Quite a Show

Tim Parks

In 1974, aged 71, having announced the end of a writing career that had produced nearly two hundred novels, and having retreated from a mansion with 11 servants to a small house in Lausanne where he lived with his second wife’s ex-maid, Georges Simenon dictated his Letter to My Mother, Henriette Simenon née Brüll, who had died four years earlier. He wants, he says, to understand her at last. To accomplish this he returns to the week he spent with her in hospital before her death. Mother and son watch each other intently day by day, barely speaking, as he reconstructs her life from the beginning: the poverty of her childhood; the opportunist marriage to the middle-class Désiré Simenon; her bitterness over her husband’s failure to earn a decent living; her introduction of lodgers into the family against his wishes, including, during the 1914-18 occupation of Liège, German soldiers; her hysterical fury whenever she didn’t get her way; her suspicion of Georges, her eldest son, and her proud refusal to accept any money from him; her preference for her second son, Christian; and finally her second marriage to a railway worker with a house and a safe pension. The whole life is considered as a dogged struggle to achieve the single goal of economic security that she set herself ‘at five years old’. ‘You outwitted them all,’ Simenon concludes.

The two marriages were battles (‘you were both afraid the other would poison you,’ he says of Henriette and her second husband), and so is the relationship between mother and son; the long week in the hospital room was the final showdown. ‘Why have you come, Georges?’ the mother asks, getting in the first blow. She is dominant. ‘You know everything now,’ her son admits. ‘That’s why you’re superior.’ But over the week Georges will catch up, piecing together all he knows about her and deducing what he doesn’t. And his is to be a different kind of victory. Simenon had long gone beyond his mother financially (the Letter has frequent allusions to his wealth). Now, understanding her, finally recognising that she did no more than ‘follow her destiny’, he arrives at a point where he can say: ‘Don’t imagine, Mother, that I bear you any grudge, or that I judge you. I don’t judge anyone. If men have always fought each other since time began, it is out of their failure to understand their neighbours.’ Whether this overcoming of conflict is real, or just a more complete expression of victory over an antagonist who can no longer answer back, is something readers must decide for themselves.

Letter to My Mother suggests three kinds of winner, three kinds of loser: the mother who begins life with nothing, achieves the security she longed for, but was always tormented and hysterical, ‘always suffered life, never lived it’; the middle-class father who seemed such a failure to his wife but was always happy within himself (‘my father lacked nothing, my mother lacked everything,’ Simenon wrote elsewhere); and Georges himself, the most widely read and financially successful writer of his time and a man who had lived life to the full – ‘I have had sex with ten thousand women,’ he declared in an interview – but who had not won the Nobel as he had predicted and hoped. His own two marriages had both collapsed. His beloved daughter Marie-Jo was in and out of mental hospitals; in 1978 she committed suicide. Afterwards, Simenon dictated a memoir in which he blamed the girl’s mother, his second wife, Denyse. She fought back in the courts, and the battle went on.

The vision of life as conflict and the consequent dream of overcoming conflict through understanding is also at the heart of one of Simenon’s finest romans durs (meaning a literary rather than a genre novel), Dirty Snow. The book was written in the US in 1948: Simenon had left France after being accused of collaborating with the German occupation. He had allowed a Nazi-run film company to adapt his novels, and one had been turned into anti-Semitic propaganda. His younger brother, Christian, had been condemned to death for collaboration in Belgium. Simenon helped him to escape to Vietnam with the French Foreign Legion, where he was killed in 1947. There was plenty of conflict around.

As with Letter to My Mother, in Dirty Snow the protagonist constantly puts himself in the presence of his antagonist without either of them making their quarrel explicit. In an unnamed town in an occupied country, 19-year-old Frank Friedmaier seeks initiation into adult life through murder. Illegitimate, never having known his father’s name, son of a prostitute who turned her flat into a brothel, Frank grows up spying on prostitutes and their clients through a hole in the wall. But although money, power and self-gratification seem the only values that matter in the world around him, he’s nevertheless fascinated by the wholesome ménage in the flat underneath his own, where a widower, Holst, lives with his 16-year-old daughter, Sissy. When Frank lies in wait to commit his first, entirely gratuitous murder he deliberately allows Holst to see him: indeed being seen by the respectable older man becomes the only point of the murder. And when Sissy falls in love with him he decides to court her only in order to attract Holst’s attention. Then, having lured her to his flat to make love, he slips out from the dark bedroom to allow his crony, the loathsome Kromer, to replace him and have the girl.

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