Georges Simenon and Inspector Maigret

cellars of the majesticWhen I was first growing serious about learning French, I was advised repeatedly to read Simenon’s Maigret stories. The French was so simple! I was assured, and they were good stories, too. I have no idea why I resisted, sheer perversity, I expect. When I was teaching French, I was often asked if Simenon was one of the 20th century authors I taught – being, I think, one of the few French authors with whom most people were familiar. I did not teach Simenon. In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of months ago that I finally read a Simenon novel for the first time. And now it’s taken me an absolute age to get around to reviewing it, though not because it wasn’t an enjoyable experience to read. In fact, I whipped through it in no time, loved it, and wondered why it had taken me so long.

Inevitably, having finally read Simenon, I became curious to know something about the man. What a life! He published almost 500 novels and hundreds of stories, using many pseudonyms. Born in Belgium, he moved to Paris as a young man where he worked as a journalist, always with a taste for frequenting the seamier side of the city. His love life was particularly energetic. He married and then began a decades long affair with his housekeeper. The second world war intervened and Simenon got himself into hot water over collaboration. I imagine he behaved much like Colette did – with a sort of hard-headed peasant pragmatism. Colette wanted very much to eat, which meant she had to sell her work, and so her basic view was that she would sell it to whoever was buying. Simenon would eventually be sentenced to a five year prohibition on publishing, but it wasn’t observed. Not least because, once the war was over, Simenon took his family to America for a decade. His wife had found out about his affair by now and the marriage was struggling. Simenon promptly began a new affair with the woman he hired as his secretary and they married and had three children during a stormy relationship. In 1955 they all returned to France, and ten years later, Simenon divorced and married again – yet another of his housekeepers. He claimed by the end of his life to have had 10,000 lovers, and that he wrote 60 to 80 pages a day. Judging by his output, the writing claim is probably true.

Inspector Maigret was his greatest creation, his first novel featuring him published in 1931. He would go on to write 75 Maigret novels and 28 short stories. The thing about these novels is that they are very short – 120 pages or so – but they manage to have the same depth as a book of much greater length. I’ve thought for a while that the tendency in publishing lately is to allow books an extra 100 pages more than they need, and there isn’t a better case for concision than Maigret.

In The Cellars of the Majestic, Maigret is called to the discovery of one of the hotel’s guests, strangled and unceremoniously dumped in a locker in the staff changing rooms. The victim is the French wife of a rich American businessman, and certain pressures are brought to bear on Maigret to go easy on the guests. Maigret has no intention of doing any such thing, but once he finds that the husband’s affair with the governess to his children gives him an alibi, Maigret is happy to leave the bourgeois to their own devices. He is, in any case, far more intrigued by the complex workings of the servant underworld in the hotel, and in the sad circumstances of the main suspect for the murder, the hotel’s coffee-maker, Prosper Donge. Prosper is a sad soul, an ugly red-head who lives in a platonic sort of relationship with Charlotte, a lavatory attendant at a nightclub. It turns out that they both knew the murdered woman when they were all working in the South of France. From there, Maigret is hot on the lead of a complicated story of prostitution, blackmail and unrequited love.

It’s hard to put one’s finger on what makes this book tick along so satisfyingly. There’s a wonderful evocation of place and landscape, vivid yet brief; the characters are drawn so sympathetically – at least they are sympathetic in Maigret’s understanding gaze – and the puzzle is convoluted in its unravelling but simple in its solution. The narrative chugs along swiftly, free from padding and all those scenes in contemporary crime novels in which no one learns anything of any note. In a book this size, every scene counts, every encounter progresses the story. And Maigret is a great understated, unshowy performer. Getting older, getting tireder, saddened sometimes by what he has to witness of human lives, but his sharp eye and rapid insight are never in doubt. Yes, perhaps that’s what ultimately makes these stories so comforting – you are never in doubt that Maigret is in control of the investigation and that he will succeed. Much like Hercule Poirot and Perry Mason and Jack Reacher – the foundation stone of the story is Maigret’s unshakeable competence.

Without doubt, I’ll be catching up on more of Maigret’s cases, thanks to the lovely new Penguin reissues. A steadfast hero in a short, vivid, well-plotted story; no wonder they remain classics.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic

bigmagicI am a fully paid-up card-carrying fan of Elizabeth Gilbert, but there is often a moment at the start of her books where I feel like I might have sat next to the wrong person on the overnight bus and will live to regret it. Big Magic was no different as Gilbert begins it in kooky, mystical mode with injunctions to find my inner treasure and believe in the big magic of creativity. It felt at first like the quinetessence of self-help with a big dose of my daily horoscope.

