The enduring appeal of Georges Simenon

Only three crime writers deserved a place in the history of 20th Century literature, according to a book I read back in the 1980s. The one that was presented as the obvious candidate was Georges Simenon. The others were acknowledged as more contentious choices, and I cannot remember who they were.

I’ve read the odd Simenon book over the years and always thought they were good. If there were a handful of books, I might have tried to read them all, but the man wrote 75 novels featuring his famous detective, Maigret, and more than 400 other books!

So, Simenon was not high on my reading list. But something happened to me over the years: I have become increasingly intolerant in my reading habits. A few weeks ago, I abandoned a promising book because the character walked for two pages, seeing this and that – well-written descriptions, but not moving the story along at all. That was too much for me.

See, I did say intolerant.

If it feels derivative, if the narration doesn’t have an appealing voice, if I sense emotional manipulation (especially of the “of Auschwitz” variety, the invocation of familiar horrors) I find something else to do, and the book mark stays in place for weeks or months until I finally accept that I will not pick up the story again and pull the marker from between the pages without even opening the book.

A few weeks ago, I was browsing in an op shop (charity second hand store, for those unfamiliar with the term) and in a box of books marked 3 for $1, I found two new-looking Simenon novels. I read both and ordered three or four more from the library. I’m now reading my fourth Simenon on the trot.

I can read them, because they’re not full of shit. (I know that’s not a literary term, but it captures my sentiments most accurately.) Simenon writes stripped prose. When he does spend a paragraph on a description, it is richly evocative. A fairly randomly chosen sample from today’s pages:

Maigret slept the sleep, at once troubled and sensual, that one only ever has in a cold country room that smells of stables, winter apples and hay. Draughts circulated all around him. And his sheets were frozen, except in the exact spot, the soft, intimate hollow that he had warmed with his body. Consequently, rolled up in a ball, he avoided making the slightest movement.

Simenon overdoes exclamation marks in the early books, but my sense is that they become less frequent later in the series.

Apart from the no-nonsense style, it is the subject matter that is so captivating. They are crime stories, yes, but the focus is on the perpetrator rather than the detective. It is about what moves people to do terrible things. Like Inspector Maigret, we are led to understand, not to judge.

Maigret is a strangely nebulous character, clearly described in the first book Pietr the Latvian (1930), and as far as I can tell, not really thereafter. He is large, wears an overcoat and smokes a pipe, and that’s about it.

That first book is also where some key precepts are described:

Inside every wrong-doer and crook there lives a human being. In addition, of course, there is an opponent in a game, and it is the player that the police are inclined to see. […] Maigret worked like any other policeman. […] But what he sought, what he waited and watched out for was the crack in the wall. In other words, the instant when the human being comes out from behind the opponent.

In exploring these cracks, Simenon is not only a cut above his fellow crime writers, but many supposedly literary writers too.


Trying the find the truth in Peter Temple’s stories

The South African born Australian crime novelist Peter Temple died earlier this year. Here’s something I wrote in 2011, triggered by his writing.

When you read Australian crime novelist Peter Temple, it doesn’t take much to recognise he’s a very, very good writer indeed. What is harder to work out is what is going on in the book. Temple is clearly of the belief that he doesn’t need to tell the reader everything, and that it’s okay for reading to be challenging work.

One of the ways this manifests itself is in the syntax, which can be very broken, with sometimes long sentences that consist of fairly independent phrases separated by commas – the opening paragraph of his novel Truth being a good case in point:

On the Westgate bridge, behind them a flat in Altona, a dead woman, a girl really, dirty hair, dyed red, pale roots, she was stabbed too many times to count, stomach, chest, back, face. The child, male, two or three years old, his head was kicked. Blood everywhere. On the nylon carpet, it lay in pools, a chain of tacky black ponds.

Apart from the stylistic interest, the paragraph contains lots of intriguing information. But where exactly are “them” – outside on a bridge or inside a flat? Had the first word been “overlooking” rather than “on”, the situation could’ve been clearer. And there are two dead people, right? The stabbed girl and the boy whose head was kicked in.

Or so I thought, except that the dead boy has not been mentioned again, despite some fairly detailed discussions around the murder. In fact, as further information about the girl is revealed, it looks increasingly unlikely that she would’ve had a child with her.

Temple doesn’t always make it clear where his character is in space and time, making jumps that require the reader to keep his wits about him. He also thinks nothing of piling on references to characters and events that the reader cannot know about, without bothering to explain. This isn’t helped by the sheer number of characters – we meet seven in the first two and a half pages. By page 10, we’ve met 15 characters, most of whom have speaking roles.

This all may sound terribly negative, which it isn’t… Not necessarily, at least.

This particular book has the singular distinction that it won Australia’s Miles Franklin Literary Award for 2010. It was the first crime novel ever to get this prestigious prize. Temple has already cleared up on the crime writing awards, and now seems poised to follow suit in the world of more highbrow literature.

