younger than he, as his secretary. She later said that they met at one-forty-five and were in bed by seven. After Denyse had a child in 1949, Simenon divorced Tigy, but in time his harem was augmented by Teresa Sburelin, a Venetian woman who joined the household, in 1961, as Denyse’s maid. Other servants, too, had a dual function. “If one has a place in the country and if one has servants, what can one expect?” Simenon told Brendan Gill, of The New Yorker. “One must take care of their needs.” Still, Simenon said he liked prostitutes best. Denyse, when told about his claim of having had ten thousand sex partners, said, pooh, it was probably only about twelve hundred.

We shouldn’t be too impressed by this. In 1968, Simenon, with his usual indiscretion, allowed himself to be interviewed by a panel of five doctors. One of them later said that the group was struck by his unromantic approach to sex. He told them that he limited the contact to two minutes. Reportedly, he also kept his clothes on (he just unzipped). One day, when Denyse was in her study conferring with one of her assistants, Joyce Aitken, Simenon entered the room, wanting to have sex. “You don’t have to leave, Aitken,” Denyse said, and she and Simenon got down, briefly, on the rug. If you followed such procedures, you, too, could have twelve hundred sexual partners.

In 1940, after the Second World War got under way, Simenon moved his family to a village in the Vendée, in west-central France. Because of travel restrictions, he got stuck there. In the morning he wrote; in the afternoon he played cards with the locals in a café. His war record was mixed. He ran a refugee center, very energetically, people say. On the other hand, four of the nine movies made of his books during the Occupation were produced by what he knew was a Nazi-run company. For that organization, he also signed a statement that he was an Aryan. Pierre Assouline says that Simenon was neither a collaborator nor a resister but just an opportunist. Alan Riding, in his recent, evenhanded book on the Occupation, “And the Show Went On,” also brushes Simenon’s case aside. But most people suffered severe privations during the war. Meanwhile, Simenon got richer (primarily from those movies). And so, once the Occupation ended, the purge committee of the French writers’ union began looking into his case. Simenon became truly frightened—some writers, on the committee’s recommendation, were barred from publishing—and in 1945, as soon as he could get out, he sailed with his family to North America. They eventually settled in the genteel town of Lakeville, Connecticut, where Simenon was restless but productive. (Many of his best books were published in his middle years, from about 1938 to 1951.) After a ten-year exile, the family returned to Europe, settling near Lausanne, Switzerland, which for Simenon, as for others, was a tax haven.

Something that had sustained Simenon in the United States—his passionate relationship with Denyse—now collapsed beneath him. She became increasingly nervous and obsessive. (Once, when they checked into a hotel, she changed the paper linings in the drawers and disinfected the telephone.) Such problems were exacerbated by the fact that she had become an alcoholic. She had several stays in detox centers, as well as in psychiatric clinics. Simenon was not in good shape, either. The two had screaming fights; they hit each other. Finally, in 1964, he banished her from the house. He gave her a generous allowance, but he would not agree to a divorce, he said, because she was asking for too much money. They remained legally married until his death.

One day in 1973, when Simenon was having trouble with a novel, he declared that he was through writing fiction. If you read his novels of the two or three years preceding this, you may decide that he was right to stop when he did. For his seventieth birthday, however, he went out and bought a tape recorder, into which, over the next six years, he dictated twenty-one volumes’ worth of memoirs. They are widely considered formless, trivial, and boring. Simenon later agreed: “At bottom I have nothing to say.”

Simenon had four children, one boy by Tigy and two boys and a girl by Denyse. He was a doting father, and all his boys did well. But the daughter, Marie-Georges, always known as Marie-Jo, had a hard time, especially once she reached adolescence: drug problems, love problems, dissipations, depressions. Like her mother, she had frequent stays in psychiatric clinics. A special difficulty was her fervid attachment to her father. Whatever she thought of her parents’ relationship, she seems to have believed that, once they separated, she should have been given a more central place in her father’s life. But, after Denyse left, Teresa Sburelin took on the role of wife, blocking Marie-Jo’s path, as she saw it. Once, in the bedroom Simenon shared with Teresa, Marie-Jo pointed to their bed and asked him, “Why not me?” In 1978, when she was twenty-five, she locked herself in her apartment and shot herself in the heart with a .22. Assouline says that Simenon felt not just sorrow and guilt but relief. He loved her, but she had tormented him with her problems all her life. He had foreseen her suicide.

Around the time of his retirement from novel-writing, Simenon put his enormous house in Lausanne on the market, sold his five cars, placed his furniture in storage, and moved, with Teresa and his youngest son, into a small eighteenth-century house. From then on, he saw almost no one. In an office across town, Joyce Aitken (of “You don’t have to leave, Aitken”) managed his business affairs and also his fortune, which, in 1987-88, the Swiss tax authorities estimated at three and a half million Swiss francs (the equivalent of about four and a half million dollars today), not counting property. He expressed utter indifference to the books he had written: “So many hours, so many pages. Why?” Teresa looked after him tenderly, and he spoke of her with love. Nevertheless, he said that one of the reasons he was attached to her was that she had not asked to be in his will. In 1989, at the age of eighty-six, he died, of natural causes. Assouline writes of his subject—so avid for work, fame, money, women—that he died “as he had dreamed of dying: old.”


