Monsieur Monde Vanishes…and reappears in Hanover, PA

August 21, 2009 at 2:24 am (Book clubs, books, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Mystery fiction)

monde This past Monday, I gave my lecture presentation at the newly renovated library in Hanover, Pennsylvania.  guthrie As usual, I am feeling a mixture of relief and exhilaration. I don’t need to fret any more about how it’s going to go. It went well, I think, judging by the audience reaction.

Those in the Hanover group like their book discussions accompanied by a healthy serving of author information. One of the reasons I selected a novel by Georges Simenon is that I knew that he led a turbulent, eventful life. Just how turbulent it was, and how some of the events unfolded, is often open to question. To put it kindly, Simenon was not averse to embellishing the facts from time to time. In its turn,  le monde litteraire was full of contradictory opinions about Simenon the man and Simenon the author.

I began my talk by referencing an article that appeared in the L.A. Weekly in May of last year. In “The Escape Artist: John Banville on Georges Simenon,” John Banville won the Booker Prize in 2005 for this novel: sea. Despite receiving this accolade, Banville was starting to feel dissatisfied with the direction his writing was taking. Then a friend recommended that he read Simenon, specifically les romans durs, those darker, non-Maigret novels of which Monsieur Monde Vanishes is an example. Herewith, Banville’s reaction to this first reading: “’I was really blown away by this extraordinary writer. I had never known this kind of thing was possible, to create such work in that kind of simple — well, apparently simple — direct style. …'” In short, Simenon provided Banville with a new direction in which to take his fiction. The most obvious result: Christine Falls, the first mystery in the Garret Quirke series (written under the pseudonym Benjamin Black). christine-falls

The first part of my presentation consisted of a summary of Simenon’s and life and work. The two are so closely intertwined that’s it is virtually impossible to discuss them separately.  One of the facts about Simenon, invariably mentioned first in most books and articles about him, is how astonishingly prolific he was. In his lifetime he published some four hundred novels under his own name and using various pseudonyms. He also write numerous short stories and several screenplays. All this, before the age of the word processor! He was a veritable human word processor, all on his own. Here again is John Banville:

“As one contemplates the life and work of Georges Simenon, the question inevitably arises: Was he human? In his energies, creative and erotic, he was certainly extraordinary.

Demonstrably true, that second sentence, although in the area of erotic adventures, Simenon almost certainly stretched the truth. He claimed to have slept with 10,000 women, many of whom were prostitutes, whose “professionalism” he praised!

Simenon was born in 1903 in Liege, Belgium. In his early twenties, he took off for Paris, seeking fame and fortune and finding both. He developed a restless, peripatetic way of life, leaving France after the Second World War for Montreal and then the U.S. He lived at various times in Maine, Connecticut, Manhattan, and Arizona. Also during this period he divorced his first wife Regina, with whom he had had a son, and married his secretary Denyse Ouimet. This union, which produced two more sons and a daughter, proved even more turbulent than the first. In 1955, Simenon returned returned to Europe, living briefly in France before finally settling in Switzerland. In 1964, Simenon separated permanently from Denyse. By that time he had already taken up with Teresa, who had  been hired as a housekeeper three years earlier.

Simenon’s daughter Marie-Georges, whom he always called Marie-Jo, became increasingly troubled emotionally as she grew to adulthood. In 1978, at the age of 25, she committed suicide. From that moment, Simenon abjured the writing of fiction and began instead to work on his autobiography. Intimate Memoirs Memoires Intimes – was published in 1981. (The English translation became available in 1984.)  Appended to this volume is what Simenon called “Marie-Jo’s book” – a collection of letters, short fictional pieces, and poems written by Marie-Jo in the course of her short life.  intimate

As Intimate Memoirs opens, Simenon speaks directly to his daughter, whom he calls “My tiny little girl.” He goes on to describe the final farewell and its aftermath, continuing to address his words to Marie-Jo:

“I scrupulously carried out your last wishes, found on your bed. No ceremony. The next day, just a few people gathered before your casket while an organist played some of the Johann Sebastian Bach music we both loved. Flowers galore. Mine were armfuls and armfuls of white lilacs, which, in my view, harmonized with the laughing little girl I had known….

The next morning, early, the undertaker’s man brought us the box with your ashes, and, once we were alone, I fulfilled your last wish: to have those white ashes strewn over the little garden of our pink house.