So the issue is not one of poor writing, but one of writing per se. One of the key characteristics of narrative is that as a writer you’re paying out facts in a single line. You’re trying to make a tapestry, but can only show the reader one strand of wool at a time. The reader has to build the picture himself.

The writer has to decide how much help he’s going to give. When you introduce a new character, for instance, do you immediately give the reader some information to place that character into context, or do you leave it to them to figure out over time.

You can even deliberately make it impossible to figure out. The piling on of incomprehensible detail can add greatly to the feel of a book, creating a feeling that there is a greater reality in the fictional world beyond the scope of what is shown, which also tends to heighten the insecurity of the characters and the tension in the story. This is a characteristic of science fiction in general and is particularly effective in the stories of William Gibson.

There are also, probably as a matter of necessity, things a reader cannot and must not know to maintain the tension in the book, e.g. what’s going to happen next in a thriller or who did what in a whodunit.

Despite this, my personal preference is for optimal clarity from moment to moment, even if I’m being bamboozled by the larger framework of the plot. For instance, I love Nabokov, but have never gotten more than 30 or so pages into Invitation to a Beheading, despite at least four attempts to read that book over the last 20 years. I find it unbearably frustrating when as a reader I get lost in space and time. If I don’t know what’s going on for too long, my patience runs out, sorry.

Strangely, I love Philip K. Dick, where there are dizzying shifts of reality at times. And I read and enjoyed Kafka in my youth.

Still, I prefer it when writers help readers follow what is happening as it happens, and not get confused between characters, for instance. Having two characters called Faraday and Farrelly (if I remember correctly) is not insurmountable, but in Temple’s The Iron Rose this kind of naming had me paging back and forth, which wouldn’t have happened if one had had an obviously different name. An editor at Random had once cautioned me against having two characters called Erica and Esther. Temple’s editor probably should have made a similar suggestion. Perhaps they did.

When introducing new characters, apart from making sure their names are clearly different, most writers would give the reader information to explain how that character fits into what’s happening, and/or give the character a strong identifying feature that can be used later to remind the reader who this is. For that reason secondary characters are the ones who, much more than main characters, tend to have scars, heavy accents, big moustaches, deformed limbs and such.

As with characters, when a narrator makes mention of an event such as the “Kirby affair”, I’d expect an explanation of what the Kirby affair was – unless it was a news or historical event a person who would read that book can be expected to know about. Some writers seem to write as if the reader knows as much as the characters or narrator. This can be a factor of incompetence or design.

In the case of Peter Temple, one can only assume he does it by design. He’s far too accomplished a writer to make such elementary mistakes. In the one and a bit book of his I’ve read so far, the characters, dialogue, narrative voice and sense of place all bear the mark of an exceptional talent.

As for his habit of leaving the reader ignorant… I don’t know.


Hunting a feeling once found in a bookshop

Neck-deep in life in all its dubious glory, surrounded by love and death, as a teenager I somehow had the notion that real life was elsewhere or at another time. For me, real life was in the hereafter – not the afterlife of religion, just somewhere in the future. This debilitating belief stayed with me for many years, perhaps still clings to my consciousness like a limpet long after the tide had gone out.

Life in the sleepy suburbs of Bellville seemed lifeless compared to what I was encountering in books. Characters in fiction seemed more real and pressing to me than the weak, pimply dreamer I saw in the mirror. Reading was my oxygen pipe, and I a deep-sea diver stumbling about in a blue-painted swimming pool, it seemed.

At first, I got my books from the library – two-weekly visits that allowed you two books of fiction and two of non-fiction. I seldom bothered with the non-fiction initially, later read everything about World War Two I could lay my hands on. At high school, I discovered The Book Exchange, a second-hand bookstore in Barnard Street, across Voortrekker Road from the school. More than the selected and sanitised library books, these paperbacks with their lurid covers spoke to me. I discovered lifelong favourites such as Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick. There was the sci-fi of E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith. War stories by H.H. Kirst. Joe Millard’s retellings of the Sergio Leone westerns. There was a book about a country run by the nihilist President Nil, with some unforgettable details. Oh, and Leon Uris! I read hundreds of books by authors I can’t recall now.

What stays with me, though, is the feeling that those books and that bookshop gave me. A certain muted excitement, a fluttering in my chest and slimy stirrings in the imagination. This feeling, I realised recently, is the reason I write: I want to recapture it, I want to feel like that again. It is a drug I need.

To this day, few things give me as much pleasure as browsing in a second-hand bookstore, picking up a book by someone I had never heard of, and discovering something in it I like. The latest is a book called The Hunters, the first novel by James Salter. Apparently, he was well-known once; I had never noticed. It’s not one of the greatest novels I’d read, but there were sentences I wish I had written. And it’s about Sabre pilots in the Korean War, told with the insight and detail of one who had been there himself, entertaining the boy in me. Like all good books, it reminds me of who I had been and who I am.