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.