Long before his death, Georges Simenon’s literary output overwhelmed all but the most ardent readers and critics. He published hundreds of novels in his own name and under a range of pseudonyms. Estimates of the final tally vary, though Simenon claimed to have authored 349 novels as of 1937. Patrick Marnham (Simenon’s biographer in The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret) reckons the count at 193 books published as Georges Simenon and more than two-hundred under eighteen pseudonyms. Certain facile assessments have likened him to Balzac or the elder Dumas, but the sheer volume of work he produced led to waste and missteps. Simenon himself seems to have disowned some of those early titles. When asked later in his career to make a full list of his works, he demurred, remarking on their “absolute banality,” though his biographer Pierre Assouline notes that Simenon believed his early, haphazard creations were “the only way to learn what not to do.”
His steady output guaranteed curiosity on the part of readers. How were such feats possible? Simenon’s regular method consisted of eight days in which he wrote eight chapters, followed by a pause of about ten days, and another three day stretch for revision. At times he wrote still more, if we credit a 1939 letter to André Gide in which Simenon reports an output of eighty pages per day. He was given to exaggeration – think of his claim to have bedded ten-thousand women, or the dire motivation behind his novel Pedigree (of which, more later) – but he never wavered in his intent. “I’ll manufacture Fords for a while until enough money comes in,” he said early in his career, “Then I’ll make Rolls-Royces for pleasure.” This was not Dashiell Hammett, laboring at a work meant to establish him as a serious writer, only to leave a tantalizing fragment. Simenon plowed forward, producing dozens of novels for pay and dozens more aimed at showing the range of his talent.
His Inspector Maigret took the wheel of many of the titles he called Fords. Only Sherlock Holmes is more enduring and beloved than Simenon’s Inspector and while it seems absurd to think of titles featuring such an iconic character as shavings from the master’s work bench, Simenon himself took those books less seriously than his romans durs, or hard novels. Unlike the Maigret novels, he didn’t view these as commercial in nature and felt no need to make concessions to morality or popular taste. “When I did a commercial novel,” he told the Paris Review in a 1955 interview, “I didn’t think about that novel except in the hours of writing it. But when I am doing a novel now I don’t see anybody, I don’t speak to anybody, I don’t take a phone call—I live just like a monk. All the day I am one of my characters. I feel what he feels.” His process gradually altered to reflect that division. He wrote the Maigrets, he claimed, as a means of relaxation. He typed them, start to finish. The romans durs demanded greater focus. The difference between the two, he concluded, was “Exactly the same difference that exists between the painting of a painter and the sketch he will make for his pleasure or for his friends or to study something.” As he grew older, he wrote drafts of them longhand, in pencil, an uncommonly deliberate approach for such a prolific writer.
Though they are more serious in tone and intent, the romans durs seldom exceed two hundred pages in length. He meant for his works to be read in a single sitting, and beyond this consideration, the length was ideal for his style and concerns. The best of them, though they can be read quickly, tempt the reader to linger, despite Simenon’s resolute avoidance of anything he viewed as “too literary.” The approach was based on advice he received from Colette, and it’s easy to see her fingerprints on his work. He avoids undue ornamentation, is resolutely unsentimental, and is as comfortable as any writer with her advice to “Look for a long time at what pleases you, and longer still at what pains you.” He limited his working vocabulary to about two-thousand words. Working within those limitations, he still turned out striking lines, like this from Act of Passion: “A generation separates you from the soil and you have probably never known the unrelenting sky on your shoulders from four o’clock in the morning, the passage of hours with their accumulation of worries.” His revision process consisted largely of eliminating any beautiful sentences, in an effort to keep his work accessible.
