Mahler in Maryland, and more…

August 29, 2010 at 8:12 pm (Music, Technology)

Much more, thanks to the magic of live streaming technology on the internet.

On Friday August 26, we had the privilege of attending a concert consisting of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and Mahler’s First. The Berlin Philharmonic was led by Sir Simon Rattle, and we were watching the performance live, as it streamed via the internet from Philharmonie Hall right into our family room here in Maryland. Ron had secured us a free pass to this concert; we were not about to miss it!*

The Berlin Philharmonic is currently the only symphony orchestra in the world offering live streaming video of its performances.

When I got on this site and clicked on the video segment, I was instantly overwhelmed by the glorious music pouring forth. It is Sibelius’s Fifth Symphony. Here and see it for yourself.

The quality of the video and audio transmissions is quite simply superb.

A full year’s subscription to the Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall currently costs 149 euros, or about 190 U.S. dollars. But you can also gain access for a shorter term, at a reduced cost. Click here for more pricing information.


France’s Medici TV also offers live and recorded music from various European venues. You must register to see an entire performance, but amazingly, there is no charge. This past July, we watched a live broadcast of Don Giovanni from Glyndebourne.

Glyndebourne is a unique, and uniquely British, music festival. Opera is performed in a hall that is part of  a country estate in East Sussex. People arrive dressed in formal wear. They bring picnics (or obtain picnic baskets on site, from a caterer) and eat on the grounds  – sometimes literally on the ground – prior to the performance. Sheep can be seen grazing in an adjoining field.

(I attended an opera – La Cenerentola by Rossini – at Glyndebourne in 1985. At the time, I’d never heard of the place. I was the guest of friends of my parents. Due to several extraneous factors, I was not fully able to appreciate the experience. I recall thinking that the juxtaposition of high culture and pastoral surroundings was bizarre. Now, I look back indulgently at my insufficiently-enlightened pre-Anglophile self. I had much to learn in the coming years!)

Click here for a video history of Glyndebourne.


Medici TV and Berlin’s Digital Concert Hall convinced Ron that it was time for us to set up a home theater PC.  You can certainly watch these concerts on your computer – but how much better to be able to see them on a larger screen (in our case, 32 inches) and listen to them with the benefit of a superior sound system (again, in our case, NHT Speakers). With guidance from the Audiovisual Science Forum, Ron began getting the system components in place.

To begin with, you need a television that is equipped with an HDMI input. Add to that, a dedicated computer with an HDMI output. After careful research, Ron selected an ASRock Core 100-HT BD, a small form factor desktop computer.

It is also essential to have a high speed internet connection of no less than six megabits per second. We have found that our Verizon FIOS connection is entirely equal to the task.

When all was in place and we fired up the system, we were thrilled with the results!


Ron and I are overjoyed that this treasure trove of classical music continues to be loved and nurtured in Europe. We’re also  surprised that this tremendously exciting, cutting edge initiative, whose aim is to bring these riches to the rest of the world, has not garnered more media attention here. This post is my own small effort to rectify this omission.


*With this type of data transmission, there is bound to be the occasional glitch. Friday’s concert did not launch until about one half hour into the program, due to high user demand. (It’s that magical word “free” working its mischief again!) Last night, Ron received an e-mail from the Berlin Philharmonic apologizing for the transmission problems. As part of the apology, they provided another  free pass for 24 hours of viewing on the  site, good through December 1. Friday’s concert will be available in the archives as of Tuesday, August 31.

Permalink Leave a Comment

“Totally Hip Video Book reviewer!” – Ron Charles

August 27, 2010 at 10:37 pm (Book review, books, Magazines and newspapers)

While I’m in between posts, let me commend to you Ron Charles’s delightful video review of Mona Simpson’s My Hollywood:

Ron Charles has long been one of my favorite reviewers for the Washington Post Book World. This new format seems to suit him beautifully. I look forward to the next video – keep ’em coming, Ron!

Permalink Leave a Comment

Let’s have a drum roll and a chorus of Rule Britannia! Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

August 27, 2010 at 1:23 am (Anglophilia, Book review, books)

One  could think of Major Ernest Pettigrew, resident of the village of Edgecombe St. Mary in Sussex, as a proud defender of the old ways. Or as a superfluous relic of the past. Or as a man whose upright carriage and flawless manners provide cover for an almost unbearable loneliness.

As depicted in the novel by Helen Simonson, he is all of those things and more. The Major has been widowed for some years when suddenly and unexpectedly  a potential new love comes into his life. Although all occasions seem to inform against him, he is dauntless in his pursuit of Mrs. Ali, the  widow who runs a shop in the village. As the novel’s events unfold, she proves a most worthy recipient of his affections.

Mrs. Ali is childless; the major has a son. Roger, a big city striver in the financial sector, is something of a thorn in the Major’s side. They see eye to eye on virtually nothing. Their confrontations range from the frustrating, the outrageous, and the just plain hilarious. Roger’s cheerful materialism leaves no room for the eternal verities cherished by his father.

With her felicitous mode of expression and great sense of humor, Helen Simonson puts me in mind of Kate Atkinson. Both can be warmhearted, even tender, without becoming mawkish. Both create fully three-dimensional characters. write great dialog, and have formidable powers of description. (Jane Gardam comes to mind here as well.)

