I had never heard of Georges Simenon before New York Review Books brought out Dirty Snow and Tropic Moon back a few years ago. What most caught my attention—and most intimidated me in terms of picking one of these up—was a statement from the íAbout the Authorë section: íGeorges Simenon (1903-1989), wrote over 400 novels and collections of short stories and sold hundreds of millions of copies of his books in 55 languages.ë Four hundred novels! Sure, Joyce Carol Oates is prolific, but she doesn’t hold a candle to Simenon. As equally as off-putting as the sheer number of titles he wrote was the question of how good any of these books could be if he was cranking them out one after another after another.
And not just cranking them out, but making a show of it. A recent issue of Bookforum has a fantastic article by Luc Sante on Simenon that opens with this provocative image:
In 1927, Georges Simenon, the phenomenally prolific Belgian author of crime novels, helped engineer a publicity stunt that sounds like a forecast of reality TV: He sat in a glass booth and wrote a novel in a week, in full view of the public. Simenon was all but unknown then, a journeyman author of indifferent pulp novelettes under a variety of pseudonyms. The feat made him famous, became the first thing many people knew about him. It was certainly the first thing I ever knew about him—I heard the story from my father, who at the time of the performance was growing up a few miles from Simenon’s hometown of Liège. No one who witnessed the feat forgot it. Pierre Assouline, in his 1997 biography of Simenon, quotes from no fewer than four memoirs by acquaintances of the novelist, recalling the surging crowds, the writer’s concentration, how he did not once look up from his typewriter …
Which sounds intense … And gets even better though when you find out that it never took place.
The newspaper that was to sponsor it went bankrupt, and Simenon couldn’t get another to take up the baton. It was just as well—the announcement provoked nothing but jeers: Simenon’s hometown paper lamented that their boy had committed professional suicide; one Parisian columnist went so far as to announce that he would be going armed and taking potshots at the booth. But the damage was done.
Although it was still daunting trying to ífigure out where to startë in terms of Simenon’s oeuvre, after reading this I became greatly interested in picking up something—anyone who pulls something like this deserves to be read, and The Engagement, a Reading the World 2008 book translated by the amazing Anna Moschovakis seemed like as good a place as any to begin.
Throughout this month, Mark Binelli—author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! and contributing editor to Rolling Stone—and I will talk about this novel and possibly some of Simenon’s other works. Every Tuesday we’ll post something somewhat substantial—an overview of online Simenon resources, an interview with the translator Anna Moschovaki, a discussion with Edwin Frank of the New York Review Books—and then continue the conversation in this forum with all book club participants.