Georges Simenon, La Rue aux Trois poussins (1963)

In the big volume of Simenon that I took with me in our family trip, I discovered that there was a short story collection. I had fond memories of another Simenon’s short story collection (I read “Maigret et les petits cochons sans queue” five years ago already!) and it made me pick that one, which don’t feature Maigret at all. “La rue aux trois poussins” is a translator’s nightmare. It should be easy enough: “the street with the three chicks”, but you would picture three young women, whereas we are speaking here of three preschoolers. Chicks in French is an endearing term for small kids or toddlers (rather gender-neutral or boys, I have given the book back to the library, but I sort of remember that one of the three is a girl). So what would this story title be? “The street where the three buddies play?” Can you propose anything better?

In this story, three young kids play outside while their mothers are busy with chores, and their older siblings are at school. One of them listens to what a mean older boy says about his father, and repeats it at home to his mother. A long-reaching, life-altering tragedy follows this bit of gossip and that bit of misunderstanding.

Overall, I didn’t quite enjoy this collection. The stories show Simenon in a dark mood, his characters are often pitiful and mean, and it shows the women under an overwhelmingly harsh light. They’re bitter nags, superficial airheads, scheming adulterers, gossips and liers. Only Mélie the fishmonger has a proverbial heart of gold, and it was my favorite story of the whole book. One could still argue that Mélie might be very business-savvy, but if she continues to bail her ne’er-do-well husband out, she might end up badly too.

Simenon still writes with great skills, as he can draw a street scene or a café scene in a few sentences and still render it vividly. His characters are people of little money and few prospects. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but most of these stories were first published during the war between 1939 and 1941, and it might have contributed to the gloomy, hopeless and closed atmosphere of those stories. They were published in the magazine Gringoire, which was a very nationalistic, violently anti-Communist and conservative newspaper (it also published Irene Nemirovski, so it’s not all black-or-white).

It led me into the rabbit hole of Simenon’s attitude during the war. My understanding is that he was no big hero or traitor either. He very prudently retired to the countryside where he led a wealthy and relatively worry-free life, which is already a lot better than most people in the country. His passivity and lack of support for the Resistance made him suspicious at the end of the war. Even as he was blamed for collaboration, it was a late and light condemnation that occured in 1948 and it didn’t stop him from staying at the top of the bestsellers lists. It still made me wince to learn that he was so loaded while so many of his books and stories center on poor people.

Alain Berenboom, Perils en ce Royaume (2008)

Now that I’ve complained that great books were hard to write about, what do you think about a post on a book I didn’t care much? Really, I’m typing this post so much faster than my previous one, and one could perhaps infer a mathematical formula where the time I need to finish a blog post and my typing speed would be inversely proportional to the number of stars I give to a book in Goodreads. (I haven’t studied maths, to be honest)

This mystery should check all the right boxes for me. It’s a historical mystery, set in Belgium in the immediate post-WW2. I’m very fond with Belgium because my hometown is quite close to the Belgian borders and we went weekly there while I was growing up. The narrator is Michel van Loo, a young man from Brussels who quit his civil servant job and launched into a new venture as a private detective. One of his first cases is about a young man who has disappeared from his wealthy Brussels home. Michel is a bit of a loser and the book is filled with jokes, witty banter and slapstick situation. Michel has a clever girlfriend, Anne, who works as a hair dresser at a salon managed by Federico, an ex-Communist gay Italian, or Italian gay ex-Communist, or whatever. Other quirky friends join the band and help Michel in his investigation.

Clearly, I enjoyed the banter and the jokes, although some were a bit repetitive. I also enjoyed all the historical and political insight about the situation of Belgium in 1947. The situation in Belgium was complicated during the war and the start of peace was messy as well. The Belgian royals remained in the country after the Nazis had taken power, contrary to other countries like Netherlands. The King said that they did so to suffer alongside their country people but it was also implied that the Royals had some sympathy for the Nazis. A part of the population was convinced that the Nazis were there to stay, and made all sorts of accommodation with the occupying forces, making some good money on the black market and even joining forces with the German nazi troops on the Soviet campaign (as is explained in a whole other genre in another novel I read this year: Paradise is what we all want by Els Beerten). As a result, some Belgians wanted to get rid of their royals at the end of the war. Communists were also fighting for the power and the population was deeply divided. That part of the book was definitely well done, and it’s an added bonus that this context was explained on a light tone (Els Beerten’s book was definitely a tragedy and very heavy).

