“Three Bedrooms in Manhattan” by Georges Simenon (published by Penguin Classics)

Between the sheets in ’American’ streets

Which Georges Simenon will turn up this time? Will it be “The greatest of all, the most genuine novelist we have had in literature” (André Gide)? “A truly wonderful writer … marvellously readable” (Muriel Spark)? “One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century” (Guardian)? Or “That damn author who offers us insightful meditations on the human condition one moment (such as ‘The Son’) then sends us mad with ridiculous tossed-off clunkers the next minute (such as ‘Mr. Hire’s Engagement’)” (The Budapest Times)?

Yes, Simenon was that sort of writer, at least we feel safe in thinking so after reading probably almost 100 of his books over the past half a century. When the Paris Review asked him which of them he’d most like to recommend for survival, he replied, “Not one”. In contrast, when number one fan Gide was asked which of Simenon’s books a beginner should read, he replied, “All of them”.

It’s well known that the author, born in Liege, Belgium, in 1903, died in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1989, was one of the most prolific novelists ever, in any language, writing more than 400 books, usually at a ferocious rate. The exact number is rubbery, as are the estimates of his sales (500 million? 700 million? A billion?), but two of Simenon’s biographers, Claude Menguy and Pierre Deligny, got stuck in to the canon, added it up and came to a total of 431 titles. Of these, 75 were Maigret novels,

At the peak of his productivity, it was said that Simenon generally devoted only a week and a half to write a novel, at the rate of 80 pages a day. However, we’re not sure if that makes sense, as in print he seldom reached the 200-page mark, and he tended not to revise much, being exhausted by the effort and seemingly not overly worried about the finished product. Similarly, it is said he could type for 11 hours straight, or around 70 words per minute nonstop, so it’s difficult to make sense of it all.

Whatever, the fellow was sex-obsessed, and he was probably in a rush to get down to the nearest cathouse, wherever he was, being an enthusiastic habitué. (The Budapest Times has previously advised readers to google “Simenon 10,000”, and remember the bit about figures being rubbery.) The full-speed-ahead approach was a practice that proved to be good for his bank account and not always so good for his reputation.

A good story bears repetition and we like the one about when film director Alfred Hitchcock phoned and was told by Simenon’s secretary or wife or mistress that the author couldn’t be disturbed because he was writing a book. “I’ll wait,” the clued-up Hitchcock apparently replied.

What does seem for sure is that Simenon remains one of the most widely read French-language writers of the 20th century. He is the third-most-translated francophone author (into 57 languages, according to one estimate), after Jules Verne and Alexandre Dumas.

Simenon quit school in Liege at fifteen and went to work writing for a local newspaper. Soon he began writing novels as well. The first was published when he was eighteen. After ten years of producing dozens of potboilers under several pseudonyms he decided to get serious, started using his own name and began writing the Maigret detective novels, published from 1931 to 1972 and set in Simenon’s now adopted home of Paris.

He found success with the books about Detective Chief Inspector Jules Maigret of the Police Judiciaire but he said he wanted to seek the respect of the literary élite, and so began writing the “straight” stories that he characterised as romans durs, the darker “hard novels”.

Dividing his energies between the two sorts of tales, and so many of them, it’s perhaps natural that he couldn’t always maintain standards. “Three Bedrooms in Manhattan” finds him out of his familiar French milieu, a fact explained by Simenon’s rather ambivalent attitude during the German occupation of France in the Second World War.

It was alleged that he had been too close to the Vichy regime, if not an actual collaborator. The story goes that Simenon worked for the German film company Continental, whose owner kept a bust of Hitler on his desk, and lived in a castle in the Vendée where Nazis had been billeted.

To receive his royalties, he signed a declaration that he was Aryan.

Simenon later claimed protection under a popular post-war formula in France – that he worked “under” the Nazis rather than for them. The liberation government found insufficient evidence to deport or execute him. Yet guilt and fear about his war-time record made him a voluntary exile from France, and he spent the last 40 years of his life in America and Switzerland.

“Three Bedrooms in Manhattan” was first published in French as “Trois Chambres à Manhattan” in 1946 during Simenon’s 10-year spell in the US from 1945 to 1955. Despite some opinions that he captures the spirit of New York, we don’t find this so at all. This is a superficial New York, and if you substitute his mentions of Greenwich Village for Montmartre, of the Brooklyn Bridge for the Pont Neuf, of the East River for the Seine, of Fifth Avenue for the Champs Elysees and so on, basically this could equally be a book set in Paris.

True, he throws in jukeboxes, nickels, iron fire escapes, pinball machines and drugstores but he was surely thinking of Paris when he wrote about a bus with an open platform: “He walked to Washington Square and took the Fifth Avenue bus. He stood on the platform.” Maigret used to look for a bus with a platform in Paris so that he could smoke his pipe in the open air without troubling the other passengers, but we don’t find any evidence that they had them in New York. Or the “trams” that Simenon mentions, when it seems that most of New York’s streetcars had already been replaced by buses.

The protagonist, Francois Combe 48, is a French actor who left Paris abruptly after his wife, a successful actress, deserted him for another actor half his age. He’s been in New York about six months and lives alone in a dirty, untidy apartment. One night he goes to a bar and there at three in the morning he meets a 33-year-old woman named Kay.

Francois notices her immediately on the next bar stool, and “what he really liked about her were the signs of wear and tear”. She’s just as lonely and desperate as him. After more than a few drinks they wander the streets together then check into a cheap hotel. Bedroom number one. This is the beginning of a weird Simenon-style up-and-down relationship between two wounded souls.

Both need somebody– anybody. They – rather implausibly – very quickly become tightly bound to each other. At the same time they are tortured by the insecurity of it all. Sometimes Combe loathes Kay but then knows he couldn’t do without her. It’s all a bit odd: two people who didn’t know each other, then within a day or so are anxiously clinging to each other.

It can get a bit ridiculous, which is nothing new with Simenon – “And he hit her in the face as hard as he could with his fist, once, twice, three times . . . At last, completely spent, he collapsed on her, sobbing and begging for forgiveness.” She accepts. A little later: “He missed Kay so much that a wave of dizziness swept over him.”

The author ploughs ahead. “In Hungary there are a lot of women who smoke pipes,” is one throwaway line. Before our time, perhaps. And a typical observation from the priapic author:  a “cleaning lady polished a brass doorknob so energetically it made her ample breasts quiver.”

Still, one thing you can say about the enticing Monsieur Simenon – and this book is a middling to solid Simenon – you have to keep turning the pages. How will it all end up for Combe and Kay?

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