To wit, here is the major reflecting on his love for the  village in which he has been privileged to live for most of his life:

He had been many decades, as man and boy, in the village of Edgecombe St. Mary, and yet the walk down the hill to the village never ceased to give him pleasure. The lane was steeply cambered to either side, as if the narrow tarmac were the curving roof of some buried chamber. The dense hedges of privet, hawthorn, and beech swelled together as fat and complacent as medieval burghers. The air was scented with their spicy dry fragrance overlaid with the tang of animals in the fields behind the cottages….As he rounded a curve, the hedges gave way to the plain wire fence of a sheep field and allowed a view of twenty miles of Sussex countryside spreading beyond the roofs of the village below. Behind him, above his own house, the hills swelled upward into the rabbit-cropped grass of the chalk downs. Below him, the Weald of Sussex cradled fields full of late rye and the acid yellow of mustard. He liked to pause at  the stile, one foot up on the step, and drink in the landscape. Something–perhaps it was the quality of the light, or the infinite variety of greens in the trees and hedges–never failed to fill his heart with a love of country that he would have been embarrassed to express aloud.

As I transcribed the above, I was reminded of some of the landscapes we saw and the villages we passed through on our recent trips to England:

The village of Hawes, in Yorkshire

Middleham, in Yorkshire

In a completely different vein, there’s this memorable description of Dr. Khan, husband of one of the village’s more zealous social climbers:

The doctor looked stiff to the point of rigor mortis, thought the Major. He was a handsome man with thick short hair and large brown eyes, but his head was slightly small and was stuck well into the air as if the man were afraid of his own shirt collar. He wore a white military uniform with a short scarlet cloak and a close-fitting hat adorned with medals. The Major could immediately see him as a photo in the newspaper of some minor royalty recently executed during a coup.


The author information on the jacket flap indicates that Helen Simonson spent her adolescence in “a small village in East Sussex” – a village, in other words, like Edgecombe St. Mary. Simonson has lived in the U.S. for some twenty years now, so it’s interesting that she has chosen, at this point in time, to write such a quintessentially English novel. One wonders whether she misses English village life. (Heck, I miss it – and I’ve never even lived in such a place – only visited, all too briefly.)

Not everything in this novel works. At the story’s climax, Simonson throws in a melodramatic scenario that, to me at least, seemed both confusing and misplaced. Nevertheless, for a first outing, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is an absolute treasure. I can’t wait to see what this gifted author does next.

Highly, highly recommended!

Helen Simonson

Permalink 6 Comments

The eternal fascination of Rome

August 24, 2010 at 9:43 pm (Book review, books, History, Italy)

It all (re)started with my first visit, last year, to chaotic, fabulous Naples – Napoli, as it is known in Italy. But the city has had other names: it was founded in the 700s BC by the Greeks. It was then Neapolis – “new city.”

But no – before that, there was Robert Harris’s riveting novel. I read Pompeii shortly after it came out in 2002. Like many the world over, I’ve been intrigued by the story of this lost and resurrected city since I was a small child. I had been to Italy several times, when I was in my twenties, but not since; while there, I had been to Rome, Florence and Venice – never to the southern portions of the country. I was pretty certain that I would never see Pompeii. I was wrong – gloriously wrong!

But I must go back further…to the appearance, in 1991, of Roman Blood, the first book in Steven Saylor’s superb series, Roma Sub Rosa.

Actually, now that I give it careful consideration, I think I know when and where I first became fascinated by ancient Rome. It was when Mrs. Gelber, my ninth grade Latin teacher, had us do projects concerning the Romans. I took two small plastic dolls and dressed them up in togas. My satisfaction with this effort was all out of proportion to the rather modest effect I achieved. Mrs. Gelber, an inspiring teacher if there ever was one, praised my efforts nonetheless. From then on, I was well and truly hooked.

Of course, I can provide no image of these small effigies. Nevertheless, they are clearly etched in my mind’s eye.

Recently, I listened to Part One of The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome. These lectures are given by Professor Garrett Fagan, an Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and History at Penn State University. (Professor Fagan is from Ireland; this makes him an especial pleasure to listen to on this recorded course.)

I’m also thinking and writing about Rome because I’ve just finished listening to Conspirata, the second novel in Robert Harris’s projected trilogy based on the life of Cicero. The events are narrated by Cicero’s slave Tiro. Tiro took dictation for Cicero and managed his garden as well his finances. He made himself  quite indispensable to his master and was ultimately freed in 53 BC.  Despite his new status, Tiro continued to work for Cicero. (The audiobook versions of the novels in this series are read superbly by Simon Jones.)

The following commentary is from an article on Cicero by William Harris, Emeritus Professor at Middlebury College:

Tiro, a diligent slave perfected a system of Latin shorthand, which served to preserve fairly accurately Cicero’s speeches. A number of medieval MSS in “Tironian annotation” survive, containing much of the master’s speeches and perhaps more than we are aware of, since the specialization required for a study of this esoteric field deters all but the most laborious of scholars. The list of extant speeches is immense, the text fills several volumes.

The story Tiro tells in Conspirata and Imperium, its predecessor, is extremely complex. The characters are numerous; keeping track of them is made challenging by the fact that Roman names are easily confused. Nevertheless, I got completely caught up in the story, and in the author’s vivid re-creation of a vanished world. The last thing I expected, as Conspirata was concluding, was to be moved to tears by the events being narrated – and yet, I was.

The third volume in the trilogy is due to appear in 2011. (Note: for some reason, Conspirata was published in the UK as Lustrum.)

On his wonderful site, Steven Saylor provides terrific links to ancient world websites. (Scroll down to “Links to Classical World web sites.” This site also links to my review of the most recent Gordianus the Finder novel, The Triumph of Caesar. Scroll down to the bottom and look for Books to the Ceiling under “Reviews & Misc.”)

