At least in terms of output, Georges Simenon is a Herculean writer. He makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker, having written over 400 novels and short story collections in his lifetime. And if that weren’t enough, he added to his mythic stature through fun games like this:
In 1927, Georges Simenon, the phenomenally prolific Belgian author of crime novels, helped engineer a publicity stunt that sounds like a forecast of reality TV: He sat in a glass booth and wrote a novel in a week, in full view of the public. Simenon was all but unknown then, a journeyman author of indifferent pulp novelettes under a variety of pseudonyms. The feat made him famous, became the first thing many people knew about him. It was certainly the first thing I ever knew about him—I heard the story from my father, who at the time of the performance was growing up a few miles from Simenon’s hometown of Liège. No one who witnessed the feat forgot it. Pierre Assouline, in his 1997 biography of Simenon, quotes from no fewer than four memoirs by acquaintances of the novelist, recalling the surging crowds, the writer’s concentration, how he did not once look up from his typewriter . . .
Which sounds intense . . . The story gets even better though when you find out that it never took place.
The newspaper that was to sponsor it went bankrupt, and Simenon couldn’t get another to take up the baton. It was just as well—the announcement provoked nothing but jeers: Simenon’s hometown paper lamented that their boy had committed professional suicide; one Parisian columnist went so far as to announce that he would be going armed and taking potshots at the booth. But the damage was done.
(Both quotes are from Luc Sante’s fantastic article in the recent issue of Bookforum.)
With so many books, it’s very difficult to figure out where to start—even if you just consider the eight titles put out by New York Review Books. To be honest, I picked up The Engagement solely because it was a Reading the World book this year, and I’m going to lead a discussion on it for Words Without Borders this September. That said, I ended up absolutely mesmerized by this subversive little book.
The Engagement starts with an immediate reversal of a typical crime reader’s expectations—instead of starting with a crime, or the set-up for a crime, the book opens in the aftermath of a murder with a very tense interaction between the solitary Mr. Hire and his concierge, who is a bit frightened of him. It’s only after this portrait of a creepy, suspicious, bloody man is damningly established that we hear about the dead prostitute.
I don’t want to give away any spoilers here—not that it really matters who killed the prostitute, since catching the murder is of secondary importance to all the characters in this book. The police don’t really care—one of them would much rather spend his time trying to get with the attractive, busty woman in need of help—and neither does Simenon. He seems much more intent on creating interesting, bleak, troubling characters, all corrupt and unlikable, than pulling his reader’s along via plot twists and forensic discoveries.
In his afterword, John Gray has an interesting comment about this novel in relation to the typical crime book:
As has often been noted, the traditional detective novel is a morality tale in which any doubt we may have about the reality of order in the world is finally dispelled. Noir fiction arouse as a reaction against this kind of consoling narrative with its promise that wrongdoing is sure to be found out and punished. But much noir fiction is also a tribute to justice. Society and human life as a whole may prove systematically unfair; but the very fact that humanity rages against this predicament shows that deep in human nature there is a rejection of injustice that may be defeated but cannot be destroyed.
Morality and justice have no place in Simenon’s novel. As the plot unfolds, the real focus becomes the psychological plight of Mr. Hire, who is trapped in an impossible life and situation. Suspected of murder and fully aware that he is constantly being tailed, he tries to convince the beautiful, damaged blonde (the one he watches undress through her window every night) to run away with him and start a new life. The reader knows that things won’t end well, that redemption, hope, justice, and just illusions in this world, and after finishing the book, the catastrophic conclusion seems inevitable and destined from the start.
Part of the reason why this novel works so well is the understated nature of Simenon’s writing. The book has an existential flavor, drawing the reader in and leaveing him or her to fill in the gaps in order to understand and decipher the desires and workings of Mr. Hire’s mind.
Anna Moschovakis did a fantastic job rendering this book in English. The only real complaint I have is that Mr. Hire’s “cash reserve” switches from 80,000 francs to 8,000 francs, which seems like a bit of a difference. Simenon may well have written better books, and if you’re a fan of CSI you might not be satisfied, but overall, this is a tight, cinematic novel that lags only occasionally, and is definitely worth reading.
by Georges Simenon
Translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis
New York Review Books
135 pp., $12.95 (pb)