***

A little later, your brothers came in. The sun was bright, the grass a fine green.

For the last time, I was sleepwalking as I had done in my childhood, but, as I kept looking out on the garden, the violent pain that had kept me doubled over during the long week of waiting gave way to a feeling of tenderness, which I still experience every time I see that garden and the birds pecking in it, and considering the position of my armchair, which you know so well, that happens a hundred times a day.

I’ve gotten into the habit of saying good morning to you when the shutters are opened, and good night in the evening when they are closed, as well as talking inwardly to you.

It took me a long time to get used once again to living like everybody else.

Simenon and Marie-Jo

Simenon and Marie-Jo

Marie-Georges Simenon

Marie-Georges Simenon

Teresa remained as Simenon’s companion until his death in 1989. ( Click here for more on Simenon’s life and work.)

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The most important advice about writing that Simenon ever received came from Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who is usually known solely by her last name. In her capacity as editor at Le Matin, she rejected several stories submitted by Simenon to that publication. In an interview he gave to the Paris Review in 1955, Simenon reiterated Colette’s objection to his work: “‘Look, it is too literary, always too literary.” The interviewer asked Simenon what he took to be her meaning: “Adjectives, adverbs, and every word which is there just to make an effect.” What action did he take as a result? “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.”

This counsel from Colette, then, was key to the development of the lean, spare prose style so emblematic of Simenon’s work.

pen_eni The first Maigret, The Strange  Case of Peter the Lett (I’ve seen several titles assigned to this novel), came out over the winter of 1929-30. Despite the publisher’s initial reservations, the police procedurals featuring Maigret and his colleagues in the Quai des Orfevres eventually achieved enormous international success. In the meantime, Simenon became rather ambivalent about the success of his fictional detective, preferring instead les romans durs, as typified by Monsieur Monde Vanishes, as well as these:

dirty red

tropic

John Banville calls these novels “superb and polished works of art masquerading as pulp fiction.”

We are indebted to New York Review Books, which is currently reprinting these books. In addition, they have commissioned new introductions from distinguished contemporary authors. The introduction to Monsieur Monde Vanishes was written by Larry McMurtry, who offers some interesting insights. He points out that where style is concerned, this novel, with its  “flatness of tone and, for that matter, mood,” bears more than a passing resemblance to Albert Camus’s The Stranger. I also liked McMurtry’s concluding comments about Simenon: “His preference was for the seedy, the slightly tawdry, the not-best-dressed, the none-too-clean. It was in such melancholy places that he worked his magic.”

(I do have one problem with McMurtry’s piece. In naming some famous instances of mysterious disappearance, he lights on the example of Agatha Christie, who, he states, “vanished for a couple of months, but was found taking tea in Yorkshire and allowed herself to be persuaded to return.” Yes, she turned up in Yorkshire in 1926, at the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, whose lobby I found myself happily wandering through  four years ago. If you’ll read the text on the hotel’s site, you’ll note that it gives the time period of Christie’s clandestine stay there as ten days. I’ve also seen the number eleven, as in this Wikipedia entry. But “a couple of months?” Quite simply not the case.

I e-mailed New York Review Books several weeks ago about this misstatement. I have not heard back from them.)

In some ways, in regard to his authorial duality, Simenon reminds me of Ruth Rendell. No matter how awful the crime, both Rendell’s Wexford procedurals and Simenon’s Maigret novels provide some kind of resolution. Order is restored, justice is meted out; some degree of consolation is afforded to victims and/or families. Both Wexford and Maigret are reassuringly normal family men; they tangle with malefactors and unbalanced people from a position of strength. They have not only the unwavering support of their respective wives – they have, ready to assist them, a team of investigators and the entire apparatus of the police force and the judiciary.

In the novels of psychological suspense, however,  no such reassurance is on offer. In fact,  quite the opposite is the case. Just think of Judgement in Stone!  And think of Monsieur Monde Vanishes.

It is the difference between getting on a roller coaster at an amusement park, and, having experienced the usual thrills, getting back on firm ground in a matter of minutes; as opposed to being driven to the edge of a cliff, all the while hoping desperately that someone or something will rescue you from the abyss.