I have purchased the Penguin edition of Livy’s The Early History of Rome: . I immediately needed to know more about that eerie, vaguely familiar cover image. It is The Capitoline She-Wolf. It resides in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, where, I  now realize, I first saw it some forty years ago. This video brings the viewer up close to this remarkable sculpture:


So, to recapitulate, I recommend the following:

Pompeii, and Imperium and Conspirata (aka Lustrum), the first two books in a trilogy based on the life of Cicero. (The versatile Robert Harris is also the author of the contemporary thriller The Ghost, the novel upon which the film The Ghost Writer is based.  )

The entire Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor. I’ve read and loved all twelve books!

The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome, with lectures by Garrett Fagan.

Livy’s History, fascinating but quite challenging. I’m reading it in small  – very small – chunks.

Finally, there’s a novel I read years ago and have never forgotten: The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. This is a demanding but hugely rewarding work of fiction that lays bare the heart and soul of an Emperor who proves only too human. It is on my list of books to re-read.


Soundtrack for this post: The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. Here is the final paragraph of program notes written by Richard Freed for a performance of this Heaven-storming work by the National Symphony in 2008:

As the dawn mists rise and settle, the tread of ghostly legions is felt and, in Lionel Salter’s splendid phrase, “fanfares begin to echo down the centuries.” The mists disperse in the blaze of thousands of burnished helmets and breastplates. The already large orchestra swells with the addition of an organ and the augmented brass already noted. Respighi summed up, “To the poet’s fantasy appears a vision of past glories. Trumpets blaze, and the army of the Consul advances brilliantly in the grandeur of a newly rise sun toward the Via Sacra, mounting the Capitoline Hill in final triumph.”

If you ever have a chance to hear this piece performed live – drop everything and go!


Permalink Leave a Comment

Mesmerized, hypnotized – and utterly unnerved: The Darkest Room, by Johan Theorin

August 19, 2010 at 2:18 am (Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

I have started several blog posts recently but not been able to finish them. I’m having some difficulty writing. Actually I’m having some difficulty breathing. And it is all because of this book:

My heart has been broken. I’m filled with dread. But I can’t stop reading.

The Darkest Room won the 2010 International Dagger from the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. Recently, in commenting on one of the posts on this blog , the writer Ann Cleeves stated that “…my favourite Scandinavian writer at the moment is Johan Theorin.”  I now know why.

I’m almost half way through. The tension is building; the prospect is bleak – and it is so very cold on the island of Oland…

Permalink 2 Comments

Newsweek’s book issue (August 2, 2010)

August 15, 2010 at 1:33 pm (books, Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

One is, of course, grateful to Newsweek for doing this. First, in his editorial, Jon Meacham writes about the pleasure he takes in the reading of crime fiction. A friend’s condescending dismissal of the genre caused him to reflect on why he enjoys it so much. He names some favorite authors – Rex Stout, Tana French, Denise Mina, and Lee Child among them – and even weighs in on the much-discussed question of the difference between mysteries and thrillers.

I particular like – and agree with – this:

The appeal of both genres for me is precisely the appeal of any other piece of fiction, from Jane Austen to Peter Taylor, or George Eliot to John Cheever. The narratives give us a glimpse, however fleeting, of what William Faulkner called the “old verities and truths of the heart…?love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice.”

Later in the issue, there’s an annotated list of What You Need To Read Now. The categories are interesting: Rebels with a Cause; Economic Survival; Immigration; Man-made Disasters; Adultery; Food Wars; Taliban Territory; The Pope. Each category has four or five entries.

Whenever I see a list like this, I check first to see what I’ve already read. Here’s the breakdown:

In Rebels with a Cause: None. In Economic Survival: None. In Immigration: One: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a book I enjoyed but did not consider to be about immigration – at least, not primarily. In Man-made Disasters: None. In Adultery: Three: The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and The End of the Affair by Graham Greene. In Food Wars: One: Michael Pollan’s wonderful path breaking manifesto, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. As for the last two – Taliban Territory and The Pope: None, alas.

As a category representing my personal reading taste, adultery is the clear winner. In real life, it has been my experience that extramarital activity is a form of self-indulgence characterized by excuse-making and deception, guaranteed to cause pain for the individuals affected by it. But there’s no getting around the attendant penchant for high drama, both in life and in literature. After all, to the suggestions in this issue of Newsweek could be added Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary.


At the conclusion of his piece, Jon Meacham suggests that we readers make further recommendations of crime fiction to his “hapless friend.” My first response to this was the following: Donna Leon, Donna Leon, and Donna Leon. But no – there are, of course others: Alexander McCall Smith, both the No.1 Ladies Detective novels and the Isabel Dalhousie series; Archer Mayor‘s wonderfully intelligent procedurals; Ross MacDonald, whose crafty plotting and eloquently spare prose style brought the American private eye tradition to its zenith; Karin Fossum, a Norwegian whose novels probe the universal pain and longing inherent in the human condition; Steven Saylor, whose stories of ancient Rome are both enlightening and great fun to read; and Ruth Rendell, with her sly, ironic, dead-on depiction of the vagaries of the heart and mind. Enfin – there  are so many, many more!

I too know passionate readers who disdain crime fiction. They are of course entitled to their opinions. But crime fiction is where I encounter the most ingenious plotting, the most evocative creation of atmosphere, the most memorable characters, the best writing. It’s as simple – and as complex – as that.


