October 1, 2008

Georges Simenon: Monsieur Monde Vanishes

Posted in NYRB Classics, Penguin Modern Classics, Simenon Georges at 8:00 am by John Self

I thought I wasn’t much of a fan of crime fiction, until I remembered what great reading pleasures in recent years have come from the likes of Raymond Chandler, Patricia Highsmith – oh, and Richard Price. Even so, I never considered Georges Simenon, even when he was reissued in the UK recently by Penguin Modern Classics, and in the US by NYRB Classics. His Oates-like prolificness – 400 or so books, half of them novels – means the prospect of quality must be vanishingly small. But I decided to investigate after John Banville recommended him – and this title in particular – in a recent interview.

Most famous for the Maigret books, Simenon also turned out a number (suitably vague term, that, revealing my ignorance: was it dozens? hundreds?) of romans durs, “hard” or psychological novels: more suspense than crime, rather like Highsmith.

Monsieur Monde Vanishes (La Fuite de Monsieur Monde, 1945) is a surprisingly bleak tale which wrongfoots the reader almost from the beginning. We open with Madame Monde bustling into a police station: “I have come to tell you that my husband has disappeared.” She admits it is three days since this happened, and that it was on his birthday, which she had forgotten, but otherwise nothing was untoward. She is telling the truth, “but sometimes nothing is less true than the truth.”

Rather than becoming a detective story, after the first ten pages the narrative switches to the missing Monsieur, and stays with him for the rest of the book. Although we spend 160 pages in his company, we get to know him only a little: trickles of his despair seep in through the reader’s fingertips, and stick uncomfortably, like the “sensation that [Monsieur Monde] recalled with obsessive accuracy: the mesh of the lace between his forehead and the cold pane,” as he gazes out a window wishing to leave his first wife several years ago. “The day before, that morning, just an hour previously, he had adored his wife and children.”

Then a woman passed by. He could see only her black silhouette, with an umbrella. She was walking fast, holding up her skirt with one hand, over the wet gleaming sidewalk, she was about to turn the corner of the street, she had turned it, and he felt a longing to run, to get out of the house; it seemed to him that he could still do it, that one great effort would be enough, that once outside he would be saved.

He would rush forward, would plunge head foremost into that stream of life that was flowing all around the petrified house.

So Monsieur Monde has done this before, married again, built up a good business, and now wants to throw it all away once more. We do not know precisely why, except that

He had often dreamed, in vain, of being ill so that someone might bend over him with a gentle smile and relieve him, for a brief while, of the burden of his existence.

This existential angst might put us in mind of Camus’ L’Etranger, published three years earlier, but Simenon is still a storyteller at heart. Monsieur Monde vanishes, takes the train from Paris to the south of France, until “nothing lay behind him any more: nothing lay before him as yet. He was in space.” His desire to keep moving, his inability to remain, reminded me of Patrick Suskind’s Mr Sommer. When he does escape, does he get what he wants? In a lodging house in Nice, “he was not unhappy. This squalid drabness was all part of what he had been seeking.” The separateness which he feels is a symptom, and cause, of what Simenon in a 1955 Paris Review interview called (and said he was “haunted” by): “the problem of communication.”

I mean communication between two people. The fact that we are I don’t know how many millions of people, yet communication, complete communication, is completely impossible between two of those people, is to me one of the biggest tragic themes in the world. When I was a young boy I was afraid of it. I would almost scream because of it. It gave me such a sensation of solitude, of loneliness. That is a theme I have taken I don’t know how many times. But I know it will come again. Certainly it will come again.

He might have been talking about Monsieur Monde Vanishes, as with another recurring theme Simenon identified in the same interview: “the theme of escape. Between two days changing your life completely: without caring at all what has happened before, just go.”

In just going, in leaving his old life, Monsieur Monde (his name suggesting everyman; anyone in the world) discovers that wherever he goes, he brings himself with him, and his past begins to return in unexpected ways. There is a completeness to the story which I found less satisfying than the enigma of Monsieur Monde’s actions. And I couldn’t help wondering if I was overrating the book because of its new-minted ‘modern classic’ status, just as unreasonably as I would previously have dismissed it because of its churning-them-out crime author genesis. That, combined with the fact that I nonetheless want to read more of these romans durs, is the greatest mystery of all.

