Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3088
Paris in the early 1920’s was one of the world’s cultural centers, the beacon for free thinkers, young artists, writers, and performers. It was inevitable that a man of Simenon’s talents would be drawn to the City of Light. While working in Paris, writing under his favorite pseudonym, Georges Sim, he was repeatedly rejected by Colette, the noted French author and editor of Le Matin. After several unsuccessful attempts, she called him in for a consultation. She told him his writing was “much too literary.” This criticism, along with his experience as a journalist, led Simenon to look at his work more critically and to pare his work so that every word of every sentence performed some necessary role. In 1923, Tigy and Simenon, then twenty, were married in Liège, and Simenon began to live solely on the money he made from writing.
Simenon had a torrid love affair with African American entertainer Josephine Baker, who epitomized Paris chic in the 1920’s. This relationship proved too intense for Simenon, who grew jealous of Baker’s attention to other men. To escape the affair, Simenon set sail with Tigy and her maid, Henriette Liberge, who was called Boule by Simenon. Sailing on canals in France and Belgium aboard their ship The Ostrogoth, the many towns and cities they visited provided background and all-important atmosphere in Simenon’s later novels.
Simenon’s novels are usually thought of as two different brands, one named for himself, or Simenons, and the other for his most famous creation, or Maigrets. The Simenon brand is a psychological novel, usually dark in atmosphere. The Maigret brand is more formulaic, but, like the Simenons, also tightly written. The character of Inspector Jules Maigret is diametrically opposed to his author. Maigret is reliable, faithful, patient, and a steady influence. Both author and detective, however, do share a fondness for pipes. Maigret seeks to understand the criminal mind, not to judge it. He does not work by clues so much as by intuition. In a Maigret novel the lines dividing good and bad are blurred. Moral values are unassigned, and the books end with the perpetrator being brought to justice, but one feels sorry for the criminal because his motivations have been laid bare by the author and noted and then analyzed by Inspector Maigret.
Simenon’s first Maigret novel, the first novel to be published under his own name, Pietr-le-Letton (1931; The Strange Case of Peter the Lett, 1933; also known as Maigret and the Enigmatic Lett, 1963), was published in 1931. Like Dorothy L. Sayers or Arthur Conan Doyle, Simenon had a love-hate relationship with his detective character. Simenon would stop the detective series and swear to never write another title, only to resume after several years. Like Sayers and Doyle, Maigret thought he had better books to write. The roman policiers (police novels) paid the writer’s bills. Simenon had extravagant tastes, wives, family, and mistresses to support. The last forty years of his writing career were spent jumping back and forth between the detective novels and the serious novels he preferred to write.
The roman durs (hard novels) were built on atmosphere, terse dialog, little scenery, dark themes, and sympathetic characters with minor flaws that became major problems when exposed to the proper circumstances. Simenon always pushed his characters from behind, a little at a time, until the crises they faced were fully revealed to both them and the reader and their fates unmistakable to both as well.
As a writer, Simenon was respected in his lifetime. André Gide considered Simenon one of the greatest of French writers and maintained years of correspondence, mostly about Simenon’s writing methods. In 1937, Simenon announced to the world that he would win the Nobel Prize in Literature within ten years. Sadly, he never did win the prize. He sat by and watched as lesser writers won distinction. Critics waited for a major opus, a large work that would serve as a capstone to Simenon’s career. It never came. Simenon once said that all of his smaller novels should be viewed together as one work. It was unknown whether Simenon’s lifestyle, his brashness, his brevity, or his prolific output prevented him from winning greater acclaim, but he was admired and respected by other writers. Simenon himself admired Ernest Hemingway, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain. One can see his influence on their work and their influence on his work.
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan
First published: Trois Chambres à Manhattan, 1946 (English translation, 2003; also as Three Beds in Manhattan, 1964)
Type of work: Novel
A lonely man and woman without direction find each other in New York City and experience the intensity and uncertainty of new love.
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan is semiautobiographical, based on Simenon’s meeting with his second wife, Denise Ouimet. In Simenon’s role is French actor François Combe, a man jilted by his more-famous French actress wife. He has come to New York to escape his demons, not to mention his former wife, her younger lover, and the French press.
Combe has been in the city for several weeks, moving into a series of more decrepit apartments. He is ashamed to have anyone see his latest residence. He walks into a neighborhood bar late one night to escape the squalor. Sitting at the bar is a fairly attractive woman, and she strikes up a conversation with Combe. Her name is Katherine, but Combe likes to call her Kay.
Simenon describes the chance encounter of two desperately lonely people. As Kay is perched on her barstool, temporarily homeless, she tells herself that she will become attached to the next man she meets. She meets Combe. Meanwhile, Combe tells himself that he is just visiting New York, and he can go home and resume his career any time he wants. He spends his days drinking and carousing with his fellow French show business expatriates. Combe is more than fifty years old now and unbelievable in leading man roles. He is reduced to walk-on character parts requiring a middle-aged Frenchman. Kay calls him Frank.
