The craft so long to learn

In a review of Blake Bailey’s new biography of Philip Roth  Christian Lorentzen concludes with some advice for aspiring authors that may not get covered in many Creative Writing programs:

An exquisitely managed career, right down to this totemic and compulsively readable biography, which young writers are well advised to consult as a blueprint for enduring literary stardom. Its lessons include: never marry; have no children; lawyer up early; keep tight control of your cover designs; listen to the critics while scorning them publicly; when it comes to publishers, follow the money; never give a minute to a hostile interviewer; avoid unflattering photographers; figure out what you’re good at and keep doing it, book after book, with just enough variation to keep them guessing; sell out your friends, sell out your family, sell out your lovers, and sell out yourself; keep going until every younger writer can be called your imitator; don’t stop until all your enemies are dead.

Maigret: Night at the Crossroads

The table is nicely set with the location and cast, especially the pair of Danish weirdos. But the resolution disappoints. Intentionally? It seems as though Simenon was, already, wanting to poke some fun at the mystery genre. When we first meet “Else” she “was wreathed in what American movies portray as sex appeal.” Ah, the femme fatale. But why only the sex appeal of American sirens? Maigret is just as entranced by her loose peignoir as any audience in the heartland would be.

I think Simenon is having a go at conventions. Take the way Maigret drags all the suspects (it’s a full house) in for the big reveal in the Poirot manner. He’s even described as being like a conductor leading a “motley orchestra.” And then there’s the fight in the well that is described as clownish, a farce, and buffoonery, followed by revelations that come as though “just like a novel.”

It’s not surprising this one has been filmed several times (thus completing Else’s circle). Those police inspectors gripping revolvers in both fists as they jump out of their car are straight from Warner Brothers’ back lot. All a lot of fun, but it left me wondering where things could go from here.

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Revolutions reviewed (again!)

I’m really impressed with another review of my book Revolutions appearing online, this one by the novelist and critic Jeff Bursey. It appears in Galleon, a literary journal based in Atlantic Canada. Very in-depth and well worth reading, as Bursey makes a number of points expanding on and challenging those I made.

For other reviews see here.

Maigret: The Yellow Dog

Maigret is one of those detectives who care less about doing their professional duty than serving some more general idea of justice. This is something the mayor of Concarneau, among others, can’t get his head around, but it’s especially obvious with the bit of subterfuge Maigret pulls at the unofficial inquest at the end of The Yellow Dog. This is something that is often missed in discussions of mystery fiction. The point isn’t so much to re-establish a sense of order that existed before the crime, but to right any deeper wrongs, to pick winners and losers through the exercise of moral judgment.

Enter the trio of immoral losers (including one nicely captured momma’s boy) who find themselves being hunted in The Yellow Dog. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for them. And once again Maigret is cast in the role of class avenger. It all makes for a satisfying read, even if it does come off a bit rushed at the end. Then again, these books all move at a pretty crazy pace. Simenon really seemed to believe in the Elmore Leonard axiom of leaving out all of the boring parts. To the point where a lot of connective tissue also goes missing even in the basic mechanics of his prose. I keep coming to places where it isn’t even clear who is speaking, or to whom.

One interesting note: When Concarneau first goes under siege a newspaper article describes the “deathly still” atmosphere as “reminiscent of towns in northern France during the war when the air-raid sirens sounded.” I was surprised to learn by this that air-raid sirens were such a ubiquitous feature of life in France during the First World War that their use could be so easily invoked. I didn’t think towns had such alarm systems widely in place. The bombing of Guernica is usually cited as the first sustained aerial bombing of a civilian target, and there was an air-raid siren that sounded in that attack, but that was in 1937, twenty years later.

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Maigret: The Carter of La Providence

Georges Simenon lived on a boat for a while, and spent a lot of time travelling through the French canal system. So he was probably grinning at the idea of setting a novel in this environment, with Maigret looking “to absorb the atmosphere, to capture the essence of canal life, which was so different from the world he knew.”

