Sunday, February 28, 2010

17. The Engagement by Simenon

Buzby has been pushing the Romans Durs of Simenon on me for a long time (he actually lent me this book as well as Tropic Moon) and I am finally starting to see the light. The Engagement started out a bit slow for me and I was worried that it was going to have a lack of narrative and be more about a mood or a feeling than a real story. Instead, it subtly enveloped me into its world until by the end it absorbed me completely. Simenon paints a rich, dark and exposing portrait of lower middle-class outer Paris in the 30s so thoroughly that you feel that it is still existing in your mind's eye even after you close the book. At the same time, he delivers the life story of a single individual, a pathetic man, who is caught up in things beyond his ability to handle them.

A woman is brutally murdered and her body found in a vacant lot. The mean, frightened concierge tells the police that she suspects it is one of the tenants in her building, monsieur Hire, a fat loner who has always creeped her out. Once this is established, the reader enters into his world and though there is some doubt, you are basically quite sure he is totally innocent. The majority of the story is him going about his humble, slightly seedy existence (he sells paint by numbers kits through mail order based on "work from home" ads) trying to deal with the fact that everyone in his neighbourhood thinks he's a killer. The cops follow him and keep a man posted outside of his door. He's not a very likable person, but he is innocent and sympathetic, almost a naif and there is one moment which reveals his tough past as the son of a poor, Jewish tailor and the only fat kid, which is heart breaking.

And that's what is so amazing about this book. Almost the entire thing is physical, external observation. Simenon writes about what everyone does. Only in one moment does he go into m. Hire's thoughts and that is just a brief reflection of his past (in reflexive reaction to the way a police interrogator portrays his father as a petty criminal money-lender). Otherwise, the reader is more like a fly on the wall, watching everything go down. And somehow, through that, he creates a deeply human connection to the protagonist.

Behind this is this little street corner in some outer quartier in Paris. You go back and forth with M. Hire and some of the other characters, taking the tram, buying groceries and wood for the stove, dealing with the excessive rain, the cold. I don't have a big fascination and in fact feel a bit cold towards Paris, but this book really gave me a sense of the romantic version of that city that appealed to so many pseudo-intellectual North Americans.

And Simenon was 30 when he wrote this. He must have seen some shit or just had the natural soul of an old man, because The Engagement is unsparing, unsentimental. Makes Raymond Chandler look like Jude Deveraux. Maybe the best book I've read so far this year.

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