But a mystery novel must have a mystery… and I was really disappointed by the plot and the characters. Most of them felt like cardboard people, and the story was implausible and unnecessarily convoluted. Some events seemed to me like pretexts to introduce some historical facts and after a string of more and more implausible twists, I couldn’t really suspend my disbelief to the degree the author expected from me. I’m interested to read more books by Belgian authors, but I’m afraid I won’t follow this series.

Georges Simenon, Maigret Loses his Temper (1963)

Original title: La Colère de Maigret

As the novel starts, Maigret is huffing and puffing against bureaucracy and writing useless reports. He’s way more interested when someone informs him that the boss of several nightclubs has gone missing for several days. The man is by all means respectable, his competitors (who may or may not be as law-abiding as he is) call him “the grocer” behind his back (with the meaning of “bean counter”). Something is not right.

Indeed, three days after he’s disappeared, his body is found, strangled, near the Cimetière du Père Lachaise. Maigret and everybody else scratch their heads: it is not unexpected for nightclubs regulars to get killed, but gangsters don’t strangle, nor do they keep a dead body for days before disposing of it. Who had the man an appointment with, on the evening he walked away from his nightclub?

Now, I really don’t want to spoil anything (more) but the twist of the last 10 pages is a big one, and explains the title. Otherwise it would almost be a misnomer, as Maigret is slow, a bit impatient maybe, and his investigation is decisively low-key. But those last few pages almost take the book into a different genre, and I found that Simenon hurried things a bit too much. It’s common for Simenon not to tie nice bows on everything but in this case I felt that he could have made Maigret’s decisions or thoughts a bit clearer (especially in contrast with the investigation where he basically explains his method step by step). Anyway the conclusion will leave me thinking about it for some time…

Beyond the plot and the detective work itself, I enjoyed getting glimpses on Maigret’s personal life and what it tells of this era. Maigret goes home for lunch, and Madame Maigret is really expected to have every meal ready, except when her husband decides on a whim to not show up for dinner. Investigations continue on Saturdays, but everyone takes a break for Sunday and Maigret decides to go on a weekend break, for which Madame Maigret has to pack at one hour’s notice. Madame Maigret reads magazines and looks at her husband ironically as he goes fishing and doesn’t catch much. Madame Maigret is really a saint who hasn’t heard of women’s rights yet (this is 1963 for sure, and Simenon is annoyingly patronizing to women – if not worse, in other books). I wonder if Pierre Bayard would write an alternate version where Madame Maigret wasn’t so subservient and shallow.

Right now, I’m trying to imagine if it would be feasible in 2021 to decide on a Saturday at 5pm to hop on a train before dinner, book a hotel about 2 hours away and plan a last minute weekend getaway… (no app and just a landline). That certainly would be very expensive.

(ps. Sorry for the clumsy layout, I’m currently publishing from my phone)

Els Beerten, Allemaal willen we de hemel (2008)

French Title: Nous voulons tous le paradis (2015) – Paradise is what we all want

Now it’s clear that I miss a system that tells me easily where I’ve first heard about a book, but it’s safe to say that this book has been in my TBR list for years, since 2017 actually (that’s when I added it on Goodreads): a book about war in Belgium is not that common. This is a young adult novel, but I’d say it has enough complex situations and all sorts of nuances to suit most adult readers. In France it is published in two volumes but the author originally published it as one. And by the way, after having researched my blog and my notebooks for hours, I’m officially reverting to using the title of the book as the post title, because it’s just way easier. It’s probably for the best if I spare the blog world my silly puns…

The story is told in short chapters that switch narrators and timeline. The shtick is that it never says who is speaking, you have to deduce it. There are 4 characters speaking in turn: Jef – a teenager in 1942, whose family believes that if they keep their head down and steer clear from the German (Nazi) occupying forces, they will be ok, and so they don’t want to have anything to do with resistance against the Nazis either. Ward, Jef’s best friend, whose father committed suicide before the war, and whose mother manages the village’s grocery shop. Renée, Jef’s sister, is secretly in love with Ward. And last, Rémi, Jef’s little brother, who is fed up with being always “the little one”. Ward plays the saxophone like nobody else, and all are united by music and friendships, until something happens that makes even the name of Ward taboo in the family and the whole village. As we dive deeper into the story of this broken friendship, we understand that Ward has been lured into the Nazi ideology and has volunteered to join the ranks of the Flemish troops on the Eastern front, to fight against the Soviet Union alongside the German Nazis.