Personally, I don’t know a thing about canal life. I have a general idea of how canals and lock systems operate, but that’s it. This made my ability to visualize some of the action in this one difficult, making me think of Peter Mendelsund’s book What We See When We Read (short answer: we make most of it up).

Canal life, however, is just window dressing here. The story follows what I guess, having read a few of these now, is the usual script. There is the juxtaposition of high life and low, with the yacht Southern Cross and the barge Providence representing different ends of the social-economic (but not moral) divide. There is the man, and in this case a woman too, leading a kind of double life, which requires Maigret to dig into their past. And finally the killer is revealed as someone we have sympathy for, their crime the last stop in a life lived downhill, full of disappointment and despair.

A good read, but the plot is based on a pile of improbabilities and coincidences. This is also par for the course. Maigret himself never seems to do much actual detective work aside from tracking a few leads to nail things down at the end. Instead, a wall cracks and the killers sort of crumble on their own.

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Upsetting one’s education

When the historian Henry Adams met President Grant the shock upset years of his “education,” a term he used to cover his entire intellectual heritage as an American:

Grant fretted and irritated him, like the Terebratula, as a defiance of first principles. He had no right to exist. He should have been extinct for ages. The idea that, as society grew older, it grew one-sided, upset evolution, and made of education a fraud. That, two thousand years after Alexander the Great and Julius Cæsar, a man like Grant should be called—and should actually and truly be—the highest product of the most advanced evolution, made evolution ludicrous. One must be as common-place as Grant’s own common-places to maintain such an absurdity. The progress of evolution from President Washington to President Grant, was alone evidence enough to upset Darwin.

I always think of this scene whenever I hear anyone speak of meritocracy in America. In the country where Donald Trump became president? Grant had at least been a successful general. Trump couldn’t even run a casino. Doesn’t Trump’s election make the notion of rising through one’s merits, however broadly defined, ludicrous? Does it not seem like a defiance of first principles?

Things I was thinking of recently while reading Twilight of the Elites by Christopher Hayes. If not evolution, in the strict Darwinian sense, I think we’ve at least put paid to the notion of there being much progress in human affairs.

Maigret: The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien

Three books in and I’m starting to detect a pattern. At its center we have men, haunted by demons and drink, who have come to the end of the line. Simenon is the poet-psychologist of disappointment and downward mobility. This one starts off with another such down-at-the-heels fellow, a “desperate soul,” checking in at a cheap hotel and then, “both enraged and overcome by his fate,” blowing his brains out.

An opening act like that wouldn’t seem to introduce much of a mystery, but Maigret feels personally responsible (which he certainly is!) and so decides to investigate further. This gets him into a really improbable back story, apparently having some relation to Simenon’s own youth in Liège and which plays a bit like a Belgian Crime and Punishment. And again one has the sense that the real original sin was a class mixture that didn’t take. Rich and poor are like two different species. When the suicide’s wife comes to see Maigret he notices a resemblance right away: “Not a facial resemblance, no, but a similarity of expression, of social class, so to speak.”

I don’t know where Maigret himself fits in on the class ladder. His father was a bailiff or estate manager. Being a top investigator seems like a pretty big deal, but in 1930s France? Most of his authority comes from the way he physically dominates a room, which is often attributed to his “proletarian” frame or “peasant” stock. I don’t think this is meant to be flattering. He is described here as appearing “bovine” a couple of times, and as seeming like an elephant. In many ways he is a sort of anti-type to the eccentric fictional detective, who is often something of a dandy. Maigret doesn’t speak much, has a face not fully molded out of clay, and either affects or genuinely feels bored a lot of the time (in The Flemish House he’ll let it drop that “when in the presence of a possible culprit, I make a point of acting like an imbecile”). Instead of the thrill of the hunt he has only a weary sense of duty. And yet dramatically it seems to work.

