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?’

Recent Reading: The Goldfinch, Frances & Bernard, Cop Town

the goldfinchI have stalled in my reading of The Goldfinch at an embarrassingly early part of the book, well, if we are counting in inches, that is. Maybe it’s the fault of the strange combination of part-listening to the audio book, part-reading the wrist-breaking real thing that has left me floating still on top of the story, rather than stitched down into it. But essentially it’s because the next couple of hundred pages appear to be a teenage drink-and-drugs odyssey and I can’t think of anything I’d rather read less. I was going to suggest maybe two hundred pages of unpleasant hospital treatment, but then that would be a book I would never pick up in the first place.

Most books, when you hit a dull patch, you can think to yourself, oh well, thirty pages tops and then we’ll be past it. Not this one. And whilst Donna Tartt’s writing is fine (somehow I remember The Secret History as much better written, but that could just be the work of unreliable memory), she’s only going to tell me what happens, in minute detail. If I thought it was the kind of writing that would be rich in psychological insights and what events mean, I might be more interested. But The Goldfinch so far has been a novel of painstaking description, with a faint fairy-tale quality to the story and its characterisation. I never had the least interest in drink and drugs as a teenager, and I have even less now. I don’t enjoy skim-reading and I’m not sure I have the stamina to plough through what lies ahead. I don’t want to give up, and yet I don’t have much interest in continuing.

frances and bernardOn a happier note, Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer was pure delight. An epistolary novel set in the 1950s, we follow the correspondance between novelist Frances Reardon and poet Bernard Eliot, who have recently met at a writing commune. Bernard has now gone to Florence to finish his book, whilst Frances has returned home to Philadelphia to write hers. Shortly they will both end up in New York. Bernard is attracted to Frances because of her devout religious views and her upright, stern moral demeanour. Bernard is a Catholic in love with ecstasy in all its forms and he is drawn to Frances’ gravitas, as an anchor, perhaps, to his volatile and fierce emotions. They are unlikely friends and even less likely lovers, not least because Frances is determined to remain single and avoid the complications of domesticity that might ruin her work.

But Bernard is a big heart and an outgoing spirit; he loves easily, deeply, magnetically. The downside of this is an inevitable mental fragility, and before long his letters will grow wilder and a spell in an institution is inevitable. Frances values their friendship by now and assures him that she is not afraid of him (Frances would not want to be afraid of anything), and almost against her will she is drawn closer to his vulnerability.

The writing in this novel was just exquisite. It’s a brilliant character portrait of two very different writers and of an unexpected and awkward relationship that nevertheless has moments of sublime grace. Given that she has two writers engaged in a battle of wits and wills, Bauer can just have fun with their voices, which she most certainly does. Apparently, the couple is loosely based on Flannery O’Connor and Robert Lowell. I would not have guessed this myself and I don’t think it matters much one way or another to know about the biographical background. There is a great deal of chat about religion, though, which might strike secular readers as unusual. But it echoes and questions the way art can become a religion – this in a very subtle way – how passion is necessary in one form or another though we might make very different uses of it. I think it’s fair to say I enjoyed every sentence of this one.

cop townAnother book I enjoyed, from the opposite end of the reading spectrum, was Karin Slaughter’s latest novel, Cop Town. Set in the 70s in Atlanta it’s essentially the story of new recruit to the force, Kate Murphy and the woman who gives her a helping hand on her traumatic first day, Maggie Lawson. Maggie has grown up in a police family and, against just about everyone’s wishes, joined the force alongside her brother, much beloved ex-football star, Jimmy, and her brutal, misogynist Uncle Terry. Terry represents everything the white male police force is about; he despises women, he despises foreigners, and he has no respect for the law when it’s in his own hands. When the book begins Jimmy’s partner, Don, has been the latest victim of a cop killer wreaking havoc in the city. The force is on red alert, determined to mete out its own justice to the killer when they find him. With a black mayor and a black head of police, times are changing, and the old boys have no faith in the authorities, which is rich given that Uncle Terry’s planted evidence on their last conviction caused the case to fall through.

Into this ugly regime stumbles Kate, a widow whose husband recently died in Vietnam. She is well-spoken, attractive, and Jewish; she’s also lived a gentle life up until now. Oh boy, is she in for a nasty shock. What Karin Slaughter does so brilliantly in this novel, as well as in the best literary fiction, is recreate the conditions of the 70s that we all have convenient amnesia about. It’s a man’s world, in which women need to shut up and stop asking stupid questions, and anyone who isn’t white and American needs to remember their place. Her description of the bad side of town is particularly hard-hitting too. Whilst a lot of novels depict places you might actually want to visit, Cop Town makes a reader feel very relieved to be safely in the new millenium. An excellent novel about how we used to be, but a violent and graphic one, be warned.

Magnificent Seven

Yes, issue no. 7 of Shiny New Books is now live!

SNB-logoI’ve got a huge BookBuzz section somehow – not entirely sure how! – so do go and check out our latest pick for the Book Club, our lastest Eds Discuss and all the lovely interviews and features from our talented contributors.

As ever, there are lots of reviews of fiction, non-fiction and reprints. I think my personal favourites of the novels I read this time were, in fact, three historical novels (inevitably, after criticising historical fiction here a few months back, that sound you hear is me chomping on my own words): Belonging by Umi Sinha, A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg and Rembrandt’s Mirror by Kim Devereux.

Well, you don’t need me to tell you how to navigate the site! Hopefully there will be something there for everyone.