I have read a lot of books about creativity, finding it a fascinating topic, and many books about the lives of authors. The relentless, upbeat positivity of Gilbert’s prose was initially a little grating. I couldn’t help but remember the story about Hans Christian Andersen, when he was visiting Charles Dickens and overstaying his welcome by about two months. Dickens came home one day and said to the kids, where’s Hans? And they said, he’s outside, face down on the grass sobbing because he got a bad review.

I remember poor old Hermann Hesse, champion hypochondriac of the early 20th century who, during WW1, wrote a very mild little article about how nice peace might be, only to find himself facing widespread condemnation for his unpatriotic attitude and blackballed by all the booksellers in Germany.

I remember Dodie Smith, who reluctantly agreed to spend the duration of the Second World War in America because her husband really badly wanted to go, and when they finally returned twenty years later everything Dodie feared had come to pass: she was completely out of touch with the London theatre scene and never staged another successful play (after an unparalleled five in a row before the outbreak of war).

When I read about these authors I admit I was comforted by them; they felt like my tribe. I cherished the idea that you might suck at life but create wonderful things nevertheless. And I thought that creativity was not an easy road to choose, that it was full of pitholes and that inevitably, you might end up alongside Hans Christian Andersen, face down on the lawn and weeping.

Well, Elizabeth Gilbert is having none of that. Creativity isn’t necessarily an easy choice, she agrees, but it’s the most interesting thing you’ll do and it’s open to each and every one of us. Her perspective is tailored to encourage everyone just to have a jolly good go at it, regardless of the outcome. All you need for creative living on her terms is courage, enchantment, permission, persistence and trust. Each of these qualities heads up a chunk of her text, and each is explored with her customary kindness and wisdom and lots of really good anecdotes.

I particularly enjoyed the story she tells about a novel she so nearly wrote concerning the Brazilian rain forest. Years later, when that book had withered away to nothing, she met and befriended Ann Patchett, who was astonished to hear about Elizabeth’s near-miss and confessed she was writing the exact same story that Elizabeth had passed over. It became State of Wonder and won Patchett the (then) Orange prize for fiction. Gilbert points out that she could have been downcast or upset by this turn of affairs, she could have decided that the universe was against her. Instead, she felt a little miracle had happened and that she was absolutely right to turn up at her desk every day waiting for inspiration. Because ideas really do come knocking with some insistence, and they’ll move on if you can’t bring them to fruition quickly enough.

Gilbert’s premise is that the world of creativity is a very strange one and it functions by unusual laws. You might work for years without recognition, or watch less gifted people pick up all the awards. It isn’t a clear meritocracy, and you can’t control the outcome. She tells a story I loved about asking her new husband, Felipe, if he minded her writing about him in a little thing called Eat, Pray, Love she was working on. Well, he said, what was at stake? And she laughed and said, nothing at all, no one ever reads my books. In a way, that’s why Gilbert is a very good person to be writing this guide. She’s had one massive bestseller and five other books, and she says she could not tell you what was different; it’s purely about chance.

She is actually very good on overcoming one’s fears and giving oneself permission even to try (‘Speak to your darkest and most negative interior voices the way a hostage negotiator speaks to a violent psychopath: calmly but firmly. Most of all, never back down.’) And on dismissing the reception, good, bad and ugly, that results from taking the plunge and putting stuff out there (‘I can only be in charge of producing the work itself. That’s a hard enough job. I refuse to take on additional jobs, such as trying to police what anybody thinks about my work once it leaves my desk.’) She is also against perfectionism, even if this leads her into a slightly eyebrow-raising anecdote about letting The Signature of All Things out into the world imperfect, because it was good enough.

This reminded me of another book on creativity I read by the social scientist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (I’m typing that once and never again, okay?). His thesis is that something can only be deemed creative by the experts in the field, not by the person doing the creating, which probably works for science but is a real dog’s dinner in the arts where no one ever agrees on these things. He also says that only time can tell – what might seem creative at first turns out not to be creative if opinion decides against it in later years. Which means poor old Swedenborg, for instance – ridiculed in his native Sweden, a hit a century later in Europe and now more or less sunk into obscurity – was creative posthumously for a hundred or so discountable years. It’s madness, right? Though if we accept that Gilbert’s Big Magic is a strange beast indeed, it does seem to be the case that we don’t know what we are creating and we don’t know what ‘perfect’ looks like. Certainly down here at amoeba level, the posts I slave over for this blog get the smallest amount of traffic, and those I toss out simply because I have to put something up can sometimes attract lots of comments and likes.

