- Post by Director of Suspense Molly Odintz
Simenon is my favorite writer to capture post-war European malaise (when he wasn’t banging away at his numerous and utterly charming Inspector Maigret novels), and the contrast between his pre-war and post-war work shows the same loss of innocence and sense of amorality verging into guilt that defined much of European literature in the 1950s and 60s.
I recently picked up Simenon’s The Blue Room (La Chambre Bleue) after it had been abandoned by a browsing customer. I felt compelled by this sleazy tale of cheating and betrayal from the very first sentence, as one lover asks another, “Did I hurt you?” The answer may be “no” to start with, but as we dive further into this sordid tale of cheating husbands and wives, it’s hard to believe the answer will remain “no” for much longer.
After a lovers’ chat in a hotel room ends abruptly with the unexpected return of the woman’s husband, the narrative veers back and forth between an ongoing affair between two married people and police interrogations of the cheating husband (as unreliable a narrator as can be). The affair began after a chance meeting by the side of the road, as a man stops to help a woman change a tire, only to realize that when the two were together at school, she had a crush on him the whole time.
At first put off by her statuesque beauty, describing her as seemingly made of stone, the man takes the woman up on her offer to finally kiss him and discovers an unbridled sensuality that both appeals to him and frightens him. Not a first-time cheater, but a first time participant in a long-term affair, the man feels no guilt, only fear. He worries that this time, his dutiful, meek wife will discover his extramarital affairs and put an end to what seems to him to be a perfect life. As we read further into the novel, the police ask him disquieting questions about the nature of his marriage and the details of his affairs, as he reveals all while protesting involvement in an as-yet-unspecified crime.
The Blue Room is as explicit and as menacing as many of the NYRB releases from Simenon, despite its publication as part of Penguin Classics’ reissues (which have tended to concentrate on the Maigret series). It has the feel of a Patrica Highsmith novel; The Blue Room exudes dark sensuality while it pillories the hypocrisy of the 1950s successful, obsessed with the appearance of success while continuing to embrace their darkest desires in secret.
Collectively, his non-Maigret novels are known as “romans durs,” or hard novels, most of which Simenon wrote during the war while holed up with his wife and mistress, and immediately after the war, while still living quite happily with both women. One wonders if he was able to have a reasonably functional relationship with not one, but two women (and any number of others) because he poured out his more sadistic images of sexuality into the pages of these novels. Anyone who watches enough horror films will agree that lust, obsession, and violence, inextricably entwined, make for very good entertainment. I encourage the readers of this blog to embrace the voyeurism inherent in the crime genre and check out The Blue Room, and Simenon’s other sultry, sordid tales.
Chief among Simenon’s romans durs, for me anyway, is my favorite of his wartime novels, Dirty Snow. This novel also happens to be one of the only works I’ve finished in French. Simenon’s deceptively simple sentence structure and oh-so-disturbing themes make his works perfect for practicing one’s language skills, although I am grateful to Penguin and NYRB for their superb translations of his work. In Dirty Snow, or La Neige Etait Sale, the snow isn’t the only thing turned to grey miserable slush – each character was morally ambiguous even before the war began, and in their lives under the occupation, they descend to new levels of compromising behavior.
Dirty Snow follows Frank Friedmeier, son of a brothel owner catering to Nazi officers, after he kills a German soldier late at night and wanders aimlessly through the streets of Brussels, unsure of the meaning of his act but ready to say the literary equivalent of “f*** you” to anyone who tries to stop him. He is the ultimate antihero, and like his mother’s assistant (a former prostitute suffering from long-term injuries caused by a sadistic German) the reader can’t help but find him attractive, even while full of disgust for both the character and his actions. His only saving grace is his behavior after his sudden and unexpected arrest by the occupying forces. He refuses to cooperate, and his belligerent behavior, ruthless and dastardly when it comes to his mother’s workers, turns into something resembling nobility when directed at occupying Nazis.
Most antiheroes are tempered by their love for at least one other person in their lives. Holden Caulfield had his brother, Dallas Winston had Johnny, Dexter Morgan had his adoptive family, and so one. Frank Friedmeier is more along the lines of a Thomas Ripley, or a Pinkie Brown (of Grahame Greene’s Brighton Rock) if suddenly in the midst of their schemes and sprees they had been placed in a scenario wherein continuing the same behavior suddenly made their actions honorable.
Frank taps into a vicious part of ourselves that values honesty over morality. He sees his world as it is, not some version of what it could be, and his ability to survive for a time in occupied Brussels makes for interesting fodder in discussing sociopathic behavior in wartime. One has the sense that for Frank, life is filth and always has been, and the Nazi takeover of his nation only confirms what he already suspects the world to be.
Dirty Snow is light-years ahead of the same conclusion’s arrival at the cinemas in the French film Lacombe, Lucien. The film recounts the story of an amoral teen from the countryside who, after he is deemed too young to join the French Resistance, joins the Gestapo instead. Lacombe, Lucien explores the uncomfortable nature of impulsive choices made outside any moral parameters. The screenplay, recently reissued by Other Press, was written by Patrick Modiano, a crime writer and Nobel Prize winner whose father survived the war through collaboration.
No one likes a hypocrite, yet anyone with a strong concept of morality is almost invariably a hypocrite – if we stuck to all of our own rules, we’d live miserable lives full of second-guessing and free of compassion and compromise. Every once in a while, though, I find it refreshing to read the story of a badly behaved character who stays consistent to his lack of morality for the whole ride. The characters in Simenon’s Romans Durs never change – they merely enter into increasingly bad situations, where inevitable consequences put an end to their bad behavior once and for all.
You can find copies of many of Simenon’s works on our shelves or via bookpeople.com.