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43 Comments »

  1. Rob said,

    Yet another author on the “really must read sometime” list. Presumably there’s a huge—and cheap—secondhand market for his books, the kind of thing where you can buy a dozen on eBay for next-to-nothing plus shipping (I really must get around to buying a job lot of Rex Stouts one day).

    I’m going to Paris next month, and thought I’d read some French writers while I’m there… an original concept, I know. Maybe Simenon should make that list. Anybody have any suggestions for a starting point?

    Incidentally, I always thought that Georges Simenon: The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret was a great title for a biography.

  2. howard curtis said,

    Glad to see you’ve caught the Simenon bug. He’s been one of my favourite writers for longer than I care to remember , and I’ve read well over a hundred of his novels over the decades.

    Monsieur Monde – which admittedly I read a very long time ago – is far from his best. Sadly many of his best novels are currently out of print in English, but of those that NYRB Classics have recently reissued I’d certainly recommend Red Lights, Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, The Widow and Dirty Snow (the latter also available in a UK edition under the title The Stain on the Snow). I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

  3. Edward Schonberg said,

    I have read Simenon since high school. There must be a hundred straight novels worth translating. His son is an executive with a swiss firm that owns world rights to all his father’s novels. I am hoping The new York Review of Books will have more titles in translation. There are many titles done by Harcourt Brace that are available in the used book market. Feel free to contact me with any questions. Simenon is a compelling an unique novelist.

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks Rob. I daresay a large part of the second hand market is for the Maigret books, which I’m not particularly interested in. (Though for no better reasons than I wasn’t interested in Simenon generally until a couple of weeks ago.)

    Howard, your response is highly encouraging. I had already fingered the likes of Three Bedrooms in Manhattan as ones to chase after next. I was most interested to read of his method of composition in the Paris Review interview – which you can download here – which is essentially that he wrote each book in about ten or eleven days, with his blood pressure and health suffering more each day, so that he stopped because he had to. A touch of myth-making in that, perhaps, but fascinating to read him talk about it.

    After I have started a novel I write a chapter each day, without ever missing a day. Because it is a strain, I have to keep pace with the novel. If, for example, I am ill for forty-eight hours, I have to throw away the previous chapters. And I never return to that novel.

    That’s one of the reasons my novels are so short; after eleven days I can’t – it’s impossible. I have to – it’s physical. I am too tired.

  5. John Self said,

    And thanks Edward – I missed your message when I was typing the above reply. Are there any titles (in English translation!) that you would strongly recommend in addition to those which Howard has mentioned above?

  6. Isabel said,

    I nominated you for an award! Congrats. Please check my blog.

  7. A novel in ten or eleven days? He wrote faster than I read. I’ve never read a Simenon but he sounds like a fascinating character.

  8. Wonderful news about this author. I’ve had him in my scope for a while, especially since I love the NYRB classics covers for his books.

  9. howard curtis said,

    John, Incredible as it seems, there is no myth making about Simenon’s speed of writing. The manuscripts attest to the fact that he did indeed write most of his books in seven to ten days at the rate of one chapter a day. (So the number of chapters in a book is usually a good guide to how long he took to write it.) And he always had himself checked over by a doctor before starting a novel to make sure his body could take the strain.

    Edward, sadly, there are not a hundred novels waiting to be translated. Almost everything has been translated into English over the decades, although of course almost everything is currently out of print, apart from what Penguin and NYRB and a couple of others have reissued in the last few years. There are only about a dozen titles that have never been translated.
    Having translated three Simenon novels myself twenty-odd years ago, I’ve tried over the years to inteest publishers in the untranslated titles, but with no success.

    For anyone who reads French, I would strongly recommend Les Volets Verts, Lettre a mon juge and Le Temps d’Anais, to name three of my favourites, all of which were translated into English years ago but are currently out of print.

