Mark Binelli Weighs in on Simenon

By Mark Binelli

Mark Binelli's post, below, is part of our monthlong discussion of Georges Simenon's Engagement, WWB's pick for our September Book Club. Mark is leading the discussion along with Chad Post, whose first two blog posts you can find here and here. Check them out and be sure to return for more--it's Simenon all month long at WWB.

Before reading The Engagement, my only encounter with Simenon had been reading one of the Maigret novels, in French, for a French class in college. But I'd seen the NYRB reissues and been meaning to check them out. I have to admit, I found The Engagement disappointing overall. The prose felt, to me, purely utilitarian -- inevitable, I suppose, if you're as insanely prolific as Simenon was. But I also didn't think the book worked as an existential genre exercise. The French are often brilliant at this sort of thing: I'm thinking not only of literature but of noir films like Le Cercle Rouge.

Here, though, Simenon never satisfied (or effectively subverted) basic genre requirements, at least not for me. I loved the slightly erotic creepiness of M. Hire following the couple to the soccer game, with everyone complicit in the stalking. But this is completely undercut when you find out (this will be a spoiler, FYI) it all figures into an elaborate plot to frame Hire.

Likewise (again, spoiler coming) having Hire literally dangling from a ledge at the end of the book was such a tired pulpy climax. (Only slightly mitigated by the fact that, apparently, it's based on a true story Simenon witnessed, at least according to John Gray's afterword.) I kept thinking of Safety Last, the Harold Lloyd film, released ten years earlier, where Lloyd famously hangs from the minute hand of a clock tower.

Simenon is most skillful at conveying Hire's isolation and loneliness, not an easy thing to do, especially since Hire is not (like many fictional characters) isolated and lonely but also brilliant and in possession of a rich internal dialogue. It's like trying to convey boredom without writing a boring passage: again, not easy. (Especially liked Hire's self-conscious moments at the dance hall.)

Mostly, though, I found John Gray's case for the book's importance possibly interesting as an academic thesis, but not a true case for the worthiness of the novel. It failed to engage me on the level of genre, and I'm not convinced Simenon himself aspired to much more than that, however much his bleak and unrelenting outlook on life might artificially elevate the book's heft.

Final note: Until I started reading The Engagement, I didn't realize the book had inspired the film Monsieur Hire, which I loved when it came out. I'm anxious to rewatch the film and see how it holds up and compares to the book, and hopefully will post something else along these lines in the weeks to come.

I'd also be curious to hear if there are Simenon fans out there who share my reservations about this particular novel but might recommend others.


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