or, Why Georges Simenon’s novels seem longer than they are
“‘What! You’ve got some white bread!’
The two Persians, the consul and his wife, had just come into the drawing-room, and it was the woman who was going into ecstasies before the table covered with attractively arranged sandwiches.
It had only been a minute earlier that Adil Bey had been told:
‘There are only three consulates in Batum: yours, the Persian consulate and ours. But the Persians are quite impossible people.’
It was Madame Pendelli, the Italian consul’s wife, who had said this, while her husband lay sprawled in an armchair, smoking a slim cigarette with a pink tip. The two women greeted each other with smiles in the middle of the drawing-room at the very moment when some sounds which until then had been nothing but a vague noise in the sunlit town grew louder and suddenly exploded in a fanfare at the corner of the street.
Everybody immediately went out on to the verandah to watch the procession.”
That is the opening passage of Simenon’s 1933 novel Les gens d’en face, which is set in Soviet Georgia, in Batum, now called Batumi, on the Black Sea. Trabzon, on the Turkish coast, is round the corner. Translation, as The Window over the Way, by Robert Baldick, a translator of Chateaubriand, Flaubert, the Goncourts, Verne, Barbusse, Sartre. There was an earlier one, less good and with the same title, by Geoffrey Sainsbury.
Look at the time-shifts.
“‘What! You’ve got some white bread!’ [Time 1]
“The two Persians, the consul and his wife, had just come into the drawing-room [time 2], and it was the woman who was going into ecstasies [time 1] before the table covered with attractively arranged sandwiches.
“It had only been a minute earlier [time 3] that Adil Bey had been told:
“‘There are only three consulates in Batum: yours, the Persian consulate and ours. But the Persians are quite impossible people.’
“It was Madame Pendelli, the Italian consul’s wife, who had said this, while her husband lay [change of tense within time 3] sprawled in an armchair, smoking a slim cigarette with a pink tip. The two women greeted each other [time 1] with smiles in the middle of the drawing-room at the very moment when some sounds which until then [indeterminate time 4] had been nothing but a vague noise in the sunlit town grew louder and suddenly [time 1] exploded in a fanfare at the corner of the street.
“Everybody immediately went out on to the verandah to watch the procession.”
The last sentence gets us into the story after seven time-shifts in 14 or so lines, and viewpoint-shifts from Persian to Turk to narrator. Spatially, we are in the room, looking over the town with the sun, and on the verandah.
In a few lines, Simenon has suggested an exotic location, the shallowness of the Persians, the laziness and vanity of the Italians, the passivity of the Turk. Adil Bey is introduced in the passive voice. That sets the tone for him. These may be residual racial stereotypes, but Simenon’s observations are so immediate that one doesn’t think of them in that way.
The slicing up, concertina-ing in and out, of time shows the influence of modernism. He can’t stay in the same place. The time-shifts, and the non-sequitur in the statement made to Adil Bey, make the passage surreal and are the descriptive equivalent of more general dysfunctionality.
How long did it take for the two women to meet each other in the middle of the room?
Simenon starts several of his books (248 core titles under his own name on my current reckoning, which are about half his total output) with compressed overtures like this: expressionist upbeats followed by cæsuras, so that we can catch breath. We’re reminded of vignettes in The Waste Land.
Exhausted nations and their isolated envoys. Within the boredom, hysteria. The vulgarism “going into ecstasies” is well-selected by Baldick. “Attractively arranged” matches it. Almost everyone reading this book (not that many do: its last edition in English was in 1972) compares it with Graham Greene. And then privately thinks: “But better.”
The time-shifts are compressed here, but Simenon uses them often. As he moves forwards and backwards, with a short wavelength here, but a longer wavelength in other passages and novels, especially later novels, where the characters’ lives are described through excursions into their pasts, he builds up a reality through pointillism, with each point being a different time. This makes the surface of his novels surge and gleam. It makes them, in fact, harder to read than simple two-dimensional narratives: they don’t slip down all that fast.
My own visit to Batumi in 1997 was anything but dull. I had dealings with the Turkish consul, whom I discovered in a forest: a story for another time.
I like this passage.
The hapless Adil Bey opens a door in his consulate.
“The room was invaded by people who were so shabby, stupid and wild-looking that he wondered where so many could come from every day. Even now Adil Bey would make a mistake in trying to identify their race and some of them spoke a dialect which nobody understood, so that after vain efforts to explain themselves they would go off thoroughly discouraged.”
They are Turkic refugees from Soviet communism.
“They came down the mountains, from the direction of Armenia and Persia, or else, heaven knows why, they had set off from the borders of Turkistan and even from Siberia.
“And they all told endless stories of disarming complexity.
“‘But what do you want in the end?’ Adil Bey would finally explode.
“‘I want some money for another donkey.’
“Now the donkey would be the only thing which the man had never mentioned.”