  10. KevinfromCanada said,

    Rob: On the French novelists front, consider Nancy Huston. All right, she was born and raised in Calgary where I live but has spent the last 35 years in France. She writes most of her novels in French (and they sell well) and then does her own translation into English, which should interest an editor whether he speaks either or both. She won the Prix Goncourt in 1996 for Instruments of Darkness (sorry, that’s the English title). The English translation of her last book, Fault Lines (a book I think is excellent), was shortlisted for the Orange Prize last spring. She isn’t going to tell you a lot about modern France — but she also is a continuation of the 20th century tradition of great writers from elsewhere finding it to be a creative home.

  11. Rob said,

    Kevin: Strangely enough, I actually have a copy of Fault Lines knocking about somewhere, though I’ve not read it. You’re right, I do find the concept of the self-translating novelist interesting. As long as they’re fluent in the destination language, of course. (Oh, I could tell you some stories…)

  12. John, I have a question and you are the only one I could think to ask. I am working my way slowly through the Booker shortlist and I came across two sentences that, according to the grammar I was taught fifty years ago are wrong. (1) On page 37 of The Clothes on Their Backs there is a sentence ” . . .so it was me who devised the outfits . . .” and (2) On page 9 of The Secret Scripture another sentence ” . . . as my mother and me were walking . . . ” The grammar I learned requires that these sentences use “I”. Is this a British thing or a case of bad editing?

    And more germane – I adore Simenon.

  13. Lee Monks said,

    I will check this author out based on the above. Patricia Highsmith is someone I’ve recently had a good luck at; I loved The Talented Mr Ripley a long time ago and tried a couple of others, namely The Sweet Sickness and The Cry Of The Owl, both of which were excellent. The latter, in particular, has a pretty unique kind of queasy compulsion about it, much like the central character in most of Highsmith it seems. Disturbing oddities elicit an irrational sympathy and events unfold in a feverish series of deadpan calamities. Strangely addictive stuff.

  14. John Self said,

    Candy, I think you are right on both counts. I do feel in the Grant that the more informal voice permits the solecism, however, and for the character of Vivien, “it was I who devised the outfits” might sound implausible.

    Lee, I share your feelings on those Highsmith books, particularly The Cry of the Owl which I think may be her best, and I rate This Sweet Sickness very highly too. Also try Deep Water and Edith’s Diary. The Blunderer is also worth a look. On the Ripley front, the second and third volumes (Ripley Under Ground and Ripley’s Game) are also excellent; the last two (The Boy Who Followed Ripley and Ripley Under Water) less so.

    In fact I’ve been waiting for Bloomsbury in the UK to reissue more of her novels. There were supposed to be three coming out in Oct 06, which was put back to Oct 07 and then 08 – and just recently I discovered that they have been put back again until Oct 2010! I will probably have to pick up US import editions instead.

    For me the 1950s and early 60s is when she wrote her best books (though I don’t really rate her debut Strangers on a Train or her lesbian novel Carol). From that period the ones I have not yet read are A Game for the Living, The Two Faces of January and The Glass Cell. Some of her later 60s and 70s stuff (like The Tremor of Forgery and Those Who Walk Away) represents an attempt to move away from her suspense fiction, or at least to do different things with it, which is admirable but not as successful in my view.

    I haven’t read much of her 80s output and am not in any hurry to.

  15. Edward Schonberg said,

    Mr. Curtis is far more reliable on the untranslated titles. I do recall Harcourt Brace, Doubleday and Prentice Hall publishing two novels per book and three in one volume by Doubleday. The first novel I read was”The Snow Was Black” also translated as Dirty Snow. There are two books I recall with American settings. “The Brothers Rico” and the Bottom Of The Bottle. There is also a long autbiographical novel called Pedigree. Simenon had planed on further volumes but the threat of lawsuits kept him from further work. Pedigree was taken up by Simenon when he got a false diagnosis of some fatal illness. The book was a way for simenon to tell his son of his early life.

  16. Howard Curtis said,

    Ah yes, I’d forgotten that La Neige etait sale (French title) has been given three different titles in English over the years, not only Dirty Snow and The Stain on the Snow, but also, as Edward Schonberg says, The Snow was Black. Whichever title it has, it’s essential reading, and at least it’s available in English. I don’t rate it quite as highly as most Simenon enthusiasts – it’s often cited as his best novel – but it does have some astonishing moments.

    Another title I would say is also essential reading is Lettre a mon juge, which is probably my absolute favourite. The English title is Act of Passion, it’s been long out of print, but may be available second hand.