At the end of the war, scores are settled. Jef is the village’s hero for having helped the resistance on one special occasion, and Ward has disappeared. When he returns in 1947, after having passed as a German for years, he will be judged and sentenced for treason and collaboration with the Nazis. But nothing is as clear as it seems. Why did Ward go away? Why didn’t his friends stop him? What happened between them? Ward was heavily influenced by the local schoolmaster and the Catholic priest to enlist in the Nazis troops; they appealed to his faith and his willingness to defend his people. But he was not the only one under influence, and lies and naivety have tragic consequences all around.

Flanders is the part of Belgium that doesn’t speak French (Wallon), they speak Flemish, which is not Dutch either (don’t go and vex people all around!). Nazis considered Dutch and Flemish as almost Aryans, so that they held both countries under their direct leadership and tried to foster nationalism to enlist people into the Nazi ranks (as second class citizens nonetheless). Which worked to a certain extent, especially as Flemish had been despised by French-speaking Wallons for decades. And as a full disclosure, my husband’s family is Flemish from the French border.

The novel is a tragedy of many layers and nuances. It is really heart-wrenching and I couldn’t wait to turn the pages to understand each of the characters’ choices and destiny. It’s too bad it’s not available in English, because I feel that it would be such a good book club choice.

The One with the Twin Brothers in the Fishing Village

Georges Simenon, Les Rescapés du Télémaque (1938)

During the first lock-down, libraries and bookshops were completely shut-down, and even Amazon was limiting the shippings, so I was really stressed-out to have nothing left to read. Well, yes! I’m fully aware that it was completely irrational, given our very full bookshelves, but as other people were hoarding TP and pasta, I was indeed hoarding books.

And while I was hoarding, some people were Kondo-weeding their own bookshelves, resulting in many books ending up in the trash (in the worse option) or in little free libraries (in the best option). I found this book in a cardboard box that was left outside in our compound. The box remained for a few (dry) days, then after the next rain showers, I guess someone threw the rest out into the bins.

This novel does not feature Maigret, and yet there is a murder, and an investigation. But it’s the weirdest investigation, as the one who’s leading it is the most unqualified sleuth ever. A rich old man has been murdered in his mansion in Fécamp, a small fishing village in Normandy. The main suspect is Pierre, the captain of a fishing boat, who is currently away at sea. As soon as his boat gets into the harbor, he is arrested, to the whole village’s outcry, as the young man is well-loved by everyone. Well-loved indeed, but would he be able to kill a man, who has probably killed his own father decades ago? People are not so sure anymore.

Now there’s this part where readers with a vivid visual imagination might want to SKIP THE NEXT FEW LINES (sorry for yelling!). The murder mystery hides another mystery that happened 20 years before: the shipwreck of the Telemaque, whose survivors finally resorted to… eating one of their dead mates, namely Pierre’s father. This story remains in the back of the whole book and shows how this tragedy has long-lasting impacts on the next generation.

Charles is Pierre’s twin brother, but they are polar opposite. Pierre is charming, but he’s not good at school. Charles is shy and awkward, and he has taken Pierre’s naval written exams for him. Pierre is strong and healthy, Charles is weak and has TB. Pierre works at sea, while Charles is an employee of the railroads. Charles is always in his brother’s shadow, but for once he has to step forward and lead his own investigation to clear his brother’s name.

Charles has no idea where to start. He is literally the slowest investigator ever, because he has never really reflected on his situation. He has always taken life as it is, people and events at face value, including his own brother, and never analyzed what people thought of him, of his family, or how people may lie to him. It’s a slow awakening, and I really enjoyed this portrait of a complex brotherly relationship.

