Why is Georges Simenon so popular? An Interview with Tristan Davies

Tristan Davies, author of Cake  (Johns Hopkins UP) and senior lecturer at Johns Hopkins University’s The Writing Seminars discusses with Noir Nation the recent comeback in popularity of Georges Simenon’s “Roman Durs” as published by New York Review of Books Classics. Tristan Davies story “Surgeons” appeared in Noir Nation No. 1 and his collection of noir stories and novella set in Baltimore is set for publication by its sister publication Bare Knuckles Press this coming Summer 2012. Noir Nation editor Cortright McMeel conducted the interview.

Noir Nation In your view what makes a Simenon “hard novel” hard?

Tristan Davies “Dur” is best translated as “hard” but it also has the sense of tough or inclement. There is a lot of inclemency in Simenon’s hard novels. Difficulty, bitterness, callousness — these qualities suffuse Simenon’s roman durs, without ever a hint of pity or sense of victimhood.

Noir Nation Before such modern literary writers such as John Banville, William Vollman and Larry McMurtry began proclaiming the merits and genius of Simenon’s “hard novels” Ernest Hemingway, early in his writing career, mentions his love for them in A Moveable Feast. Do you think Simenon might have influenced Hem, even though Hemingway was not a crime writer per se?

Tristan Davies Absolutely. To Have and Have Not is explicitly Hemingway trying to write a roman dur. Also, think of “Hills Like White Elephants” or “The Short Happy Life of Francis McComber.” The former is about lovers running away to an illegal abortion. The latter is a crime story, even if the murder occurs at the end rather than the beginning. Nonetheless, it’s about a wife who kills her husband from jealousy and covers it up as an accident. “The Killers” and “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” owe much to Simenon.

Noir Nation What is your favorite scene in all the Simenon “Romans Durs” you’ve read?

Tristan Davies There’s something about the beginning of The Widow that I find particularly masterly. Perhaps the bathhouse scene from The Engagement: You need to read it twice to understand what happened, or, more precisely, didn’t. Simenon has that special gift of making something seedy seem at once mundane and yet spectacularly relevant.

Noir Nation Simenon was obviously well versed in the underbelly of pimps and prostitutes in Paris as he covered them in the crime beat and partook of their services…why then is Simenon so obsessed with the petit bourgeousie, many of his characters being businessmen and physicians?

Tristan Davies Please, the failure — or absence — of character in a pimp is hardly noteworthy. Simenon was interested in characters that appeared highly functioning, even if that function was merely the maintenance of appearances. Kees Popinga comes apart in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By only after realizing that his boss has calmly swindled him. In The Engagement, it’s true that Mr. Hire is a petty fraud, but we don’t learn this until mid-way through the book. It is of no consequence, anyway.

Noir Nation You and I have spoken about the bad or unsatisfying endings of certain of these books, especially Tropic Moon and The Engagement …what do you find so charming about Simenon’s refusal to end some of these works cleanly?

Tristan Davies He’s not writing romances or detective fiction, which generically have happy endings. He’s writing a special brand of novelistic psychological realism that often has greater verisimilitude than the best of Novels. In Strangers in the House, Hector Loursat, a drunk and a shut-in, rouses himself to save his daughter’s lover from prison. And after his good turn, he slips back into his withdrawn alcoholism. The only difference is he goes out to drink from time to time with another alcoholic. It’s life.

Noir Nation Would you call the “Roman Durs” crime novels or something else?

Tristan Davies Simenon could have called the roman durs crime novels, but tellingly he didn’t. It’s not that he was pretentious: he was honest about calling the Maigret mysteries. I think Simenon was an early post-genre writer. He was a genius who saw that the psychologically realistic novel was in decline. Like his contemporaries, the Cubists and the Surrealists, he was forging not just a different style but an entirely new form. His goal was to capture the world but in a different way than we were used to seeing it.

Noir Nation What is it about Simenon’s prose style that appeals to you?