Joan Acocella has written for The New Yorker, mostly on books and dance, since 1992, and became the magazine’s dance critic in 1998. Her article “Cather and the Academy” was included in “The Best American Essays 1996”; she later expanded the essay into the book “Willa Cather and the Politics of Criticism.” She is the author of “Mark Morris,” a biographical/critical study of the choreographer, and of “Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder.” She co-edited “André Levinson on Dance: Writings from Paris in the Twenties” and edited “The Diary of Vaslav Nijinsky,” the first unexpurgated version in English. Her most recent book is “Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints,” a collection of essays. She is now working on a biography of Mikhail Baryshnikov. She has written on dance, literature, and other arts for The New York Review of Books, the Times Book Review, Art in America, and the Times Literary Supplement. She has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the American Academy in Berlin, and is currently a fellow of the New York Institute of Humanities. She has received awards from the National Book Critics Circle, the Congress on Research in Dance, the American Psychoanalytic Association, and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

David Hare / The genius of Georges Simenon

Georges Simenon
Paris, 1962

 The genius of Georges Simenon

As he brings one of the crime writer’s novels to the National stage, David Hare reveals why he loves the pithy, power-obsessed creator of Maigret

David Hare
Sunday 25 September 2016 08.00 BST

ike many bookish children, I grew up consuming detective fiction more than any other kind. Even then I had noticed that stories supposedly driven by narrative depended for their real vitality on establishing ambience. Crime writing came to life when it had density, when you felt that the paint was being laid on thick. A strong sense of time and place was far more exciting than a clever puzzle. Anyone could create a mystery, but only the best could summon up a world in which the mystery could take root.

My taste in literary fiction – I read every word of Patrick Hamilton and Graham Greene – was towards those authors whose techniques most closely resembled those of thriller writers. When, at university, I came across WH Auden’s suggestion that Raymond Chandler’s books “should be read and judged, not as escape literature, but as works of art”, I was bewildered. It had never occurred to me that thrillers were anything less. By then I had already graduated from Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers to Dashiell Hammett and the chill ambiguity of Patricia Highsmith. But when I discovered that the author of the Maigret series – which I knew chiefly through the BBC television series with Rupert Davies – was also the author of stand-alone novels, my expectations of the genre changed and expanded. These books belonged more alongside Camus and Sartre than Arthur Conan Doyle. The popular joke in Le Canard enchaîné that “M Simenon makes his living by killing someone every month and then discovering the murderer” seemed nothing more than that. A joke.

Rupert Davies as M Maigret in the 1964 TV series
 Rupert Davies as Maigret in the BBC TV series, 1964. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

It’s symptomatic of our misunderstanding of the unique Georges Simenon that so many people believe he was French. In fact, he was Belgian, born in Liège in 1903 and brought up in a poorly defined country that had often suffered under occupation. In Belgium, few people fostered illusions about national greatness. “Under occupation,” he wrote, “your overwhelming concern is with what you will eat.” Simenon’s background, and his lifelong feeling that he was disliked by his mother, left him with the aim of developing, equally as a writer and as a man, a wholly undeluded view of life. As he later observed: “It must be great to belong to a group, a nation, a class. It would give you a feeling of superiority. If you’re alone you’re not superior to anyone.” Or as he put it rather more bitterly: “During earthquakes and wars and floods and shipwrecks you see a love between men that you don’t see at any other time.”

In fact, he could hardly have been less French. What Frenchman or woman would speak of their loathing of gastronomy – “all that terrible fussing about what you eat”? What French writer or politician would agree that “every ideal ends in a fierce struggle against those who do not share it?” Simenon was particularly horrified by Charles de Gaulle’s pretence that the French had won the war. The untruth offended him. Simenon believed the events of the 1930s and 40s had defeated the French as thoroughly as they had the Germans. “I’ve ceased to believe in evil, only in illness. Nixon believes he’s the champion of the United States, De Gaulle the rebuilder of France. Yet nobody locks them up. Those who invent morals, who define them and impose them, end up believing in them. We’re all hopeless prisoners of what we choose to believe.”

Simenon, not prone to grand literary statements, once said that he wanted to write like Sophocles or Euripides. Over and again, he describes someone quietly living their life, until some random fait divers – a road accident, a heart attack, an inheritance – brings out a fatal element in their character that trips them up. Striking out towards freedom, they fall instead into captivity. He had the idea that a book, like a Greek tragedy, should be experienced in a single session. “You can’t see a tragedy in more than one sitting.” Serial killers, soon to become the thundering cliches of modern drama, whether speaking Danish, Swedish or English, would have held no appeal for Simenon precisely because they are, by definition, extraordinary – and considerably less common in life than on television. Typically, in one of Simenon’s stories, a single crime is enough to ensure that a hitherto normal life falls apart, with no notice, as though any of us might at any time suddenly encounter a crisis that we will turn out to be powerless to overcome.

