La tête d’un homme by George Simenon

I find it hard to believe that this is a B2 book, it seems easier than that to me. Maybe that’s because so much of Maigret is formulaic. You know the regular characters, you know there’s going to be a pipe and tobacco and smoke, cafés and boissons, a murder here, a suspect there. A chase. The Seine.  Maybe that’s why I found this B2 much easier than the last. Maybe I’m not really better at French, only at reading Maigret.

Remarkably good – I’m looking forward to reading the non-facile version when I spot a copy at the market. There are various cinematic productions of it, the earliest one from the 1930s looks like the most interesting, but as (more or less) no French movies have French subtitles, I’m not rushing out to get it.

You can see the introduction to the English Penguin edition here and it gives some interesting background:

When Simenon wrote La Tête d’un homme (originally translated as A Battle of Nerves) it was 1930, he was staying at a small hotel in Paris and he was at a turning point in his career. Over a period of five years, using eighteen different pseudonyms (notably ‘Georges Sim’) he had become one of the most successful authors of pulp fiction in France, publishing up to forty-four titles a year. But Simenon wanted much more than the fame and wealth he had won so quickly as a popular author. From now on he would write under his own name and he would aim for the Nobel Prize. Crime fiction was to be the first step on that road.

In September 1930 he had already completed four of the Maigret series, though none had been published. They were to be launched at a wild party thrown the following February at a nightclub in Montparnasse. Four hundred guests were joined by as many gatecrashers, the cost of the whisky and champagne exceeded Fayard’s entire publicity budget and Simenon had to cover the deficit. It was money well spent. Eleven Maigret titles had been published by the end of the year. He wrote four more in 1932, two in 1933 and then, after nineteen titles, sent Inspector Maigret into retirement, intending never to write another. Instead he would concentrate on his romans durs or ‘novels of destiny’. But it didn’t work out like that. After an interval of six years, with the outbreak of war and a young son to raise in uncertain times, worrying about his health (although he saw no military service), Simenon revived his most popular creation. Over the following thirty-three years he was to write a further fifty-seven Maigrets. And when in February 1972 he finally exhausted his creative impulse and wrote his last novel – the last of 193 ‘Simenons’ – it was a Maigret.

I’m glad Simenon thought a lot of his non-Maigret books too, believing myself that they are some of the most important literature of the mid-twentieth century. One should not be surprised, therefore, that he didn’t receive a Nobel prize. He was nominated seven times in the 1950s and 1960s. If only he’d written bad poetry and set it to music. He might’ve made more money and won the Nobel too.

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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.

Simenon_la-rue-aux-trois-poussins-le-mari-de-melie-georges-simenon

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 Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leïla Marouane

Complete coincidence saw me reading this directly after Old Masters. There are odd points of comparison. Firstly, they are both related by others. ‘Reger told me…’ and, in this one, ‘It came over me all of a sudden, he said.’ So, in both we are aware of an interpretation going on, a reporting of the story even though ‘he said’ immediately becomes ‘I’.

Secondly, both main characters are deeply unhappy and find the world an entirely unsatisfactory place. But whereas Reger is a completely detestable odious old crank, Mohamed is wonderful, the reader is in his corner. Reger has no particular cause for unhappiness, it is like he seeks it out by turning the world into a place at which to rage. Mohamed is an Algerian Muslim in Paris – or rather in a Muslim slum outside Paris. He is trapped there with an overbearing mother who is the type to control those around her by pointing out interminably what she has done for them, the sacrifices made.

Not for the first time I acknowledge how lucky I am that my parents never once in their hard-working, sacrificing-for-their-children lives, made us beholden to them. It must be awful to live in cultures where those sacrifices are investments, made now to get something back later; weights placed upon children to prevent them from being free.

So there Mohamed is, living with one of those women who make powerlessness a strength with which they hold their children vice-like. Mohamed wants to escape. He wants to escape his mother, the slum, the expectations, Islam, the lot. He has a well-paid job, he can afford to move into Paris proper. All he has to do is trade in his cultural background for a new look, a new name, a bit of skin-whitening, a little hair-straightening. He wants to be a new person, a banker still by day, but by night a writer, a cosmopolitan type, a wooer of women. He wants to get laid. More than anything in the world he wants to lose his virginity.

This could just be trite and silly, but it isn’t for one moment that. It is funny and sad and excruciatingly embarrassing. Leïla Marouane is on my to-read more list. Highly recommended.

Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky

Némirovsky does it again. Another repugnant main character, who nonetheless raises our sympathy. Another example of stereotype reflecting reality. To begin with I was horrified, as I was supposed to be, by this creature who is utterly trapped by her fear of aging. She has nothing to live for other than the impossible task of preserving her physical beauty, life for her is literally no more than how other people see her. One wants to say, at least things aren’t like that any more. But they are, of course.

At the extreme end, I know various extremely wealthy women whose fears are the same as Gladys’s. They have retreated from public life as their looks fade. Some of them have husbands who have mistresses on the side, have sired children with them even. They are willing to put up with the humiliation of this, rather than lose the prestige of their positions. Gladys has more pride than this. The idea of marrying and inevitably becoming this sort of woman is one she rejects despite the costs. It is those costs that make the meat of this tale.

The book is about not only Gladys, but also the utterly repulsive society that breeds such a creature. If this had been Nick’s millieu, I shouldn’t think he would have found so much as one exception to his condemnation of the rotten bunch.

If you are looking for some sort of Austenesque genteel teasing of her world, this is not it. This is the dark side. Enter if you dare!

Pouf le chaton bleu – Pouf, the blue kitten – by Pierre Probst

Moral tales are so much easier to swallow with cute pictures and Probst’s are as cute as they come.

Pouf

He is like so many children’s writers: he sold 30M+ books around the world in his career, but is more or less forgotten. It rather mystifies me that we treat children’s books from a historical perspective with such disdain when they play such a part in the moulding of the young. Look at any adult person and partly what you see is what they read as a kid. When adult authors go out of fashion, this is neither here nor there. When children’s authors go out of fashion, we still see them in the adults they helped to inspire. And yet we can so quickly forget, that there is a complete disconnect between the two, the author and his audience.

As an illustrator and cartoonist, Probst was responsible for some of the Enid Blyton illustrations, in case he looks familiar. As a writer, most famous is his Caroline series. He refused pressure brought to bear by his publisher to make his central character a boy. Instead he insisted on a girl, a girl who dressed in pants and had adventures more likely to be found in ‘boy’s’ books of the period. Probst was willing to anthropromorphise anything – cats, mice, birds, heck, even girls. If you would like to read famous people talking about his impact on their lives, including Catherine of Monaco, the writer Anna Gavalda, the musician Bertrand Burgalat, go here.

Thanks to S-L for giving me this. Sorry it took so long to read!

The Red Notebook by Antoine Laurain

Awful. Trivial tripe terribly written. What possessed me to buy a book about a handbag?

Just be be clear about it, that is zero stars for the first 40 pages, consequently abandoned.

And one reflects (again) on the state of French ‘literature’ that this author is highly regarded in that country as a writer of the same.