The world is Steve Hogan’s mirror. The eyes of the bartenders, policemen, garage owners and doctors he encounters over the course of a Labor Day weekend drive that turns into a binge from hell tell him what he already thinks he knows: He is a drunk, a fool, a coward and a failure. His wife’s eyes tell him the same thing, so he leaves her in their car by a roadside bar and goes in to have a drink, which quickly becomes two, then three. They’re on their way to pick up the kids from camp in Maine. Meanwhile, the radio reports that a prisoner has escaped from Sing Sing, but all Hogan remembers is that they share a last name ending in “gan.” In the bar, Hogan meets a stranger who knows him “like a brother” and has the same blue eyes and white shirt and close-cropped blond hair. After this self-satisfying communion with a character who might only be his reflection in the bar’s mirror, Hogan finds that his wife has continued the journey by bus.
Since this is a novel, nothing is without consequence. We know the escaped con will come into it somewhere, and so he does. Hogan picks him up at another bar and discovers a different mirror image, his ideal man. As Hogan puts it in one of his drunken monologues:
So, you see, they make rules that they call laws, and they call sin anything that scares them in other people. That’s the truth, brother! If they didn’t shake in their boots, if they were real men, they’d have no need for police forces and law courts, for preachers and churches, no need for banks, for life-insurance, for Sunday schools and red and green lights at the street corners. Does a guy like you give a damn for all that?
Hogan’s hero turns out to be the man who just raped his wife, while he was drinking in the first roadside bar. When Hogan wakes up with a hangover, no money, no identification and no idea of what’s happened, he discovers his need for all the forces of order he has just damned. In the end, he will accuse himself of having raped his own wife by proxy and almost by force of will, and that sense of guilt is the only redemption he’s allowed.
Set along the Eisenhower era’s new highways and soon-to-be suburbs spreading from Long Island to New England, Red Lights is but one of the nearly 200 novels Georges Simenon published under his own name. In his lifetime, he made his reputation as the creator of the popular Inspector Maigret series, but tales of the ultra-bourgeois detective with his omnipresent pipe are only a fraction of a total output that includes investigative journalism, pseudonymous crime novellas, a multivolume memoir, as well as the work he considered his best, the psychological novels often known by the alluringly pornographic moniker les durs–the hard ones.
To posterity, then, the Belgian-born writer appears as one of literature’s great graphomaniacs. Where other novelists had moods, fantasies and love affairs that may or may not have influenced their work, Simenon seemed to turn every mood, every passing fantasy, every love affair into a novel. And there were quite a lot of fantasies and affairs. On the rare occasions when he wasn’t writing, Simenon had lots of sex: with prostitutes, mistresses–even with wives (he had two, although his preferred mode was a ménage à trois that included a housekeeper or personal secretary). It usually took him between six and fourteen days to produce a novel. The affairs often took an equivalent amount of time, while the marriages averaged twenty years.
Literary theorist Gérard Genette remarked that graphomaniacs pose a special problem to scholars since it’s hard to know where life ends and writing begins. Does it make sense to mark the end of one novel and the beginning of the next, or should the entire lifework, including journals and random jottings, be understood as a sort of stream of consciousness, and the pauses in between as merely like rests in music? Simenon is a perfect test case, despite the sharply defined compartments and the tight formulaic plots he used to separate the man who was Maigret from the man who was more often Maigret’s quarry–the man who could write The Engagement, a novel that eerily predicted the psychological mechanics of fascism, and the man who lived a comfortable war in an aristocrat’s chateau, hosting dinners for German officers while the Nazi-run film industry adapted nine of his novels.
As the New York Review of Books Classics series publishes Simenon after Simenon at a rate the novelist would envy, it’s tempting to read them all in a lump, as an extensive, though still partial, psychological portrait of the writer: his tendencies, obsessions and anxieties, as well as his superbly organized defenses against these fears. This is not to suggest that these novels are straightforwardly autobiographical or confessional in any way. Some are set within larger ongoing historical events, like the French colonization of West Africa (Tropic Moon); others are deliberately petty dramas of middle- and lower-middle-class life in the process of breakdown (The Engagement, The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, The Strangers in the House) or, in rarer cases, under repair, whether in Europe or America (Three Bedrooms in Manhattan). As with Red Lights, the typical dur plot chronicles a man’s desperately misguided or failed bid for freedom from social constraints. In the worldly and constricted form of the hard-boiled mystery novel, Simenon subjects the wish to go “anywhere out of this world” to a ruthless scrutiny. There are middle-aged men who walk out on their families for uncertain adventure, young men who take up crime or leave Europe for Africa and run away again when they can’t face the horror, men who look out of windows, men who keep waiting to feel alive.
Simenon gave his method a slightly sadistic title: “stripping man naked.” Most often this meant reducing man to a state of permanent adolescent narcissism and alienation. It wasn’t just a metaphor; the idea often shows up literally, in a series of Magritte-like snapshots (that’s clichés in French): clothes piled up by the canal, top hat on top, a man dressed only in an overcoat walking the train lines in an industrial Paris suburb, a man waking up naked in a hotel room while a prostitute goes through his clothes. In just about every dur, the attempt to escape the confines of middle-class life fails in the first minutes of freedom if it’s not doomed from the start.