And yet something essential emerges in the romans durs. Everything seems to be drawn in primary colors. Circumstances are never less than uncomfortable and often outright desperate. He traded on a view that the tension between men and women animates many of life’s conflicts. Both resort to desperate actions in Simenon’s work. Jealousy and duplicity are rampant, but on balance Simenon appears to have shared the view of one of his characters in Dirty Snow, that “it’s not an easy job, being a man.” His second wife, Denyse Ouimet, suggested that “he had contempt for women,” and his biographer Pierre Assouline concludes that Simenon “believed the only way to get to know a woman was to sleep with her.” Simenon refuted charges of misogyny. His work only reflected reality, he claimed. Society relegated women to supporting roles; why should he be made to answer for an accurate picture of the world in which he lived? It was a glib and disingenuous effort, but even with that blot on his record, Simenon remains a towering figure.
It has long been possible to get a sense of his work in English. Dozens of his Maigret novels were translated and published here and in the UK from the 1930s onward. By 1939 he was the most translated French writer of his day. Now the New York Review Books Classics series has chosen eleven of Simenon’s finest romans durs, beginning with 1933’s Tropic Moon (Coup de Lune). The series takes in such milestones as Pedigree, perhaps the least characteristic of his novels. Also included are Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (Trois Chambres á Manhattan) and Act of Passion (Lettre á Mon Juge), a pair of books drawn from Simenon’s affair with Denyse Ouimet. The selections run as far forward as 1955’s Red Lights (Feux Rouges), one of the many works he produced during his years in America.
These titles exist in a world apart, one in which the prevailing currents of the day appear obliquely, if at all. Dirty Snow, for instance, is set in occupied Europe. The particular setting is less clear, as is the identity of the occupying force. The writer Larry McMurtry notes that Simenon “is as meticulous as Jane Austen when it comes to excluding world events.” In the case of Dirty Snow, he reveled in the leaps made by readers in assigning physical locations to the novel’s setting and identities to the characters. “Germans are never mentioned in my book,” he pointed out after its publication. “Indeed, I wanted the occupier to be as neutral as possible, in order to lend the work more generality.” He conceded that he had a location in mind – Central Europe, an Austrian or Czech city – and an occupier as well, the Russians, but his decision to leave these identities murky no doubt gives the book broader appeal.
Critics in France, most notably Jean Paulhan, scoffed at Simenon during his lifetime, due to his massive output and the carelessness he displayed in some of his early work. One can only imagine the satisfaction Paulhan would have derived, had he only landed on, “That’s not writing, it’s typing,” years ahead of Truman Capote. Paulhan’s opinion was countered by the admiration of the publisher Gaston Gallimard and the Nouvelle Revue Francais, as well as by André Gide, who felt that Simenon was “victimized by the public’s mental laziness, the tendency to adhere once and for all to first impressions.” Note that Gide didn’t challenge the validity of the first impressions themselves. Simenon’s early works often contained easily remedied mistakes. Character names changed within a single, published book. He used words incorrectly. These were mistakes no serious writer would countenance, but young Simenon was eager to finish one project and start another. More damning still were the depths he plumbed in search of attention. He agreed to write a novel from start to finish while ensconced in a glass box, on public display. The stunt never came to fruition, though his biographer Pierre Assouline notes that years later there were people who claimed to remember watching it unfold. Simenon was undaunted by the criticism or by setbacks. In 1937 he predicted that he would win the Nobel Prize for Literature win in the coming ten years. He was never awarded the Nobel or seriously considered for the Prix Goncourt, but much of his work remains in print in multiple languages. The best of that work suggests that, for all his bravado, Simenon was not just a peer of A.J. Liebling, who famously boasted he could “write better than anybody who can write faster, and…faster than anybody who can write better.”
Simenon toured the French colonies in West Africa in the early 1930s. The tour came in the wake of intense criticism for his P.R. Stunts. He hoped to recast his work in a more serious light. He leveraged the experience into a series of newspaper articles, but the enduring artifact is Tropic Moon. This was around the time he declared himself ready to write a “real novel,” because he “[didn’t] need handrails.” It was also the first book to land him in court for cutting too close to real life people and events.