It’s not, by far, the most well-know or best-written Simenon ever, and it’s really on the slow side, but the portrait of the characters and of the small fishing village was quite fascinating. Once again Simenon proves to be such a good writer of heavy atmosphere and characters. It also got me interested in this coastal region of Normandy and… drumrolls please… we will go there in February if all is well! I will tell you if I can see where the events take place and if the village still retains this particular atmosphere!

The One with the Haunted Surgeon

Judith Vanistendael, Les Deux Vies de Penelope (Flemish 2019, French 2019)

This graphic novel was a last minute impulse choice from the library as I headed for the checkout. I’m so glad I took it! The drawings (watercolor) are beautiful (without being cute) and expressive (without being garish) and the story is really moving. There are so many themes woven into this book, and every time I consider it I find another angle. For example, it’s only after finishing the book that I got the reference to Odysseus, in the choice of the same name as the queen waiting for years for her husband to return home.

Penelope is the narrator, and the story is actually built on a flashback, but that’s not something you get at first (actually, I reread the whole thing twice and I loved it even more). Penelope is a Belgian middle-aged surgeon, married to a poet and with one teenage daughter. Her work takes her for long stints in humanitarian missions, and as the book starts she’s finishing a mission in Syria (Alep) before heading home. The two lives of Penelope are seemingly irreconcilable: one life in war, urgent, useful and selfless, one life in peace, banal and where the question of self is not so easy to answer.

The first few pages are actually stunning as we see in parallel both of her worlds: the bottom half of the page shows Penelope in a bombed-out OR in Syria, the top of the page shows a quiet evening in Belgium, when Penelope’s daughter discovers she has had her first period, and she calls her grandmother for help.

Penelope’s return home is hardly an event anymore. Nobody waits for her at the airport. “They’re used to it”, she says. Penelope tries to reconnect with her husband, her daughter and her family, but it’s tough. Part of her mind is stuck in Syria, and Vanistendael chooses to express this by putting a literal ghost in Penelope’s bag: the red figure of a young girl who died in the OR, someone who could well be the same age as Penelope’s own daughter.

In a time where we are supposed to find new ways to combine work and parenting (I’m not writing the dreaded B- word of work/life B… anymore, 2020 has killed it), this book is quite interesting. Penelope finds herself very far from her daughter’s worries who seem too shallow compared to life-and-death choices Syrian people face, but Penelope herself admits that young Syrian refugees who have nothing still care about trendy hairstyles. Penelope’s psychologist at debrief session asks her if her husband takes good care of their daughter, and Penelope argues that if she had been a male surgeon, the question would have been different. People around Penelope are often judging her for being not a good mother, and it’s true that she’s not easy to like.

All along the book I hoped that Penelope would find her footing at home and be able to know for sure where she belongs. At the end of the book, we see how she addresses the question. The tone is a bit melancholy and as subtle as these frame-less watercolors. There’s not one right way for Penelope, not one right way to finish the book either.

The One with the Belgian Surrealist Resistante

Madeleine Bourdouxhe, A Nail, A Rose And Other Stories (1985; English 2012-2019)

I’m very grateful for this ARC that made me discover a little-known Belgian female writer. I’m originally from the north of France next to the Belgian border, so I have a special interest for authors from that region, all the more as they are underrepresented and often a bit neglected by the Paris-centered French publishing world.

So I learnt that Madeleine Bourdouxhe (1906-1996) published a novel before the war that was praised by Simone de Beauvoir, witnessed firsthand the invasion of her country by the Nazis and joined the Belgian Résistance, later to join the Existentialist and Surrealist intellectual circles in post-war France and Belgium. I really enjoyed the rich introduction by Faith Evans (the translator met Bourdouxhe in the late 1980s), who really highlights the writer’s unique trajectory.

The book is a compilation of 7 shorts stories plus a novella, and I must say I was highly frustrated that I couldn’t read them all because of the file formatting. There was no page break between stories and sections in my ebook on Kindle, so I literally had to guess when a story started and when it finished. The first few stories were strong and impressing (it was the middle stories that I missed). I enjoyed the frank, no-frills female voices. The collection starts with the namesake story “A Nail, A Rose”, where a woman is attacked in the dark of the war blackout by a man with a hammer, but they manage to have an exchange. The atmosphere is tense and ominous and a lot is left unsaid.