Newsweek has recently been purchased by Sidney Harman, a pioneer in high fidelity and hero to my husband the audiophile. This is also the moment that Jon Meacham has chosen for his departure from the magazine, where he has been managing editor since 1998. I have been enjoying his enlightened, beautifully written articles. I am sad to see him go and wish him the best of luck in his new endeavors.

Jon Meacham

As for Newsweek itself, I’ve had my issues with some of its issues over the years. I’ve been happier lately since the magazine has scaled back its rather intense focus on health, diet, and medicine ( or “health and nutrition – its prevention and cure,” as my husband gleefully refers to it). I’ve been a subscriber since my college days in the 1960s, and I plan to continue as such, for the foreseeable future.

Permalink 3 Comments

At a meeting of the Usual Suspects: Simenon/Maigret, and other matters…

August 13, 2010 at 1:14 am (Book clubs, books, Mystery fiction)

Georges Simenon

Tuesday night, seven Suspects gathered to discuss the life and work of Georges Simenon. I had volunteered 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 Monsieur Monde Vanishes. I actually found myself referring back to that work continually, as it provides a useful contrast to the Maigret books.

I began by quoting some comments by John Banville. This Irish author and Booker Prize winner (for The Sea in 2005) felt in need of a new direction in his writing. At the suggestion of a friend, he began reading Simenon. The experience was a revelation: “’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. …'” Under the pseudonym Benjamin Black, Banville then began writing a series of mysteries featuring a pathologist by the (not-very-subtle) name of Quirke.

In this video, Banville enlarges on the creative process that led to his writing the Quirke novels:

Several of us had read Christine Falls. Our verdict: it was okay, not great; we weren’t inclined to continue with the series. It was mentioned that  the appearance of the stereotypical inebriated Irishman was dismaying. (This thought had occurred to me some months ago while I was reading Claire Keegan’s fine stories.)

I then held up a copy of Pierre Assouline’s magisterial biography of Simenon. Published in France in 1992, this book did not appear here until 1997. This is from a review by Peter Lewis that appeared in the London Daily Mail:

The latest biography of Georges Simenon, by Pierre Assouline, begins by emphasising how much his vanity caused him to spin-doctor his life story, especially in Intimate Memoirs, the last book he wrote. ‘A lot of it was lies,’ says Assouline. ‘He did not so much invent as build legends, sculpted his own myth. By middle age he was unable to tell truth from falsehood, real from imaginary.’ No doubt he felt the need to fantasise for, by the end of his life, he had two estranged wives – one of them, by her own admission, driven mad – a brother for whose death he felt responsible, and a daughter who had committed suicide.

It was, to put it mildly, a turbulent life.

Georges Simenon was born in Liege, Belgium, in 1903, to Desire and Henriette Simenon. He had a notorious ancestor on his mother’s side: Gabriel Bruhl, a criminal who preyed on the good people of Limbourg starting in the 1720s. for his offenses, he was hanged in 1743.  (Simenon later made use of “Bruhl” as one of his many pseudonyms.)

In his teens, he ran with a wild and dissolute group of boys collectively called “la Caque.” John Banville tells this story about them:

Early one winter morning, after a night of heavy drinking, a member of the group, Joseph Kleine, “le petit Kleine,” a would-be artist and cocaine addict who lived up, or down, to his name, being slight of build and delicate of constitution, was found hanging by his neck from the door of the church of Saint-Pholien in Liège.

Suicide was suspected, or murder made to look like suicide. Next morning, however, the Liège Gazette confidently reported that the young man had killed himself. Many years were to pass before Simenon admitted that he was the author of that convenient report, which appeared before police inquiries had properly begun. “I plead not guilty on our behalf,” Simenon wrote in his memoirs. “Or rather, I plead lack of premeditation. … We did not know the true state of ‘le petit Kleine.’ But in the last resort, wasn’t it us who killed him?”

To this disturbing tale, Banville appends the following observation:

The image of the hanged man remained a powerful one for Simenon — his second Maigret tale was called Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien— and in one of his finest novels, The Strangers in the House, published in 1940, there is a wild and self-destructive gang of young people, obviously modeled on La Caque, whose escapades culminate in murder. Simenon the novelist knew whereof he wrote.

When Simenon was eighteen, his father died suddenly. Desire Simenon, age 44, keeled over on his desk, at the insurance company where he had worked for some twenty years. At  the time, he had only 300 francs to his name. His son had to borrow money in order to pay for the funeral. Peter Lewis speculates that it may have been this event that determined Simenon to die a rich man.

By this time, Georges Simenon knew he wanted to be a writer. In 1925, already married to Regine Renchon, called Tigy, he decamped for Paris. In 1929, he and Tigy decided they’d try living on a boat. It was during this brief sojourn upon the water that the character of Jules Maigret first saw the light of day, in The Strange Case of Peter the Lett. 

Simenon, Tigy, and their son remained in Paris during the war years. There is, in fact, some evidence that during the occupation, Simenon was rather more friendly toward the Germans than he should have been. The Simenons left Paris for Montreal in 1945. Soon they moved to the U.S., living at various times in New York City, Arizona, and Connecticut.

By the time Simenon returned to France, he had divorced Tigy and married Denyse Ouimet. After a  brief stay on the French Riviera, they relocated to Switzerland, near Lausanne. The marriage to Denyse ended in 1964. Simenon and his housekeeper Teresa became a couple and remained so for the rest of Simenon’s life.