The thrill of reading a novel, said Simenon, is to “look through the keyhole to see if other people have the same feelings and instincts you do”. The man who, when adolescent, says he suffered physical pain at the idea that there could be so many women who would escape him, has the intense focus of a voyeur. An ex-journalist, he often describes towns from their canals or railway lines, because from there you could look into the back of residents’ lives and not be deceived by the front. He may have said “Other people collect stamps, I collect human beings”, but remarkably he refuses at all times to pass judgment on anyone. “You will find no priests in my work!” Not only does Simenon take care to exclude politics, religion, history and philosophy from his character’s dialogue and thoughts, but the deadpan flatness of his prose style and his bare-bone vocabulary create a disturbing absence of moral control. “Fifty years ago people had answers, now they don’t.”

It was this fallen universe of compromise that I found so convincing when I was growing up. It matched what I had already seen of life. I knew at first hand that Simenon was right when he said that “the criminal is often less guilty than his victim”. But it was only when I was older that I became addicted to the hard stuff – the unsparing novels that take his fatalistic view to its ultimate. If, as is generally thought, Simenon wrote around 400 books, then about 117 are serious novels, the romans durs that meant most to him. André Gide, one of his many literary admirers, when asked which of Simenon’s books a beginner should read first, famously replied: “All of them.” But to my own taste, Simenon’s most searching work came out of his queasy, compromised time in occupied France, and in his desperate hunt thereafter for personal happiness in heavy-drinking exile in the US. If you want to read three of his greatest books, try the deceptively light Sunday, written in 1958 about a Riviera hotel-keeper who spends a year preparing to kill his wife; try The Widow, published, like The Outsider, in 1942, and at least equal to Camus’s work in portraying a doomed and alienated life; and above all be sure to read Dirty Snow, a story of petty crime and killing at a time of collaboration in a country that remains unnamed, but which is always taken to be France under the Nazis.

Because he was foolish enough in an interview to claim to have slept with 10,000 women – the real figure, said his third wife rather crisply, was nearer 1,200 – Simenon has sometimes been accused of misogyny, just as by allowing films to be made of his books at the Berlin-supervised Continental Studios in Vichy France during the war, he was also accused of collaboration. The charge of misogyny at least is unfair. A small man’s fear of women is often his subject, and he describes that fear with his usual pitiless accuracy. In his books, casual sex is fine – it may or may not be satisfying – but passion is always dangerous because it arouses feelings neither party can control – and loss of control is seen to be a particularly masculine terror. In these circumstances, sex comes closer to despair than to joy. The women he portrays are not usually manipulative or cruel or deceitful. Far from it. They simply possess an inadvertent power to disturb men and to drive them mad. They exercise this power more often in spite of themselves than deliberately. All of his books are, in one way or another, about power of different kinds, and he specialises in depicting the lives of those near the bottom of society, the concierges and the salespeople, the waiters and the clerks, who possess very little. No wonder, when he went to America, that he remarked how everyone was expected to have a hobby, so that in one small field at least they might exercise at least a measure of domination.

Georges Simenon at home in Switzerland, 1973
 Georges Simenon at home in Switzerland, 1973. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

The inspiration for finally deciding to write a play from Simenon came from my friend Bill Nighy, who knew that I was a fan. He gave me a present of a rare first edition of a novel that had been almost entirely forgotten. Even now, I have yet to meet anyone in Britain who claims to have read La Main. In Moura Budberg’s translation, long out of print, the book had been published as The Man on the Bench in the Barn. It was written in 1968, but its atmosphere clearly derived from Simenon’s own period of residence in Connecticut, where he moved to live with his new wife, Denyse Ouimet, in the late 1940s. In the book, the town he then lived in, Lakeville, is renamed Brentwood. His house, Shadow Rock Farm, becomes fictionally Yellow Rock Farm. But the topography and feel of the place are pretty much identical, with beavers playing in a nearby stream, and the local Connecticut community expecting strong but already threatened standards of private morality. The only detail omitted was Simenon’s own telephone number: Hemlock 5.
We hear a lot about Henry James and the Americans’ traditional fascination with Europe. We hear rather less about its opposite. In my view, there is something rare and interesting artistically when a European sensibility engages with American morals. La Main describes America at a point of change, when the suburban world patrolled so brilliantly by writers such as Richard YatesSloan Wilson and Patricia Highsmith is about to yield to a newer way of life, theoretically freer but equally treacherous. It was characteristic of Simenon to suspect that sexual liberation might not deliver everything it promised. After all, he doubted most things, except his own writing. But it was even more characteristic of Simenon to be in the right place, as he had been in France and Africa before the war, and at the right time, equipped with a reporter’s calm genius for putting a moment in a bottle.