  17. John Self said,

    Thanks for that, Howard and Edward. I had taken note of your mention of Lettre a mon Juge earlier, H., and had used my schoolboy French to search for anything by Simenon with Letter in the title, coming up only with Letter to My Mother. Thanks for providing the proper English title!

    It looks as though it hasn’t been in print in the UK since 1965(!), but is widely available used, as for example here. I’ve ordered a copy on your recommendation, Howard: a Penguin edition with a cover by Romek Marber apparently.

    (I suspect it to be this one. Thanks to JRSM, aka Caustic Cover Critic, for providing it. See also his site for an excellent rundown of Simenon covers through the years.)

  18. Howard Curtis said,

    I’m pretty sure there was a Penguin reissue some time in the 80s, John, almost certainly with a different cover. But I’m glad you tracked it down, and I hope you enjoy it.

  19. Howard Curtis said,

    Just checked out that cover website. God, how evocative! I remember quite a few of them.

    And some great Simenon titles. I’d forgotten about “The Little Man from Archangel” – another outstanding Simenon novel which I highly recommend.

  20. Thanks John. I did consider Vivien’s voice but she doesn’t speak that way anywhere else. Enjoying the books on the short list more than the long.

  21. JRSM said,

    ‘The Little Man From Archangel’ is really good. In fact, I’ve not been disappointed with any Simenons, Maigret or otherwise, which is quite a surprise. Someone who write so much so fast should surely have varied a lot in quality, but frankly speaking almost all of the 40-odd Simenons I’ve read have been better than at least 90% of the stuff that gets published and feted today.

  22. Howard Curtis said,

    Couldn’t agree more, JRSM. Although there are obviously variations in quality in such a vast output, the general standard is incredibly high. And he achieves so much depth with such economy and such (apparent) simplicity as to make most other writers look long-winded and overblown.

  23. Howard Curtis said,

    As there are so many Simenon books, I thought it might be worth making a short list of titles in English that are worth seeking out by those prepared to explore second hand shops and sites (since, as has been said, many are currently out of print in English). I have restricted myself to the romans durs, and have included titles which are either generally highly regarded by critics, or particular favourites of mine, or both.

    I have put them roughly in chronological order of writing (from the mid-30s to the mid-60s:

    The Murderer
    The Widow
    The Truth about Bebe Donge
    Pedigree
    Three Bedrooms in Manhattan
    Act of Passion
    Dirty Snow/The Stain on the Snow
    Four Days in a Lifetime
    The Heart of a Man
    The Girl in his Past
    The Magician
    The Little Man from Archangel
    The Train
    The Patient
    The Little Saint

    As has been said, there is very little dross in his output, so of course there are many other titles worth looking at, and every Simenon enthusiast will have his own list of favourites. But I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the above.

  24. John Self said,

    I thought it might be worth making a short list of titles in English that are worth seeking out

    You thought right, Howard! A very valuable list; thank you so much. I trust others will find it equally beneficial. I look forward to Act of Passion and Dirty Snow and shall proceed from there.

  25. Jenny said,

    Just to add my voice to the chorus: I don’t think you ought to rule out the Maigret books. They’re police novels (wait, we don’t say that — I mean mysteries, of course) but they’re unique. Simenon didn’t deal in cliches. Naturally, some are better than others, but I wouldn’t kick any of them out of bed for eating crackers. If you find yourself face-to-face with one, give it a whirl.

  26. Howard Curtis said,

    I would never want to put down the Maigret books in my enthusiasm for Simenon’s romans durs. Simenon himself regarded them as five-finger exercises, things which he wrote to keep himself in shape between the more strenuous labours of his other books. (Significantly, he didn’t go through the whole checking-of-heart-and-blood-pressure rigmarole before sitting down to write a Maigret.) They tend to feel lighter and less intense only because whereas in a roman dur the main character is pushed to an extreme, in a Maigret everything is reflected through the fairly level-headed character of Maigret himself. But they are wonderfully atmospheric at their best, and it is important to remember that at the time when Maigret first appeared, in the early 30s – when crime novels were dominated by the English-style detective story, in which the puzzle was everything – he was a totally original creation, a detective who worked more by intuition than by deduction, in stories where character and atmosphere predominated over plot.

