Monday, February 16, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 

“LES INCONNUS DANS LA MAISON” by Georges Simenon (first published 1940; usually translated into English as “STRANGERS IN THE HOUSE”); “L’ETOILE MYSTERIEUSE” by “Herge” (Georges Remi) (“THE SHOOTING STAR”, 1941-42)
I am sure that one day on this blog I will get around to talking about my taste for George Simenon’s Maigret novels – or novellas if you will, as they are all very short. Over about fifty years, Georges Simenon (1903-1989) produced 75 of them – but they are in fact only a minor part of his total production. Beginning as a teenager, the Belgian novelist cranked out over one hundred pulp novels under various pseudonyms in the 1920s. He later disowned them, and they were never republished. But once he took to writing under his own name, the 75 Maigret books were fewer than Simenon’s “romans durs” – “serious novels” which do not feature Maigret and yet which are played out largely in the same sort of seedy and depressing milieu as the detective stories.
Simenon was a difficult and sometimes controversial person. The creator of the most famous fictional character in French popular culture in the twentieth century, he worked at high speed and never took longer than a week to write a novel, pounding away at the rate
of 60 or 70 typed pages a day. He was a prickly and unpleasant human being. Apart from the wives and the mistresses, there was the fact that (as he recorded in his memoirs, and as one of his wives affirmed) he was addicted to sex. He frequently visited prostitutes and boasted of having slept with thousands of women. Indeed, the disorderliness of his sex life stands in contrast with the methodical, workmanlike production of his novels, not to mention the sober and chaste home life of Inspector Maigret. Perhaps Maigret was in some sense Simenon’s dream-figure of the man he would have liked to be if he had had more self-control.
The conciseness and precision of both the Maigret novels and the “romans durs” are things of joy.
Which brings me at last to this week’s “Something Old”, a Simenon “roman dur” from his middle period.
Les Inconnus Dans La Maison (Strangers in the House) is one of Simenon’s best-known works. Literally dozens of his novels have been filmed (not to mention the long-running Maigret TV series in many languages). Les Inconnus Dans La Maison, however, has been filmed three times. Sorry to sound a wally, but I bought my Gallimard “Folio Policier” paperback copy of it off a bookstall on the left bank of the Seine when I was in Paris last year, and recently got around to reading it.
An intriguing premise. In the central French town of Moulins, Hector Loursat is an embittered, misanthropic lawyer who gave up practising eighteen years previously when his wife ran away with another man and he was left to bring up their infant daughter. Loursat and his daughter Nicole live in the huge, rambling house that Loursat has inherited. There are upper storeys in the building which Loursat has not visited for years. Loursat lives his own life and leaves his daughter to live her’s. A couple of grumpy women servants feed them, then Loursat goes back to his study and spends his evenings reading and drinking. He is both a recluse and an alcoholic, downing at least four bottles of red wine a day.
One night, Loursat hears a gunshot from somewhere upstairs. He goes to investigate, and finds, newly killed in a disused bedroom, the corpse of a man he doesn’t know.
How does this play out? Despite the novel’s venerable age, I won’t spoil the plot because it is a mystery after all, and you might wish to read it for yourself. Sufficient to say that Loursat rapidly discovers that his daughter has been leading a life he knew nothing about. She has been running around with a bunch of young people of her own age who have got involved in foolish pranks, then have graduated to stealing cars and petty theft and passing on stolen goods. The corpse belongs to “Le Gros Louis”, a real criminal with whom they have become involved. After lawyers and police interview all of Nicole’s young male friends about what happened on the night of the shooting, a timid mummy’s boy called Emile Manu is accused of “Le Gros Louis’s” murder. Galvanised into action, Loursat decides to resume his former occupation and takes the case for the defence. He is in the unusual position of appearing in the courtroom to defend a young man charged with a murder which took place in his own home and in which his own daughter is implicated.