The novel’s atmosphere is oppressive, from the smallness of the settlements to the stifling heat and threat of various tropical fevers. Simenon captures the hothouse feel of a small, colonial outpost through the misadventures of a young French functionary named Joseph Timar. He comes to the colony in search of a transformative experience. From the opening lines, Simenon hangs a sense of dread over the proceedings: “Was there really any reason for him [Timar] to be so anxious? No. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Nothing threatened him. It was ridiculous to feel this way. He knew it – knew so well that even now, in the middle of the party, he was struggling to regain his self-control.” His letter of introduction doesn’t produce the opportunities he expects, so he passes a series of unremarkable days in the hotel bar. Despite a lack of diversions, Adele, who runs the hotel, is always there at the bar. She wears clingy silk dresses with, Timar learns, nothing beneath them. Yet for all its mundanity, his time on the continent adds up to a sentimental education. He grows disillusioned with the colonial government, marries Adèle and ventures into the countryside, where he contracts Dengue fever and ends with the conviction that “Africa doesn’t exist.”
Much of the book’s tension remains on the interpersonal level, but the writer Norman Rush observes that “The scene presented by Simenon – the stripping of natural resources by French commercial interests, the instruction in unfairness provided by the colonial system of justice, the reduction of the African population to servile status – is portentous.” But Simenon was seldom nakedly political. His views on colonialism were not so much nuanced as incomplete. He didn’t set himself apart from other critics of France’s colonial practices by providing new insights or a more thoroughly formed condemnation. Nonetheless he spoke up at a time when the French government expected full backing of its colonial dealings. In response to his fairly tepid criticisms, Simenon was banned from further travel in the French Equatorial colonies.
Tropic Moon is the work of a writer with serious intentions, not a mere pulp merchant. When it was released, the novel attracted more attention for the legal challenges it spawned than its literary merit. Adèle, the hotel keeper, was modeled on a woman Simenon met during his travels in Africa. She ran the hotel where Simenon stayed and became the novel’s “promiscuous antiheroine,” as Rush refers to her. Simenon might have avoided the entire scandal if not for his inability or unwillingness to reinvent the woman and her hotel. Tropic Moon was serialized in the periodical Candide. A lawsuit quickly followed by a woman named Mercier, the widow on whom Simenon modeled Adele. She asked for 200,000 francs in damages for slander. More serious was the request that the manuscript be confiscated. Simenon appears to have given the woman reason to be outraged. He places Joseph Timar in a hotel called the Central in Tropic Moon. Assouline reports that the locals Simenon encountered “had no trouble recognizing themselves.” Mercier was the subject of a particularly unflattering portrait. Her fictional counterpart trades on her sex appeal to reach dubious ends. Failing that, she uses criminal means. But Mercier’s complaints failed to meet the legal standard for slander. Simenon had changed her name in the novel. The judge dismissed her claim and found her liable for court costs.
The other title from the same year, The Engagement (Les Fiancailles de M. Hire), again shows the young Simenon as a master handler of atmospheres, this time the constrictions of a Paris winter and the constant attentions of police inspectors. The weather in the novel is unforgiving. “Beads of frost were melting into his mustache,” and “”The windowpanes, covered with frozen dew, resembled frosted glass.” Monsieur Hire sneaks in and out of his building to avoid the notice of the concierge. Between the cold and his sense of being watched. M. Hire grows frazzled: “Out in the street it was cold; an unhealthy cold…. Shadowy figures lingered along the length of the fence – people who were afraid to go in [to the brothel], perhaps, unless it was the vice squad.” He is a suspect in the death of a local girl. He lives in a modest apartment and makes his living from a small-time postal scam. He lives without a hint of luxury; his room is sometimes colder than the winter outdoors. His neighbors see M. Hire as a peculiar man, but the novel is also an affecting portrait of loneliness (and perhaps not coincidentally, paranoia). He has no friends among his fellow tenants. A peculiar bond grows with a woman who lives in the next building over, whose window faces his. Initially he appears to be a simple voyeur, until one night, “Monsieur Hire was absolutely still. He saw – very clearly – the girl’s full lips part and curve into the slightest smile. But for whom? For what? She pushed back the sheets and stretched…. She was signaling to him! There was no conceivable doubt! She repeated the movement of her head! She smiled right at the window!” Not surprisingly, her interest in him is suspect. Eventually the question of whether he is truly implicated in the crime recedes. Their evidence is imperfect, but the police have decided. They watch him around the clock, and M. Hire, like many another resident of Simenon’s fictive world, resolves to flee, albeit too late.
