By J. Peder Zane
The New York Review of Books is more than a leading journal of ideas. It is also a literary miracle worker. Since 1999 it has brought dead books back to life through its Classic series.
Its latest Lazarus is the work of Belgian writer Georges Simenon (1903-89). It is a sign of fame’s fleeting nature that he would need the New York Review’s magic. Simenon, a phenomenon of 20th-century letters, published almost 400 books under at least 18 different pen names — including 40 books in 1929. His works have sold more than 500 million copies worldwide. He claimed to have used half a million pencils while at work, and to have slept with 10,000 women when he wasn’t.
Best known for his series of Parisian mysteries featuring Inspector Maigret, Simenon produced superb prose at a torrential pace. “He reckoned to complete a novel in five, or six, or at most eleven days,” the novelist Anita Brookner has observed, “and to this end would labor in an almost fetishistic trance: his sweat-soaked lumberjack’s shirt would be laundered every night, ready for him to wear the following morning, and so on until the brief spasm was over.”
It was during such literary fevers that Simenon crafted the seven accomplished novels that the New York Review has returned to print. Like all of the nearly 200 titles in Classic series, the Simenon volumes include appreciations by distinguished writers. Indeed, this commercial writer’s skill can be measured by the roster of authors who gush about it: Brookner, Joyce Carol Oates, Larry McMurtry, P.D. James, William T. Vollmann, Luc Sante and Norman Rush.
As with P.G. Wodehouse, another prolific 20th-century genius, there is a satisfying sameness to Simenon’s oeuvre — his novels were known across Europe as “simenons.” Where Wodehouse was the master of gentle comedy, Simenon excelled at brisk tales of existential angst and hard-boiled fatalism.
Oates notes: “A ‘simenon’ may or may not be a crime/suspense novella, but it will always move swiftly and with seeming inevitability from its opening scene to its final, often startling and ironic conclusion. … [T]he quintessential ‘simenon’ … is a sequence of cinematic confrontations in which an individual — male, middle-aged, unwittingly trapped in his life — is catapulted into an extraordinary adventure that will leave him transformed, unless destroyed.”
If two quotes could capture a life’s work, it would be these. In “The Man Who Watched Trains Go By” (1938, translated from the French by Marc Romano), Simenon defines the predicament into which he dropped his characters: “For all these years it had been a strain playing [his] part, and watching himself incessantly to make sure that he didn’t say or do the wrong thing. Now all that was ended.”
In “Red Lights” (1953, translated from the French by Norman Denny) he gives a glimpse of the tenuous peace they might achieve: “He had the feeling that, for the first time since they had known one another, there was no deception between them any longer, nothing more than, nothing as thick even as a veil, to prevent them from being themselves face-to-face.”
Simenon’s books fall into three general categories: mysteries, what he called “roman romans” (or novel novels) and the series the New York Review is focusing on, his “romans durs,” or hard novels. Hard here does not mean complicated — Simenon prided himself on writing smart books that anyone could understand. Instead, they revolve around characters facing trials of the soul as they try to connect with their authentic selves.
“Red Lights,” for example, depicts the simmering rage of a frustrated man as he and his wife drive to Maine to pick up their children from summer camp.
“Three Bedrooms in Manhattan” (1946, translated from the French by Romano and Lawrence G. Blochman) focuses on a wounded couple who come together in the bars of New York. Simenon displays his gift for compression in describing their budding relationship thusly: “And gradually, this silent nighttime walk took on the solemn aspect of a wedding march. Both knew that from now on they’d cling to each other even harder, not as lovers, but as two creatures who’d been alone and at last, after a long time, had found someone to walk with.”
His masterpiece, “Dirty Snow” (1948, translated from the French by Romano and Louise Varese), features one of the most despicable characters in all of literature: a young man who murders, rapes and steals just to feel something. But like all Simenon characters, he yearns for something more.
“Dirty Snow” was so raw that I had to put it down momentarily to escape its nihilistic landscape. Yet like Simenon’s other books, it was thoroughly absorbing.
These novels are dated — in ways that illuminate our contemporary world. For much of the 20th century, Simenon and other artists focused on the individual’s relationship to society. They saw our greatest challenge as finding ways to realize our true selves despite the iron grip of culture and the state.
That theme has all but disappeared from literature, film and the other arts, which now cast problems in largely personal terms. As our ties to the larger community have frayed, our relationship to ourselves, our family, friends and co-workers has taken center stage.
Of course, society is still potent; it still twists and shapes us. As Simenon grabs us with his compelling stories, he also shakes us to recognize and confront its force.