Their first night together resembles a forced march through a desert; the hot, unforgiving desert is replaced by the cold night and the equally unforgiving city streets. They latch on to each other like two people who are drowning, each hoping the other knows how to swim. Clinging to each other, they walk and walk, stop for a drink, play a tune on the jukebox, and repeat the process over and over until the sun comes up and exhaustion claims them.
Since she has no home and he is ashamed of his, they find a seedy hotel. It is their first bedroom in Manhattan. After passionate love making, they fall asleep as the city awakens to start the day.
After the initial thrill of the physical encounter, Kay and Frank speed through the early stages of romance. Frank is the more emotionally damaged of the two. He is tormented by his failed marriage, and he is deeply paranoid and distrustful of Kay. He imagines her past dalliances, and they haunt him. His jealousy is wild and threatens to destroy their relationship before it has a chance to grow.
After only two days, Frank realizes that Kay loves him. In a few short days, Frank and Kay go through all the stages of young love: blind romance, all-consuming physical fire, and hopeless addiction to each other. Frank can not stand to be away from her. He is afraid to leave her alone, afraid he will return to find her gone.
As they begin to settle into a routine in his apartment, Kay receives word that her only child, her daughter, is gravely ill in Mexico. She must be with her. Frank realizes she must go, and he grudgingly takes her to the airport, and with fear he watches her walk away. As the days pass without her, his doubts return with a vengeance. He spends the aching hours alone, and he begins to revert to his life before Kay, drinking heavily and carousing with theater friends.
While with his friends, he talks of nothing but Kay, and a pretty young woman listens intently. Her name is June. Still professing his great love for Kay, he takes June to his and Kay’s bedroom. They make love, and the next morning while still lying in bed together, the telephone rings. It is Kay. She is on her way home. She hears something in Frank’s voice and asks him what is wrong. He tells Kay nothing that he should. June leaves, and Frank decides to tell Kay everything.
Frank takes Kay directly from the airport back to the diner where they first met. They walk and they drink much as they did that first night, and they finally arrive at the apartment, and he has not cleaned up the mess. Everything is just as he and June left it, as if to say, “Here is what I have done. Deal with it.”
Kay deals with it. It is at this moment that Frank says to Kay what he has never said: He loves her. He says it, and he means it. Through the night, they stay in the apartment, though not on the bed. They leave first thing the next morning, closing the door behind them.
The Snow Was Black
First published: La Neige était sale, 1948 (English translation, 1950; also translated as Dirty Snow, 2003, and The Stain in the Snow, 1953)
Type of work: Novel
In an occupied country lawlessness prevails, and one disturbed young man searches for his own humanity while struggling to understand the essence of decency.
Frank Friedmaier is a young man who lives on the third floor of a tenement in an unnamed city under foreign occupation. Frank shares his apartment with his mother, Lotte, who runs a brothel, and various prostitutes in her employ. Frank is a pimp, and he is the antihero of The Snow Was Black, a novel often critically acclaimed as Simenon’s greatest work.
Almost all of Simenon’s novels are studies of a single character. Simenon explores the world through Frank’s sociopathic perception. Early in the novel, Frank kills a man he does not like but hardly knows in order to impress other men he hardly knows who do not like Frank. Law has been replaced by a perverted state of nature, dividing citizens into two camps: those who quietly endure or secretly resist the occupation, or those, like Frank and his mother, who cater to the occupiers.
Frank’s great obsession is his neighbor, Gerhardt Holst, and Holst’s virgin daughter, Sissy. Sissy is infatuated with Frank, and Frank abuses Sissy’s affection in order to capture her father’s attention. Holst represents dignity and decency and paternal discipline, qualities Frank has never experienced but seeks to understand.
One of the key events in the novel is when Frank leads Sissy to what she believes will be her first sexual experience, but Frank substitutes his friend, Fred Kromer, for himself, and Kromer rapes Sissy while Frank listens at the door. Frank wants to be recognized, to get attention for his awful deeds, and especially to force Holst to deal with him as a person. However, Holst continues to ignore him, even as Sissy suffers a nervous breakdown and a lengthy illness.
Defying authority, Frank yearns to be arrested, to undergo correction. Frank wants discipline, a father figure. One day, with no warning or any resistance on Frank’s part, he is arrested. His crime, one he is unaware of committing, is possessing stolen currency.
Frank languishes in prison, and every morning a group of prisoners is marched into the courtyard and executed. He is treated like an animal, isolated from the other prisoners, tormented by his interrogator, a man Frank thinks of as “the old gentleman.”
Months pass, and Frank’s mother and her prostitutes come to visit. Frank is questioned routinely in long sessions with “the old gentleman” punctuated by beatings. Finally, Holst and Sissy come to visit him. In Frank’s tired, twisted mind this visit vindicates his existence, provides him with redemption. Holst finally recognizes Frank’s existence, and Frank finally surrenders his will. He confesses everything. He only wants to die at a place and time of his captor’s choosing. One rainy morning, at long last, he joins a line of prisoners and is taken out into the yard and shot.