The novella “Under the Mirabeau Bridge” comes at the end of the book (I could make out where it started) and relates the events surrounding the Nazi invasion of Belgium and France in May and June 1940. In French we call this period the “Exodus”, when 8 to 10 million civilians, mixed with soldiers who had retreated or disbanded in chaos, went on the roads to the South, running on foot from the Nazis troops, leaving the towns and cities empty. It is a striking novella because the narrator has just given birth in her Belgian hometown when she joins the throngs of refugees with her newborn baby. This is apparently based on Bourdouxhe’s personal experience at the onset of the war. We see the events from her ground perspective, very direct and matter-of-fact, very far from the lyrics and the hysterics of defeat and hopelessness. Quite a punch in the stomach.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss, for review consideration.

 

The One with Maigret’s Mutism

Georges Simenon, Maigret in Holland  / A Crime in Holland (1931)

At my workplace there’s a shelf near the coffee place for a free library. People usually unload their old duds, the old business books of the 1980s, the yellowing romance books that were gathering dust in their attics. But sometimes, you find something tempting, and that’s how I came home with Maigret in Holland, despite trying to not get any new books. It’s hardly new, does it count? 🤷‍♀️

Maigret is a man of few words, but once he arrives in the tiny town of Delfzijl he has no words at all (Delfzijl is a real town at the very north-eastern tip of Holland, separated from Germany by the river Ems estuary – I looked it up for you, because in Maigret the geography is always real and precise, and I like that). Maigret speaks no English, no German and of course no Dutch, but he still has been sent to this place because a French professor is investigated for murder by the local police. So what can he investigate? He looks at people. He get intuitions, he wants to ask questions, but he gets frustrated. I’m not sure that is good process in terms of modern policing, but…

What shocked me in this particular episode is the really harsh light he puts on women. It’s an early Maigret from the 1930s, so there’s no redeeming Madame Maigret yet, but is it an excuse? Women are not nice, not say the least, may they be stupid, frustrated, scheming, lying, or worse. Ambition in women is seen under a negative light, may it be by education or by the mere wish to get out of a small town for a better future. The victim’s wife is considered more kindly (with more pity perhaps?) but she is weak, having turned a blind eye on her husband’s many affairs for years. The men aren’t definitely models of virtues either but they come out better than women. And Dutch people, well, I get the feeling that Maigret, or Simenon, or both, thought they were plain stupid (It made me wince at first and wink too, as Belgian people and Dutch people don’t really get along). It’s not the best Maigret, and probably not the one to start the series with.

Maigret is the outsider but he insists on the truth at all costs, while the close-knit strict Protestant community would rather hush it up, laying the blame on a sailor who has left and probably considering that the guilty part will get its comeuppance anyhow. Is Maigret right? The ending shows that everything is not black and white, and these very few sentences on the last page made me like this story a bit better.

Two Maigrets for the Year End

Georges Simenon, Maigret et le fantôme (Maigret and the ghost, 1964)

Georges Simenon, Maigret se défend (Maigret on the defensive, 1966)

Last December I read two Maigret stories back to back. In fact, my library has the complete Simenon novels (not only Maigret) in a dozen volumes with Bible-type thin paper, and I could not stop after only one, it was so good that I immediately started another!

Maigret books never disappoint. Simenon writing is very simple and straightforward, but he manages to convey atmosphere, characters and situations with just a few words. But because he makes the action so direct, I felt as if I was travelling back in time, towards 1960s Paris, an era so close and yet so different from today!

Maigret investigations are always set in a very precise geography. The first one, Maigret and the ghost, takes place on the Avenue Junot, on the northern side of Montmartre, where a police inspector has been shot. This sorry man, Inspector Lognon (a ridiculous name), a pitiable loser by all accounts, saddled by an acrimonious wife, is the subject of mockery across the police force, but Maigret likes him, and even Mrs. Maigret takes upon herself to go help his ailing wife while he’s in hospital, even if she is clearly insufferable. What a surprise when policemen learn that Lognon had been visiting a young single woman who lived on this avenue (and who has since disappeared). Lognon with a mistress, who would believe it? But of course Maigret digs deeper to learn who is this woman (who is rather virtuous by all accounts) and what Lognon was doing at her place. Most of the action takes place in the 18th district, and you can check on Streetview how it still looks to this day.