    Again, some titles I’d recommend (a purely personal choice):

    My Friend Maigret
    Maigret’s Mistake
    Maigret sets a Trap
    Maigret and the Headless Corpse
    Maigret and the Tramp (Maigret and the Bum in the US)
    Maigret on the Defensive

  27. John Self said,

    Thank you Jenny – and once again, Howard. I will not overlook the Maigrets, but will try my romans durs first. In fact the Act of Passion I ordered the other day arrived this morning: in exceptional condition too, published in the 1960s but looking clean and crisp and new, without even any browning to the pages. Hm, I do hope it’s not a forgery… A case for Maigret, perhaps!

  28. Edward Schonberg said,

    Everything Mr Curtis has mentioned about Simenon seems to me to be accurate and informative. Some other titles I recall are The Cat, The Man With The Little Dog, and The Bells Of Bicetre which may have a different title in England. The best biography is by Pierre Assouline titled ‘Simenon”. He hated one or two others by aman called Fenton Bressler. The New York Review Of Books has stated that they have further novels by him in the works. He wrote his own contracts for the various publishers of his work. As I write another title I recall is The Man Who Watched The Trains Go Bye.

  29. Howard Curtis said,

    The Bells of Bicetre is the US title of The Patient. The other titles mentioned by Mr Schonberg are all well worth reading. I agree that the best biography is the Assouline, and the Bressler is best avoided. But there’s also a good one (shorter than the Assouline) by Patrick Marnham, called The Man Who Wasn’t Maigret.

  30. Edward Schonberg said,

    You may want to look at the Paris Review interview with Simenon that was done in the middle fifties and has been reprinted and is also available online. There was a profile by Brendan Gill in the New Yorker around the time Simenon moved to this country. It has never been reprinted and I would like to read it.

  31. John Self said,

    Thanks Edward – I linked to the Paris Review interview in this comment above! I’ll keep an eye out for the biogs as well.

  32. PETER said,

    I’ve only read the 9 nyrb’s but of those I second the Man Who Watched Trains Go By and would also recommend The Engagement as my favorite.

  33. Paulo said,

    John, this theme of a man starting a new life is already present in another Simenon´s novels. It is in his non-crime fiction novel “The man who watched trains go by”, which I recommend. Congratulations for the review.

  34. John Self said,

    Thanks Peter and Paulo – I’ll keep The Man Who Watched Trains Go By on my wishlist too!

  35. Lulu said,

    I was wondering whether anyone knows what the name of ‘Lettre a mon juge’ is in english

  36. John Self said,

    Yes Lulu, it’s Act of Passion – I wondered the same thing, see my comment here!

  37. sandraraven said,

    Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. :) Cheers! Sandra. R.

  38. elisam said,

    Pardon for my english and many compliments for your appreciation of SImenon.
    I would suggest also another roman dur “La camera azzurra”, that I read in itaian (the title means something like “the light blue room”). I dont see anything like this in the lists in this blog. In my opinion is one of the best and I would like to re-read it in english.
    Thanks
    Elisa M.

  39. John Self said,

    Thanks Elisa, and no need to apologise for your English. Oddly I was about to buy another Simenon the other day, and resisted because I am trying not to buy books generally but also because I still have Act of Passion/Lettre a Mon Juge to read.

    As to La camera azzurra, if Howard Curtis is still following this thread, he might be able to enlighten us on the usual English title for that one. I will keep an eye out anyway.

    • Howard Curtis said,

      Only just checked out this thread again and saw these last two posts, three months later. The book Elisa recommends is called The Blue Room in English, and I agree it’s excellent. It’s very interesting technically, too, with a skilful mixture of flashbacks and flashforwards.

      • John Self said,

        Thanks Howard. This reminds me, I really must get out that copy of Act of Passion which I bought after the earlier recommendations upthread…

  40. Lee Monks said,

    ‘…I am trying not to buy books generally.’

    Impossible, John. I’ve tried. I imagine giving up cigarettes is a comparitive cakewalk.

  41. […] Monde Vanishes has been reviewed at Asylum and at His Futile Preoccupations or The Years of Reading […]


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