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The impression I came away with Monday is that the Hanover readers found Monsieur Monde Vanishes and its author intriguing; the verdict on the actual experience of reading the novel was more guarded. Gail said that she was surprised by  the book, as were several others in the group. For one thing, they were expecting something that could more readily be classified as a mystery – something, in other words, more like the Maigret books. Also they felt misled by the title. The book begins with Madame Monde going to the police to report her husband missing. The reader is given the impression that we will now be following a missing persons investigation. But no – later in the same chapter –  the first –  we meet Monsieur Monde himself, as he is leaving for yet another day at the family firm. And we remain with him for the duration, as he cuts one by one the ties that bind him to family, to work, and to his entire bourgeois existence:

“When, a short while before, he had decided…But he hadn’t decided anything! 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.

This is about as close to introspection as Monde, or any of the novel’s other characters, gets. In our discussion of The Maltese Falcon, Barb, our leader, emphasized that readers get to know the dramatis personae through their actions – we are not made privy to their private thoughts. Much of the time this holds true as well for Monsieur Monde Vanishes. But added to the latter is an enveloping air of fatalism:

“Once again, he was following a preordained plan, for which he was not responsible. Nor had he made any decision the day before. It all came from much further back, from the beginning of things.

Standing on the platform of the bus, he patted his pockets; he leaned forward to see his reflection in the window. He felt no surprise. But he was still waiting as he had waited after his First Communion, for something he longed for, which was slow in coming.

To me, that last sentence is a thing of beauty and almost unbearably poignant, signifying as it does “the melancholy, long withdrawing roar” of religious faith, with its promise of hope and consolation.

We agreed that there are many memorable passages in Monsieur Monde Vanishes. But of course, we are encountering them at second hand, since this is a translated work. I would be interested to read this novel in the original French. I could probably just about handle it,  with my trusty Larousse by my side! In fact, the English translation of this novel’s title is what misleads first time readers (as it misled me on my own first reading). The French title is La Fuite de Monsieur Monde: literally, “The Flight of Monsieur Monde.” This more accurately describe the novel’s subject, which is not the void left by the man’s disappearance from his quotidian existence but the radically new life into which he emerges.

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Here is the most comprehensive site I know of for Maigret / Simenon information.

I was not able to obtain Pierre Assouline’s definitive biography of Simenon until shortly prior to my going to Hanover. I do hope to read it at some future time; it looks to be fascinating and beautifully written.  assoulin

One final word on the subject of deliberate disappearances, both real and fictional. A member of the group reminded me that Anne Tyler used this plot premise in one of her novels. We couldn’t recall the title at the time, but I found it later: ladder. In this context, I also brought up the strange and haunting Flitcraft parable from The Maltese Falcon.

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The research process can sometimes yield  surprising, even disconcerting results. It happened to me when I found this article, which appeared in Britain’s Independent newspaper in 2002: “Simenon’s great-niece on trial for killing lover.”

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In a comment on a previous post on Simenon, Barb Fisher of Hanover wrote: “Don’t know if you realized that all four of us who heard your ‘Art of Mystery’ talk in Howard County made it to the Hanover meeting along with the rest of the crowd.” What a lovely compliment! And what a great group of book lovers.

hanover1

As we wind down our session, a brave Hanoverian attempts to refold a 24-page printout containing Simenon's complete oeuvre!

As we wind down our session, a brave Hanoverian attempts to refold a 24-page printout containing a list of Simenon's complete oeuvre!

hanover5

4 Comments

  1. Roberta Greene said,

    I loved reading about your experience at the Guthrie book talk in August and wish to express my deep appreciation for a fabulous presentation. So sorry I missed it. Thank you for taking the time to participate in the Friends series and for sharing your love of reading and broad knowledge of literature. I hope you will consider returning for an encore! I will be setting the 2010 schedule in October and will be in touch.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      Roberta,
      Thanks for your gracious remarks. I had a wonderful time in Hanover, as I always do.
      I look for ward to hearing from you regarding the 2010 schedule!

  2. Books to talk about – a personal view « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] Water’s Edge – Karin Fossum Half Broken Things and Puccini’s Ghosts – Morag Joss Monsieur Monde Vanishes – Simenon The Ghost – Robert Harris Blue Heaven – C.J. Box Suffer the Little Children, A Sea […]

  3. At a meeting of the Usual Suspects: Simenon/Maigret, and other matters… « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] to lead a discussion  centering on the Maigret novels, since I possessed a wealth of material from a lecture/discussion that I presented last year in Hanover, PA. For that occasion, I had focused on a non-Maigret novel, one of the so-called romans durs entitled […]

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