These novels rise above the clichés, much in the way Hitchcock’s films also transcend their pulpy trappings, via a fascination with acts of looking, spying, voyeurism, self-regard and surveillance. They are all about looking, which is to say they’re also about the impulse to write fiction and what happens when the contained impulse to imagine and fantasize breaks through to reality. In Monsieur Monde Vanishes, the relatively innocuous protagonist begins his fugitive career merely by “rais[ing] his eyes” from the Paris streets: He “noticed the pink chimney pots outlined against a pale blue sky where a tiny white cloud was floating…. It reminded him of the sea.” The next step is predictable: He leaves his wife, who conveniently doesn’t love him. It turns out he’s always been looking in and out of windows, and he decides he’s never been alive. Soon he’s in Marseille playing sugar daddy to a stripper he’s nursed back from a botched suicide. Watching her suck down shellfish and put on her face in a bistro, he still can’t quite shake the feeling of déjà vu:
There was another scene that had often struck Monsieur Monde, a scene one can glimpse in the streets of Paris when one peers into a restaurant through the window: facing one another across a table from which the meal has been cleared, with a soiled tablecloth, coffee cups, glasses of brandy…a middle-aged stoutish man with a florid complexion and a happy though somewhat anxious look in his eyes, and a young woman holding her handbag up to her face and repainting the bow of her lips with the help of the mirror. He had dreamed of that. He had envied them.
The number of reflections and double visions in this scene alone is dizzying. An entire dissertation on Lacanian psychology could be made out of it. Monsieur Monde, not quite a man of the world, yearns to be exactly that, but what he wants, just as much, is to be ignored by a woman who is watching herself in a mirror. Only then will he feel alive! This, in effect, is what happens, as he eventually takes a job surveying the patrons at an illegal casino and brothel to make sure there are no undercover cops, surrounded by vice and always on the lookout for the police.
The obsession with voyeurism is most explicit in one of Simenon’s earliest durs, The Engagement (1933). This is the eighth and the most recent in the NYRB series, but Simenon neophytes ought to read it first. The unfortunate Monsieur Hire, born Hirovitch, son of a Jewish tailor, is the classic creep and loner: He’s fat, but in an unhealthy childish way; he commutes to a desk job, but works alone. His two passions are bowling and watching the redhead across the courtyard of his tenement as she undresses and gets into bed with a novel, presumably a Simenon. Of course, it is the voyeur’s delusion to imagine himself invisible. She knows he’s watching, and everyone in the cramped tenement in the overcrowded Parisian suburb just outside the Thirteenth Arrondissement has their own theories about Monsieur Hire: Parents think he’s a pedophile; his bowling buddies think he’s a police agent; the concierge, that great source of everyday surveillance and bad intelligence, believes he’s the man who recently murdered a prostitute. The police are called in, the real murderer gets involved and the inevitable scapegoating begins. The Engagement captures the nightmare sense that modern urban life will abolish privacy for good, the crowd will take over and its paranoid gaze will never forgive those who are unable to meet its eyes–that is to say, anyone and everyone outside it. While the Internet has changed the possibilities for voyeurism and ordinary spying, there are still places in the world–England’s crowded Asian immigrant housing estates, for instance, or Karachi–where such crowd dynamics still matter. The Engagement should be required reading for every American intelligence officer who relies on “informers” to pick out suspected terrorists.
On the rare occasions when things work out well for Simenon’s characters, it is only through a particularly fortunate kind of framing. Three Bedrooms in Manhattan (1946) begins with a one-night stand between a self-exiled and once-famous French actor, whose wife has left him for a younger man, and the mysterious cosmopolitan woman who picks him up after she’s been thrown out of her shared apartment by her roommate’s jealous husband. The lovers are held together by things external to each of them, the great forces of urban life and mass culture. They meet in an all-night New York diner, are united by a jukebox song, go to a cheap hotel to make love. The things that they think of as “theirs” are actually a kind of common property, and their romance blossoms by its very arbitrariness. The characters know they are playing roles for each other, roles for which others could be cast at any moment. What changes this sense of radical contingency in all human relationships is a different kind of lucky break. When the man at last takes the woman home to his bachelor room, she notices a “Jewish tailor” who lives opposite, always alone, more deeply alone than either of them. He never looks up from his work to watch the watchers across the way, and yet somehow, thanks to the indifferent but studied ignorance of this vaguely paternal figure, the lovers start treating each other as individuals with particular histories rather than as a means for satisfying basic needs. It’s crucial to the novel that the lovers begin to believe they’re not being lied to only after they notice this allegorical figment–God, the father–in a sordid and secularized world.
