"The Most Famous Unknown Writer of the 20th Century"

That’s how writer and critic Luc Sante once described Georges Simenon, who died 18 years ago today. Sante affixed that label to the prolific Belgian author back in 2005, at the first PEN World Voices festival. Since then, NYRB Classics has published five more of Simenon’s novels in English translation, to go along with the three they published in 2003 and 2004. Those books have garnered reviews in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, and elsewhere. It seems this "unknown writer" is becoming more famous-- in the US, that is-- each year.

Sante had much else to say of interest in his talk, which was published in our seventh issue. “Somewhere along the line,” Sante writes, Simenon “made a signal discovery”:
Much of what passes for literature merely consists of studies of people in their clothing—that is, people operating within the rigid confines of social codes. He, on the other hand, wanted to write about the naked human, who is forced by circumstances to confront life without the usual protections. Those same social codes made him an outsider and kept him one, even at the height of his fame. He had served his apprenticeship writing pulp fiction and had cemented his reputation with detective novels. Furthermore, he was Belgian. He also lacked a writing style detectable by the belletristic apparatus of the prewar era. Therefore, he was forever barred from being accepted as a man of letters by the people in Paris who decided such things.
In the wake of Flaubert and subsequent adherents to le mot juste, Simenon may also have hurt his case for a literary reputation-- among "the people in Paris who decided such things," that is-- with his prodigious productivity: He wrote over 400 books, some published under pseudonyms.

Given that enormous output, where should a newcomer to Simenon begin? Sante mentions Dirty Snow (“a supremely bleak evocation of the horrors of the Second World War… that can be usefully compared with the works that Sartre and Camus were issuing at the same time”) and Pedigree (“an autobiographical novel of his youth… which achieves an epic grandeur of thought and a beaverish accumulation of mundane details”).

This month, however, one could do worse than reading The Engagement along with the good folks at Words Without Borders, who are hosting an ongoing, online discussion of the 135-page mystery on their blog, as part of their “Reading the World” series. The discussion will be led by Chad Post, of Three Percent (“a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester”), and Mark Binelli, the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! They'll be joined by the book’s translator, Anna Moschovakis, and others.

For more, watch this site.

(And for more of Sante's thoughts on Simenon, check out his long Bookforum piece from January.)

1 comment:

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