Unlike Monsieur Hire, Kees Popinga (The Man Who Watched Trains Go By/Homme qui regardait passer les trains) faces a ruinous future and escapes. His reprieve is temporary. He doesn’t recreate his old life, a la “Wakefield.” Instead he rushes headlong into chaos. He visits a woman he has long wanted to seduce, but Popinga instead murders the woman. Thereafter Simenon orchestrates a tense and hopeless march toward Popinga’s accountability for his crimes. He is dismayed by how easily he eludes capture and resorts to goading the authorities via letters to the newspaper. When he finally reflects on the chain of events which leads to his incarceration, he decides to record the facts in a notebook he labels, “The Truth About the Kees Popinga Case.” In the end he remarks that, “There isn’t any truth, you know?” Quite a philosophical conclusion for a writer so devoted to reaching ordinary readers.
Simenon revisited the urge to cast off a familiar, restrictive life a number of times, prominently in Monsieur Monde Vanishes (La Fuite de Monsieur Monde). His prolific output allowed him to examine various ways the situation could unfold, and indeed Monsieur Monde’s experience differs considerably from Kees Popinga’s. Monsieur Monde is a prosperous Parisian businessman, the owner of a factory and head of a small, staid family. No one suspects his discontent. He disappears easily and trades his usual identity for one he fashions on the fly. While sitting in the barber’s chair, waiting to have his trademark mustache shaved off, Monsieur Monde reflects on his new path. “When, a short while before, he had decided…. But he hadn’t decided anything!” Monsieur Monde thinks, “He had had nothing to decide. What he was living through was not even a completely new experience. He must have dreamed about it often, or have thought about it so much that he felt he had done it all before.” But his admission to this new life isn’t quite so smooth. In the barber shop, “he was distressed because the assistant had a pink plaster on the nape of his neck, a bulging plaster which must conceal a horrid purplish boil. It distressed him, too, to see a tobacco-stained forefinger moving to and fro under his eyes, and to breathe the sickening smell of nicotine mingled with shaving soap.” On numerous occasions in each novel, Simenon shows an uncanny sense for which physical detail will do the most work in terms of characterization, and an unfailing sense of where that detail belongs in the text. We follow Monsieur Monde into the street, where “he was haunted by the feeling that everyone was watching him and he felt guilty.” Gradually he reinvents himself, growing comfortable alongside thieves, prostitutes and alcoholics. By the time M. Monde returns to his former life, Simenon has forged a hugely entertaining treatise on the arbitrariness of life, and the means in which one decision leads to another, until the forward progress can’t be reversed. The only way to undo the chain is to abandon it altogether, a risky venture but the stuff of fantasy for many.
This type of work placed Simenon in a category of his own: a simple conflict and an unadorned, streamlined narrative. He dispatched the whole of it in less than two hundred pages, but those pages were intensely focused, full of sharp observations and clean, unfussy sentences. They were also largely impersonal next to works like Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, Act of Passion and Pedigree, books in which Simenon came as close as he was capable to baring his soul.
Simenon improbably claimed he was immune to the frenzy of passion prior to meeting Denyse Ouimet. They met in 1945, when he interviewed her for a job as his secretary. She was part of a significant upheaval in his life, leading eventually to a divorce from his first wife, Tigy, though the three of them shared a home for a time first – but perhaps more significant on a literary level, she was the impetus behind a pair of stark, intense novels, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan and Act of Passion. Simenon spoke of the books as a breakthrough, or an attempt to break through, to a new realm of understanding for him as a writer. “I discovered that what I had assumed was love was in fact only pride, a need for possession, for domination…later I came to know love by chance, both love-passion…and tenderness. Did I express it badly in [Three Bedrooms in Manhattan]?…. It took me twelve months to write [Act of Passion]. I don’t know what it’s worth either.”
