Maybe because I’m one-quarter Belgian, or so my parents claim, I tend to go out of my way to discover famous Belgians. I’m half-kidding about that but I do admit there was a brief, embarrassing period when I claimed to have Belgian Gypsy blood just like that famous jazz guitar player Django Reinhardt who was in fact a real Belgian Gypsy. But as far as famous Belgian writers go, I haven’t read many, at least not until earlier this year when I discovered the amazing novelist Georges Simenon.
I had heard Simenon’s name attributed to the mystery genre, and as the inventor of a certain Inspector Maigret who was the hero of hundreds of Simenon’s popular mystery novels. I had also heard that Simenon was the Wilt Chamberlain of writers in regards to his erotic conquests which, incidentally were mostly with prostitutes and numbered in the tens of thousands. Not surprisingly his writing output was also legendary and he claimed to be able to knock off a novel in two weeks or less.
But I had no idea until this year that Simenon was also writing novels in a genre all his own: roman durs, or hard novels, incredibly bleak and slim “psychological noirs” that often feature depressed, middle-aged people at the end of their ropes. New York Review Of Books has been releasing English translations of Simenon’s roman durs over the last few years. Based on praise ranging from Albert Camus, Iris Murdoch, and John Banville, I recently picked up one of the seven that NRB has so far released in English, The Strangers In the House.
And then, quite irrationally I picked up four more that I got too distracted to read but that are sitting there on my desk in a tantalizing black stack with their alluring, cinematic titles: Dirty Snow, Three Bedrooms In Manhattan, Monsieur Monde Vanishes, and The Man Who Watched Trains Go By.
I can say a few things about The Strangers In The House though, starting with the fact that I loved it.
The novel has an instantly fascinating premise: for eighteen years, since his wife left him, Hector, a spiteful, alcoholic lawyer has lived inside his padded study within his dilapidated mansion, while the outside world goes on without him. His only concerns are drinking wine, smoking and getting by with the least possible interactions with his distant daughter and his venomous maid. But one stormy night, his seclusion is violated by a crime committed in one of the mansion’s many rotting and derelict rooms. In the process of investigating, he learns that his twenty-year old daughter who shares the house with him has been living a secret life, the details of which are gradually and ingeniously revealed as the misanthropic lawyer goes back into the world to help her.
Starting with that premise, Simenon deftly and almost effortlessly spins a tale that is as much about criminal justice as it is about the unjust lacerations that every heart endures in life. This engrossing novel manages to be a suspenseful mystery, an acute study in misanthropy, a courtroom thriller and a darkly comic portrayal of the haves and have-nots in a grey and dreary French city. So much versatility in less than two hundred pages is thrilling to witness and tempting, as a writer to want to imitate. And it’s all quite seamless: the mystery remains a mystery but even more so, because of the psychological depths that are plumbed on every page.
His prose is lean and razor-sharp and he alternates between revealing the frantic, often violent thoughts of his full-blooded characters and giving flesh to a melancholy French landscape of butcher shops, pubs, roadside inns and brothels. His setting you can just walk right into. You can smell the drenched roads and feel the gust of beer-scented warmth when you enter the taverns. The sour bite of Burgundy, the coals in the furnace, the feel of wet wool. You learn things too, like for example, a man who has just committed a murder is more likely to unburden himself to a prostitute than to a priest. Which, under most circumstances, makes a lot of sense.
The mystery of the crime is brilliantly rendered and keeps you guessing until the rather surprising conclusion. But the overarching mystery of people’s shameful, secret lives is even more vividly brought to life. This book isn’t entirely void of hope, and in the end there are some rather wayward redemptions but most of the characters still return to their formative chemicals, illusions and bad-natured fixations.
Simenon knows that people don’t really change even after the blunt force trauma of a revelation. That’s just how it goes, he says, and if anything, it makes for a good story.