Tristan Davies Its clarity and concision. Also its poetry. Simenon can write. Too many writers try to sound like tough guys in their writing, talking out the sides of their mouths. Simenon never tried to write tough. Instead, he wrote evocatively about a tough world.

Noir Nation Was Georges a nihilist or a playboy?

Tristan Davies Neither: Georges was a maniac, by which I mean, a man in the grip of a mania. During the Second World War, I sense that he allowed himself to be manipulated by the Germans because he failed to curb his mania for his work. That said, Dirty Snow is an enduring testament to the horrors of the Gestapo.

Author and professor Tristan Davies discusses the works of Simenon with Noir Nation editor Cortright McMeel. (Photo by Katrina Von Kessel)

Noir Nation What if anything do you borrow in your own writing from Simenon?

Tristan Davies The electric beginnings are an inspiration. The economy. Like Cheever, he could capture a scene with a single stirring phrase. They say metaphor lights up your brain. Simenon’s writing pachinkos your brain.

Noir Nation If you had to choose three Hard Novels for our readers to best get a sense of the flavor of Simenon, what would they be?

Tristan Davies Perhaps Strangers in the House is his most accessible now in print. Monsieur Monde Vanishes, as you mention, is a classic. I think, however, from my own view, The Widow is the most perfect that I’ve read: prose and plot form a distinct line of clarity that leaves a lasting impression.

Noir Nation Simenon’s characters all have a questionable moral compass. Yet they also take action and leave their bourgeoisie lives like Mr. Monde in the classic Monsieur Monde Vanishes. Is that why we are intrigued as readers? Because they throw their life in the trash so easily and begin anew, leaving family, homes, jobs for the underbelly of a life of petty crime or other sordid outcomes.

Tristan Davies He captures an untenable contradiction that many people are familiar with: The burning desire to escape the humdrum, contrasted by the terrorizing fear that a single misstep in daily life might lead to utter ruin. We want to escape but we fear that any attempt will lead to perdition. He explores this idea, over and over.

Noir Nation If Simenon were alive today what contemporary author do you think he would admire? Why?

Tristan Davies I suspect that we would be surprised. Simenon was an intellectual. People think of him as a sex-maniac pulp-novelist. Of course, he was a sex maniac, but he also published his correspondence with Andre Gide. I suspect that were Simenon alive today, he wouldn’t be interested in cartoon novels or novels about cartoonists. He’d have no patience for long and boring 21st Century novels of domestic manners. Whatever it would be, it would be a surprise.

Noir Nation Is Simenon closer in theme and spirit to Celine or Camus?

Tristan Davies Camus is the obvious answer vis-à-vis his intellect and the brilliance of his prose. But I see your point. Simenon did not write about paroled murderers and skip-trace cases because he thought that being a popular writer was his job. Being a writer for him was an expression of his deep anxieties and disquietude.

Noir Nation You yourself are a creative writing teacher. Has Simenon taught you anything about storytelling that you have passed down to your students?

Tristan Davies Clean writing. Honest writing. And avoid pretension like the plague.

Noir Nation Who is Simenon’s female writer counterpart?

Tristan Davies Flannery O’Connor, without a doubt and I’d also have to add Mrs. Jane Bowles. Two Serious Ladies inhabits a very Simenon-esque world.

Noir Nation And, finally, have you ever been tempted to plagiarize Simenon… if so… what line?

Tristan Davies It’s not his best book and is certainly one of the least satisfying endings of the hard novels but Tropic Moon has a lot going for it, smuggling, Africa, heat, sex, a raw portrait of colonialism gone awry… but most of all, it has this fabulous last line. It’s a last line which I puzzle over and somehow admire because the book earns the last line: “Africa, it doesn’t exist. Africa!”

Noir Nation Thank you, Tristan. We’re looking forward to reading your upcoming collection of stories and a novella with Bare Knuckles Press this summer.

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