Maigret and ‘the others’ by Georges Simenon

‘Best known for Maigret’. I’ve never understood why. Simenon’s non-Maigret books should be considered important literary works. His Maigrets were how he got paid.

Maigret et la jeune morte

My struggles to learn French continue, recently with facile editions of Maigret et la jeune morte and La Rue Aux Trois Poussins/Le Mari De Mélie. This edition of Maigret et la jeune morte comes with audio as well. I found the voice of the narrator very irritating, so as yet I can’t say if I have gained anything from that aspect of the book. I suspect that all French narrators have the same effect on me; certainly I always hate them at the movies.


It was interesting to see that my prejudices were entirely supported. La Rue Aux Trois Poussins/Le Mari De Mélie are two short stories which were both emotionally rewarding, very sad, even in their stripped down form. The Maigret, on the other hand, felt naked, like more words might have fleshed it out, given it something it was missing. Perhaps it would have been less confusing too, though I admit I made such a mountain out of reading it that it never had any continuity for me and the confusion may be entirely of my own making.

Not enough data to be sure, but I’m pleased to see my theory hold. It’s a great pity if the existence of Maigret is the reason why Simenon is so often overlooked. Listen to me, folks. Read ‘the others’. Promise it’s worth it!


The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

I’m conflicted as to how to evaluate this.

As a light page turner, easy to read in a hotel room whilst feeling slightly seedy, it does its job. I started it yesterday, finished it today


I suspect it was supposed to be more than this. The author is a Pulitzer prize-winner and not for the first time I wonder how they are picked. Then I remember. Anybody can be considered for a Pulitzer prize. You pay a fee and your book is read.

I note that in 2012, no prize was awarded, and I’m slightly surprised that this author could be a winner, which doesn’t seem to me to set the bar terribly high, and yet they couldn’t muster up one book that could match it that year.

Not only that, I have a bit of an idea I’ve just read a book written For Women.

I’m not sure how to evaluate my critical opinion ‘not good enough’ with the evidence in hand which is that it was a complete page-turner for me.

And its ending is corny. Is that okay? I don’t know.

Too much open at once

I seem to be finding it hard to finish books at the moment.

Right now I have open:

Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major

The Second Tree from the Corner

What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect.

Eight Stories

Peter Pan’s First XI

Not to mention various elementary French books, with which I struggle on a daily basis.

No doubt books will be finished, reviews will come.


The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey

Until my dying day I will remain mystified by whether Peter Carey is a writer once good, gone bad, or whether I was seduced by home-sickness into adoring Illywhacker.

This is awful, I’d like to hand it over to Reger of Old Masters to properly trash it to death. I have no need to rant about it myself, plenty of others have expressed their bemusement online. But I felt need to note that I tried and that any failure is not, in my opinion, the fault of the reader.

I do wish I hadn’t wasted valuable book buying funds on this one.

Studies in bitter and twisted by Coetzee, Faye and Naipaul

How do bitter and twisted, lonely, emotionally crippled older men start out? Men whose relationships, if any, have always soured early, men whose jobs are all that sustain them, mediocre jobs with colleagues who never become friends. Men whose strict weekend routines stop loneliness from being more than an uneasy feeling which never quite comes to the surface. Never quite acknowledged.

They start out as bitter and twisted Youth. In this novel by Coetzee, we see the establishment of such a being, a young man who thinks somehow that his cold alienating ways will make him a poet. When it turns out that he has nothing more in him than the capacity to be a computer programmer, and an undistinguished one of those, he sees his future as a hollow meaningless thing. We do not find out if his life remained the mean and nasty existence he portended.

Enter Nagasaki. Here we meet a man who might be the person Youth foresaw. Towards the end of his nondescript career he is alone, as far as we know he has never had a meaningful relationship with anybody, including his relations. When not at work he is at home, when at home, the person he talks to is himself. He has no friends, no interests, nothing about him justifies his carbon footprint. Like Youth, he is given the opportunity to live, to behave with largesse, to give. Like Youth he cannot do that. Both of them experience discomfort, unease at their utter meanness of spirit, but neither is capable of being a new person.

Is this inevitable? Enter Mr Stone of Mr Stone and the Knights Companion. Mr Stone is also a person all alone in the world, mediocre career, disappointment kept at bay by routine. Unlike the others, however, he surprises himself and the reader by getting married on the eve of his retirement. To be clear, there is no notion of love in this act, indeed, he feels trapped, smothered, imprisoned and perhaps even tricked into this state by the solicitous woman whom he impetuously brought into his life. But there is habit, company, some idea that something previously missing is  now part of his life. He cannot imagine how he got into this state, but he can’t quite imagine getting out of it either, however angry it makes him feel from time to time.

Mr Stone does something even more extraordinary, having an idea that his company’s boss likes and agrees he can implement which could raise him above the sorry existences of the men in Youth and Nagasaki. It is well-motivated but is dissipated, diverted and corrupted by the process of its implementation.