Simenon had three children with Denyse Ouimet: two sons and a daughter called Marie-Georges. Marie-Georges was always called Marie-Jo by her father. She was a beautiful but troubled young woman. In 1978, at the age of 25, she committed suicide.

Marie-Georges Simenon

There is no reason to doubt that her father was devastated by this tragedy. His autobiography, begun in 1980 and called Intimate Memoirs, is addressed directly to her. In it, he says:

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.

Georges Simenon died in Lausanne in 1989, at the age of 86.


Once again, John Banville on the creator of Maigret:

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. He wrote some 400 novels, under a variety of pseudonyms, as well as countless short stories and film scripts, and toward the end of his life, having supposedly given up writing, he dictated thousands of pages of memoirs. He could knock off a novel in a week or 10 days of manic typing — he never revised, as the work sometimes shows — and in Paris in the 1920s he is said to have broken off an affair with Josephine Baker, the expatriate American chanteuse and star of La Revue Nègre, because in the year he was with her, he was so distracted by his passion for her that he had managed to write only three or four books.

Yes, well, there is the matter of the legendary, doubtless exaggerated erotic exploits…Simenon claimed to have slept with 10,000 women! He specified that 8,000 of them were prostitutes, whom he praised for their professional prowess.

Somehow, in the midst of this frenetic amorous activity, he managed to be an amazingly productive writer. There’s an anecdote I meant to share with the group but didn’t. (I forgot – it was buried under mounds of paper, a liability in these situations.) It seems that Alfred Hitchcock called Simenon but was told that the author could not take a call at that time, as he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock is supposed to have replied: “That’s all right; I’ll wait.”

This story is possibly apocryphal but, I think, worth repeating for its entertainment value.

What about the quality of Simenon’s prodigious output? Peter Lewis, for one, labeled him “a businessman who dealt in fiction.” But is such a writer necessarily a mere hack? Certainly a person can churn the stuff out and be a mediocrity. But that person could also be Joyce Carol Oates. In other words, quantity does not necessarily vitiate the possibility of quality. In my own opinion, it is remarkable how good much of Simenon’s work actually is. Even Peter Lewis grants that “…Simenon’s economy of language and creation of atmosphere , especially of a now-vanished Paris, which smelled of coffee, Pernod, and Gauloises, lifted him well out of the rut of prolific crime writers.”

Although the Maigret novels and stories constitute only a portion of Simenon’s oeuvre, they are, for most of his readers around the world, his principal claim to fame. In a review in Newsweek, S.K. Oberbeck shrewdly summed up Simenon’s creation:

In Inspector Maigret, Simenon has created the minimal hero, a Gallic gumshoe as renowned as Sherlock Holmes or Perry Mason–but with none of their flamboyant traits. He exhibits no flashing forensics, slight deductive genius, rarely encounters personal violence and never steps out with the dolls. If anything, Maigret is utterly bourgeois, egoless, sympathetic and understanding toward criminals, a man whose home life is unruffled domesticity and who wearily laments his shortcomings.

In many ways then, Maigret is the temperamental opposite of his creator.

While preparing for Tuesday evening’s presentation, I finally got around to reading the Simenon/Maigret chapter in one of my favorite mystery references: . There, I discovered that Simenon had written a book called Maigret’s Memoirs (Les Memoires de Maigret). Eames provides a precis of the memoir. Here at last were some vital clues regarding the back story of the “Gallic gumshoe.”

Maigret had originally intended to become a physician. When he was in his second year of medical school, his father died, obliging him to drop out and find work as quickly as possible. While staying in a small hotel in Paris, he made the acquaintance of a detective inspector in the city’s police force. Through him, Maigret became a member of that force.

Early on, Maigret obtained a wide variety of experiences in law enforcement, rising rapidly in the organization until he eventually secured a position in the homicide division. Once there, his exceptional abilities marked him out as a gifted investigator. Ultimately he rose to occupy the position of Chief Superintendent.

As in the quote by Oberbeck, above, Eames contrasts the character of Maigret with his most illustrious predecessor:

Conan Doyle created Holmes at a time when science was undermining Christian beliefs, such as the Creation and Divine Providence, and was offering as  consolation the doctrine of inevitable progress.
Man, helped by science, would eventually solve all his problems.
This Simenon rejected. As he said in an interview in the Paris Review, “For a long time man was…observed from the point of view that there was a God and that man was the king of creation. We don’t think any more that man is the king of creation. We see man almost face to face. Some readers still would like to read very reassuring novels, novels which give them a comforting view of humanity. It can’t be done.”

An interesting quote follows this passage, in which the author’s rather bleak world view is further illuminated:

Simenon’s pessimism is exceptionally deep. In When I Was Old, he wrote: “I love man. His history, above all his first stammerings move me much more than all his dramas about passion. I love to see him in search of himself, century after century, failing each time, forcing himself to go on.”

This quote, so redolent of the fatalism of Old Europe, puts me in mind of the final lines of Ulysses by Tennyson:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Members of the group remarked on the darkness of the Maigret novels they had read. The source of that darkness, it would seem, is this combination of fatalism and pessimism, often expressed as a horror of the bourgeois life, devoid of meaning and passion and suffocated by routine, that drives Simenon’s characters to take desperate measures in order to break out into a new, more authentic life. Examples of this paradigm occur in Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Maigret and the Man on the Boulevard, and doubtless in other novels and stories as well.