This sobering book is Simenon’s war novel, though written in 1948 in the comfort of the United States. Simenon did not abandon France during the Occupation, but Simenon was not French, and the occupation he writes of is not based on the occupation of France in World War II but is based more on the occupation of Simenon’s home country of Belgium during World War I.
The occupation Simenon knew best was that of Liège, when, as a boy, he learned that everyone cheated the system in order to survive. Simenon believed that a man learned most of what he needed to know by the age of eighteen, and if he had not learned a lesson by then, he probably was not going to learn. The Snow Was Black represents what Simenon learned, as a youth, of enemy occupation.
First published: Feux rouges, 1953 (English translation, 1975; also as The Hitchhiker, 1955)
Type of work: Novel
An alcoholic husband and his long-suffering wife, caught in a loveless marriage, survive a crisis that pulls them together.
Steve Hogan and his wife Nancy are traveling by car from their Long Island home to pick up their kids from a summer camp in Maine. The annual trip brings heavy traffic over the weekend, when city dwellers escape to the country. Red Lights portrays the mundane that has turned dangerous, the worst-case scenario brought to reality.
Steve has not admitted his alcoholism to himself or to anyone else. Like many of Simenon’s characters, Steve is dancing on the rim of the abyss, one misstep away from disaster. Simenon gives Steve that little push, not even a shove, closer to a nudge, but it is just enough.
Steve is in denial about his drinking and about his marriage. Steve and Nancy’s marriage is in trouble. They seldom even speak to each other, living their lives in separate orbits.
During the long car trip, Steve and Nancy are left no choice but to interact. Steve is a weak man, and the strain proves too much. He fortified himself with a stiff drink on the way home before leaving for the trip, and he had another drink at dinner, and he needs a third drink instead of just wanting it. A few hours into the trip, city traffic behind them, Steve makes his first tavern stop. Nancy waits in the car.
Another few hours of driving and Steve gets the urge to stop again for another drink. His drinking becomes the topic of conversation between them. If he stops again, Nancy says, she will go on without him. He will have to find his own way to Maine. Steve, asserting his manhood, is in the mood to show Nancy who is boss. He stops at another tavern, and he takes the keys with him.
While sitting at the bar, Steve begins to contemplate the meaning of manhood. What makes a real man? Steadily advancing into a stupor, Steve strikes up a conversation with the strange man who sits down by him at the bar. The radio in the bar plays in the background, and a story about an escaped convict from Sing Sing Prison has the barflies talking. As time passes, Steve begins to imagine that the man sitting next to him is the escaped convict. The man quietly leaves the bar. Steve thinks this stranger, this escaped convict, is a real man.
Enough time has passed, and Steve thinks Nancy will have learned her lesson. He staggers out to the car, gets behind the wheel, and finds Nancy gone. The note that she left says she has walked to the bus depot. In her place is the stranger from the bar. Steve is right; the stranger is the escaped convict.
The convict is Sid Halligan. He has a gun and persuades Steve to drive. It does not bother Steve’s conscience to drive. He thinks Nancy will be fine. As Steve drives on through the night, harboring the criminal in his car, avoiding police roadblocks, he wishes that he had Halligan’s nerve. Steve wishes that he were more of a man, more like Halligan.
Steve drives off the road, waking Halligan. The car has a punctured tire, and Steve is without a spare. Steve passes out by the side of the road, and morning finds him alone with his wallet missing.
With the few bills he has left in his shirt pocket, Steve slowly begins to pull himself together. He calls Maine, but Nancy is not there. Steve walks to a roadside diner. He looks and smells like he has been drinking all night. He attempts breakfast.
As he picks at his food and wonders about Nancy’s whereabouts, the locals discuss a “mystery woman” found along the side of the highway last night. Steve’s ears perk up when the description matches Nancy. Panicked, Steve calls the local hospitals until he finds the right one. He has his car repaired and finds his way to Nancy’s bedside at a hospital in a small Massachusetts seaside town.
Nancy does not want to speak to him. She might be afraid of him or ashamed of herself. Steve does not understand, at first, what has really happened to Nancy. The police spell it out for him. She was raped by Halligan. Nancy blames herself for leaving Steve, and Steve blames his drinking. With help from the police, Steve cleans himself up and begins to act responsibly. Meanwhile, Halligan is finally captured and positively identified by both Nancy and Steve.
As the novel concludes, Nancy believes their marriage had been a happy one but it will never survive this crisis. Steve believes their marriage can survive but that their marriage had not been a happy one for many years. Steve and Nancy come to terms and agree to stay married. They will go on with the kids and with each other, but the future will be different. Steve will stop drinking, and he and Nancy and their family will face life honestly and without fear.
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