Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Reading Simenon in an airport

I've written before about the difficulty of selecting books to carry on a trip, and yesterday I decided that I may need to add a new categorical consideration to my pre-trip book packing: I should always pack a slim and claustrophobic novel to read in case of airport delays.

The needs of an airport reader, after all, are different from those of an airplane reader. The oppressive open-endedness of an airport delay also argues for the short novel over the epic or Victorian: unlike plane reading, which is conducted in full knowledge of its end point, airport delay reading should, if the reader wishes to stay sane, inherently reinforce the idea that he and his fellow passengers will surely be leaving soon, O'Hare's vagaries and incompetencies be damned. And the more claustrophobic and involving the narrative, the better, as few places are less conducive to reading than an airport full of delayed passengers; poetry won't long survive the blither-blather of CNN, the fuckery of Fox, and the soul-sucking cell-phone addictions of business types. A perfect airport delay novel will seamlessly trade the oppressiveness of the modern lounge for its own form of oppressiveness, escaped only at the turning of the last page--at which point, if the stars have aligned, your plane will be ready.

All of which leads to my nomination of Hesperus Press and the matchless New York Review of Books Classics line as the official publishers of airport delays. All of Hesperus's titles would fit the first criterion, as would a number of the NYRB's, while both lists are thick with murky foreign settings, eerie tales, and hideous crimes conducted under cover of darkness (or, in the case of Ivy Compton-Burnett, the thinnest veneer of politeness). Now if only I can get all the Hudson News stores to agree with me, the world of the airport will be a much better--if far more sinister--place.

Yesterday, trapped by rain at La Guardia, I occupied myself with Hesperus Press's recent translation of Georges Simenon's Three Crimes (1938). Simenon has been enjoying an English-language renaissance lately through the help of both of the aforementioned presses, and Three Crimes could be the model airport delay book: it's only 125 pages long, thoroughly sordid, and just fragmented and disjointed enough to require real attention. Three Crimes tells the story of a pair of men, friends of Simenon in his youth, who later committed violent murders, one man of his wife and mistress, the other of his mistress, his mother, and his former Jesuit confessor. There is almost no plotting to the book; Simenon is far less interested in the how of a murder than in the unfathomable skein of whys that led to it. So he opens with details of the murders, then slips back into his energetically dissipated youth in Liege and his adventures--which range from teenage seductions to vague black magic--with the murderers-to-be, in search of the roots of their crimes:
Why? How? Where should one begin, since there is no beginning, nor any other link, over the years and across space, between three crimes, between five or six deaths and between a handful of the living, except for myself?

I seem to hear Danse's voice, in the strange Court of the Assizes in Liege, pounding out the words, "When I was four years old my mother took me to the countryside, and there, in a farmyard, I saw a man killing a sow, first with a hammer, and then by slitting its throat. . . . "

When he was four years old, I did not know him; I wasn't even born. What is more, I wasn't there when, forty years later, in a small house in the French countryside, he killed his mother and his mistress in exactly the same way he had one seen a sow being killed.

. . . .

Three crimes! It's easily said. But before them?

The novel is formed around, and returns obsessively to, the fact of Simenon's once-close connection to the murderers and the question of why he, having shared with them so many of the same adventures and vices, did not like them become a killer. Ostensibly, he is glad to have been spared that outcome and is truly marveling at the workings of fate--but at least a hint of disappointment at his comparatively ordinary life seeps through. Any lifelong student of what is found creeping around under rocks is bound to wonder about the seductions of that life; it's hard not to see Simenon throughout Three Crimes imagining himself as murderer--maybe even, in the unwritten spaces between lines and pages, wondering about who his victims, unwittingly saved, might have been. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Simenon is wistful about that road less traveled by, but his mind does turn regularly in that direction:
I belonged to the most respectable newspaper in the town and I was the youngest of the journalists. I still recall that, for the first official dinner that I attended, I borrowed not a dinner jacket, which I considered common, but a gray morning coat, and I am not sure if I didn't wear with it a white tie and gloves the colour of fresh butter.

Well, some time after that, during a grand lunch, which was, I think, given the title of a lunch for the Fervent City, I suddenly stood up at the table of honour, where I happened to be with my colleagues, and spoke out loudly and clearly: "I'm clearing off! It's bloody boring!"

After which there was an immense void. When I woke up I was in my bed, with a heavy head thumping like a drum. A little later I found my mother sobbing and my brother looking at me in horror.

"What's happened?" I asked in a casual tone.

"Don't you know that some neighbours picked you up from the doorstep at six o'clock in the morning, and that three people were needed to carry you to your bed?"

No, I didn't know. And I examined with astonishment an enormous dagger, which had been found, it seemed, in the pocket of my gabardine.

"What have you done?"

How did I know? They could have declared that I had killed someone and I would have believed it.

But for all its probing of the psychological and social roots of murder, Three Crimes is at its best in its scenes, like that one, of Simenon's youthful escapades, sordid and reckless, which he retails with verve and relish. He tells in detail what he learns about what happened during that "immense void," for example:
And I learned that I had arrived at the newspaper office, without my hat, and with a broken walking stick in my hand, at about five o'clock in the afternoon, and that I vomited with all my might. The boss took care of me and tried to make me drink some hot coffee, in the usual way. But what is worse than that I hurled the coffee at his head, yelling, "You're a great coward and you betrayed me! That's exactly what you are! I know what I'm saying!"

Now [the next day] he just waits for me, as is only right. He starts by firing me. Then he calls me back, because he is a nice man and informs me that he will give it a try again with me, but that I won't be sent to banquets any more.

At this point, a colleague rings me up.

"Are you better? Did you find your dancing girl?"

"My dancing girl?"

"It would be a good idea to drop by the Trianon to apologise . . . "

In his ability to wed late-night stories of drink and dissipation with the closely observed details of grotesque crimes, Simenon comes across as a sort of unholy mix of Julian Maclaren-Ross, Anthony Powell, William Roughead, and Michael Lesy. Which, now that I think about it, would also serve as a good description of Luc Sante, whose article about Simenon in the current issue of Bookforum is a good place to learn more about Simenon and his four-hundred-book oeuvre.

[By the way, both Hesperus and the NYRB Classics have blogs that are worth checking out.]


  1. In honor of the only thing I can reliably remember about Fiorello LaGuardia, perhaps during flight delays, his namesake airport should have someone reading newspaper comics out loud over the PA system.

  2. W Lestina4:43 PM

    Airport delay reading: a splendid theme for an essay, and you carried it off splendidly.

    Living in a region that boasts the "foggiest airport in the U.S." (Navy built it here on purpose to test instrument landings during WWII), I have to prepare for delays longer than 120 pages.

    Weight, therefore, has become an issue, especially since the increasing strictures on size and numbers of carry-ons.

    Last trip, however -- with a 6 hour missed-connection layover in Phoenix in the middle of the night -- I had Jim Newton's "Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made" and found it (despite its hardback immensity) a perfect antidote to stranded self-pity.

    Most important: the book has to be so intensely absorbing that you are disappointed when your flight is called.

  3. George Marques (Brazil)10:11 AM

    I happened to discover Simenon's novel thanks to airport bookstores. Not so much for coping with delays, but for reading during the two hours flights I was going to endure.

    I was caught by Simenon's world, with the people trapped in their ordinary lives, prone to committ horrible crimes, but to consider them with indifference. His straightforward approach with language, plot and characters development is captivating.

    It is still largelly my favory airport and/or flight reading.