Three Bedrooms is an oddly kinetic book and an oddly enthralling one. Combe, a recently divorced actor who has come to New York, meets Kay, a woman who should have no particular appeal. He thinks of her as ugly on more than one occasion. She is insecure and imperious. Yet they develop an intense attachment very quickly, one founded on mutual loneliness and a love of scotch. They share endless walks through Manhattan, always in search of another bar, and their appeal, which should wear thin for one another and the reader alike, somehow grows. All this is rendered in willfully ordinary prose: “He wondered what Kay was thinking, what expression she was wearing, but he refused to look, staring at anything but her, at the stains on his wall. He shoved his hands in his pockets.” Yet somehow Simenon captures the irrational strength of their connection and the insular world they create in order for their relationship to survive. Combe quizzes Kay on how many men she’s slept with. She chooses the suit and tie he wears. They eventually decide to leave the security of their cocoon for more than an outing to the bar, a thrilling and frightening step but one so surprisingly hopefully and romantically drawn that it’s hard not to take Simenon at his word, that Denyse Ouimet changed him.
Act of Passion is another matter, a rare first-person offering from Simenon. Six months passed between the time he conceived of the idea and when he finally wrote the book, an unusual chain of events. “I wrote it to rid myself of my phantoms and so as not to commit the act my hero did,” he claimed. If so, they were quite dangerous phantoms. Charles Alavoine, a doctor, writes a letter to Ernest Coméliau, a judge who oversaw his trial for the murder of his lover, a woman named Martine. Alavoine was convicted, and he seeks to explain himself. Most notable is his explanation of his affair with Martine. He hires the girl and moves her into his home (shades of life for Georges, Tigy and Denyse), and his wife grows close to her. Charles takes her as a lover and attempts to ferret out the troubles he sees in her face, so that she might live more peacefully. He learns of the horrors she endured and strangles her to spare her the pain and shame of living with them. “I killed her that she might live,” he writes to the judge, “and our eyes continued to embrace to the very end.” Whether Simenon exaggerated or not in speaking of the book as an act of catharsis, it is a vivid tale, heavy with want and despair. But neither Act of Passion nor Three Bedrooms in Manhattan can match Pedigree in terms of sheer Simenonian self-revelation.
Simenon’s version of how he came to write Pedigree is irresistible. It brings to mind Anthony Burgess’s unfortunate misdiagnosis with a brain tumor that was supposed to kill him within a year. The sudden sense of desperation (Burgess needed to provide for his alcoholic wife after his death) enabled him to finish five novels that year. The gloomy prediction Burgess received was off the mark by three-plus decades. Simenon’s death sentence would have been even further off, but his recreation of events makes only incidental contact with the truth.
The story Simenon was fond of telling starts with a radiologist’s diagnosis. While carving a stick for his son Marc, he slipped and jabbed himself in the chest. The following day, still in pain, he walked six miles to the office of a radiologist. He apparently saw nothing peculiar in this detail, no hint that the doctor’s assessment had gone awry. After a battery of questions, the radiologist informed him that heart trouble would put him in the grave within two years. Simenon, eager to leave a record of his childhood as it had been, of his parents and Belgium at the turn of the century for his son Marc, set to work in 1940. It is a touching scene, the writer locked away, toiling with the blade above his neck to craft a legacy for his son. But the threat was unfounded. To hear Simenon tell it, a consultation with a radiologist in Paris two years later revealed a healthy heart and no cause for concern. In fact the entire matter was resolved in a span of two weeks rather than two years and culminated in a round of visits to local doctors, all of whom confirmed the soundness of his heart. Later he spoke of the book as a fortieth birthday present to himself.
Even without the dramatic origins, Pedigree stands apart from the rest of Simenon’s work. He sought considerable outside assistance, calling on André Gide and Gaston Gallimard to read drafts of the work long before its publication in 1948. Simenon finished the great majority of his work with only his own counsel, though admittedly those titles came from his usual brief, intense process. Pedigree was eight years in the making. It is the length of three of his usual works. He includes a web of relations – family, friends, lovers and colleagues – far larger than that found in any of the other books. And unlike so many of the other titles, Pedigree makes explicit reference to actual historical events.