And yet and yet…in Maigret, Simenon has formed a character who is perfectly at home in that bourgeois world, who actually draws solace and comfort from his placid wife and his modest little apartment on the Boulevard Richard LeNoir. In addition, Maigret is Simenon’s polar opposite in regard to libido. Again, from Sleuths, Inc.:

“Mme. Maigret is the most unliberated of females,” the English critic Richard Cobb has noted; “her function is to cook meals that her husband will never eat, to wait for his return, to get up before him so that he may wake up to the smell of freshly ground coffee… the relationship is sexless.”
And a French critic has observed, “He never sleeps with anybody, not even with Madame Maigret, whose bed he shares.”

It’s  as if Simenon, through his alter ego Maigret, purged himself of ungovernable and unruly passions and so achieved a kind of oasis of serenity amid a troubled and tormented world.

Simenon stares up at a statue of his creation, who stares right back at him


So, how did the suspects fare with their reading? Results were mixed. Mary Edna was confused by The Man on the Bench. Louise read the same title, I believe, and didn’t particularly enjoy it either. (We’re thinking that The Man on the Bench is actually The Man on the Boulevard, but we’re not sure.) For the most part, Ann enjoyed Maigret in Montmartre. Carol definitely liked Maigret and the Madwoman, also one of my favorites. She praised the cunning plot, in particular. 

Marge, on the other hand, had less success. She started with The Hotel Majestic, gave up, and subsequently turned to Maigret Goes Home. In this novel, Maigret returns to his natal village where he encounters closed doors as well as closed hearts. Although Marge finished this novel, it was, she said, a struggle. The way the dialog was written, it was often difficult to tell who was speaking.

Mike enjoyed Maigret and the Wine Merchant and recommended it warmly. I especially liked the neat little hardback edition she had, from Tess Press, “an imprint of Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, Inc.,” copyright 1971.

(I’m not sure that I got the above information completely straight. Someone also mentioned listening to Maigret and the Pickpocket. Andrew Sachs reads several of the Maigret novels; this is one of them. His reading is superb.)

I wanted to read a Maigret new to me for that evening’s discussion; I selected Inspector Cadaver. In this novel, Maigret travels to a small village in order to look into a murder investigation on behalf of a colleague in the Police Judiciaire in Paris. Once there, he meets with the same kind of resistance that Marge described in Maigret Goes Home. I have to say that I struggled with this book. I got through it, but just barely. There was a dearth of appealing characters and I missed the Paris crew: Janvier, the jaded but stalwart Lucas, and the eager young LaPointe. And yet Inspector Cadaver furnished me with a good example of the way in which Simenon’s writing can sometimes be almost poetic, if not downright profound:

The minute he left the house, an idea had occurred to him. It was not even an idea, but something vaguer, so vague that he was now striving to recapture the memory of it. Every now and then, an insignificant occurrence, usually a whiff off something barely caught, reminds us in the space of a second of a particular moment in our life. It is such a vivid sensation that we are gripped by it and want to cling to this living reminder of that moment.  It disappears almost at once and with it all recollection of the experience. Tryy as we might, we end up wondering, for want of an answer to our questions, if it was not an unconscious evocation of a dream, or, who knows, of some pre-existent world?

To the best of my knowledge, the best site for all things Maigret and Simenon is this one.


Other matters book-related came up at  this meeting. There were questions concerning the local library system, so excellent in so many ways. Everyone voiced the hope that public libraries – all of them – will continue to consider the promotion of books and literature to be their primary mission. The fervor with which this desire was expressed saddened me. Where libraries  and bookstores are concerned, it’s hard at this point to envision the future clearly. Sometimes, while I’m holding a book, I feel as though I have in my hands an object that is on its way to extinction. I am no Luddite; I am not unalterably opposed to Kindles and their electronic kin. But the physical book is so precious to me, I hate to think of its disappearance. (And anyway they’ll have to dig though the hundreds of volumes in my personal library first!)

On to other matters:

Several of us had read and loved Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris and were excited about the sequel, City of Veils. We’re also looking forward to Blue Lightning, the final volume in Ann Cleeves’s atmospheric Shetland Quartet. Ann mentioned that she found, in Agatha Christie’s Crooked House, a reference to Constance Kent. Kent played a crucial role in the mid-nineteenth century murder investigation described in such vivid detail in The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. Crooked House will definitely be the next Agatha Christie novel that I read. (Meanwhile I’m very much enjoying the Poirot stories in The Labors of Hercules.)

We reminisced ruefully about the disappearance of mystery bookstores from the area. For a brief period not that long ago, there were five of them in the greater Washington area. Now there is only Mystery Loves Company, dwelling in splendid isolation in Oxford, a charming town on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

What’s next for the Suspects? Coming next month, we’ll be discussing The Keepsake by Tess Gerritsen. In October, it’s Kahawa, by the late, much lamented Donald Westlake. And in November, Marge will lead us in a discussion of John Hart’s Edgar winner, The Last Child. There’s much to look forward to.

Usual Suspects is a great group – literate, literary, and intellectual, in the best sense of the word. I feel lucky indeed to be a part of it.

Permalink 2 Comments

The Belles Heures of the Limbourg brothers: exquisite masterpiece at the Met

August 7, 2010 at 2:16 am (Art, History)

Time spent in the Metropolitan Museum of Art is magical. I got to experience that magic once again during my June visit to New York City.

The Belles Heures of Jean de France, Duc de Berry was being displayed in a small lower level gallery. This magnificent work, which dates from 1405 to around 1408, is normally housed in the Cloisters, a separate branch of the museum devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe. Individual pages had been detached from the binding for purposes of conservation and study; the inspired decision was taken to make them accessible to museum patrons in this dismantled form before the manuscript was reassembled.

