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Authors: Georges Simenon

Monsieur Monde Vanishes

BOOK: Monsieur Monde Vanishes
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GEORGES SIMENON (1903–1989) was born in Liège, Belgium. His father was an insurance salesman, easygoing and unambitious; his mother, an unhappy, angry woman whose coldness and disapproval haunted her son. Simenon went to work as a reporter at the age of fifteen and in 1923 moved to Paris, where under various pseudonyms he became a highly successful and prolific author of pulp fiction while leading a dazzling social life in the company of his first wife and such lovers as the American dancer Josephine Baker. (He is said to have broken up with Baker because their affair was a distraction: he had produced a mere twelve novels in the year.) In the early 1930s, Simenon emerged as a writer under his own name, gaining renown for his detective stories featuring Inspector Maigret. He also began to write his psychological novels, or
romans durs
—books in which he displays his remarkable talent for capturing the look and mood of a place (whether West Africa, the Soviet Union, New York City, or provincial France) together with an acutely sympathetic awareness of the emotional and spiritual pain underlying the routines of daily life. Simenon remained in France throughout the Second World War, at the end of which he was accused of collaboration with the Germans; though quickly cleared of such charges, he moved to America, where he married his second wife and lived for close to a decade, returning to Europe in 1955. Having written nearly two hundred books under his own name and become the best-selling author in the world, whose stories had served as the inspiration for countless movies and TV shows, Simenon retired as a novelist in 1973, devoting himself instead to dictating memoirs that filled thousands of pages: “I consider myself less and less a writer … All this is nothing but chatter … Since dictating has become a need, so to speak, I will dictate every morning whatever comes into mind … I would like to be able to be silent.” In 2003 New York Review Books published revised translations of two of Simenon's most acclaimed
romans durs, Dirty Snow
and
Three Bedrooms in Manhattan
.

LARRY McMURTRY is the author of twenty-four novels, including
The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Lonesome Dove
, winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and, most recently,
Folly and Glory
. His nonfiction works include a biography of Crazy Horse,
Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Paradise
, and
Sacagawea's Nickname: Essays on the American West
(published by New York Review Books). He lives in Archer City, Texas.

MONSIEUR MONDE VANISHES

GEORGES SIMENON

Translated from the French by

JEAN STEWART

Introduction by

LARRY McMURTRY

NEW YORK REVIEW BOOKS

New York

Contents

Cover

Biographical Notes

Title Page

Introduction

Monsieur Monde Vanishes

Dedication

1
,
2
,
3
,
4
,
5
,
6
,
7
,
8
, 
9

Copyright and More Information

INTRODUCTION

The urge to vanish is common, not merely in life but also in the numerous books—somewhere between three hundred and four hundred—of the super-prolific Belgian-born Georges Simenon, a writer so popular that in Europe his books, whatever their subject or genre, are merely called “simenons.” Many of these “simenons”—seventy-six by his biographer Patrick Marnham's count—involve a detective named Maigret, Simenon's contribution to the international gallery of famous detectives: Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, Nero Wolfe, and the like.

I have read maybe twenty of Simenon's four hundred books (written under at least eighteen pseudonyms) and have seen only a sampling of the more than fifty movies and nearly three hundred television adaptations his work has yielded; in my view all Simenon films should star the wonderfully low-rent French actor (an American expatriate, born in Los Angeles) Eddie Constantine. Simenon is a master of the quick stroke, the spare narrative, and from what I have read and seen of his work I am convinced that wanting to vanish, to cut all ties present and past, is one of his major preoccupations.

We might pause to ask ourselves
why
people want to vanish—many do make the attempt. Teenagers run off because they find home life overwhelming. White-collar criminals run off in hopes of reaching some safe haven with their ill-gotten gain. Stressed-out wives run off; likewise stressed-out husbands, and no wonder. Midlife, particularly, is likely to consist of an accumulation of uninspiring duties, unwanted links, tiring responsibilities. People run off because they need a break.

Where vanishing is concerned absolute success may require suicide. The American poet Weldon Kees vanished, leaving his car by the Golden Gate Bridge. Unlike Monsieur Monde, of Simenon's elegant, appealing novel, Weldon Kees did not come back. On the other hand Agatha Christie, Simenon's cross-channel co-prolific colleague, vanished for a couple of months, but was found taking tea in Yorkshire and allowed herself to be persuaded to return.

Albert Camus's famous novel
The Stranger
was published in 1942;
Monsieur Monde Vanishes
, with which
The Stranger
shares certain characteristics, came out three years later, in 1945. The Occupation ended, then World War II ended, but you won't learn these facts from Simenon. He is as meticulous as Jane Austen when it comes to excluding world events. No Hitlers, no Napoleons for these two.

Monsieur Norbert Monde, of Simenon's story, is a respectable and successful Paris businessman. Does he leave town because of a fight with his not-exactly-affectionate second wife?
Non
. Does he leave because he has suffered business reverses, or, perhaps, because he has embezzled money?
Non, non
. Monsieur Monde just leaves, impelled by some inner impulse that the reader is not privy to.