The novel opens in Belgium on February 12, 1903, the eve of the birth of Simenon’s fictional counterpart Roger Mamelin. An anarchist bombing has snarled travel in the city. The novel lingers with Madame Élise Mamelin, counterpart to his mother, Henriette Simenon. His portrait of Madame Mamelin provided yet another point of contention in their tense relationship. He does not present her in flattering terms, but his observations are as precise and human as ever. The boy is born just after midnight, but Mme. Mamelin is a superstitious woman. Rather than placing his birthday on Friday the 13th, she prevails on her husband to report that the birth occurred on the 12th. He is no more generous in detailing her background. He characterizes her mother as “a dignified woman, always trim and dapper, who used to put empty saucepans on the stove when somebody came, to give the impression that they were short of nothing.” His mother was not pleased with the focus on her childhood poverty. Her sister is “so kind. She would even give you her nightdress if you asked for it. But later on she would throw it back in your teeth with hard words, words that hurt!” And Madame Mamelin herself emerges as hopelessly provincial.
His father (Désiré in the book as in life) fares far better. He died at forty-four, and Simenon always held an idealized image of him. He is a man of style and sensibility in the novel, with “handsome, sparkling brown eyes, a big Cyrano-de-Bergerac nose, and a turned-up mustache; his hair, which was brushed back, and his bald temples gave him a high forehead.” His wife chooses his ties but “she [is] afraid of colours, because they [are] a sign of vulgarity.” He goes off to work each day, so punctually the neighbors can set their clocks by him (again true to life). His wife stays at home with the boy and “without respite, as tireless as an insect driven by an age-old instinct,” finds a way to get what she wants: a move to a larger house. She skims small amounts from the household expenses to make the move possible. “A sou here, a franc there, sometimes a big coin. She hid them for a while in the soup-tureen with the pink flowers on it.” She does all this despite the fact that the move will mean taking boarders. She knows her husband dislikes the idea, and it turns out to be a tiresome, thankless business. In spite of his compliance, she finds her husband selfish. She laments that, should tragedy befall him, she would have to work as a servant. “Why a servant?” he thinks, “Had she been a servant when he met her?”
Simenon’s ungenerous appraisal of his mother in print was of a piece with the rest of their long, ambivalent relationship. His brother, Christian, was her favorite son. This is more than mere conjecture. She said on more than one occasion that she wished Georges had died rather than Christian, who passed away in 1947 while serving in the French Foreign Legion. When Simenon visited her in Liege in 1952, Pierre Assouline reports that “she showered him with recriminations.” When asked about the success Georges achieved as a writer, she lamented that “It’s Georges who got the glory, but Christian had the talent.” It seems she wanted another life for Georges. In Pedigree, Élise “dreamt of a cake-shop where a sturdy, good-natured Roger would toil away in the scented warmth of the bakehouse while she herself, neat and trim in an embroidered white apron crackling with starch, would serve tarts across a marble counter.” Simenon offered a similar appraisal in an interview years later, albeit in a more dismissive tone: “Her grand hope was that I become a pastry chef. Oh, how she wanted to see me at an oven and herself behind the counter!” Simenon didn’t deny the tenor of his work in Pedigree. “I admit that the likeness I drew of her was not only harsh but unmistakable,” he told Brendan Gill in a celebrated New Yorker profile, “and at first she was very much offended. But then people started coming from miles around to look her over, and she turned out to enjoy it.” Unable to resist twisting the knife, he went on to say that “She’d take visitors through the house and show them the table at which I wrote my first novel. But it wasn’t really the same table. That table she sold.”