So Gilbert, as ever, won me around to her way of thinking, which is that if you’re going to try and be creative, you do it only ever because the process is fun. And the more you can get your head around the obstacles and problems that befall you, the more fun you can have. We all use delusions to make sense of what we do, she argues, isn’t it best to have life-enhancing, sensible ones? In the end I couldn’t imagine anyone reading this book and not feeling heartened, encouraged and braced for the challenges ahead. Though I can’t quite get out of my mind an image of Filipe holding the telephone receiver and calling, ‘Liz, I’ve got Hans Christian Anderson on the phone and he says he’s still feeling miserable. Will you come and talk to him?’

I Call Myself A Feminist

feministTwenty-five essays collected together with a generous helping of quotes from other well-known women, with the particular slant that the essays are all written by women under thirty. It’s an overview of the issues and concerns that continue to motivate activism in the 21st century, as well as an attempt at rehabilitating the word ‘feminism’ from some of the old perjorative connotations of the past. The essays are brief, a few pages each, and they cover a wide variety of topics and perspectives. It’s a fascinating collection, provocative, thoughtful, sometimes funny.

But there are buts. Not one woman writing has a child, although motherhood remains the last great bastion of identity straitjacketing. All are women who have enjoyed early success and made something of their lives – they speak from a position of earned privilege. I found myself appreciating most the essays from a Nigerian woman who had grown up in a traditional and oppressive religion, a woman who worked in a centre for the victims of acid attacks and a female human rights lawyer. A large number of the other essays spoke about behavioural issues – from the difficulty of making the decision to change gender, and the resistance and prejudice one might consequently face, to the irritating tendency of men to hog the armrest in seats on the London tube (exert your right to space, ladies!). Several rightly evoked the appalling reputation of the media – tabloids, magazines, advertising, mostly – for reinforcing stereotypes. But most of these essays left me thinking that whilst Western women have removed the majority of physical constraints on their choices, the real battle remains with the mental chains we so easily place on our own thinking.

I was taught that feminism was about two things. It was about equal access to power – economic, political, social – and the freedom to be oneself, resisting the old insistence that Woman should be helpmate, carer, nurse, selfless angel. It was about creating a structure that offered equal opportunities within which we could all be individual and different. Where we seem to end up now is micromanagement of the behaviour of others, which is highly problematic.

Let’s look at the case for the opposition first. Laura Bates, author of Everyday Sexism writes ‘As feminists we are used to being told what we ‘should’ focus on, or scolded for ‘making a fuss’ about particular topics. Talking about rape or domestic violence is acceptable, but mention street harrassment and you’re ‘getting upset about nothing’ […]There is no reason why we shouldn’t tackle every manifestation of gender inequality, no matter how apparently ‘minor’.

Absolutely! A society free from all discrimination would be a utopia indeed. But there’s a danger that the woman who is harrassed on the street might be led to believe that her plight is equal to the woman who has been half beaten to death by the husband who controls her cash flow. And that wouldn’t be right, would it? Don’t we still need to maintain a sense of perspective? I don’t think that equality means that all crimes committed against women are equal.

There’s a very well-written essay about how important words are and how right it is to police them. One of the examples cited is scientist Tim Hunt’s foolish comments – poor attempts at a joke – about women in his laboratories, which provoked a twitter storm, viral humiliation, and some consequences for the man’s career. The writer is convinced that this was the correct outcome. Yet I say, where was the woman whose courage, generosity and sense of fair play made her stand up at the end of the speech and say: ‘Could you please redefine your position on this issue, because I think what you said may be open to some serious misunderstanding.’ There could have been a proper debate on the spot; it would have been a fabulous example of grace and diplomacy and the exercise of women’s right to speak up for themselves. Why does it feel to me that the thrill of self-righteous indignation held sway here instead? Words are indeed terrifically important, and I would rather use them to educate than crucify. Women have a power of intervention unparalleled in their history. Is twitter shaming the best we can do with it?