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Historical murders

Antonia Fraser, in the golden age of author photos.

Sometimes when you’re reading you come across a line in a book that makes you lift your eyes from the page and go “Hm.”

This happened to me recently while reading Antonia Fraser’s biography Mary Queen of Scots. One chapter in this classic work is given over to an account of the murder of Mary’s husband Lord Darnley. It’s one of the more celebrated, and complicated, murder plots of all time, but Fraser goes a step further in calling it “the most debatable, as well as surely the most worked over murder in history.”

By “worked over” she means worked over by historians. And to be sure, there’s been a lot of study and analysis of the event surrounding Darnley’s death. But “surely the most worked over murder in history”? I will give Fraser a mulligan for the Kennedy assassination, as her book came out in 1969 and Kennedy might not have been “history” yet, and while there’d been the Warren Commission things hadn’t gone totally crazy. But for other murders having as good or better claims I would submit the assassination of Julius Caesar and the murder of Rasputin. I think historians have probably worked over both those events more than the killing of Lord Darnley, though in the case of Darnley there may be more mystery still attached. Moving away from politics I might add the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby. That probably still ranks as “the crime of the (twentieth) century” though it’s not as well remembered now.

Food for a moment’s thought anyway.

Maigret: The Late Monsieur Gallet

Maigret is still a big guy. A “good 100 kilos.” The kind of weight that really makes him feel the heat. But he can also turn his size on for effect, swelling to fill a room (“He was enormous . . .”) when he needs to intimidate a witness. He does this a lot.

A “dull, grey atmosphere” of middle-class mediocrity surrounds the case. At the end of the novel Maigret will present himself in such a way that “If you had seen his face, you would probably have described the dominant impression as boredom.” But he may be acting a bit at that point.

This is a novel of appearances, among people who think that appearances are all there are. The beastly bourgeoisie: Maigret finds them both respectable and repulsive (an attitude readers will get used to). “Funny sort of people,” he concludes. He looks on the young woman preparing to marry the murdered man’s son “with feelings verging on admiration. But a particular kind of admiration, with more than a touch of revulsion in it.” She’s entering marriage like it’s some kind of business enterprise! Meanwhile, “he was both attracted and repelled by the complex physiognomy of his murder victim.” He’s better off dead, I think we’re meant to feel, and finally done with being part of such a miserable family, where even the presence of happiness and love has to be guessed at. Certainly Maigret is relieved not to have anything more to do with them.

Another story of a double life. The respectable man and the criminal. Inside every human being there’s a crook and a wrong-doer. I was reminded of a true crime book I read years ago called The Adversary by Emmanuel Carrère. Perhaps the guy in that book was reading a lot of Simenon and took it too much to heart. Or perhaps this is a French thing.

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Maigret: Pietr the Latvian

Maigret is introduced as a big guy, though evidence varies in the series as to how tall he is. He’s more broad like a bull. He dominates a room. When he walks down a narrow corridor his shoulders brush either wall.

Tough guy too. He can take a bullet and keep on the case. And when his partner is killed he can’t cry. Literally, he’s “unable to shed tears.”

But he’s sensitive as well. Or at least he’s good at reading people, which is a kind of sensitivity. The book begins with a simple exercise in decoding. Ironically, the anthropometric information he receives will be of no use at all given the nature of the mystery to be solved.

Maigret has a simple theory for solving crime that he refers to as the crack in the wall. “Inside every crook and wrong-doer there lives a human being.” Eventually that human being will reveal itself. I suppose by extension this might mean that inside every human being there’s another human being as well, so that all any of us ever reveal to the world is a façade.

In this case Maigret gets lucky and the crack comes from the wrong-doer’s fondness for alcohol. Not much work involved there.

The plot carries some message about the duality of man, though not so much good and evil as high and low. This is the real conflict in society, more so even than that between villains and do-gooders.

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