Belgium's Master of Noir
Where do popular novelists go when they die? Harold Robbins, author of The Carpetbaggers and A Stone for Danny Fisher, sold 750 million books during his lifetime, but 13 years after his death his heirs struggle to keep him in print. Barbara Cartland, who sold more than a billion romance novels, was barely known outside of her genre even while she was alive. Sidney Sheldon, Enid Blyton, and Gilbert Patten, each of whom sold several hundred million books, are careening toward oblivion as rapidly.
Then there’s the case of Georges Simenon, whose nearly 200 novels have been purchased half a billion times. Simenon is now, 20 years since his death, enjoying a renaissance—not as a popular novelist, but as a critical darling. Simenon would be gratified by this. At 34, he predicted he’d win the Nobel Prize within 10 years, but he was dismissed as a hack by critics and the academy for the rest of his life. The fact that he published so often (about six titles a year) no doubt aroused the suspicion of critics who subscribed to the old myth that great novels require years of brooding concentration. Simenon boasted that writing a novel took him two weeks.
In the last decade, Gallimard has collected 21 Simenon novels in their Pléiade series of classics; in the U.S., NYRB Classics has published 10 novels, pairing them with introductions by William T. Vollmann, Larry McMurtry, Anita Brookner, and Norman Rush. NYRB and, to a large extent, Gallimard have passed over the books for which Simenon is most widely known, the 76 novels that chronicle the detective work of Chief Inspector Jules Maigret. The emphasis instead has been on what Simenon called his romans durs. These “hard novels” tend to be dominated by characters with conflicted, and often perverse, conceptions of morality. Dirty Snow is a cold portrait of a teenage sadist, raised by his mother in a brothel, who murders and commits sexual assault for no particular reason (in Vollmann’s words, he “is a piece of shit who deserves to die”). In Tropic Moon, a portrait of colonial turpitude that in its most feverish moments is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s Victory, a young man from the French provinces arrives in the African jungle and falls in with a group of violent, lust-drenched misfits. And, Red Lights is a brief masterpiece, the story of a middle-aged New Yorker on a road trip with his wife to retrieve his children from summer camp; a couple martinis later our man descends into a vortex of alcoholism, rage, and self-destruction. These novels are quick, sharp, and indelible—shards of glass that wedge into the unconscious.
NYRB has now published quite a different book by Simenon. Pedigree is neither a Maigret novel nor a roman dur; it does not seem much like a Simenon novel either. In fact, it was not even intended to be a novel at all. Simenon claimed that he began the book after he was diagnosed with a heart condition and given less than two years to live. He decided to devote the rest of his life to writing an account of his childhood in Liège, Belgium, so that his 2-year old son would be left with some understanding of their family history. He published this memoir in 1945 under the title Je me souviens…. After André Gide encouraged Simenon to transform it into a novel (so as “to give it more life”), he republished it, seven years later, as Pedigree. It is by far Simenon’s longest book; this edition is 544 pages of unusually close type, about four times as long as most of his other novels. On the Simenon bookshelf, it stands alone, anomalous, and awkwardly aloof. As the author himself once said, “If I had to choose one of my books to live and not the others, I would never choose Pedigree.”
The story about the book’s origin is apocryphal—it took only two days for Simenon’s doctor to resolve his misdiagnosis. As Luc Sante points out in his introduction, Simenon’s strongest motivation was literary ambition. Pedigree, as a result, is Simenon’s most “literary” novel. It is also his dullest. That is because Simenon turns harshly against his own instincts, abandoning, self-consciously, the fundamental precepts of his style. Gone are the fast pacing, the short, even staccato prose, the perversity and derangement. In their place stands the quiet, nearly stagnant saga of the long-suffering Mamelin family and their precocious, subdued son. Little happens. Family members die, the mother turns their house into a flophouse (an event reflected in the premise of Dirty Snow), and young Roger takes an interest in women, but there is no energy, no life. The First World War breaks out, but its most dramatic manifestation in Liège is that the streetlamps are painted blue, so as not to give off too much light.
For a book that originated as an autobiography, surprisingly little attention is given to Roger, Simenon’s alter ego; he does not appear in the flesh until page 160—a point by which most of Simenon’s novels have ended. The focus for most of the novel is instead on his mother: “Élise the anaemic, Élise who had found no other weapon for herself than her timid smile… Élise who was always apologizing for being there, for existing, who was always begging pardon for causing offense, begging pardon for everything and nothing, who was almost ashamed of being on earth…” There is also Roger’s diffident father, Désiré (the name of Simenon’s own father), a provincial bureaucrat who chooses to avoid a promotion because he is “so attached to his little corner next to the window with the green panes.” The hostility gnashes violently, especially when Simenon writes about his father’s mindless attachment to his daily routine: “After 10 years of his trade, does a juggler still experience some pleasure at bringing off all his tricks, at catching all the balls in the top-hat balanced on his wooden cigar?”
It is pleasant enough to swim in these waters, but with Simenon it is always much pleasanter to drown.
These portraits are devastating, but claustrophobic, too. Unlike the characters in Simenon’s psychological thrillers, Élise and Désiré never change—and are never put out of their misery by a bullet or dagger thrust—so it’s impossible for Roger, and the reader, to escape their petty manias. Simenon’s main concerns seem to be historical: to anatomize the small-town society of his childhood city, Liège. So we hear plenty about the vegetable and fruit markets busy with “hundreds of short-legged women who had pockets full of change in the three thicknesses of their petticoats”; the “smell of the cakes and tarts being cooked in every house”; “the monotonous noise… of the muddy waves of the Meuse breaking against the piers of the Pont des Arches”; “the little cafés with frosted-glass windows and cream curtains.” These are vivid descriptions, suffused by nostalgia, and the novel is filled with them. But beautiful sentences of this sort go against Simenon’s DNA. As he said in his 1955 Paris Review interview, he routinely made a point of cutting from his manuscripts anything “too literary”: “Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect. Every sentence which is there just for the sentence. You know, you have a beautiful sentence—cut it. Every time I find such a thing in one of my novels it is to be cut.” In Pedigree he seems to have collected all of these excised sentences into one book (which may explain its length). It does show that, for all his bluster, Simenon could write with formal elegance and beauty. But his artful descriptions are not enough. Because the story is so slight, we feel always as if we are, like Roger, “living on the fringe of everyday life, which slipped around him with the fluidity of water.” It is pleasant enough to swim in these waters, but with Simenon it is always much pleasanter to drown.
Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor's Tongue. He lives in New Orleans.