We may often regret our male colleagues’ thoughtless, sexist and downright stupid comments. We may well wish that their behaviour would be more respectful and courteous. But if we want to improve social behaviour, we all have to sign up to the same charter. That’s equality. So if women want the right to be outspoken, to be ‘unruly’, to speak our minds and shout down or shame the other, then it has to be okay for men to do the same things. If, as one writer in this book says ‘Women whose behaviour is repulsive and selfish entrance me. They seem far more alive and aware and unapologetic than most would ever dare to be’, then we must accept that men might be entranced by their repulsive and selfish behaviour, and feel more alive for it, too.

This is the problem with all issues surrounding behaviour and identity. We all want people to behave better, and the chances are overwhelming that we will never be able to make them. We use the law against acts of violence and crime. But in the lower reaches of human behaviour, it’s hard to ‘make’ people give up their worse natures. Where did all that PC battling get us? The recognition that it’s unacceptable for people to express ugly predjudice in public places. Excellent! And then we created the internet whose main purpose can seem to be to provide a safe space for all that prejudice to be resurrected under the blissful cover of anonymity. Human nature is aggressive and judgemental. People will find a way to judge.

Believe me, I know how awful it is to be on the receiving end of sexist belittling. When I was nine or ten, the teacher who taught me every day, for every subject, was a man called Mr Wickenden. He regularly said unpleasant things about me in class – I remember him laughing with the other boys and saying I didn’t care about people, I only cared about money and clothes. I was quick-witted as a child, which didn’t go down well in the 70s. Once, doing some maths (my weakness) I struggled to understand the equation on the board; he humiliated me in front of the class until I was in tears (and I did not cry easily). He never treated any of the boys this way; I felt his persecution and it undoubtedly added to my belief that if I wanted to get away with being clever and well-spoken and tidy and good, I would need to make myself invisible.

For many years, this sort of behaviour struck me as completely unacceptable, as something we should legislate against, yes, why not! But as I have grown older, I have changed my mind. What I needed to learn to do was to look Mr Wickenden in the eye and think: you are so completely irrelevant to my sense of self. We are animals underneath it all; we know fear and vulnerability instinctively. What I needed to do was grow up, grow stronger, learn to protect myself without recourse to aggression, practice integrity. In some ways the issue was a sexist one, but in all the ways that mattered, I have come to understand it was developmental. And Mr Wickenden to one side, the worst, most insidious bullies I’ve come across have been female. I needed a strategy to deal with them, too. Thinking the world shouldn’t be cruel, that I shouldn’t have to fight for my right to be different, that I must be able always to do things my way without encountering resistence, even if it horrifies the ideology of the tribe, has actually held back my own growth.

I think that one of the best acts of feminism we can do on an everyday basis is support the women we know. Do something whenever possible to make their lives a little better, a little easier, a little richer. I think we need to expend our best energy on the real victims of the world – those caught up in war, famine, violence, plague and tyranny – and to keep a weather eye on the lesser crimes and make sure we don’t commit them too, in the name of retaliation. And when a first world, non-violent man makes a sexist comment, we might just raise our eyebrows and find him ridiculous; why on earth would we assign such behaviour more power than it truly has?

Dark Tales for Dark Days

the watchersThe Watchers by Neil Spring is based on a series of real and unexplained events near the coast of Wales in the late 1970s. In the winter of 1977 a spate of UFO sightings took place, the most compelling witnessed by the children of a primary school who believed strongly that they saw a spacecraft land, whilst others were convinced they had seen giant silver-suited figures staring in windows. There was so much media concern over the sightings that the Ministry of Defence secretly conducted research into the area, though what their officials made of it is still unknown. I was a child of the 70s and the premise of the novel sparked long-buried memories of those UFO sightings. It struck me as an intriguing idea to go back to that era and to resurrect the old UFO concept – but although the novel begins there, it isn’t quite where the story ends up.

Robert Wilding is a tortured man. He suffers from anxiety and OCD, a legacy of the traumatic deaths of his parents in a flood and from the fear-fuelled adolescence he spent with his religious extremist grandfather in Wales. Even now as a grown man his nightmares and worst fantasies concern ominous pounding on doors and the need to hide from the Watchers, whoever or whatever they may be. He’s trying to do his best to right the wrongs of the past, however, through his government job. His father worked in the military and his mother was a protestor, so both were caught up in the events at RAF Croughton in 1963, when a demonstration went wrong and his mother was badly burned in the subsequent fire. Now, in 1977, with the help of the local Welsh MP, Robert is involved in the government enquiry into this event. When the enquiry is disrupted in a catastrophic way, the American Lieutenant Colonel who Robert was hoping to see in the witness box contacts him to arrange a midnight meeting. He suggests that the UFO sightings in the area are not in fact extraterrestial in nature, but high-tech surveillance from Russia. When Robert’s mentor in the government also encourages him to return to Wales to look more closely into what’s happening at the American and British bases, Robert must swallow his personal fears for the greater cause.