The second mystery is even more fascinating: when a well-connected, wealthy young girl accuses Maigret out of the blue of having raped her, Maigret is suspended, and his team forbidden to investigate. Maigret has indeed been called in the middle of the night to help this girl he didn’t know, but Maigret suspects that she is not the one to have set him up. Some malevolent criminal is at work, but why and who? Maigret is in turn angry, bitter, shocked, slightly depressed, and it was a nice change of pace from his usual placid self. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I enjoyed the part of chance that comes into the explanation of it all. You won’t find any big evil mastermind behind this, as Simenon never gets into paranoia and his criminals are all slightly mediocre, even when they are intelligent.

As I’m writing this long overdue post, all the good things about these books come back to me and I really want to read a third or even a fourth Maigret!

The One with the Sorry Self-Made Jerk

Georges Simenon, Le Bourgmestre de Furnes (1939)

Wow, does this man know how to dampen the mood! He called these novels “romans durs” (tough novels) but not because they are violent, but because they are gloomy and hopeless. After the tragic fate of the young man fresh out of prison, I tried another one, the fate of the mayor of a small town in Flemish Belgium. No less tragic this time again.

This book is the wonderful, chilling portrait of a powerful, heartless man. Joris Terlink was the son of a poor shrimp fisherman in a tiny hamlet, but through intrigues and sheer ambition he has become a wealthy manufacturer of cigars and the mayor of the small market town of Furnes, near Ostende. Everybody in town treats him with deference and calls him Boss, but it’s more out of fear than respect. He has enemies in the traditional Catholic upper-class of Furnes. He stands firm against corruption, but he refuses in the same way to help people with a small job and money, because he made his own fortune without help. He’s a bully at home and a bully at work, a solitary man whom you don’t pity. Unless you take a peak at his private life and you discover that the people around him are also horrible, and that the only human being for whom Terlink shows any feeling is his adult daughter who is mentally deficient and whom he keeps in a room at the top of the house.

Well, I told you it was no picnic, right? I bet Simenon could push any positive-thinking expert over the edge in less than 200 pages. Poor Pollyanna would have to take antidepressants…

This is not a murder investigation, but there is one dead guy though. An employee of Terlink’s, a guy who needed money to finance his girlfriend’s abortion. The girlfriend is 16, un wed, and the daughter of a powerful Catholic man, a direct competitor to Terlink’s position. Would you expect for one second that Terlink would lend this guy money? I don’t think so. So the guy kills himself and tries to kill the girlfriend, making it into a huge public scandal. Of course Terlink benefits from the scandal, the girl’s father resigns and the girl is sent to a nearby seaside resort to give birth to her child far from the judging eyes of Furnes people.

What happens next is probably akin to a burnout or a midlife crisis, in my modern eyes. Terlink should rejoice or launch himself into more business. Instead, he dithers and wavers. He ditches boring meetings, plays hookie from the town hall and instead finds himself increasingly often at the seaside resort, attracted (in a non-sexual way) to the 16-year-old girl, who, instead of being shameful and repentant, enjoys life on her own with two other carefree women. This girl clearly would be his own fantasy daughter, if only his own wasn’t ill. He discover an alternate lifestyle, free of duty, work, Catholic sin and social pressure far from his little town. This is also a sign of social evolution, between the old society based on fishing and market and field work, and the new one with tourism and restaurant, dancing, entertainment …

Would you think that Terlink starts over and become a joyful guy, enjoying his money and buying himself the pleasures of a young lover? Come on, that’s Simenon! Terlink could, but that’s not who he is deep down. The novel ends rather gloomily, this breather being short-lived and doomed to become the mayor’s downfall.

I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who feels under the weather but otherwise it’s really interesting to watch a man you would judge as a jerk at first sight become a complex, flawed and pitiful human being.