As in so many of the Maigret books, detective work in this “roman dur” is of secondary importance to the novel’s exposition of motives, of the social scene in which it takes place, and of the central unhappiness of most of the characters. (I am reminded of a very early Maigret book I read some years back, Monsieur Gallet, Decede, published in 1931, in which a whole murder mystery is really a peg on which to hang a scathing account of the drab and pointless existence of the eponymous clerk.)  We may be deceived for a while into thinking that taking the case will “redeem” Loursat and make a new man of him by giving him a purpose which he has lost in all those years of self-pity and solitary drinking. Once in court, he acts most efficiently. But if you think any such permanent redemption will take place, you simply do not know the pessimistic universe Simenon inhabited.
The novel is bitterly satirical about the petty nature of the middle-class society of Moulins, where most respectable people follow their self-interest and ignore whatever their children are getting up to. As Loursat reflects at one stage:”Personne dans la ville, lui moins que les autres, ne soupconnait qu’une bande de gamins vivait une vie en marge de la vie des autres  (Part One, Chapter Five)  [“Nobody in the town, he least of all, suspected that a gang of kids lived a life on the margins of the lives of others”.] In his private thoughts, Loursat feels contempt for the respectable people who stand in judgment on the kids: “Rien que des imbeciles! Une ville d’imbeciles, de pauvres humains qui ne savaient pas ce qu’ils faisaient sur terre et qui marchaient droit devant comme des boeufs sous le joug, avec parfois un grelot ou une clochette au cou!” (Part Two, Chapter Two) [“Nothing but imbeciles! A town of imbeciles, poor human beings who didn’t know what they were doing on Earth and who plodded straight ahead like yoked oxen with clapper or bell around their necks!”]
Written in the early 1940s, this is very much like a foretaste of all the novels and films that appeared in the 1950s, bewailing the existence of juvenile delinquents and blaming the negligent homes that formed them.
But note how devious I’ve been in using the evasive term “the early 1940s”. The fact is that Les Inconnus Dans La Maison was first published in France in 1940, in the first year of Nazi occupation. Simenon’s role during the occupation (like that of many French intellectuals and writers) was to come in for much post-war criticism. His novels were never overtly political and never moved far from the genre of psychological mysteries which he had established before the war. Nevertheless, Simenon lived very comfortably under German occupation and negotiated profitably for some of his works to be filmed by German-controlled production companies. Les Inconnus Dans La Maison makes no reference to the war or to occupation and could be set in France any time in the earlier 20th century. But it does have a fleeting element of anti-Semitism. One of the gang with which Nicole runs is a sinister Jewish kid called Ephraim Luska who is presented very negatively.
In 1942, Les Inconnus Dans La Maison was filmed (directed by Henri Decoin, scripted by Henri-Georges Clouzot). The great French actor Jules Raimu played the leading role of Hector Loursat. It was apparently both a very good film and very popular. (On Youtube, you can access a five minute clip in which Raimu-Loursat delivers an impassioned oration to the court, condemning bourgeois society for neglecting its own children – there is no such oration in the novel, but it is a legitimate gathering-together of many of the reflections Loursat makes in the course of the novel). The trouble was, that soupcon of anti-Semitism is also in the film in the form of the distinctively Jewish name Ephraim Luska for an unsympathetic character. And the film was funded by a German company.
Simenon was rebuked (very mildly) by the French government after the war for his deals during the occupation. The film of Les Inconnus Dans La Maison was for a brief time banned after the war – but it was released again to considerable success once its soundtrack had been doctored to substitute a “neutral” name for the Jewish name of a villainous character.
I think it is a very good novel, but when and if you read it, you might consider how damaging such casual and passing anti-Semitism was in the context in which it was written.

Footnote: For the record, the two other film versions of this novel departed greatly from Simenon’s story. There was a 1992 French remake [which I haven’t seen] retitled L’Inconnu [singular] Dans La Maison and starring Jean-Paul Belmondo as Loursat. Before that there had been a truly appalling 1967 British version [which I have seen] variously called Stranger in the House and Cop-Out. With its setting switched to 1960s England and the names of all the characters changed, it stars James Mason as the old lawyer, a young Geraldine Chaplin as his daughter and Bobby Darin as one of her boyfriends. It is now painful to watch this inept specimen of 1960s “swinging London” film-making.