This was a one time opportunity to get a close-up view of this masterpiece by the Limbourg Brothers. The weekend that I saw it marked the close of the exhibition.

Museum patrons were provided with magnifying glasses with which to view the amazingly intricate paintings and the elegant, delicate lettering. Each page was enclosed in plexiglass and mounted on a pedestal.

Since childhood, I’ve loved the story, as told by C.W. Ceram, of Howard Carter’s discovery of the tomb of King Tut. As he peered into the dimness of that ancient space, Carter was asked if he could see anything. When he was able to speak, he replied: “Yes, wonderful things.”

I felt a similar sensation as a took my spyglass and gazed into the perfection of these tiny, miraculous works of art:

To see more of the art, and to learn more about the exhibit, view the video:

Timothy B. Husband, whom you see touring the exhibit with Thomas P. Campbell, is Curator of the Department of Medieval Art and The Cloisters. He is also the author of the book that accompanies the exhibition:

This is some magnificent tome, I can tell you. (It is beside me on the desk, at this moment.)

In the Introduction, we learn the history of the Belles Heures, and how it has come down to us. Commissioned by the wealthy connoisseur Jean de France, Duc de Berry, work on the Belles Heures was begun by the three Limbourg brothers – Herman, Paul, and Johan – around 1405 and completed some three or four years later. Jean de France died in 1416. The following year, the manuscript was purchased Yolande of Aragon, Duchess of Anjou. There exists persuasive evidence that the manuscript remained in the environs of Anjou for the next several decades. And after that:

No history of it is known from that point until May 1879 when its rediscovery, in the possession of Pierre-Gabriel Bourlier, baron d’Ailly, was announced to the Academie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres by Leopold Delisle, then director of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France.

Well, gosh, that is one long dormancy period – approximately four hundred years, by my estimate. But once the Belles Heures came to light again, things moved swiftly. In 1880, the manuscript was acquired by Edmond James de Rothschild. Upon Baron de Rothschild’s death in 1934, the Belles Heures became the property of his son, Maurice. Maurice was living in Paris at the time. Shortly after the Nazis began their occupation of the city, he fled to Montreal. Before leaving, Maurice de Rothschild had hidden his priceless manuscripts in a bank vault.  In 1941, the Nazis raided the bank and seized the boxes containing the manuscripts. Ultimately these priceless objets d’art ended up in the storied Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, where much of the art looted by the Nazis was stored.


In April 1945, the treasures were recovered by the American Seventh Army. This detachment included Second Lieutenant James J.Rorimer, a member of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives teams of the Civil Affairs Division, the curator of The Cloisters, and later Director of The Metropolitan Museum.

Here’s where matters become murky. There was a book of hours by the Limbourg brothers found in this hoard of manuscripts, but it was the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux – not the Belles Heures. There was some confusion in the identification of the various works. (Lt. Rorimer enlarges on this topic in his book, written in 1950:  Survival: The Salvage and Protection of Art in War.)

Careful review of the material found at Neuschwanstein yielded no trace of the Belles Heures, which in all probability was never conveyed to Germany.

Meanwhile, at war’s end, Maurice de Rothschild elected not to return to Paris but to take up residence on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, in a chateau which had been owned by his great-uncle. He decided to offer some of the manuscripts for sale. First, they had to be catalogued.  Sure enough, in its  final form, this catalog contained an entry for the Belles Heures. It was back among Maurice de Rothschild’s possessions, if only briefly.

The Belles Heures and the Hours of Jean d’Evreux were first offered to the J. Pierpont Morgan Library in New York. The Morgan specialized in medieval art (and still does), but its funds were committed elsewhere, and it declined to make the purchase. The manuscripts were then offered to Harvard’s Houghton Library; they were once again declined. A private collector was then offered them, but he also responded in the negative. At last, they were offered to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they finally found a permanent home. Both the Hours of Jeanne d’Evreux and the Belles Heures, purchased together in 1954 for the sum of $300,000,  are now housed at the Cloisters.

Timothy Husband concludes the introduction by observing that this is “…certainly one of the most fortuitous acquisitions of medieval art on record.”


The Limbourg brothers were from Nijmegen, a proud and ancient city in what is now the Netherlands. A medieval festival (which looks like great fun) is held there and is named for this trio of famous citizens. There is a nicely made video on the festival’s site; it is (mostly) in English.

Alas, for these precocious geniuses: all three died in 1416, before reaching the age of thirty. The cause is presumed to be the Plague.


Here are some pages from another great masterpeice by the Limbourg brothers, Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry. The music is the Mass for St. Anthony of Padua by Guillaume Dufay.

Permalink Leave a Comment

New blog: A Davis is A Davis Does

August 4, 2010 at 10:20 pm (Blogroll, Family)

As a way of passing time while recovering from a surgical procedure, Ben Davis has started a blog. There are currently two entries on A Davis is A Davis Does, both involving medical matters. Don’t worry – along with being slightly scary, they are actually quite entertaining. (Actually the second entry is rather more than slightly scary. It’s entitled “It pays to read the label” – advice which I, his mother, fervently hope he takes to heart!)

Permalink Leave a Comment

In Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine: much ado about thrillers

August 2, 2010 at 1:24 am (books, Magazines and newspapers, Mystery fiction)

In the Spring 2010 issue of Deadly Pleasures  Mystery Magazine, the focus is on thrillers. To begin with, editor George Easter tackles the question: What, exactly, is a thriller? Some years ago, he and associate editor Larry Gandle came up with the following: in order to be classified as a thriller, a novel should be fast paced, contain lots of action, and possibly feature a deadline and/or a chase scene. There should be at least one character who is in serious, possibly mortal, danger.