Much as he has done a couple of seemingly momentous things late in his working life, things we might expect to be life-changing, somehow, they are not, even though they change his life. The story ends, Mr Stone is as disappointed, emotionally stunted, as pointless a carbon footprint as our other protagonists.

A trio of novels which fit well together in their portrayals of a certain type of man. It’s a coincidence that I’ve read them in a row, picking them from my to-read-shelves to take on a trip. but maybe the coincidence is less than I think. I bought all of them at a church sale a week earlier. Were they all donated by the same person? Somebody who had reason to read this sort of story? What sort of sadness did it induce in them? Regret that they tell the story of his own life? Determination not to become this person? Recognition that it is inevitable? As a female, I find myself at the window looking in on a scene which is alien, a female would never be like these men.

Poor fucking bastards.





Uncle Petros and Goldbach’s Conjecture by Apostolos Doxiadis

What stayed with me, long after I had read A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit  by Alan Lightman, was the tone of regret, that powerful, haunting emotion. He writes of his own regrets in discovering in his thirties that his chosen life was over. He was a physicist, he no longer had any expectation of doing anything that mattered.

When I directed an astrophysics conference one summer and realised that most of the exciting research was being reported by ambitious young people in their midtwenties, waving their calculations and ideas in the air and scarcely slowing down to acknowledge their predecessors, I would have instantly traded my position for theirs….None of my fragile childhood dreams, my parents’ ambitious encouragement, my education at all the best schools, prepared me for this early seniority, this stiffening at age thirty-five.

and of maths:

About four o’clock, I went down to tea. Every afternoon, the mathematicians in Fine gather on the second floor for tea. At the back of the room loomed a large photograph, a conference of great mathematicians from the 1940s. They were lined up in rows, staring off into space.

One might think that, living in their beautiful worlds of sublime isolation and perfection, mathematicians would be the happiest of all people. However, many don’t seem at peace with their chosen profession. Mathematicians are ruthlessly self-critical. In most professions, it is possible to tell yourself and others that your accomplishments are significant, whether they are or are not. Not so in mathematics. In the community of mathematicians, there is a disturbing consensus on what is important, and the standards are painfully high. ‘Mathematicians are more aware of the failures than any other professionals,’ says Professor Gian-Carlo Rota of MIT. Of his own work, Rota says that only one or two moments have brought him any pleasure. Looking back on his long career, Hermann Weyl…told a colleague that he considered his life a failure. Near the tearoom of Fine, I ran into Simon Kochen, the past chairman of the Princeton mathematics department. Kochen, a trim and articulate man, leaned in a doorway and said that ‘the moments of joy in mathematics are few and far between. Most of maths is pure frustration. Results, when you finally get them, are obvious.’ (Isn’t that the goal of a good proof, anyway, to reduce the proposition to a near tautology?) Many mathematicians keep most of their calculations permanently in file drawers, having decided that their results are not worth publishing.

Apostolos Doxiadis takes this strange world and creates a story soundly based in fact, but a most splendid piece of fiction nonetheless. It’s a thriller and a tragedy and frankly I rather think that I held it up in front of my eyes while shovelling food down my gullet from time to time. That unputdownable.

The author is absolutely qualified for the task, having been a mathematical prodigy but whose first love was writing. He not only translated it from the original Greek, but significantly rewrote it in the process. So, I think even the most sniffy individuals on the subject of translation could let their guard down for this one.

I’m surprised more of my GR friends haven’t read it. An unhesitating five stars.

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

You can see why Asimov thinks he’s great shakes. This is written early 1950s and he talks of a future world where humans live in huge cities with the utmost efficiency, protected from the environment, entirely dependent upon nuclear power, eating food created by science. Thus earth is still able to support a massive population and rising. Let’s just say, we are getting there. The age of the car is well gone -in this world people walk on transport belts that go up to 60 miles/hour. The vehicles are only community ones, for the police and emergency services.

He describes a world in which the advanced, rich, long-living Spacers are trying to impose robots upon the inhabitants of the City states. He describes the hostility as people find themselves displaced by these machines. He could be describing the world of right now, as we find this happening, this idea that it is good to take work from people, replace them by machines, have them face a hopeless future of poverty, reliant upon society’s vengeful charity. Apparently we think that this is somehow more conducive to a better society, than a world worked by humans who earn decent wages and live decent lives. I’m mystified by it. I want to talk to a bank teller. I want to chat to a checkout person at the supermarket. I want to talk to people, not machines, on the telephone. I see no reason to think that it is better for those people to be jobless. Well, nor do the ordinary people in Asimov’s world. It forms the basis for the whodunnit.

My favourite prediction:

If there were one thing that had resisted mechanical improvement since Medieval times, it was a woman’s purse. Even the substitution of magnetic closures for metal clasps had not proved successful.

The man’s a veritable seer.