What he finds in Wales is a community living in extreme fear. Along with unexplained sightings such a balls of fire that travel as fast as a car, there have been animal mutilations and a strange sickness that sounds like radiation poisoning. Robert is forced to confront his grandfather and his memories of the past, but what is more alarming, he is beginning to understand his grandfather’s point of view. From here on in, events spiral into a waking nightmare in which no one is what they seem.

Having begun this thinking it would be a sort of thriller-ish affair, it turned out to belong much more readily to the horror genre or the book form of the disaster movie. There’s a lot going on and a great deal happens, each short chapter containing some incident that ratchets up the tension, resulting in a taut and compelling plot. However, I have to confess that I think I’m a bit old for this novel. If you love the kind of rapid-fire plotting that dominates a lot of current television and film, you’ll really get behind this. Me, I’m old school, so I would have liked to see more characterisation. If your main character begins the novel traumatised, is then thrown into the depths of his fears and never really has a chance to catch his breath, you don’t see many sides of his personality. I’m also not a believer in the paranormal. The thought that the UFO sightings might be military-based excited me; I love that sort of clever rational explanation, but quite quickly we are moved onto other, darker motivations. Essentially, I suppose the novel explores dangerous hypnotic beliefs, either in the form of satanic rites or mass hysteria. I fell out of the fantasy frame about halfway through and struggled to get back into it. I think it’s a good book; well-written, very well plotted, and conceptually it holds together on its own terms. You have to decide if the subject matter is up your dark and menacing alley or not.


smoke and mirrorsI was also sent for review Smoke and Mirrors by Elly Griffiths. Griffiths is known for her crime fiction featuring Dr Ruth Galloway, a forensic archeologist (who knew that obscure department would gain so much fictional credence?). This is the second in a new series set in Brighton in the 1950s. Her main protagonists are a stage magician, Max Mephisto, and his detective inspector friend, Edgar Stephens. The two met during the war, when they were part of a team coming up with more unusual ways to confound the enemy. In this novel, it’s a very snowy run-up to Christmas in 1951. Max is in pantomime on the pier (Aladdin), while Edgar is dealing with a sad and disturbing case: the deaths of two young children, left in a snowy hollow surrounded by sweets. The press are quick to make Hansel and Gretel comparisons, and they may not be so far off the mark. The murdered girl, Annie, was a keen playwright, organising her band of young local friends into an impromptu theatre group. Encouraged by her school teacher, Annie has been rewriting fairy tales in gruesome ways. In her character of the child snatcher, did she have some real life counterpart in mind?

But the solution to the crime may lie instead with the adult theatre troupe performing pantomime. Those with longer memories can still recall a murder that took place in the same venue in 1912, when a young girl, a Babe in the Wood, is found with her throat cut. By uncanny coincidence, several of the 1951 cast have family links back to that earlier play and the earlier unsolved crime. Could the police be dealing with a copycat situation?

For some reason or other, I had it in my head that Elly Griffiths didn’t write very good prose, and so I hadn’t read her before. This turns out to be a complete nonsense – Smoke and Mirrors was a very well-written book with an especially nice line in dialogue. Max Mephisto gets all the fun character attributes, being dramatic, egotistic and a tad louche; poor old Edgar is the worrywort with a tricky conscience. Edgar also has two promising henchmen, the dour, class-conscious Bob, and bright, moneyed Emma (who is treated in a way that will please all 21st century sensibilities, though somewhat anachronistic to the 50s setting). This was a well-conceived and highly atmospheric story, and my only real criticism is that by the three-quarters mark we still had absolutely no idea what had happened and not much to show for the efforts of the police. That’s not unusual in contemporary crime fiction, however, and it didn’t mess with my motivation. I found this a compelling novel and in fact have since begun on the Ruth Galloway series (I read The House at Sea’s End which was even better than this one). If you like crime fiction, Griffiths is definitely worth a try.