His mother was not the only one who took exception to Pedigree. A spate of lawsuits greeted the book, from parties as diverse as a doctor and the priests at the Catholic school Simenon attended as a boy. This set had more staying power than the challenge he faced to Tropic Moon. Rumors, fortunately unfounded, held that Belgian authorities might ban the book. One of his old classmates took exception to a brief incident described in the book. Simenon saw the matter as a simple coincidence, one brought on by his unintentional use of an old classmate’s name. He changed the character’s last name, but a stronger, more insidious threat awaited. The Christian Brothers, who ran a school Simenon attended as a boy, weighed in on the classmate’s behalf. They also mentioned their hardships funding the school and Simenon’s success. Her son was a rich man; couldn’t he make a donation? In lieu of that, they asked Simenon’s mother to condemn his behavior. In the end, he was forced to alter the text to remove any reference to his former classmate, and to pay the man 70,000 Belgian francs. Another plaintiff won a judgment of 20,000 francs. The Christian Brothers weighed in again, demanding 100,000 francs in return for the libel their institution had suffered, but Simenon was spared that expense and the indignity besides.
The suits took an unexpected toll on Simenon. He was generally firm and unflappable, but the onslaught of legal worries convinced him to abandon the project which would likely have cemented his legacy, waste and all. He had planned a twenty-volume series in the vein of Pedigree, but the emotional and financial investments the first book demanded were too steep. “They’re lying in wait for me now,” he said, and returned to his usual terse, thrilling fare. The one volume he completed is a genuine peculiarity in the Simenon oeuvre. The pacing is so deliberate that it’s hard to identify the book with its author. Apart from that, it simply isn’t the best of Simenon. It lacks the verve and sustained tension of his shorter works, though it does engage issues he largely avoided until the endless series of memoirs he undertook after retiring as a novelist in 1972.
Whatever its faults, Pedigree is Simenon at his most ambitious. When asked, he habitually declined to name a book he considered his strongest. His most recent work, he would insist, was his best. Still, he wrote to André Gide that, “In Pedigree I wanted to drain out all the pus. I went to the very end. I could press no further into the dark. And it gave me a feeling I had never had. I was delivered from anguish.” Any doubt about how significant the book was to Simenon should disappear in the face of his experience reading from the text for a recording, during a 1954 visit to Paris. He stood in a glass booth before a small group of onlookers, to read the passage in Pedigree which describes his father’s death. Simenon didn’t choose the content, nor had he ever read it aloud before. He began to cry and turned away to shield himself from the crowd. Finally, to remove himself from view, he lay on the floor. The guests were ushered from the room.
Writers and their readers don’t always see eye to eye on which works are the most valuable or most deserve to endure. Franz Kafka famously ordered all of his manuscripts be burned after his death. We owe their survival to the contrary assessment and well-intentioned disloyalty of Max Brod. Yasunari Kawabata ranked not Snow Country or Sound of the Mountain as the pinnacle of his art, but a series of very short, elegant fictions we now know as his Palm of the Hand Stories. Georges Simenon didn’t count Inspector Maigret as his most significant creation. His romans durs, the Rolls Royces he assembled so carefully, were the standard by which he wished to be judged. Decades later, we are immeasurably lucky to have this spate of them in handsome, new editions. Sorry, Inspector Maigret, but M. Simenon was right: these are the works of a master.
Freelancer John McIntyre makes his Open Letters Monthly debut with this piece.
I am grateful to The Quarterly Conversation/Conversational Reading for letting me guest-post a review for NYRB Reading Week, even though I’m a ringer: I have been lucky enough to work with the press in various capacities since I first got obsessed with NYRBs in 2002 or 2003. (I now own 134 of the Classics.) You’ll be happy to hear that the folks at NYRB are as lovely as their book covers.
Here is the list, in alphabetical order, of my top ten favorite NYRB Classics. The next ten books down are great books too, and the ten after that, and etc., but these are ten I can no longer live without, not one of which I would have read without NYRB.
To avoid needless repetition, please cut and paste in your mind the following sentence into all ten descriptions below: “It passes the bounds of human understanding how good this book is.”
The Winners, by Julio Cortázar, tr. Elaine Kerrigan
Cortázar is well known for lesser books; this early novel is my favorite. A cross-section of Buenos Aires society wins a cruise in a lottery, and the opening section swirls among the different couples, families, and individuals at a café on shore, where they meet to await further instructions. Then they’re off on a mysterious ship to an unknown destination. Intricate, philosophical, and transcendent.