Monsieur Monde seems glad to be vanishing; not ecstatic, exactly—ecstatic is not a Simenon dimension—just glad. But he has only proceeded from Paris to Marseilles before life sets a slight hook in him: a young woman in a hotel room next to his has had a fight with her boyfriend; despairing, she has swallowed a lot of pills. Her name is Julie and she is one of many slightly smudged young women, a step or two off the streets, whom Simenon's heroes invariably hook up with: Julie is not a child, though barely an adult; she is neither ugly nor beautiful; she is not exactly a prostitute but is not safely respectable either. Simenon supposedly claimed to have slept with ten thousand women—the basketball player Wilt Chamberlain claimed the same total—most of them prostitutes. The seedy back streets of great cities—Paris, New York—was the milieu he returned to time after time, and many of his escapees, men who excel at cutting ties, nonetheless often make room in their lives for one of these appealing if vulgar young women, most of them not unlike Julie.

Monsieur Monde saves Julie and the two soon move on to Nice, where Julie hopes to get work in one of the gambling palaces. She and Monsieur Monde eventually make love, though it's not wild passion that binds them, but something closer to resignation. There's not a lot of wild passion in Simenon, at least not in the ones I've read.

With the soft air of the Riviera to sustain them both, Julie and Monsieur Monde get jobs; the latter becomes, briefly, a gambling-hall employee and assumes an alias, Désiré Clouet. By chance he runs into his first wife, Thérèse, now a morphine addict; Monsieur Monde saves Thérèse too, though not in the way she would have preferred to be saved. In the Simenon books I know, very little happens between men and women in the way that the women would have preferred it to happen; nor, for that matter, are the men themselves overly pleased.

Monsieur Monde Vanishes
reminds one of
The Stranger
because of a similar flatness of tone and, for that matter, mood. In both novels one is constantly made aware of the distance between human beings. While often helpful, Monsieur Monde nonetheless remains mainly a stranger: to his two wives, his son and daughter, the girl Julie, his co-workers. If there is a passage that describes him most tellingly it might be this one:

Sometimes, especially in winter, he used to leave his office on Rue Montorgueil and spend a quarter of an hour wandering, through drizzling rain, in the mean streets around Les Halles, where certain lights seem redolent of mysterious debauchery.

Every time he had taken the train, alone or with his wife, every single time, he had felt a pang of envy, as he sat in his first-class carriage, of the people carrying shabby bundles and going off somewhere or other, careless of what awaited them elsewhere …

Such passages—and there are hundreds of them in Simenon's work—suggest that if he had to choose between the mud and the stars he would unhesitatingly choose the mud. Not, perhaps, the deepest muck, where Zola went, but the slippery mudflats bordering the estuaries of human folly. His preference was for the seedy, the slightly tawdry, the not-best-dressed, the none-too-clean.

It was in such melancholy places that he worked his magic.

—L
ARRY
M
C
M
URTRY

MONSIEUR MONDE VANISHES

T
O
P
ROFESSORS
L
IAN
and G
IROIRE

and to D
OCTOR
E
RIAU

in memory of February 1944

1

It was five o'clock in the afternoon, or a trifle after— the minute hand was leaning slightly toward the right—on January 16, when Madame Monde swept into the waiting room at the police station, bringing with her a gust of freezing air.

She must have jumped out of a taxi, or perhaps a private car, darted like a shadow across the sidewalk of Rue La Rochefoucauld, and stumbled, no doubt, on the ill-lit staircase; and she had pushed open the door so authoritatively that everyone had stared with surprise as the grimy gray panel, fitted with an automatic closing device, swung slowly back behind her, its slowness seeming absurd by contrast—so much so, indeed, that one working-class woman, shawled and hatless, who had been standing waiting for over an hour, instinctively pushed forward one of the children clinging to her skirts with a muttered “Go and shut the door.”

Until Madame Monde's entry, the atmosphere had been snug enough. On one side of the railing, clerks in police uniform or plain clothes were writing or warming their hands at the stove; on the other side, some people were sitting on a bench alongside the wall, and others were standing. When anyone went out, carrying a brand-new sheet of paper, the rest moved up one place, the first clerk lifted his head. Everyone was resigned to the bad smell, the feeble light shed by two green-shaded lamps, the monotony of waiting and of filling in forms in purple ink; and no doubt if some unforeseeable catastrophe had cut off the police station, for any length of time, from the outside world, those who happened to be assembled there would have ended by living together like a tribe.

Without jostling anyone, the woman had made her way to the front row; she was dressed in black, and under the heavy powder her face looked very white and her nose had a mauvish tinge. Without seeing anyone, she groped in her handbag with black-gloved fingers like sticks of ebony, as precise in their movement as the beak of a bird of prey; and everyone was waiting, everyone was watching her as she thrust her visiting card across the railing.

“Will you please tell the Superintendent I wish to see him.”

There was plenty of time to examine her in detail, and yet nobody formed more than a general impression.

“A kind of widow,” the clerk told the Superintendent, who was sitting in his office amid a cloud of cigar smoke, having a friendly chat with the secretary general of the Théâtre de Paris.

“In a moment.”

The clerk went back, and before resuming his seat and picking up the identity cards that were being held out to him he repeated the message:

BOOK: Monsieur Monde Vanishes
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