Gandle and Easter were satisfied with the definition they’d come up with and proceeded to act as ad hoc “thriller police” when novels labeled as such failed to meet  their criteria. Gradually, however, they realized that they were fighting a losing battle. Book after book was being called a thriller when it possessed few – sometimes none – of the elements they had specified. Why was this happening?

For one thing, thrillers are hot right now – witness the impressive success of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy. So slapping that label on a book should help sales. Does it – even if Larsson is not the author? Don’t know – but this is certainly not the first instance of knee-jerk unimaginative piling on by publishers – nor will it be the last.

So – in attempting to uphold a standard of integrity and accuracy in matters literary – what’s a critic to do?

Easter wrestles this conundrum to the ground by breaking down the sprawling mass of material currently subsumed under the “thriller” rubric into a variety of subgenres. He does not offer definitions per se; rather, he gives  several examples of each. Here are the subgenres; I’ll include one example of each:

Action thrillers:

Historical thrillers:

Police procedural thrllers:

Private eye thrillers:

Forensic/action thrillers:

Political thrillers:

Spy thrillers:

Supernatural thrillers:

Hit man thrillers:

Crime thrillers:

Analogous subgenres have, of course, had their place in mystery fiction for quite some time.

The title of Easter’s article is “The Golden Age of the Thriller is Now.” Considering the wealth of evidence presented in the magazine, it’s hard to disagree with this proclamation. In fact, this issue of Deadly Pleasures contained so many recommendations – so sweetly urged! – that I experienced a sort of crisis that could perhaps be  termed, Compulsive Reader’s Nervous Breakdown (CRNB?). And wouldn’t you know it – there was more to come:

In “Memories of Thrillers Past,” Mike Ripley enthuses about his latest publishing assignment, which is to select outstanding British thrillers from years past and have them be part of a new imprint called “Top Notch Thrillers,” to be launched by Ostara Publishing. Ripley begins by voicing his incredulity that the novels of the great Alistair MacLean are currently out of print. Now I’ve never read a MacLean, but many of us who came of age in the sixties have vivid memories of a terrific World War Two action film based on his novel: The Guns of Navarone.

(Coincidentally, while I was working at the Central library several weeks ago, a patron came in asking for novels by MacLean. A search of the catalog revealed that the system owns exactly one title by this master of suspense: Santorini, written shortly before the author’s death in 1987.)

Like the other Deadly Pleasures scribes, Ripley has given plenty of thought to the question of what makes a successful thriller:

‘…plot, pace, character, setting (which could be a physical location or a historical period), humour (useful though not essential) and suspense (or tension or sudden violence). The cement to build these bricks into a readable structure coming from that indefinable thing called the author’s “voice.”

I consider that last “indefinable thing” to be absolutely crucial. It’s what is so often lacking in an otherwise passably good novel. It is, among other things, the consistent quality that keeps me returning to the work of Ruth Rendell and Donna Leon.

In the case of the books Ripley is selecting for the new imprint, there’s an additional consideration: he is drawing on the literature of the past, as opposed to that of the present day, which by necessity incorporates the latest in high tech gadgetry:

My mission, now that I had decided to accept it, was to find thrillers which touched all these bases [as enumerated in the quote above] and which were true to the context in which they were written. Yes they would  be ‘dated’ but as long as they worked as thrillers that was not a consideration. To think otherwise would be to argue that no one should ever watch (or read) The Spy Who Came In from the Cold now that the Berlin Wall has  come down.

(And really, when you think about it, has there ever been a better match of era and writer than the Cold War and John LeCarre? I’ve never read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, but IMHO, the film is a work of genius. )

Clearly, Mike Ripley is reveling in this labor of love! Click here to see the current list of Top Notch Thrillers.

There’s much more of interest on the subject of thrillers in this issue of Deadly Pleasures. For now, I just want to make mention of two titles in particular.

I’m not sure why, but I decided to read The Silver Bear, George Easter’s exemplar of what he calls a “hit man thriller.” Suffice it to say that with this recommendation, Easter scored a direct hit. I had not previously known of Derek Haas. He is a screenwriter, and my guess is, that his professional savvy, along with his natural talent, have provided him with all the tools he needs to be a first rate writer in this genre. Silver Bear jangled my nerves and had me completely riveted

Interestingly, in an article entitled “Crime Jazz,” Ted Fitzgerald recommends The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Somehow this Sherlock Holmes novella is not much talked of.  Here’s what Fitzgerald has to say about it:

It’s good, old-fashioned rip-roaring storytelling that also shows the timelessness, resiliency and eternal appeal of Holmes and Doyle. It also reminds us that the subjects of political corruption, terrorism and a faceless enemy that will cross oceans and waits decades to carry out its vengeance, the meat and drink of countless present-day thrillers, were just as frightening and relevant in 1914 as they are today.

The Valley of Fear has been re-issued by Hard Case Crime:

How about that cover? It’s an attention-getter, at any rate.


I’ll be revisiting the subject of thrillers. For one thing, I have much to say about The Silver Bear, a novel that packs a wallop all out of proportion to its slender size. And then, there’s this: . I was so excited about this book that I ran and bought it. But after  my dizzying immersion in Deadly Pleasures, I’m afraid to open it, lest it trigger another attack of CRNB! (see above.)

Permalink 5 Comments