A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor
Combine a great story (a charming 18-year-old travels on foot across Europe, from Holland to Constantinople, in 1933), forty years of learning and reflection (the book came out in 1977), and the richest prose stylist in the language since Thomas Browne: the result is a travel book overflowing with magnificence. NYRB publishes the sequel, Between the Woods and the Water, which covers the second third of his journey; we all pray that Fermor, age 95, will finish volume 3 and bring us to Constantinople.
A High Wind in Jamaica, by Richard Hughes
The best book ever written about childhood, and descriptive powers as mighty as Faulkner’s without any of the difficulty. One of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels of the Twentieth Century; I wouldn’t have minded seeing it at #1.
The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson, tr. Thomas Teal
A six-year-old girl whose mother has died and her grandmother on a Scandinavian island. Like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse—another book mourning the author’s mother—The Summer Book is a work of such beauty and perfect balance that to mention its glittering summer light makes it hard to believe it could be so dark, but to call it a book about grief and loss makes it hard to imagine it could be so bright and funny.
An African in Greenland, by Tété-Michel Kpomassie, tr. James Kirkup
A young man in Togo stumbles upon a book about Eskimos and vows to go to Greenland someday; it takes years, but he gets there. This is his absolutely winning memoir. One of the first NYRBs I bought on the basis of the cover and NYRB’s track record alone—a great discovery.
Sunflower, by Gyula Krúdy, tr. John Bátki
A Hungarian fever-dream of love and death amid mist-shrouded forests. The style may seem a little crazy at first, but let yourself go and this novel transports you like none other.
The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, by Álvaro Mutis, tr. Edith Grossman
It is impossible to describe this book and how good it is, especially the first three or four of the seven novellas it contains. It’s about a philosophical drifter and his adventures of life and sex and thought and the poetry in our souls that can never be written. Gabriel García Márquez calls Mutis “one of the greatest writers of our time”—Gabriel García Márquez, people!
Jakob von Gunten, by Robert Walser, tr. Christopher Middleton
Walser is slowly getting the fame he deserves, thanks in no small part to NYRB. This novel, about a young man at a school for servants, is the book on this list most likely to change not only your life but the person leading it. Here’s the opening: “One learns very little here, there is a shortage of teachers, and none of us boys of the Benjamenta Institute will come to anything, that is to say, we shall all be something very small and subordinate later in life. The instruction that we enjoy consists mainly in impressing patience and obedience upon ourselves, two qualities that promise little success, or none at all. Inward successes, yes. But what does one get from such as these?”
Mr. Fortune’s Maggot, by Sylvia Townsend Warner
The title of this book should be The Complete Mr. Fortune: it has nothing whatsoever to do with maggots. Warner’s two long stories about an inimitably gentle hero, a missionary who goes to “convert” an island “native” but is converted himself. Prose as refreshing as watching a baby play.
Riders in the Chariot, by Patrick White
Another discovery—I had never come anywhere near hearing of Patrick White, Australia’s Nobel Prize winner in literature. This book has an epigraph by Blake and lives up to it: one of the two most visionary novels I have ever read, and the most painterly. Gobs of radiant color streak through the world as you read it. The variety and interplay of the four main characters of the four parts are astonishing.
And, one honorable mention:
The Journal: 1837–1861, by Henry David Thoreau, ed. Damion Searls (me)
Not on the main list for obvious, favoritist reasons, but it shouldn’t go unrecommended just because I’m the recommender. Thoreau’s Journal is his life’s work, has some of his best and most appealing prose, and is one of the great life-companions you can find between book covers.
This post appeared as part of NYRB Reading Week and was written by Damion Searls. Searls is the author of What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going and the translator of Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, praised on the front page of the New York Times as a “masterpiece” in an “eloquent translation.” He wrote the preface to the newest NYRB Classic, Yasushi Inoue’s Tun-huang.
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