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I can’t resist making a comment on another passing piece of anti-Semitism that was later expunged from the work of a popular French-language writer. It has always amused me that the creators of France’s two greatest 20th century pop-culture icons were both Walloons – French-speaking Belgians. There was Georges Simenon with Maigret; and there was “Herge” (pen-name of Georges Remi) with the intrepid boy reporter Tintin.
Because my father was a Francophile, my siblings and I got into the Tintin books some time before the (English-speaking) crowd did. In the late 1950s, when they first began to be translated into English, we would regularly get Tintin books stuffed in our Christmas pillow-cases. But our interest (and our father’s) ran ahead of the translators, so Dad also bought as-yet-untranslated French-language versions, which he would read and translate for us in regular evening episodes. Maybe this is why I am still inclined to pronounce Tintin’s name French-style, and find the English pronunciation of it something of an impertinence.
It is well-known that nearly all Tintin’s adventures originally appeared as black-and-white comic strips in a Belgian kids newspaper. Later they would be gathered into books with the images now coloured. It is also well-known that Herge would regularly update his work – for new editions, he would redraw cars and trains and other pieces of technology to make them look more “modern”, so that there exist two or three separate editions of some of the earlier Tintin books, where the puffing-billy trains are transformed into sleek diesels and so forth.
What is less often noticed is that Herge would sometimes alter – of have to alter – the political overtones and racial aspects of some of the Tintin books once they hit the post-war international market. English translators were very reluctant to bring out one of the earliest, Tintin in the Congo (the original version dates from the early 1930s), because of its caricatures of simple child-like Africans living under benign European rule. Likewise The Blue Lotus, also from the early 1930s, was one of the very last to be translated, because it is very specifically set in the Sino-Japanese war of the early 1930s, there is no way it could be updated, and the Japanese are presented in terms of racial caricature. (The Chinese are noble and forbearing and there is a sequence where Tintin and a Chinese friend laugh over the way their cultures misunderstand each other). For its international release, The Land of Black Gold, dating from the late 1940s, had removed two pages showing rival Arab and Jewish terrorism in Palestine.
Which brings me at last to a more creepy case.
When I was a child and young teenager, the one I loved most was The Shooting Star (L’Etoile Mysterieuse). It’s the one in which a huge meteor grazes the Earth, causing earthquakes but also dumping part of itself in the Atlantic Ocean. When Tintin reaches this floating fragment, it turns out to have mysterious qualities, which cause plants and insects to grow to monstrous size. That was the part that most amused me – images of Tintin being assailed by a giant spider or seeing monstrous apples fall from monstrous trees. A delightful piece of kiddie science-fiction.
Alas, adults have to contextualise things.
Part of the plot of L’Etoile Mysterieuse concerns a race between two rival expeditions to reach the meteor fragment. On the one hand there are the goodies, including Tintin and a respectable group of European scientists who wish to study the meteor for purely scientific reasons. On the other hand, there is the expedition led by the sinister international financier Bohlwinkel, who wishes to exploit the mineral properties of the meteor for profit.
L’Etoile Mysterieuse first appeared as a black-and-white serial in the German-controlled Belgian newspaper Le Soir early in the Second World War, when Belgium was under German occupation. In its original incarnation, the sinister cigar-chomping international financier has the distinctly Jewish name Blumenstein and is clearly drawn as an anti-Semitic caricature (which, by the way, he remains even in later versions where his name is changed to something non-Jewish). Also in this original version, there is a frame in which devious Jewish traders, with foreign accents, rejoice because the prospect of the immanent destruction of the Earth by the comet means that they will not have to pay their debts. And, in the original newspaper version, the financier’s expedition sails under the American flag (altered to the flag of a non-existent country in later versions). So – just as an incidental subtext – L’Etoile Mysterieuse told its wartime Belgian readers that the United States was an alien land manipulated by sinister Jewish financiers. Not hard to see whose world-view this concept would most support.
With names altered and some frames redrawn, the story was rendered into the perfectly harmless and enjoyable yarn I enjoyed as a child. But, while I continue to salute the genius of both Simenon and Herge, I am reminded how much talented popular writers can succumb to the popular prejudices of their age.

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