The religious resonance is not an accident or fancy over-interpretation. Although not observant or churchgoing, Simenon retained a deep fidelity to the heavily patriarchal, conservative, Catholic milieu in which he was raised. This existential Catholicism structures the Maigret mysteries (the detective thinks of himself as “a redresser of destinies”) as well as the durs, and it heavily influenced Simenon’s politics. The NYRB introductions mostly play down both Simenon’s religiosity and his politics. They insist either that Simenon was a humanist or just bravely, quirkily and artistically apolitical for someone who lived through the most politically charged decades of the twentieth century. Yet Jean-Paul Sartre would have called his slightly older contemporary’s quest to reveal a universal humanity or masculinity a form of “bad faith,” a cowardly avoidance of reality by immersion in the sordid details and histories of everyday life when everyone ought to have been making tough political decisions. Dirty Snow (1948), Simenon’s occupation novel, may capture the mood of Paris under the Nazis, but Simenon would also have us believe that his fatherless hero steals, kills, spies, rapes and steals again (in that order) just so he can find two fathers: the bad, punishing father in the Gestapo officer who arrests and tortures him and, in his obsession with Holst, the father of the girl he’s violated, a good father who will forgive him. There is, however, a prison window and, as always, a woman visible from it:
She wore a dressing gown…with a light-colored scarf around her head, while she shook out the rugs and blankets over the emptiness below. From so far away you couldn’t make out her features. But from her brisk movements and from what she was doing, he guessed she had to be young. In spite of the cold, she left the window open for a long time while she came and went, tending to things inside, her cooking or her baby. He knew she had a baby, since the clothes she hung out to dry on the line stretched across the window were always tiny.
Who knows? Maybe she was singing. She must be happy. He was fairly sure she was happy. After she closed the window she would be in her own home, with all the familiar household smells taking possession again.
Some of Simenon’s critics have suggested that his avoidance of politics, especially after World War II, was deliberate. Less clear is whether his silence was motivated by guilt, sheer numbness or a sense of defeat. Pierre Assouline, author of the definitive biography, points to a series of articles Simenon wrote in 1921 for the Gazette de Liège, a Belgian newspaper, on “The Jewish Peril.” These followed a “name and shame” pattern in which Simenon listed the major Jewish figures involved in post-World War I reconstruction. Tellingly, he began, “There exists a real Jewish peril against which national forces and, above all, Catholic forces, ought to struggle.” While Simenon was just an 18-year-old reporter, and many people write shameful things at that age, his excuses came only much later, in 1985, when the articles were brought to light. As Assouline shows, Simenon always remained blind as to who was really in peril when it came to the Jews. This basic, petit-bourgeois anti-Semitism, allied with Catholicism and nationalism and combined with his skepticism about the positive prospects of increased human freedom, make up a profile common to many in Belgium and France who tacitly or overtly sympathized with fascism on the “soft” Italian and Action Française model, and later on the hard National Socialist one.
Simenon the novelist was less comfortable with fascist ideas than Simenon the cub reporter and human being. Monsieur Hire, for all his archetypal outsiderness, is more than a caricature; the old tailor is an Old Testament patriarch, and most of the other Jews in his fiction are no worse than anyone else. Yet Simenon’s evasion of history, both in general and his own, stains his legacy. Even the apparent anticolonialism of Tropic Moon (1933) suffers in hindsight. While Simenon kept his eyes open long enough to detail the various forms of exploitation in French Gabon and the Congo, where he worked as a reporter, he also seemed to have put the colonies out of his mind when he stopped writing about them. “Africa–It doesn’t exist” is the protagonist’s conclusion as he ships back for France at the end of another disastrous love affair, this one with a particularly dangerous white woman. Although ironic, it’s also sincere: Simenon wanted to be left alone, and he wanted Europeans to leave Africa alone. The damage he chronicles is more to the morals of the colonizer than the lives of the colonized.
In the end, Simenon could run, but he couldn’t escape what he knew. He may now be a New York Review of Books “Classic,” but his canonization reflects both the best and worst of the twentieth century’s obsession with interior psychology. French historian Richard Vinen observes that Simenon’s postwar novels almost never mention the war, certainly never the Holocaust. This omission would be less striking if Simenon hadn’t sent his characters to some of the landmarks of the occupation, including the train station where Paris’s Jews were deported and the town of Vichy itself. A similar implausibility hangs over Three Bedrooms in Manhattan. It’s not an accident that the French actor has had to leave the country. That he, like Simenon, worked with the Franco-Nazi film industry during the war is never mentioned. Nor is it an accident that the woman he meets speaks Hungarian, French, German, Spanish and English. They seem like refugees because they probably were; their meeting could have happened only in the haven for stateless and statusless people that was post-World War II New York. Yet for Simenon, they are just refugees from failed love. So Simenon’s graphomania could also be understood as his way of scribbling over a history he’d lived through and, albeit in a minor way, helped to create. He might have regretted it, too, a little. As Simenon probably knew, even the most meticulous, dedicated and disinterested-seeming voyeur cannot avoid a little wish fulfillment, or a blind spot.